Thursday, May 20, 2010

Arts life

"So, the cast are all on stage, but they haven't got their lead role; apparently, she's left with her boyfriend. The director turns to the audience and says, 'We're sorry, the play is canceled; you can get a refund at the door'. But then, a girl puts up her hand and cries, 'Wait! I've seen this play ten times because I have the same name as the star! I can totally do her part!'. The cast discuss it and ask, 'What if she can't act?' but then they point out the other girl couldn't act either, so what's the harm? The kid is pulled on stage and, with the help of stage prompts, she gets through the whole part. Everyone is delighted, especially since her father is a baker and the actors all want pies."

And so went my lunchtime conversation at the American Academy of Arts & Letters. This 250 member organisation supports the creators of the arts, for example, writers, composers and visual graphic producers but not performers. With the size of the establishment fixed and every appointment being for life, the only way a new member can be appointed is in the wake of a death which, as also came up at lunch, should probably result in a homicide investigation surrounding each new face.

In case it was not entirely obvious, I was there to cheer on a friend who was receiving an award for her composition, rather than for recognition of the great American novel which I'd been keeping numb about. Prior to lunch, we started the event with delicate h'orderves and I eyed the crowd over a wine glass, comparing it to my more usual haunt at astrophysics conferences. In place of jeans with the occasional button down shirt, I was surrounded by smart suits and dresses. If that was disconcerting, it was totally overlooked by the guys on mutant segways. Well, at first they were normal wheelchairs, but to bring their occupant up to eye level, these robotic transporters rose up on their back wheels in a way that looked frankly dangerous. They could even roam about like that. To me, it seemed one step away from a Gundam suit.

Moving onto lunch, I sat next to a writer who had recently converted the children's book "Gina Farina and the Prince of Mintz" to a stage production. I still have no idea if what he was telling me was part of the plot or a real event. Despite its different clientèle, there were decided similarities in the stories circulating the table with my own discipline. There was the eminent composer, for instance, who placed a CD on an LP record player and complained in disgust at the screeching noise it produced as the needle carved up the disk. This was only marginally worse than a nameless professor scanning overheads to use them in powerpoint presentations. Except, well no; the latter does actually work.

The fellowship my friend was awarded was created by Charles Ives, the inventor of life insurance who made his fortune and then turned his hand to composing. Perhaps the awards were funded out of his own policy upon his death; it is unknown. What is known is that he never attended one of his own premieres. Allegedly, he couldn't stand them and refused to listen to a first performance of his work even on his death bed where the likelihood of him hearing a later version was rather low.

At the ceremony itself, I clapped, cheered and freaked out the person next to me by admitting what I did for a living. Oh, and I introduced myself to Meryl Streep and shook her hand. Just thought I'd throw that in there.

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