The Mystery of the Fiddle

My great-grandfather was a musician. Not as a professional trade but by practice and reputation. He was an Irish immigrant back around the turn-of-the-century, moving here to escape the ongoing Irish civil war fighting, deciding instead to start anew in America. He settled in Chicago and by day took on the blue collar life of a streetcar conductor, and at night, the amateur fiddler. Family lore includes tales of winning talent shows, both in local entertainment venues and on the big-time radio shows of Chicago in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

My mother still has his violin, still in its delicate case. My Great-Grandfather's FiddleIt sits in a small, cramped closet, in a tiny home in the suburbs. Once every five or ten years someone pulls it out to take a look at it, and talk about how we don’t know anything about it, and how so many of us know little about the man who owned and played it.

Over Thanksgiving my great-grandfather came up in conversation, and thus “the fiddle” and the question of  who should inherit this….some day. (As the only family member working in the arts, I claimed dibs years ago.) I needed to see it again and wanted to show my husband this family heirloom, so I headed to the closet and gently pulled it out.

The instrument itself seems as if someone tried at some point to restore it to its glory. In fact his son did just that, trying to “clean” the exterior of the wood and sadly discolored the face. The bridge and tailpiece are off, the strings are gone, and the bow’s horse hair is frayed and fragile.

But one of the more striking details was how the back of the neck had a patch of the finish being completely worn off from use. Running my hand over that stretch made me wonder how often, how many times, for how long had his hand gripped it.

I’ve an interest in history and genealogy and now I’m on a mission to learn more of the provenance of the instrument itself, Old_Violin_labelwhich gives us few clues. We always wondered if he’d brought it with him from Ireland. That, however, seems unlikely because peering inside the F Holes we can see a label, handwritten with my great-grandfather’s name and Chicago address— an address none of us recognize. Yet. It could be an early address, but it seems to point to being purchased or made in Chicago. The note itself looks almost like a yellow post-it note, and I wonder about how common it was to put such a label inside. And how did they do that?

The only other clue comes from a stamp on the metal base of the chin rest: a large B, surrounded by “Becker Patent Trade Mark” which at first seemed really promising. Becker StampI did a few  searches online and wrote an email or two back and forth with the Carl Becker violin company of Chicago, which has been around since the turn of the century. They told me they’d have to see the violin in person to make any kind of assessment (which makes complete sense) but that from the picture of the stamp they could say that the insignia was absolutely not affiliated with them.

So where does this leave me? Still in the dark but even hungrier to learn about this fragile piece of wood. I want to talk to violin makers, musicians and historians. I want to know more about where and when it was played. I want look more closely, again, at this delicate and amazingly light violin and discover the tales it might be able to tell.

This past summer I took a fabulous trip to Ireland where I visited the old stomping grounds of my great-grandfather. We heard music in many places and fiddle music in a few. At one point I heard a violin playing traditional Irish music and we followed its sound. We discovered this young busker on the main pedestrian street in Galway, who made me wonder about my great-grandfather Felix. And I imagined that had he been born one hundred years later, perhaps he wouldn’t have come to America. Perhaps this is what that streetcar conductor would’ve been doing.

Galway Fiddler

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Acting with my Whole Body

Last weekend I finished up my brief run of a holiday show, which was both exhausting and a lot of fun. It was at a history museum, with an historical story-line.  Audiences seemed to have a good time with its broad and quirky comedy, and there were plenty of opportunities for me to improv and ad-lib things, interacting with audience members.

Part of the setup of the show was that I’m a museum employee, not an actor and am sort of recruited in to playing some parts so I have to carry the script around (this huge binder weighing several pounds) and learn things quickly. Some people continue to think it’s true that I work there as opposed to being a hired actor. I’m not sure how.

One woman actually said to me after the show, “You should consider taking up acting!”
Ok, perhaps I will.

The play was under an hour but we would do three shows a night, each an hour apart. I spent most of the performance running up and down stairs, changing costumes, and grabbing props. Then after leading the audience out, and running around resetting props and costumes I would have maybe five minutes to sit, get a drink of water and then start all over, looking fresh and happy and hopefully free-of-sweat, for the next group.

I’d get home tired and sore.

I’m avoiding the “I’m getting too old for this….” remark.

This week I started rehearsals for my next play, and one night we spent the evening sitting on gym mats on the floor because there were no chairs available. I’ve never been much of floor sitter, but nowadays….boy was my back stiff when I crawled my way up. Then at last night’s rehearsal I was finding myself doing things like climbing over, through and twisting around metal hand railings up on a raised level, sliding down the short wall to the floor beneath (completely my idea, by the way) and then I found myself sore this morning.

I may not be getting too old, but boy am I out of shape. I’ll take credit though for throwing everything I’ve got in to my work. Ouch.

What I’ve Learned at this Year’s Fringe

Today is the last day of the 2012 Minnesota Fringe Festival, and due to various reasons this is my least attended Fringe in several years. (I will not likely hit the dozen shows mark.) However, just like all other years I’ve learned something, but this time it might be more about myself than about art, performance or experimentation.

courtesy of Minnesota Fringe Festival

The ten shows I’ve seen thus far have been a bit of a mixed bag of things. Some were on my schedule because I felt obligated or had a personal connection to someone involved or to the show itself and I needed/wanted to find out how it evolved. Other shows were on my list because the topic intrigued me and I thought it would be interesting. And then there were the sure-fires, though few.

Part way through the week I realized my first truth about how I like my art:

I will put up with weak writing and good performance more than the opposite recipe. One of the shows was Ash Land, which had some good word of mouth, an interesting preview and it was getting a lot of buzz. The creators had done a few previous Fringes with some success, but I hadn’t seen them. I thought the show was beautiful, creative and intriguingly staged. The audience seemed exuberant in its reception. I was enthralled, and even jealous at times that someone had done some creative stuff on a topic I’ve been toyed with approaching.

Upon leaving I commented to my partner, “That was really good.” He didn’t share the opinion. He thought it was “good” but that it could’ve been so much better. After reviewing the audience reviews more closely, and talking with others whose opinions I trust (aka understand) I saw that there were really mixed reactions. I could see the weaknesses others pointed out, but somehow I over looked it because, I think, I enjoyed the approach they took to the work, the quality of the staging, and the performances of a couple of the people. (A few performances were significantly weaker.)  But all in all, I finally said, I guess I’ll value performance over writing.

These words would soon get modified.

A few days later I was watching a one-person story-telling piece by a writer/performer whom I’ve known for several years, but have seen little of his work. These stories were interesting, clever and even a bit funny at times. I’d love to read them, in fact. In a published form. But the performance was weak, clumsy and painful to watch. I wasn’t sure if the whole thing was memorized or not and there were several moments where I thought the whole thing had come crashing down.

So: ok writing but weak, amateurish performance and I wanted to slip out the back door. (Sadly, I couldn’t.) I considered the whole thing a waste of my time.

The lesson: I value performance over all else. The material can be crap or brilliant, but if the performance is weak I won’t care either way.

My favorite experience, if there can be a favorite, was probably Carol and Cotton. I was intrigued because it was a local, historical crime story. I’m a bit partial to stories of real people and have always been fascinated by things like crime, wondering what it is that can take a person to the extreme of humanity with something like murder. I was almost turned off by the promo video, which I felt was lacking in its enticement. But it had a strong cast and it’s a company with a good rep. And as the writer and director of a previous successful Fringe play about local history, I felt I should go. It was a strong, powerful production, with finessed details in the performances. Good writing and solid acting with effective staging. Like real theatre. This was exciting to me.

And, of my sure-fires, I wasn’t disappointed. The comedic talents of Nightmare Without Pants alone could have their own festival.

As I was thinking about my limited availability to see shows during this final weekend, and as I contemplated what I had seen I came to the conclusion that my time (and money) are worth something. I’m willing to take a risk, and I’m eager to see new works, new writers, new performers. But I’m not willing to waste my resources on mediocrity. I’m a more demanding audience member.

My top five take aways this year, thus far:

  • Fringe Festival is a performance festival. I want to see a good performance. I would think the performers (and directors) would want that too.
  • Any topic, no matter how mundane or pedestrian it might seem, can be turned in to an engaging and moving story with the right words, staging and treatment.
  • Dated material is ineffective, even if its subject matter is still relevant.
  • There is nothing more boring to me as an audience member than self-indulgence, and if it’s in the performance, writing and subject matter, all at once, then it can be deadly. It should be avoided at all costs.
  • Simplicity can be powerful, and anything in a script or production that doesn’t support the spine of the play in some way should be eliminated.

Actually, let me throw in one more lesson:

  • Never start a play with a group of guys sitting around on stage and have the first line be “What do you guys wanna do?” I think I sprained my eyes as they rolled.

In the end, these aren’t new truths I’ve realized for myself, and these aren’t things I’ve never said before here. It’s just that my experience over the past week have brought these once more to the fore-front of my critical mind.

I think I can catch one more show, in just a few hours, and I’m hoping this leaves the positive after-taste I need to sustain me until next summer.

Happy Fringing!

Working out Imaginative Muscles

How much fun am I having at rehearsals for my current holiday mini-project?

Enough so that on more than one occasion I’ve arrived to rehearsal exhausted, or in a bad mood, feeling like anything but being playful and energetic, not looking forward to all the smiling, laughing and running from floor to floor (I’ll explain) or ad-libbing with fellow actors or with the (pretending they’re there) audience members.

Yet some how I end up leaving rehearsal feeling like I’m heading home after happy hour, a little more relaxed and less stressed, even if perhaps a bit sweaty. I shouldn’t be surprised at this considering it’s written by Joseph Scrimshaw, a very funny and successful writer, performer and producer (as well as probably a few other things like animal trainer and contortionist) and I’ve been enjoying his work for years.

One of the many old, and previously used, "sets".

You see, this isn’t your ordinary show. For one thing it doesn’t take place in a theater, or even a bar or coffee shop. It takes place in an historic flour mill – an enormous, cavernous, dusty old place which has burned and exploded on more than one occasion, and which hasn’t been a mill for over 40 years. What’s more: the audience sits in an immense elevator moving from floor to floor, while the show (and most of the actors, and primarily me, playing numerous parts) travel by stairs or other elevators up and down, hoping to be ready by the time the narrator has successfully navigated the car-load of people to the next scene’s destination and the massive set of doors open like a gaping mouth to form a proscenium.

It goes something like this:

Floor 1 (character 1,) elevator to 4 (character 2,) stairs to 3 (character 2,) stairs to 2 (character 3,) elevator to 7 (character 4,) elevator to 2 (character 5,) elevator to 5 (character 5,) then a mad dash up back stairs to floor 8 (characters 2 and 5, (and which, by the way, is more than your typical three story trip) ) and finally a slow and calming elevator descent back to 1 (character 1) while chatting with the audience. 

The final step is to lead that audience out the exit with smiles and waves, and do it quickly because the next performance begins in mere minutes.

After a run through tonight I found my mind flowing and firing on all cylinders. I did this show last year, but had forgotten how much it helped me discover and exercise my imaginative muscles. And I’d forgotten how much fun it is to do.

Happy Holidays, indeed.

An Eventually Christmas: Holidays at the Mills performs December 2 – 11 at Mill City Museum in Minneapolis.

The Non-fiction Fiction in Our World

Just now, sitting on my patio on a beautiful late-summer morning, I finished reading a long, and sometimes drudgingly difficult, book. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson wasn’t quite what I was hoping it to be, mostly because one of his earlier books, Devil in the White City, is one of my—if not the—favorite books. Devil has a combination of history, Chicago, architecture and serial murder. Some of my favorite topics. I had also read his Thunderstruck, a non-fiction dramatized book about the development of the wireless radio signal, full of passionate pursuits and unknown (to me) history.

This latest book was a bit more complex but also involves history, a world class city and murder: it’s about the American ambassador to Germany and his family in Nazi Berlin. It wasn’t an easy read mostly because I’ve learned how little I know of the details of that time – names of people (and there are a lot!) and the structure of the American ambassador/consulate departments and the structure of pre-WWII German government, etc. It was a lot of things to track and try to get through.

Sadly, I almost gave up.

It was only in the last third or so of the book that it all started to come together for me. Larson is a heady-writer. Extremely academic, very journalistic, but with an occasional (though less in this book than previous) flowery, romantic descriptive passage. Now I realize that what he does, especially here with the Ambassador Dodd and the Nazis, is slowly paint a picture in bits and pieces. It’s a kind of journey where along the line few parts of the road, in and of themselves, are interesting, But somewhere along the path they all start to come together as a whole, and then his writing seems a bit genius. While first half of the book felt as if it were taking forever, the last half all fell in to place easily.

There were numerous (perhaps too numerous) characters (actually, people) to follow, and follow for years. In the end though it presents a picture of people at a remarkable time in our and Europe’s history; a time that none of the players involved could have any idea how important it was or what was going to happen in the coming years. I think the combination of history and Larson’s dramatized narrative is cleanly woven. It’s not textbook – it’s non-fiction fiction, as he includes descriptive passages and dialogue that he couldn’t have garnered from his 70 pages of bibliography and notes at the end of the book.

That lengthy documentation puts in to perspective about the breadth and value of research and homework when writing on a subject. Being that my own most successful writing was a dramatized piece of nonfiction (albeit a play) I should remember to be diligent about such thoroughness.

Truthfully though, the things I was thinking as I finished the book this morning was what’s happening in our own world and country these days. How will today’s international relations and political strife and despots be seen in 75 years? And like Dodd, who is speaking the words that are falling on deaf ears?

I don’t mean to sound political (as I’ve vowed not to do in this blog) but this world is ripe with topics that writers and artists should explore, and explore well.