Thursday, November 15, 2018

Book cover design: Besotted

For the book cover of Melissa Duclos' debut novel Besotted, which comes out March of next year, published by 7.13 Books, I took on the task of creating a sacred object. Melissa had mentioned she liked book covers that focus on one object, and I loved the idea (challenge) of trying to create, mostly out of nothing, one of the most important objects in her book. From the opening:

I came very close to leaving it in the back of the dresser, imagining the new owners piecing together my relationship with Liz from its detritus—movie stubs and a strip of photos spit out by a booth in Xiujiahua, the cryptic sticky notes we used to leave on each other’s desks, the blank green envelopes I never got around to using, the letters, from Liz and from the school—but the English banker who bought the dresser didn’t seem to have an imagination worthy of it, so I changed my mind.

And so now I have a box best suited to carry ashes or medals from war. Its lid is carved with the image of two birds, facing and circling each other around a branch of plum blossoms. I used to love it.

I crack the lid and close my eyes, and the first thing I feel isn’t a sticky note or a glossy photo. It’s pearl—single strand. I don’t need to bring the necklace to my teeth to know it’s real. I’ve tasted it before.

Besotted is a love story between two ex-pats living in Shanghai. The prose is, as you can see, beautifully lyrical. In starting work on my own version of Melissa's keepsake box, I wanted the design of birds and plum blossoms to be lyrical, too.

I looked at a lot of Chinese art, a lot of carved and painted plum blossoms and birds. Then I created a flat design using Adobe Illustrator.

The second step was to marry that design with the material the carving would eventually be made out of. Stephen has two carved boxes of the kind I was trying to make, so I took a picture of the underside of one.

When I imported that picture into Illustrator and married the design with the wood (and I should say that I thickened the edges of design up a bit first), I got this:

Most of the detail work was done in Photoshop using three different layers of this same piece, one in the original shade, one that I darkened, and one that I lightened. Once I'd made these layers, I changed the perspective so that we're looking at the design at an angle. Then to create dimension and light and shadow, I laid pieces of darker or lighter "wood" over the main design and then, using the eraser tool, cut away what I didn't need. 

I didn't really think about it this way until just now but I was essentially "carving" the details.

I got very obsessed with this. Not only is it fun, but it was really important to me that I end up with something that looked real - and I wasn't certain that I could pull it off. 

Oh, I always think I can at first. I don't know; there's something in me that somehow assumes it can do anything at first. But the more I worked on it, the more I worried. And the more detail I added, the more this thing that I had thought was looking "real" was looking "unreal."

I used the phrase "sacred object" at the beginning of this post. I've done a lot of thinking lately about book covers that highlight a "sacred object." I remember standing in a signing line years ago at a book launch event at Powell's (no idea whose) with Cheryl Strayed. She was talking about the book cover for her upcoming book Wild, how they were going to use a picture of her own hiking boot. How amazing that was, that the face of her beloved book would be graced with this sacred object. That's how I felt about Melissa's keepsake box. That object is sacred. And I was going to carve and carve until I had actually, somehow, created it.

It took creating it in what looked like hi-def and then, with more layers, toning that down before it looked, finally, like a real object to me. 

The rest of the box is my husband's actual box, the one I took a picture of the bottom of. To finish out the design, I added a string of pearls (one of the objects in the box) (this was actually my own necklace, that used to be my grandmother's) and a picture of Shanghai that I found on Morguefile here. Looks like the photographer's name is Dianne Hope.

And the finished product:

Here's another taste of Besotted.

Love didn't run around at night, searching the faces reflected in plate glass for someone she used to know. Love didn't get her feet dusty, couldn't tolerate the creep of grime up her shins, the slick of puddles on her soles. When Love stood quite still, as she so often did, she could feel the pull of mountains and rivers and half-constructed skyscrapers and eight-lane highways and movie theaters and the quiet parks with their untouched grass circling around her bowed head. 

Was I scared of Love? Of course. In my experience she was overly forward and easily frightened, the cause of both self-doubt and delusions of grandeur. But maybe this time things would turn out differently. Isn't that what people always believe?

Official pub date is March 13th of 2019. Published by the fab Leland Cheuk of 7.13 Books. More info about this and other forthcoming 7.13 titles is here.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

a very incomplete halloween tally

Last night, Halloween, I took my laptop down and put it on the dining room table to work on a book cover as I waited for trick-or-treaters. Stephen was painting in the studio so I just told him to keep going and I'd text him if I needed his help. Nicholas was curled up on my lap so whenever the door knocked, it was pretty easy to scoop him up in one hand, open the door and then scoop up the candy basket in my other. For some reason, I started jotting down this running tally of who came.

Toddler neighbor Malcolm as a piggy. The costume was made from a pink hoodie and he had a rubber snout and a curly pink tail. When his dad said, "What do you say?" he made the sound of a chicken. 6:30.

I don't know what this second kid was. Some scary someone. He had a black mask. I said, "Hello!" and the parent somewhere off the porch said, "Oh, enthusiasm!" 6:39.

Fairy mom to fairy toddler, "This is the house Grandma lived in when I was born." 6:51

Werewolf named Abby with her hand in the basket: "More. And more. And more. I got to get all the Kit Kats!" Also there was a very elaborate mummy. And lots of spooks, I don't know how many. It's suddenly a deluge. At least three big groups of kids and parents one after another. I find I can't retain memory of costumes once the door's shut. I keep opening the door and sticking Nicholas' head out instead of mine, hoping to get a laugh, but no one seems impressed. 6:58

A skeleton and I think, like, a bishop? Then three older kids in similar outfits with black death masks. The two on the outsides had masks that lit up neon. Nice symmetry. 7:00

After the deluge, a lull. Then a little girl dressed like I think that Nightmare Before Christmas woman and a boy dressed in a yellow raincoat and with a red balloon. I think he's a character from a children's book. Nope, I googled, and it looks like he's from It.7:17

OK, I think I just had Ruth Bader Ginsberg! I was so excited that I told her she looked amazing and then I felt bad that I singled her out and I complimented her gore-doctor brother as well. 7:23

A fairy, an American flag, and Bill Clinton 7:37

Man, we need a porch railing. 7:40

Two spooks, probably an older sister and a younger sister. They asked, "How many?" I said, "How about two?" They each took two. The little one fumbling her hand through the candy and laughing. I said, "How about three?" More hands in the basket. When the little one dropped a fourth on the ground, her sister quick snatched it up and put it back in my basket. 7:47

Stephen in from the studio: "Has it died down?" Me: "Are you in?" Stephen: "I'm in." Me: "Good. I have to pee." 8:00.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Color Purple at Portland Center Stage

I had seen the movie and read the book. My date had done neither. I kind of envied how fresh the story was going to be for my friend, but it's always fun to see how something you know is reborn in a new form. In this instance, it was The Color Purple. I was very curious what a musical based on Alice Walker's classic novel would be like, and what Portland Center Stage would do with the material.

I have to admit that I am not overly a fan of the music in modern musicals. It's my own problem. There's something about the general style that tends to put me off. So I was a weensie bit nervous as I went down to the Gerding Theater to see the show. But PCS's production began with music that started sweet and then blossomed into a full-fledged old-time gospel tune that filled the theater and put a huge grin on my face.

The score for The Color Purple is a mix of modern and period pieces. The more contemplative or solo pieces tend to be more modern, with the bigger production numbers more period. Contemporary music written in the style of old time music can often be a sad, limp imitation, but I think this score pulls the period stuff off beautifully. Some of my favorite songs featured a Greek Chorus trio played by Lauren Du Pree, Nia Marché, and Ithica Tell as church ladies in a manner reminiscent of the "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little" ladies from The Music Man. 

It's worth noting today, as the first official day of Banned Books Week, that Alice Walker's novel has frequently been challenged and censored for reasons ranging from sexual and social explicitness, to violence, to "troubling ideas about... man's relationship to God." I thought the role of "man's [and woman's] relationship to God" was framed beautifully by the songs written for the musical retelling of the story. It doesn't matter whether you're a spiritual person or not. It's a thread that goes beyond the question of belief or religion. Celie's relationship to God has its own arc, which compliments the arc of her character as she (here come the spoilers) endures abuse, as she gives up her babies, as she's married off to "Mister," as she pines for her sister, as she falls in love with Shug, as she slowly finds self worth and independence.

Celie is beautifully played by award-winning Broadway actress Felicia Boswell. Boswell has big acting and singing chops and, like the character of Celie, seems to grow on stage. Toward the end of the production I found myself actively wondering how old the actress is, noticing that even from my fabulously close (4th row) seat, she appeared to have gone from girl to woman, slowly, seamlessly, in front of my eyes.

Another stand-out is Chaz Lamar Shepherd, who plays Mister. His performance of "Mister's Song/Celie's Curse" knocked my socks off.

The main stand-out for me, musically (and I'm cheating a little by saying this), was the ensemble, though. The mix of voices was somehow absolutely perfect in my ears, a gorgeous thing.

But I have to say, for me the star of the show (and when I mentioned this to my friend afterwards, he said it was the same for him) was the set. Or set and lighting, together. I debated mentioning this without explaining it, but in Portland Center Stage's own Flickr stream of promotional photographs, it's right there to see, so I figure it must not be too much of a spoiler.

But if you're a stickler about spoilers... me...

...and you don't want to know until you've seen the show, stop right here and, well, see the show.

But if you want to read on...

...and see a couple of those pictures (which will give it away instantly, which is why I'm playing this little broken-paragraph game with you right now)...

...then read on.

The set is minimalist and bordered by walls of wooden slats. The wood looks worn and gives a nice sense of time and place, but somewhere along the line - surprise - the slats open up. It's a deceptively simple bit of stage magic used cleverly and skillfully in conjunction with light and color throughout the production. When the slats are shut, and depending on how the lighting is used, there's a sense of intimacy, or of claustrophobia. When they're open, they let in the world, they create dreams, they remind you of prison bars, they give you the sky.

Color, light, shadow, and set are all used with precision and with beautiful variation. I'd go see the show again just to track the visuals so expertly designed and executed by scenic designer Tony Cisek and lighting designer Peter Maradudin.

And there's one more surprise that happens with the set at the end that's pretty fantastic. My friend, watching beside me, later told me that as this last surprise was starting to happen, he turned and watched my face, looking for the moment when it would dawn on me, too. I want to talk about what it was and what it means, but no. I'm going to dispense with the spoilers and keep that one to myself.

The Color Purple is a wonderful production of the classic about womanhood, sisterhood, and redemption. It's playing at Portland Center Stage through October 28th. More information is here.

Photos by Patrick Weishampel/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

The poster art is by Mikey Mann.

Captions are wreaking havoc with Blogger's spacing, so I'm going to include them below:

Photo one: (L-R): Felicia Boswell as Celie and Danea C. Osseni as Nettie

Photo two: (L-R): Felicia Boswell as Celie, Danea C. Osseni as Nettie, and Chaz Lamar Shepherd as Mister

Photo three: Chaz Lamar Shepherd with members of the cast

Photo four: (L-R) Felicia Boswell as Celie and Danea C. Osseni as Nettie with members of the cast

Sunday, July 8, 2018

stephen's 60th birthday card

Because this is a big birthday this year, I wanted to go a little bigger on my usual photoshoppy birthday card. It became a number of pages long, which makes it harder to share on social media, so I thought I'd post it here.

I was thinking of something that could celebrate him in his many guises, show off the different fun and creative things he's done down through the years, and the idea came to me of putting on an old Hollywood fashion show where the models were Stephen in some of his many alter egos. I vacillated between the color fashion show sequence from The Women and the musical fashion show sequence from Roberta. Though I think, of the two, he likes the former movie more, I chose Roberta because it allowed me to play with the rhyming verse Fred Astaire performs throughout the piece. He recites these different quatrains as the models show off their various outfits:

We endorse
This Polo rig, of course,
And for an added thousand francs,
we furnish horses

Or if you're doing splits
on skis at St. Moritz,
You'd be the best faller-downer
on the courses.

Now take the dowager who's glad
to leave her watchman for tea,
She wears this patriotic plaid
and meets a Scotchman for tea.

Ha-ha, when summertime begins,
this costume always wins,
when fifty million little Frenchmen
clap their fins.

For hunting grouse or quail,
Roberta ran up this suit,
The modest price includes the bag,
the gun, and two ducks to shoot

And should Amelia Earhart care
to get a breath of air,
this is the last thing in the world
she'd ever wear

Tis the hour for dry martinis,
Parks full of little Fords and Isotta Fraschinis
The Ritz bar is serving caviar and weenies.
Madame is there.
And from Roberta she has something that is too divine on
the sort of thing your jealous friends would love to spill their wine on.
For your inspection,
Our cocktail collection.

The one problem I had with my big idea was finding images to play with. I just couldn't find what I needed. I was lucky enough, though, to find the complete film online, and as a last resort, I had to play the sequence in full screen mode and take screenshots. Which meant I had to work to make the Stephen parts of my pictures look of lesser quality. Ah well. But here it is.

From top to bottom: Madeleine Prévert (a character Stephen played during the aughts), the Countess (who became la Condesa, and then the Grand Duchess, a drag character he played in the nineties), Stephen as a soldier from the opera Carmen, Stephen with George Michael hair in the eighties, Judith et Holopherne, and finally Earl Bungalow, who has been known to recite poetry at exclusive parties on the continent..

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

bad faith

Recently I watched the short film Bad Faith, written and directed by Jonah Barrett. I got to know Jonah when he became one of thirty writers contributing a short story to my anthology City of Weird, a few years ago. Jonah's story in the book has human-sized newt creatures and a secret underground biodome and a woman who controls crows with her mind, so yeah, I could have predicted his film was going to be super imaginative.

If you want to check it out, you can view it in its entirety on Jonah's artist website Malicious Wallydrags here.

The movie concerns Jeane on her first week of work in an office job, plagued with anxiety attacks and the loss of a best friend - but it also concerns a monster with a mouth full of teeth and a journey to the edge of the world.

Look at that creature! Can you see its trio of eyes? Look close. That's "Crystal the Puppet," which Jonah's crew constructed from PVC pipe and wire and papier-mâché - in fact, there's a cool clip on how they made it in the very cool "Making of" video you can also find on the Malicious Wallydrags website.

There's some beautiful film craft in Bad Faith. I don't like to give things away, so I won't say what it is, but there's a bit of artistry that happens right at the beginning that made me gasp out loud. I loved the worlds created by Jonah's camera, his eye, and his storyteller brain, both in the bright, sterile office and in the bleak landscape of Jeane's fantasies. Jonah weaves fantasy with reality throughout Bad Faith, making you ask the question: what is scarier, monsters or loneliness... monsters or the endless soul-sucking drone of the corporate working world.

OK, don't answer that.

The film has a great cast of characters, including Jonah himself, who shouldn't be allowed to have so many talents that, wait, yes, it suddenly occurs to me that he made a pact with the devil in which he was allowed to steal the talents of three other people (sorry, guys) and keep them all for himself. He's great as Paul, the best friend Jeane has lost, who we meet in Jeane's fantasies and who accompanies us to the edge of the world.

Sarah Robertson plays Jeane with wonderful range, and a sense of so much pent up emotion - terror, shame, loneliness, even hope - just below the surface.

I love Deane Shellman as Mrs. Vander the office manager. She's the perfect corporate office trope, whose enthusiasm for the job reminds you why existential angst is a thing and whose chirpy helpfulness, as Jeane keeps screwing up on the job, just creates more tension.

And Amber Atalaya is pretty delicious as Phillis, the conniving coworker out to step on anyone's nose she can to keep her beloved place in the hierarchy of the office.

But the heart of the film is Howard, played with lovely realness by Kela Kealakai. I love the subtlety Kela brings to their role as maybe the one truly grounded character in the whole story. With all the peril Jeane endures, from betrayals to failure to loneliness to encounters with ferocious prehistoric beasts, Howard  brings to the story what was, to me, the most unexpected thing of all.

No, I'm not going to tell you. Watch it here. The website also has info on Jonah's writings and photography and more. This profile I wrote about Jonah's contribution to City of Weird contains some more fun info about him and his projects.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

a moment in the day: on the staircase

We stand on the steps in the dark. It's André and I, side by side, at the top—well, halfway up the staircase, but we're for the moment the highest eyes in the place, and we can look down over the shadowy spill of courtiers down the staircase and spreading out across the stage—courtiers, concubines, Duke and jester. We're in a long, narrow pocket of stage, the dark curtain in front of us, the elaborate set and backdrop behind, and out beyond the curtain is an orchestra pit full of musicians and a house full of an audience. Here just halfway up the steps, I'm on the top of the world. Except for all the people in the two balconies out there in the theater, but who's counting?

It's closing night for Rigoletto. I don't want to see it go, I don't want to see it go.

There's a murmur of hushed conversation across the stage. Studs of light start up in the dark as players with candelabra switch on their electric flames. The chorister in front of André touches one of his candles to one of the candles of the chorister on the next step down. Uani, the super on the step below me, has a wine goblet in one hand and one of those masks on a stick that you can hold up to your eyes, in the other. My party prop is just a wine goblet. I kind of covet the masks and the candelabra, but there's no way I'd make it up these stairs without stepping all over my mass of skirts, if I had to do it holding onto more than this goblet.

Beyond the curtain comes a single note, held long. Then another, an octave higher, another an octave lower. The orchestra is tuning up. André hums along. His voice is beautiful even when he's playing around, humming a note mid-range, then a note up high, then hitting a tone way at the bottom of his register. Under my breath, I join in, quiet, wanting to be part of the music.

When the conductor makes his entrance, the applause seems to start behind me, a crackle across the faux stone walls and balcony of the set.

I have a frog in my throat. I keep trying to clear it, quietly, and somehow this feels disingenuous, like, what, it's not like you're going to go out there and sing.

There's a silence and then the overture begins. I take my eyes up into the blackness of the fly space way high over my head. Listen to the music. A cluster of light that looks like a surreal flower moves across the curtain, descending. I always wonder what it looks like from the front side. André's still humming along with the music. Under this, a quiet rattle as the outer curtain rises. Only the outer curtain—for one more moment, the whole raucous party in the Duke's court is still hidden in the dark.

The overture hits its crescendo. The curtain comes up. The light comes up. And we're all laughing.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Major Barbara at Portland Center Stage

The other night, a friend and I took in George Bernard Shaw's play Major Barbara at Portland Center Stage. I love PCS productions, and I knew this was/is Chris Coleman's final show as artistic director. Come to think of it, one of the first shows I saw - if not the first show I saw - at the Armory was Shaw's Misalliance more than ten years ago. Remembering that play and knowing the many wonderful productions I've seen in that theater since, I knew Major Barbara would be a sumptuous, funny, thought-provoking evening.

Here's the lowdown:

Feeling sure that none of her progeny will keep the family in money (not her lazy son Stephen or her daughters Barbara and Sarah or their less-than-well-to-do beaux), Lady Britomart Undershaft has called in her estranged husband Andrew, hoping to persuade him to step up to the plate with some financial support. Andrew needs to find an heir to his business, a highly successful factory that manufactures guns, cannons, torpedoes, battleships, and other tools of war. Lady Britomart Undershaft isn't too keen on troublesome things like bombs, but she's interested in the money and comfort they could bring. The hitch is that for some reason there's a tradition in the business that the head of the company shall always be a foundling. This lets Stephen out (not to mention his equally not-orphaned and decidedly female sisters).

Will Lady Britomart Undershaft convince her husband not to disinherit their less-than-ambitious son? Will Barbara convert her father to a life of peace and goodness through her devotion to the Salvation Army? Will Andrew Undershaft convert (conversely) his daughter Barbara to his religion of money and gunpowder? Shaw's play is equal parts witty and absurd so that halfway through the first act, you realize you've been laughing pretty nonstop since the thing began. It seems like a lovely, light romp designed to let you comfortably bask in its drollery - but then you start to realize you're feeling ways you don't expect to feel. Your sense of good and bad start to skew a little. You start to feel uncomfortable. By the end of the play, you will have examined a lot of things about yourself that you didn't expect to examine - and all the while, you've been laughing your head off.

Joshua J. Weinstein and Dana Green

Standouts in the cast for me: right off the bat, Dana Green as Lady Britomart Undershaft. She exudes the perfect combination of strength, grace, snark, and passive-aggressiveness, with beautiful comic timing. For the whole first act, I was captivated by her whenever she was on stage, and you know that old cliché, I'd follow you anywhere? She did that for me in the opening to the play. Pretty much from her first lines, I was ready to follow her, and the story line, straight through to its end.

She also plays two other characters, including the fantastically crusty Rummy Mitchens, a frequenter to Barbara's Salvation Army shelter.

Dana Green

And then there's Charles Leggett as Andrew Undershaft. With a fabulous laugh and a flair that made me think of my grandfather Coco, who was full of humor and joie de vivre. And here's one of the interesting things about Major Barbara. From the beginning, Shaw is pulling the wool over your eyes. You know Andrew Undershaft gets rich off of death and suffering, you know he doesn't mind this (his "true faith of an Armorer" is to "...give arms to all men who offer an honest price for them, without respect of persons or principles..."), yet you... like him.

Nikki Weaver and Charles Leggett

You like him a lot. And not only because he's a foil to the hilariously pompous and fabulously quarrelly rest of the family. You like him because of Charles Leggett, who plays him with a sort of irresistible panache. I think this charm is one of the keys to Major Barbara and to successful productions of it, and Leggett pulls it off beautifully.

Major Barbara is a play in three acts but only one intermission, with the actors changing the sets between acts and scenes in that fun, lively way that Portland Center Stage is famous for. In Major Barbara, this technique seems also to underscore the questions of class and labor posed by the play, as rich magnate Andrew Undershaft and prim do-nothing Stephen and down-and-out drifter Bill Walker equally move furniture around on stage.

For me, the only place where the show gets at all sluggish, and really it's due to the writing of the play, not the production of it, is in act two at the Salvation Army shelter. There are a few characters who are introduced and then given a lot of stage time, only to disappear for the rest of the production. It's not that the scene isn't enjoyable. It's as full of witty barbs and laughs as the rest of the play - and a good deal of tension - but I found myself wondering whether some of the exposition was a bit long for the work it did.

Shaw makes up for any overwriting he indulges in by filling the dialogue full of fantastic bon mots (and making you feel smart enough to pretend you can get away with using the phrase bon mots). One line that Andrew Undershaft delivers made both my friend and me let out one of those sounds you make when something has really struck you. Walking out of the theater we were both trying to remember it. Later I googled what I could remember of the line - and luckily much of G. B. Shaw's wit lives on the internet. I emailed her with the line the next morning. Is it a spoiler to include what's probably a well-known quote? If so, look away. If not:

You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you have lost something.

"Love that quote," she wrote back. "It shakes something up in me."

With Shavian sleight-of-hand and PCS artistry, there's a lot that Major Barbara shakes up in you, even as you're laughing and having a really good time. And in true Shaw form, even that fact is ironic. 


Major Barbara continues through May 13th at the Gerding Theater at the Armory. More info is here. Thanks to Jennie Baker for the pictures.