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Searching for Beth Harmon: The “Real-Life” Media Checkmate of “The Queen’s Gambit”

December 23, 2020
bradspurgeon

Hou Yifan No. 1 Woman Chess Player

Hou Yifan No. 1 Woman Chess Player

The latest of my illness-in-the-media shocks has come after watching, and loving, the Netflix series about the fictional female chess prodigy, Beth Harmon,”The Queen’s Gambit.” Almost every day for the last month or two, in the news feed of my telephone, I have seen articles relating to the series. While some of the articles or even television shows or other filmed interviews have drawn for reactions to the series on some of the world’s greatest players, including women players – such as the interview by Christine Amanpour on CNN with Garry Kasparov and Judit Polgar – there is a much, much bigger trend that is the part that is shocking, and sickening me. Almost daily I find articles by every level of media, from personal blogs to traditional newspapers, using the Netflix series to introduce to the world “the real-life Beth Harmon.”

So who, you will ask, is the real-life Beth Harmon and why does this bother me?

First, I want to put into a few words the premise of the Netflix series for those readers of this post who have not seen it. In a nutshell, Beth Harmon is the fictional character in the novel of the same name as the series, written by Walter Tevis, an American novelist, and published in 1983. It is the coming of age story of a girl whose father has abandoned her, whose mother dies, and who ends up in an orphanage and discovers the game of chess through the janitor. She finds she has a talent for it, and she goes on to build a career in the game, rising to win the U.S. national championships, and culminating in a tournament in Moscow against the top players in the world.

Beth Harmon

Beth Harmon

Beth Harmon also has another essential aspect to her character, which is her addiction to drugs and alcohol, which began with her force feeding of various medications at the orphanage. In another nutshell, I want to say that while I loved the series – watching it became my own short-lived addiction – there were some fundamental parts to it that were indeed pure fiction. No drug addict under the influence is going to play chess the way Beth Harmon did. (And while this made her character interesting for fiction, it is questionable as an example for other young women seeking to find themselves in today’s world, where drugs are more accessible than in the fictional day of the 1950s and 1960s in which Beth Harmon lived.) Beth’s rise quickly through the ranks without actually having any chess teachers or coaches of any note was another aspect to the fiction that was farfetched. Also, there was a huge mismatch between the player rating level (called an Elo) we heard she had at one point – something like 1800 – and the kinds of players she was supposed be beating. The top players at the time were already pushing for the 2700s. The final outstanding aspect of this fictional character is that she is a kind of drop-dead gorgeous woman, portraying a kind of man-beating femme fatale of the chess world.

While the chess world is excited to see attention paid to it like nothing since when Garry Kasparov played – and lost – to the Deep Blue computer more than 20 years ago, and while it is being reported that the Netflix series has led to a massive new demand for chess sets, books, and people playing the game online (at sites like Chess.com or Lichess.org ), there is another way in which coverage of this Netflix series is doing no good at all.

Judit Polgar

Judit Polgar

How so? First, my shock: In those almost daily articles about “Meet the real Beth Harmon,” the subject of the articles is usually not only a million miles away from ever having achieved any of the exploits of the fictional character, but worse, the subject of the article is rarely even within the Top 100 of rated women chess players in the world (or even the Top 100 “girls,” which is for women under 20 years old). I had considered naming names and putting up links to some of the subjects of these stories, who hail from countries all over the world – every country is seeking to show its very own “real Beth Harmon” – but the goal of this blog item is not to point the finger at any one particular person or media. Let me just continue outlining the broad brush strokes of this con game. Every time I have found an article about the latest “real Beth Harmon” I have started by doing research to find out what the “phenom”‘s rating is. Most of the time, as I said, the women are not even close to the Top 100 lists of women players – which may be found on the site of the world chess federation, at FIDE.com – and in many cases, the women do not even HAVE an international rating.

What they do almost invariably have, is a great presence on the social media, with photos of their undeniably feminine good looks – à la Beth Harmon. They are usually featured looking sexy sitting over a chess board, often in clothes that match the black and white squares of the game, or some other chess-related image. They have online followings and their image is more important than their chess success. Still, some of them did have at some point in their lives periods playing the game at local, or even national level, and met with some success in tournaments, even if they never achieved any kind of internationally recognized results or ratings.

What am I getting at? What’s the problem with all of this? Certainly it is great publicity for the game of chess to be talked about more than it has perhaps, in fact, since the biggest international battle of wits in the early 1970s Cold War match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. Certainly, for the noble, intelligent game of chess that helps form young minds to be learned and discovered by more people than ever before is a great thing.

But what bothers me here is that another of the themes of almost every one of these articles about the “real Beth Harmon” is that the women are invariably asked to speak about how difficult it all was as a woman in a man’s world, and how much sexism they faced by paternalistic male players who could not accept being beaten by a woman. Fine. Judit Polgar – who in fact is as close to being the “real Beth Harmon” as any woman could be, since she was the top woman player for decades, and also sat within the top 10 amongst men players for many many years – has spoken about her own encounters with such sexism. So, yes, this is a natural subject. If only the articles would not be hypocritical on another level….

In my description of the “real Beth Harmon” that I discover almost daily, you will have noticed that all of the women are beautiful, that they flaunt that beauty, they flaunt the femme fatale aspect of their image, as well as their social media image popularity. But on the other side of all of this is those lists I have mentioned of the world’s current Top 100 woman and girl players. Very few of those players are using their feminine attractiveness to sell their image. They are devoting their lives to learning how to play and win the game of chess. And they are succeeding. The Top 100 women players – lightyears ahead of the vast majority of the “real Beth Harmons” that I am reading about in the media (including many, many reputable, traditional media) – are great chess players, women or not. But they are being, for the most part, ignored by the media that wants to exploit the image that the Netflix series is exploiting: Beautiful, sexy, fashion-model-like woman beats man at man’s game.

Therein lies the problem for me – one of the two main problems – which is that in the guise of saying that women are equal to men and not being reduced to their physical attributes, these articles are doing the very opposite. They are only presenting us with the woman whose image is that of Beth Harmon – sexy young women looking like fashion models and with a great social media presence – rather than showing us the REAL REAL BETH HARMONS! Those Top 100 at most, but really, say, the Top 20 women or “girls” in the world. Let me introduce to you Hou Yifan. She is currently No. 1, and a little like the Judit Polgar of our day – as Polgar has been retired for several years – by being far ahead of the second placed woman player in rating.

So what is actually happening here is that the media is indeed again using women’s beauty, women’s physical attributes, their image, their sexiness, as the thing that makes them worth talking about or not. These media are not sticking to the reality of whether or not these social media objects are actually great chess players by the standard of the world’s top-rated players!

This now leads me to the higher level point of this whole rant: It is again and clearly the kind of shorthand that passes for a story in today’s media that is actually leading to what in another area would be referred to as “fake news.” People are reading mainstream media – as well as less mainstream, but perhaps just as popular – media and if they know nothing about chess, then they cannot know that what they are reading is fake news. The woman being portrayed as a “real life Beth Harmon” is nothing close to a real life version of the fictional mastermind, BUT…but…but… a little more honesty would reveal that there are indeed many other real life Beth Harmons who are NOT being written about because they do not flaunt their bodies, faces, images, online in social media or otherwise talk about themselves as women men-beating geniuses.

So I take this to the final level: It is only because chess is a world that I am very close to, and very familiar with – I have a very low international rating, and I have played online for years as an addiction, but my son was a highly-placed national player in France for years until he quit age 15 – that I am not being duped by all these stories about the “real life Beth Harmon.” But what does this mean for all the other aspects of world politics, science, geography and social life that I know nothing about and which I am spoon-fed untruths or exaggerations daily without realizing it?

I hate to think what the answer to that might really be.

Checkmate!

A Metaphor for Our Times at the Valdemone Festival in Pollina? The Clown Dog that Cannot Feed Himself

August 23, 2020
bradspurgeon

Paolo Locci Hobo

Paolo Locci Hobo

FINALE DI POLLINA, Sicily – The Hobo clown character goes back generations in the circus arts, with the most famous one being that of Emmett Kelly, whose hobo “Weary Willie” was a reflection of the tramps of the 1930s depression. We are now on the edge of an economic period that is being classified as potentially worse than that depression, but for circus performers and most other live entertainment artists, the period of Coronavirus has been even beyond the imaginings of the depression period. So it was that the show we saw last night in this extraordinary resort town on the north coast of Sicily was, as Ornella pointed out to the artist himself after the show, an extraordinary metaphor for our time.

The clown act was that of an Italian from Turin named Paolo Locci, which he calls “Hobo.” And while that name and Locci’s makeup and costume fall right in the Emmett Kelly tradition, this was an act with a twist: The clown was both the hobo and his dog; most importantly, throughout most of the act, the dog is trying to feed itself, but the food falls just short of his grasp. There’s the metaphor of the clown that today cannot feed himself – like most actors, circus performer, musicians and other live entertainers!

Asked after the show where he got the idea, Locci said he got it from his own dog. In fact, it was a beautifully executed and imaginative pole act from beginning to end in which Locci interweaves classic pole performance with the characters of the hobo and dog. Locci has trained at circus school in both Italy and France, and he performs around Europe.
Paolo Locci Hobo on the pole

I managed to get a little bit of it on video, but I as too far from the stage to get a good quality video. This can just give a small idea of what it as about. Making the video was also a bit difficult as we were seated on the ground level in front of the stage, not in the arena seats behind, so there were plenty of spectators’ heads in front of us.

But that is part of the theme too: The show took place during an annual festival for street theater, contemporary circus and music called Valdemone Festival that was founded in 2010, but which, this year due to Coronavirus was not supposed to take place at all. The organizers fought to keep it going and managed to set things going in record time.

Our seats were spread out according to social distancing laws, and there were not so many spectators as to make it dangerous proximity anywhere in the theater. Locci’s act was preceded by a music concert by a three-man band called Trio CasaMia – a small acoustic bass or viola, guitar and saxophone – that mostly entertained by telling long stories about the music they would then play, most of which had come from popular films and television series of the past.

Pollina and its built-in theater

Pollina and its built-in theater


Our only regret was that we did not get to see a show in the other theater of the festival, which is located up in the town above where the hobo show took place in a theater the likes of which I have never seen before as it is a kind of amphitheater built right into the city-scape of the town (if such a phrase is possible!). Pollina is an ancient town built on a hill (a little like Mont Saint Michel in France) that is a major tourist attraction in Sicily; but it was too dark for us to see it from the beach area where we saw the show.

It felt a little like we had driven 150 kilometers to get fed, but it was just outside our grasp…

Time Past and Time Present are Both Perhaps Present in Castellammarre del Golfo – from an Old Time Parade to Dolce & Gabbana

August 12, 2020
bradspurgeon

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – “That’s not Italy!” Such was the idea behind a message a Facebook friend wrote when six days ago I posted a brief dream moment that I captured in a video when Ornella and I found ourselves in the back streets of this Sicilian town, hearing loud Italian music coming from a window while church bells rang simultaneously. Not Italy, perhaps. But not Sicily? A few days later, we encountered a traditional parade through the marina area of the town, and Ornella told me that it was the kind of thing she had so many fond memories of in her childhood here. So, was that not Sicily?

I know what my Facebook friend meant: It’s a little like those American novels set in Paris in which the French are all about wearing beret hats and eating baguettes and they are “oh so quaint, oh so silly.” But sometimes the clichés and real life come together.
Castellammare del Golfo, Yesterday & Today

I took a lot of video footage of the parade in Castellammare del Golfo with my telephone camera and then we decided to make an edited video of the footage along with the reading of a poem of a local poet, now dead, named Castrenze Navarra. That was Ornella’s idea – to read the poem – after we had found a wine bar in the town that was not only named after the poet’s first published collection, Timpesti e Carmarii, but it was located in the groundfloor building area where the poet also had his photographic studio, as he was also a photographer.

There was an exhibit of his handwritten manuscripts and letters on the walls, and his old camera is still there, and the owner of the bar decided during the lockdown this year to publish a new edition of his collected poems called, Timpesti e Carmarii, which first appeared in print in 1938, when the poet was 46 years old.

The parade that I show in the video, by the way, was part of a huge celebration of an evening in the presence of the famous Italian fashion designers, Dolce & Gabbana, who were in the town to show the film about them called, “Devotion.” (Dolce was born outside nearby Palermo.) The film was made by Giuseppe Tornatore, who is a famous Italian director, who filmed, notably, “Nuoco Cinema Paradiso,” and as he also has had a long association with Ennio Morricone – who died recently – Morricone composed the music for the film.

Tornatore’s was a fabulous film, by the way, although it was also clearly designed as an advertisement for the fashion house. For me, best of all, it was a great excuse to bring the past back to the presence in the form of the parade. There was a fabulous moment during the parade – which I put in the video – in which the performers sing a popular song from here, called, “Si maritau Rosa.” This will strike home very strongly with the actors of TAC Teatro (of whom I am one) as it is a song that we are singing in the new show, and which none of us knew anything about. It was, of course, Ornella’s idea.

But in any case, there it was, the past in the present. The folklore moment of ritual, bright colours, dance and music that may not be Sicily in many peoples’ minds, but it certainly was Sicily last weekend! I’ve edited part of the video in old looking black and white to show that the images we see of the town and the parade look like something we imagine having seen in the past, no more relevant to today…but then the color comes and it looks very much like today…as the past would have no doubt to our eyes had we been there…!

Culture Under the Scorching Sun in the Wilds of Sicily: A Panel Session about Theater as a Social Tool

August 9, 2020
bradspurgeon

Emma Dante, left, and Ornella Bonventre at the panel discussion

Emma Dante, left, and Ornella Bonventre at the panel discussion

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – A discussion about the vicissitudes of modern theater and the theater as a social action, taking place under the scorching sun of Sicily amongst the trees and vegetation of the small Fraginesi artists’ retreat outside this town was the moment I had in mind when I earlier spoke of the TrinArt association while writing about the turtle event last week. The panel took place on Wednesday, and opened my eyes to yet another cultural aspect of life in Sicily.

Some of the spectators in the round at the panel

Some of the spectators in the round at the panel

I attended because Ornella Bonventre, representing TAC Teatro, was invited to speak on the panel, as she fit in perfectly as a director and actress who comes from Castellammare del Golfo originally – actually, she was born in nearby Erice – and now also has copious experience of theater also in Milan, Paris and elsewhere. The panel also featured the illustrious Emma Dante, who is based in nearby Palermo, but is also internationally known, having worked regularly in places as far apart as Paris, Edinburgh, the United States – where her play “The Sisters Macaluso,” was staged in 2017 – and many other places. Also on the panel were Laura Castelli, an actress from Milan, a couple of actresses from the Palermo-based company, Barba à Papa Teatro, and Maria Tesè, the deputy in charge of culture for the mayor of Castellammare del Golfo.

The event was attended by a healthy sized audience of perhaps 25 people – given the relatively remote location of the retreat – and among those in attendance was Nicola Rizzo, the mayor of Castellammare del Golfo.

Video: Ornella Bonventre talking about theater and society at the panel session in Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily

 

How fabulous to find such cultural energy amongst the rugged, parched landscape, and to contrast it in the mind with the works these people normally do in theater spaces. TrinArt is an artistic association founded by Simona Nasta, a Sicilian artist, but which is not only about art but also about taking in and harbouring refugees and other people with social problems at the retreat.

il-teatro-come-relazione-sociale-trinart

il-teatro-come-relazione-sociale-trinart

Opening words of Ornella Bonventre's article on Rodari

Opening words of Ornella Bonventre’s article on Rodari

Perhaps that is where the social theme of the theater came into it. In any case, given the crisis that theater has been going through since the beginning of coronavirus, it was also not surprising that a lot of the discussion revolved around the problems that theater is facing today due to the virus. But there were also discussions about the general health of the modern theater itself, and what attracts people – or not – to the theater today.  Ornella gave an inspiring talk about how theater is and always has been a social tool, a tool for social transformation. I won’t go into the details of what she said, because I told her I thought she had the basis for her next article for publication. (Ornella’s latest article appeared a couple of weeks ago in the Italian education industry magazine called Pedagogika, and it is a wonderful piece about the popular writer and educator, Gianni Rodari, in a special issue of the magazine celebrating the centenary of his birth.)

In any case, it was a great pleasure to attend in this panel discussion, and I look forward to reporting about further such cultural activities from this summer in Sicily….

Oh, yes, and by the way, I heard the bad news at the event that it was likely the turtle eggs on the beach that we were trying to save will be wiped out by the rising tide of the Mediterranean itself.


 

 

A Year of Creation @ TAC Teatro, and the Incredible Synchronicity of the New Show

August 3, 2020
bradspurgeon

A scene from TAC's Latest show

A scene from TAC’s Latest show

Despite the lockdown, despite the Paris transport strike, despite the gilets jaunes, despite the mice we had at home for a while, and finally, despite the two-month-long illness that I had in January and February that was apparently NOT coronavirus, everything worked out fine in the extraordinary year of work that we all had at TAC Teatro, of which Ornella Bonventre is the director, and I and six others are actors. It culminated with a high moment at the beginning of June when we began to make a fabulous video of our show that we are hoping to complete soon.

Although Ornella created TAC Teatro several years ago and it had some success based in Milan, when she moved to in Paris in 2017, it was impossible for her to not transform the project into both an Italy- and France-based company.  But there was much work and preparation involved in rebuilding the company in her newly adopted location. After spending her first year in France shuttling back and forth regularly to Italy to operate TAC there while living in France and laying the foundation for the company in its second country, she finally settled down to working full-time building the company with new actors in France.

Marine Lefèvre and the old woman

Marine Lefèvre and the old woman

That began last fall in what proved to be difficult timing: starting with the gilets jaunes occupying the streets every Saturday (which did not really directly affect the project) and then the metro strike came in November and lasted for around two months – the longest ever such strike – and made the challenge of creating the company all the more difficult, as the actors had to come for their training, creation and rehearsal sessions three times per week by foot, car, bike or any other manner possible aside from metro from all around Paris.

We thought that would be the worst of it, when along came the Coronavirus and its lockdown. Still, the metro strike gave us all the fighting spirit and a sense of imagination so we were able to continue creating the show and training during the lockdown through three-times-per-week online video conferences.

When I say creating the show, here’s what I mean: Since last fall and the beginning of this new phase of TAC Teatro, the actors of the company used the method that Ornella specializes in for creating theater shows: The French call it écriture de plateau, and it entails the actors all together, along with the director, writing the show through body actions, personal texts, music, improvisation and an original idea that Ornella presented to us in the form of a story that was intended to fire up our imaginations and get our creative juices going.

Poster for Première Etape in October

Poster for Première Etape in October

We performed a first “work-in-progress” show of the piece in the small theater at the Theatre Armande Béjart in Asnières-sur-Seine in October, which we called, “Première Etape,” or first step, and it was well attended by the public. We were about to do the second stage of that in February, after we spent a week the whole company together working in residence in Italy in Emilia Romagna. But, yes, the day we were supposed to put on this second show for the public, France declared that anyone who had been in Emilia Romagna in the previous 14 days had to go into quarantine, as it was the epicentre of the then “young” coronavirus in Europe. So we had to cancel the show. Fortunately, however, none of us got sick of the virus.

Then came the Paris lockdown a couple of weeks later. We continued working online, but we had to cancel the premiere of what was going to be the completed show, which we had scheduled to perform in Asnières in late May.

Still, the story had a happy ending when in early June the mayor’s office of Asnières donated to us the big stage of the Armande Béjart Theatre, as well as the city’s technical crew, to film the piece. It was a gesture to help out the creative sector, so badly hit by Covid.

Now I want to talk very briefly about the extraordinary synchronicity in the creation of this show, which for the moment we are calling “Terminus,” but which might change its name before it is staged. There was an amazing foreshadowing of subsequent world events reflected in this creation that we did not do on purpose, but that somehow came about of its own accord. In brief, the piece is about a group of immigrants who come from various parts of the world to a land where they hope to make a new life. They are, in fact, badly treated by the locals, and even duped by the military, and their world begins to fall apart; just as had their own countries before their emigration.

During creation in Italy as the Constructeurs de Reves

During creation in Italy as the Constructeurs de Reves

Working behind them, invisible and unknown to them, however, are the “constructeurs de rêves,” or the dream creators, who try to help them. The dream creators are dressed in white doctors’ coats and work in another layer of reality to try to change the course of human actions.

When the coronavirus came along, the show took on another sense to us, as we could not believe the way our futures – the future of the whole world – had fallen into the hands of doctors in white coats, and for everyone on earth almost without exception, their world had fallen apart.

Janice Zadrozynski in character for the TAC show

Janice Zadrozynski in character for the TAC show

I have often found while writing creatively that such strange synchronicities with real life do indeed happen. And now that we have almost completed the show, we hope that the constructors of dreams will allow the world to get back to some state of normalcy in the coming year so that we can finally perform it in public. I will keep you posted on this blog as to what happens.

The company consists of Ornella directing and the following actors acting, performing, playing music, and writing the show all of us together: Julie Lossec, Janice Zadrozynski, Marina Meinero, Pacôme Puech, Marine Lefèvre and Sara Baudry. You can find all of our bios through the TAC Teatro “About us” menu.

And, by the way, I have only spoken about our new show here, but we also performed in public this last winter doing a street action to commemorate the day against violence to women, for which we also created quite a complex flash mob performance, and we ran an online open stage for all kinds of performances throughout most of the lockdown . So it was, in the end, a productive season for TAC Teatro, despite all the elements and human nature itself seemingly fighting against us.

Saving Claretta’s Eggs through Song and Art on the Beach in Sicily

July 30, 2020
bradspurgeon

TrinArt Turtle Event Poster

TrinArt Turtle Event Poster

ALCAMO MARINA, Sicily – The last thing I imagined finding myself doing yesterday evening as the sun set on the Mediterranean was to be standing on the vast sandy beach of the Alcamo Marina playing songs to save the lives of unborn Loggerhead sea turtles. But that is precisely what happened, thanks to an invitation from TrinArt, an association based in Castellammare del Golfo, that in turn had been invited by the association – called Thalia – that was interested in protecting the turtles after a recent attack by vandals of the beach site where the turtle eggs are buried.

I will likely be speaking more in the coming days about TrinArt and its artist founder, Simona Nasta, but for the moment back to the event on the beach to save Claretta’s eggs! Claretta is the name of the turtle – no doubt for its scientific name of Caretta caretta – that laid the eggs on the beach. The site was cordoned off with the help of various associations, including the World Wildlife Fund, but when some idiot man went and allowed his dog to go in and tear apart the nest, destroying some of the eggs, it was time to draw attention to the fact that the eggs needed protection.

Singing Mad World on the Beach in Sicily

So TrinArt set up an event to invite artists to the nest yesterday to perform and attract attention to the turtles. These sea turtles are in a precarious situation in the area – in fact, it is an endangered species – so it has been celebrated whenever they have been laying eggs anywhere. The beach that Claretta chose, however, is a very popular one for vacationers, and is, in fact, lined with vacation homes. But only a very small fraction of the turtles that will be hatched from the eggs is ever expected to make it to adulthood, once it leaves the nest and goes into the sea. So any disruption to the already perilous process is highly to be discouraged.

Turtle Egg nest in Alcamo Marina, Sicily

Nasta had invited Ornella and me, and so it became a TAC Teatro experience, and I brought along my guitar to play music with the other artists. Strangely, the first musician who played stole two of the songs I had planned to play, which I considered on theme: “Stand By Me,” and “What’s Up!” with its strong and appropriate line: “What’s goin’ on?!?!?”

More performing at turtle event in Sicily

So I decided when it was my turn, at the prodding of Ornella, to do “Mad World,” and “You Ain’t Going’ Nowhere,” finishing off with my own song, “Borderline.”
Nasta led a blindfolded ritual painting with the public, and I have decided to show the result of that work here – done by her, and several members of the public, who led her blindfolded to the canvas in front of the turtle egg nest.

wwf turtles

For TAC Teatro, it was a nice moment tying together with the company’s past, as Ornella has led theater research projects along with the World Wildlife Fund in the past, and this reminded her of those great moments. For me personally, as we drove back to Castellammare del Golfo, I suddenly remembered the last time that I had taken part in an artistic event to save a species. Unfortunately it dates back to what is now more than 40 years! I was living in Nairobi, Kenya, and I was invited to perform an act with my ventriloquist’s dummy, Peter McCabe at a “Save the Rhino” event. I guess that worked out pretty well for the Rhino, even though they still have big problems. I only hope this event yesterday will save the sea turtle – or at least Claretta’s eggs….

Save the Rhino interview with Peter and me from 1970s

Save the Rhino interview with Peter and me from 1970s



Another performer at the turtle event

Borderline on the Beach in Sicily

A 6-Meter Fall, a 20-Meter Slide on the Pavement and Ornella’s iPhone Remains in Perfect Condition! Believe it or Not!

July 26, 2020
bradspurgeon

iPhone after the 6-meter drop

iPhone after 6-meter drop

An exterior view of the balcony from which the phone fell.  It is the first balcony on the left.

An exterior view of the balcony from which the phone fell. It is the first balcony on the left.

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – The people of this small Sicilian town on the shores of the Mediterranean have a higher belief in magical events than most modern world peoples, I believe. They still have magicians who help with family problems and health, and they consult other seers and foretellers of good and bad fortune, and believe many superstitions that I do not. I won’t get into that any deeper. But last night I suddenly felt like maybe there had been an almost supernatural phenomenon occurring when Ornella’s iPhone survived a fall of about 6-meters, landing glass-screen down on the rough pavement of the road and then sliding at least 20 meters with the same glass screen face down, before coming to a rest in a busy intersection where no cars passed until after Ornella recuperated the phone. It was a completely unprotected phone – i.e., no protective case or cover or screen protection. Both of us were certain that there would be NOTHING left of the screen or the phone. In fact, it did not have a single scratch on the glass or anywhere else – except maybe a tiny smudge on a side corner – and it functioned perfectly thereafter. How was this possible!?!?!?
The iPhone slid from the balcony along the pavement to the intersection precisely under the spot where the closest car is located in this photo.

The iPhone slid from the balcony along the pavement to the intersection precisely under the spot where the closest car is located in this photo.


Do you remember Ripley’s Believe It or Not!? Well, for me, this is a case for that franchise of weird phenomena! I think if you look at the photos here and see the fall it did and then you look at the photos of the phone that I took today, you will also find this nearly impossible to imagine how it could have happened. How many phone screens have I broken by dropping a fully protected phone just a couple of feet!?!?! This was an unprotected iPhone 7 that she bought last year. It remains in impeccable condition.
How on earth was this possible? Ask Ripley. But again, I must say as I did in yesterday’s post, that we feel blessed to be in Castellamarre del Golfo. And even more so now!!! (Could the iPhone’s survival be because generations of Ornella’s entire family on her mother’s side once occupied all the buildings on either side of the street where the phone fell, and they are still with us in spirit now, watching over her? Oh, geez, I’m starting to transform into a local!!!)
A couple more angles of the iPhone in perfect condition after its 6-meter fall.

A couple more angles of the iPhone in perfect condition after its 6-meter fall.

In Castellammare del Golfo, the Calm After the Storm … with a Bit of Mafia on the Side

July 25, 2020
bradspurgeon

Castellammare del Golfo

Castellammare del Golfo

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – How many times during lockdown in Paris from March to May this year did Ornella and I say to each other that if we managed somehow to get to our favorite summer retreat again this year we would feel blessed? No doubt too often to count. In any case, we have now been here for three weeks, and we still feel blessed every day. After the confinement of lockdown we find ourselves in an average of 30 degree temperatures, cloudless skies and warm, smooth Mediterranean waters. Still, it might be the calm after the storm, but I am reading the Italian press daily to keep an eye on the possibility of rough waters to come, and a storm after the calm. Needless to say, it is a holiday like none before….
But this small former fishing village of Castellammare del Golfo – the castle on the sea – on the north coast of Sicily, less than an hour’s drive from Palermo, is about as good – and for the moment safe – as holiday locations can come. Sicily was not as badly hit as the rest of Italy with the virus, suffering still to date fewer than 300 deaths, and around 3000 infected (that’s a pretty high percentage of deaths per infections, though, isn’t it?) Since we came here, though, the town of 15,000 people is filling up rapidly with tourists from the rest of Europe, and we hold our breaths and wear our masks in an effort to believe that things will not this summer get out of hand here as they have in some other vacation spots in Europe, such as southern Spain.

We chose to give ourselves a quick escape method should things go wrong, by having driven here from Paris in my old Ford Focus, taking the ferry boat from Genova to Palermo, with the car aboard. It was a peaceful, fun, in fact magnificent journey, topped off on the boat by a fabulous seafood pasta in a restaurant that only we and an English couple, and perhaps another one or two people, decided to use. So there was little worry about the virus spreading there! The point was that if the pandemic grew back into the danger zone, as it has in Spain, we could just jump in the car and drive back to Paris or some other country. (Plus the flights were getting really expensive.)
A Free Music Performance in Castellammare del Golfo

We feel so blessed to have had this summer in Sicily, in fact, that this year we decided that we would live it a little differently than in past years: This year is devoted to staying as much at home and at the beach as possible, while avoiding the center of the town as much as possible on the weekends. The reason for that is that if you are currently aware that there is a virus out there, you would be entirely unaware were you to venture out into the nightlife of Castellammare del Golfo this summer: It is difficult to find any bars or restaurants not bursting with clients wearing no masks as if there were no cases of the virus at all on this island. (And, yes, that is actually almost true: the known daily cases are rising in single digits at the moment…but….)

In years past we had decided that every year we would discover a new part of this historical jewell of ancient Mediterranean civilisation. But this year, as I said, we are staying put and feeling blessed. Personally, I decided that I would use my experiences of learning about the island in the past years as a base for a new project: Reading the daily Giornale di Sicilia not only for the coronavirus statistics, but also in order to practice my Italian, and make a real, strong effort to finally learn the language as well as another way of exploring the local culture and getting to know the place of Ornella’s birth and childhood upbringing much better.

And what an education it is turning out to be. In addition to reading stories all about the places I have visited in the last few years with Ornella each summer – Marsala, Palermo, Trapani, among other cities, and such ancient archaelogical sites as Segesta or the Valley of the Temples outside Agrigento (which is also the home of Pirandello, Camilleri and Sciascia), as well as Scopello and Erice, the medieval town on the hill – I have found the second most comprehensible stories for my limited Italian to be those about all the local crime. Yes, like any such local newspapers, the Giornale di Sicilia – preferably my local Trapani edition – brings me daily news of mafia arrests and crimes.

Joseph Bonanno

Joseph Bonanno


This is particularly interesting to follow as it turns out that this beautiful small town of Castellammare was itself the birthplace of many of the figures of the legendary New York City mafia in the 1920s and 1930s, including Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno, Salvatore Maranzano, Vito Bonventre, and was the base in Sicily of Don Vito Ferro who decided to try to take over control of the New York mafia from Giuseppe “Joe The Boss” Masseria – who had the famous future boss “Lucky Luciano” on his side – and they all got into a battle that became known as the Castellammarese War – named after this town, yes – that lasted from February 1930 to Apr. 15, 1931. The faction from this town won that war, by the way, but then the whole crime syndicate would change form, leading to the so-called sharing arrangement set up by Luciano and called “The Commission.”
Ornella Bonventre at the Greek Theater in Segesta, Sicily

Ornella Bonventre at the Greek Theater in Segesta, Sicily

Falcone and Borsellino

Falcone and Borsellino


I see this beautiful little seaside town more like a future Monaco, however, and I hope it takes as long as possible before any such transformation happens. But the nightlife grows every year, the real estate value grows, and the boats keep getting bigger. For Ornella and I, as I say, we are enjoying the calm, the sun and the sea. And it turns out that there are numerous free concerts and other events – notably, and partly on the theme of this blog item, we saw a theatrical production the other day about a fictional interview with famous Palermo anti-mafia judge Paolo Borsellino, who was assassinated by the mafia in 1992 (weeks after his fellow Palermo anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone was also assassinated)….

So, after the storm, a break. Let’s hope it continues. I’ll check back in as soon as possible with more news about virus life from here or elsewhere….

Borsellino Theatre Piece in Castellammare del Golfo

Borsellino Theatre Piece in Castellammare del Golfo

The Unique Vision of Peter Brook and Shakespeare’s Tempest Work-in-Progress at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris

February 23, 2020
bradspurgeon

Peter Brook and his actors in a huddle after the show  Photo:  ©Brad Spurgeon

Peter Brook and his actors in a huddle after the show Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

PARIS – It took me decades, but I have finally attended a Peter Brook night at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. On Friday, I went to the last day of a three-day run of a work-in-progress by Brook and a handful of actors, at the theater that he has occupied since 1974, although he ceased running the place in 2008. Brook will turn 95 next month, so perhaps it was significant that the work-in-question was “The Tempest,” considered one of Shakespeare’s last plays, and one that is full of commentary on the very art of drama itself that both Shakespeare and Brook devoted themselves to. And what a pleasure and spellbinding moment it was to see and hear Brook himself.

The Bouffes du Nord was opened as a theater in the 1870s, and had a long history of trying to find its raison d’être, until Peter Brook took over the place and made it the seat of his International Centre for Theatre Research, which he founded in 1970, along with Micheline Rozan. Just sitting in and exploring the theater itself is a great experience – I had been only once before, for a Rickie Lee Jones concert – as it was refurbished by Brook years ago, but not redecorated. So the walls, seats, stage area, everything has a feeling of being lost and left in time to rot. (You can get a small taste of it from an opera scene in the 1980s film “Diva.”)

Peter Brook Sitting at the Bouffes du Nord Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

Peter Brook Sitting at the Bouffes du Nord Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

The show was called “Shakespeare Resonance,” and consisted of a demonstration by a handful of actors of “research” that they had done on “The Tempest” over the last couple of weeks, under the impetus of Brook and his collaborating director, Marie-Hélène Estienne. Ultimately, it was about 1 hour and 10 or 20 minutes of excerpts of The Tempest woven together to make a play. I’ll get into that part of the evening in a moment, but for me the thrilling part of the evening was to see and hear Brook talk about the work before the show.

He came to the stage along with all the actors before the demonstration of work, and he was seated in a chair, with his actors at his side, and he took a microphone and spoke to the audience about his vision of the theater, and this work itself. Notably, he spoke of the resonances between the actors on stage and the public watching a show. And he immediately asked one of the actors – Marcello Magni – to involve the audience in one of the exercises that Brook caught him doing backstage to warm up the other actors. It was about finding those resonances with our hands and whole body.

Bouffes before the Brook show  Photo:  ©Brad Spurgeon

Bouffes before the Brook show Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

Ornella and I arrived about 20 minutes before the show was set to begin at 19:00 and already by then we had a highly reduced choice of seats to sit in, having to settle for the first floor balcony. It turned out to be a great place to sit as we had a full view of the stage area, but most importantly, our seats were very close to the loudspeaker that projected Brook’s somewhat weakened voice through the mic.

Other than that, Brook was wonderfully in possession of all of his intellectual brilliance and passion for the theater, clearly. So it was the treat of a lifetime to have finally gone and witnessed this moment of a colossus of world theater.

As to his – and Estienne’s – directing what was most extraordinary was the choice of the actors and the reasons behind that choice; and, of course, the stage actions were captivating throughout – especially the use of some basic props, such as the filthy, heavy-looking carpet that Caliban rolled himself up in.

Magni, who comes from Bergamo, in Italy, but has lived and worked in Britain for 40 years, played Ariel, and was clearly the doyen of the actors. I never pictured Ariel as a grey-haired man of something like my age! But, of course, it worked well, as Magni brought the character to life and the poetry did its work. The other actors included Hiran Abeysekera, playing both Caliban and Ferdinand, Maïa Jemmett, playing Miranda, and Ery Nzaramba as Prospero, and Kalieaswari Srinivasan of India.

What was really wonderful to behold was the huge disparity of origins of the actors. Prospero, or Nzaramba, is of black-African origin, although he has grown up in British theater, training in Birmingham, and having worked with Brook before. The delightful Abeysekara is from Sri Lanka, and after winning praises in his own country went to Britain and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and has worked extensively in British theater.

Brook actors taking a bow  Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

Brook actors taking a bow Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

His were among the most fun performances to watch, especially when he rapidly climbed up a supporting pillar – or pipe – that runs up the side of the base of the proscenium arch, giving a different level to the stage area. We saw him briefly after the show and Ornella asked if that moment had been planned from the beginning or something that was incorporated into the piece through improvisation. He said that he had climbed up the pole once outside the creation and Estienne asked him to do it as part of the show.

Maïa Jemmett, who played Miranda, is only 17, but she has already played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at the Theatre National de Nice, where her mother, Irina Brook, the daughter of Peter Brook, was the director until last year from 2013. Maïa’s father is Dan Jemmett, also a British theater director based in France … and his parents were both actors as well.

But this very aspect of a wide variety of nationalities among the actors was precisely at the center of Brook’s relationship with The Tempest. The first time he had directed it was in a Stratford production, and he was disappointed with it. The problem for him, was that he found that working with actors of the western temperament and background was limiting for a play in which there is a magic, spiritual, ritual side.

So in his next production, in Paris in 1968, he used actors from around the world.

“I found it interesting to take scenes from the play as a base and to see how we could rediscover it together,” he writes in French in a simple program for the show last week, that I translate here. “The result went beyond our expectations.”

“In Shakespeare’s era, in the Elizabethan world, the links with the natural world had not yet been broken, ad ancient beliefs were still present and the sense of marvels was very much alive,” he says. “Western actors have all that is needed to explore in the works of Shakespeare that which concerns anger, power, sexuality and introspection. But when it comes to touching the world of the invisible, things become difficult and everything gets blocked up. In so-called “traditional” cultures the images of the gods, of witchcraft, are natural.”

This is clearly the approach he took again, and I left the evening feeling as if I HAD seen “The Tempest” with another eye.

Further Adventures at TAC: Musical Moments Close to My Heart – and the Second Stage Event

February 7, 2020
bradspurgeon

Second open-door event TAC poster

Second open-door event TAC poster

An incredible bit of synchronicity or something else has come about recently between the troupe of TAC Teatro and me. We are working on our first full-blown play, and in recent weeks there has been a sudden incorporation of a couple of bits of music that I had nothing to do with but that lie at the heart of my life-long musical loves.

As it turns out, both of the pieces were introduced by the same member of the company. But the skills and talents that we have in the company mean that the music can be performed to a degree that I never imagined likely. I mean, I knew we have great musicians in the company, but here I am talking about Irish music! And the company is made mostly of Italian and French actors and musicians.

So how amazing it was when over recent rehearsal days the troupe began playing and incorporating into the play the famous Irish piece of music dating back to the 1930s – and one of the most popular pieces of the last century – called “Cooley’s Reel.”

Three of the actors and me playing Cooley’s Reel at TAC Teatro

I was familiar with the piece from so many different sources from my initial period listening to Irish music during the Celtic revival of the late 1960s and early 1970s and with bands like Planxty, The Chieftains, the Bothy Band, the Sands Family, Horslips and many more. And you go to any Irish music jam session and you are likely to hear it there too, as I’m certain I did in recent years in Irish pubs in Paris or elsewhere.

Anyway, I made a video of the musicians rehearsing the piece (and I added into the video some of the first exploratory acrobatic workout we did with the ladder that is also part of the show – check it out, above). It was only one of a handful of the first efforts to play the reel, so there are a few minor moments off the rails, but it sure sounds great to me already! Bizarrely, for me, I have found myself playing the bongo a little bit like a Bodhran, rather than me doing my usual musical instrument, the guitar. My Seagull guitar is here played by Pacôme Puech – I didn’t have the confidence to get the rhythm right on the guitar – and on flute is Marine Lefèvre, and on fiddle is Marina Meinero.

The other bit of music that I was stunned to find one of the actors – Marine – wanted to incorporate somehow in the show was “Only Our Rivers Run Free,” which I also first heard through Christy Moore’s version in Planxty. It is one of the few traditional Irish songs that I occasionally have the guts to try to do myself on stage, as to me if feels like a great Bob Dylan protest song, and I try to ignore that I’m not Irish and I can attack it like a Dylan cover.

It was written in 1965 by Mickey McConnell, who was only 18 years old at the time. He went on to have a career as a journalist at the Irish Times, before decided in his 40s to return to a career in music. Extraordinary. The poetry of the song is astounding, and even more so when you realize it was written by an 18-year-old. I love that line, “are you gone like the snows of last winter?”

So that’s the update from my adventures at TAC Teatro. In the meantime, I hope the snows of winter go fast and I’ll be able to post some great thing about the completed show in April! In the meantime, we will be inviting the public to check out our progress in our “second stage” open-door event on 29 February, as the poster at the top of this post explains….

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