Celebrating Paper Theater

Paper theater (also called toy theater) is a form of miniature theater dating back to the early Victorian era. Paper theaters were often printed on posters and sold as kits at playhouses, opera houses, and vaudeville theaters, and proved to be an effective marketing tool. The kits were assembled at home and the plays performed for family members and guests, sometimes with live musical accompaniment and sound effects.

At the height of its popularity over 300 European theaters were selling kits, but paper theater saw a drastic decline in popularity in the late 19th century as realism began to dominate the dramatic arts, and again with the arrival of television. Thankfully, paper theater survived near-extinction and has enjoyed renewed popularity in recent years among puppeteers, writers, hobbyists, designers, educators, and filmmakers. Several publishers now offer replicas of famous paper theater kits as well as new models, and there are numerous international paper theater festivals throughout the Americas and Europe.

One such festival is presented yearly at the UC San Diego Library under the direction of staffer and “paper devotee” Scott Paulson. The Library’s Paper Theater Festival (billed as “The Smallest Show on Earth”) features examples of the form from Paulson’s personal collection, as well as performances of student-authored plays. The exhibition runs the gamut of paper theater history and formats, including posters, pop-ups, postcards, and souvenir books. Paulson attributes his interest in the medium to seeing Franco Zeffirelli’s autobiographical film “Tea with Mussolini,” which prominently features a paper theater performance. Others are drawn by paper theater’s tactile nature and by its value as an interactive educational toy, one that serves to stimulate a child’s creativity. A number of well-known figures were introduced to art by paper theater or have worked with the form, including Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Winston Churchill, Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, Ingmar Bergman, Terry Gilliam, Pablo Picasso, and Orson Welles, to name just a few.

Like these luminaries Paulson appreciates paper theater both as a fascinating link to theater history and as an art form in its own right, one that celebrates craftsmanship and beauty on an intimate scale. He inaugurated the annual Festival in order to share his enthusiasm and to encourage others – children especially – to step away from our technocratic age for a time and let their imaginations take the lead.

Watch Celebrating Paper Theater.

Music Is Powerful

“I say I survived for a reason: to tell my story. I believe that…Music is powerful. It is the only thing that can speak into your mind, your heart and your soul without your permission.”
– Emmanuel Jal

The Second Sudanese Civil War from 1983 to 2005 was one of the longest and bloodiest civil wars on record, yet it barely registered in Western media. The war resulted in the deaths of roughly two million people and the repeated displacement of over four million others in southern Sudan alone, constituting one of history’s largest refugee crises. Among the atrocities committed during the war were slavery, rapes, mutilations, mass killings, and the forced enlistment of children as soldiers by all sides.

Emmanuel Jal was one such child soldier. Born in what is now South Sudan, Jal was a young child when the civil war broke out. After his father joined the rebel army (SPLA) and his mother was killed by loyalist soldiers, Jal joined the thousands of Sudanese children travelling to Ethiopia, hoping to escape the conflict and find education and opportunity. Along the way, however, many of the children, Jal included, were forcibly recruited by the SPLA and taken to military training camps where they were taught to kill, in Jal’s words, “mercilessly and efficiently.”

For the next several years Jal and his comrades fought with the SPLA, first in Ethiopia and then back in Sudan, until the fighting and deprivations became unbearable. Jal and some of his friends ran away, and for three months they were constantly on the move, stealing food and dodging roving patrols. Eventually Jal met a British aid worker who adopted him and smuggled him to Kenya, where he attended school. It was in the slums of Nairobi that Jal became a community activist. He also discovered hip-hop and the power of the spoken word; singing and rapping became a form of therapy to ease the pain of his experiences, and his life’s course was set. Over time Jal developed a unique form of hip-hop, seemingly conventional in form but layered with African beats and sung/chanted over African-inspired choruses.

Unlike many of his American counterparts, Jal sees hip-hop as a powerful vehicle to lobby for social justice and political change in a positive manner, rather than as a method of pursuing street credibility. His raps and spoken word pieces emphasize unity and common humanity as motivators for young people and weapons in the fight against the scourges of ethnic and religious divisions, such as those that plague his homeland. This hopeful outlook, combined with his many humanitarian activities, dovetails neatly with the goals of UC San Diego’s Eleanor Roosevelt College, and marks Jal as a suitably inspirational figure to help celebrate the College’s 30th Anniversary.

His dynamic performance is by turns thought-provoking and uplifting, at times almost somber, but also leavened with humor and, yes, with fun. As Jal himself puts it, “Life without fun is no life at all,” a remarkable perspective from one who has suffered much but has refused to give in to bitterness or cynicism.

Watch From War Child to Global Citizen with Emmanuel Jal.

Jazz Rules the World

Contributed by John Menier

32822
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called the 1920s the “Jazz Age,” and recent inventions such as radio and phonograph records helped to spread the popularity of two quintessentially American musical genres, jazz and blues, across the country and beyond our borders. In 1926 a Paris-based music magazine began its review of recorded jazz with the observation that “Jazz truly rules the world,” and a growing number of influential European composers were jazz fans, including Hindemith, Milhaud, Weill, Honegger, and Poulenc. Maurice Ravel spent several happy nights with George Gershwin at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom listening to jazz, a testament to the music’s appeal.

For a time these foreign composers included jazz elements in some of their works, with varying degrees of success, but by the mid-1930s their ardor had cooled as new forms of modernism took hold on the Continent. It was left then to American musicians to continue nurturing the confluence of their native jazz and “serious” music that began in the early 1920s, and they did so brilliantly.

Three of the foremost practitioners of this hybrid form were George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Aaron Copland. Though they came from different backgrounds and training, and each developed a singular musical personality, they shared an interest in elevating the jazz/classical fusion from a novel experiment to a vibrant art form. They shared another quality, harder to quantify but nevertheless distinctive: their music was unmistakably American, with all that implies.

This characteristic is perhaps most evident in the Gershwin masterpieces on this program, “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” In both pieces, the jazz/blues influences are on prominent display, as the music alternates in mood from contemplative to nostalgic to swaggering, and from Paris to Harlem. Gershwin insisted that both pieces are examples of sonata form, but whether sonata or tone poem or concerto or potpourri, it’s not important how it’s categorized. What matters is that this is fun music, as full of personality as anything you’re likely to hear.

It’s been said that Duke Ellington embodied the very soul of jazz. Ellington wrote some of the first extended jazz compositions to appear in the concert repertoire, and the two pieces on this program, “Mood Indigo” and “Solitude,” amply demonstrate his versatility and sophistication as a composer. Ellington was also an innovative, idiosyncratic orchestrator, and what became known as the “Ellington Sound” is a constant feature of his music – elusive, hard to define, harder still to imitate, but once heard, unmistakable.

Aaron Copland was a city boy who brought a certain polished urbanity to his work. After extensive studies in Paris Copland initially worked with then-voguish European styles, but gradually his native “Americanism” emerged and he established himself as the premiere American composer of his generation. “Quiet City” is a mood piece, a tone poem in miniature, originally written for a friend’s play. The play failed but the music lives on as a popular concert selection. The influence of jazz and/or blues is perhaps less overt in this haunting work than in the Gershwin and Ellington pieces, but it’s there in the tones and phrasings of the featured trumpet and oboe combined with the dotted rhythms of the string orchestra.

The program is rounded out with an exhilarating premiere work by Asher Tobin Chodos, “Concertino for Two Pianos and Orchestra.” Joining the composer on piano is Cecil Lytle, who also performs on “Mood Indigo,” “Solitude,” and “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Watch: Crossing the rue St. Paul – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

Nosferatu with Werner Herzog

Contributed by John Menier

32822“For such an advanced civilization as ours to be without images that are adequate to it is as serious a defect as being without memory.”
― Werner Herzog

The Carsey-Wolf Center at UC Santa Barbara has created a series entitled “Hollywood Berlin,” featuring screenings and discussions of films by five prominent German directors: Werner Herzog, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, and Billy Wilder. With the exception of Herzog these artists are representative of the wave of German exiles and immigrants who left Europe in the 1920s and 1930s to work in Hollywood, and counted among their number producers, directors, actors, writers, technicians, and cinematographers. In addition to their professional expertise that generation of émigrés brought European influences to American cinema, as reflected by film noir, increasing sophistication in comedies, and a willingness to address serious social issues.

In the inaugural program of “Hollywood Berlin” celebrated filmmaker Werner Herzog joins Carsey-Wolf Center Director Patrice Petro for a discussion of his film, “Nosferatu the Vampyre,” based on F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens” (“Noserferatu, a Symphony of Horrors”). Upon the release of Herzog’s film in 1979 many critics expressed surprise at his choice of subject matter. Herzog was already well-known as the auteur of idiosyncratic art-house works based on his original screenplays. Pundits assumed that Herzog’s film was simply a remake of Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece, and they were puzzled. As Herzog explains in this program, that assumption was mistaken; his version of “Nosferatu” was intended not as a slavish imitation but as an homage both to Murnau’s film and to a seminal era of German filmmaking. In terms of plot and characters it falls midway between Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula” and Murnau’s “Nosferatu” (which was an unauthorized version of Stoker’s novel), incorporating elements of both while adding the director’s well-known pictorial sense. Herzog sees his film as providing an explicit link between his generation, the “New German Cinema,” and what he calls “our grandfathers,” those movie-makers whose mass exodus left behind a German film industry that was moribund until the advent of Herzog, Fassbinder, Schlöndorff, Wenders, von Trotta, et al in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Using “Nosferatu” as a jumping-off point for conversation, Herzog elaborates on a variety of topics including his writing process, his relationships with collaborators, the importance of music, and his philosophy concerning the primacy of the image. He also addresses some of the myths and misconceptions (mythconceptions?) that have arisen from his storied career, most of which cast Herzog as an uncompromising artist who undertakes his projects with a humorless, single-minded zeal bordering on madness. While it’s true that the prolific Herzog is passionate about cinema – he once said that “we are starved for images, and it’s my duty to provide them” – he displays a healthy sardonic humor regarding himself and his public image. (“I am not Teutonic. I am Bavarian.”)

Witty, articulate, intellectually rigorous, and disarmingly honest, Werner Herzog is the perfect introduction to a series celebrating the work of German filmmakers past and present.

Watch Nosferatu with Werner Herzog

Ann Patchett

Contributed by John Menier

8232Listed by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2012, Ann Patchett is a true woman of letters: novelist, essayist, anthologist, and co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville. Patchett is also a frequent and accomplished public speaker, noted for her anecdotes about the literary life, her insights into the creative process, and her wry wit.

One of Patchett’s favorite topics is the ever-changing relationship between readers and books. As an example she cites her own evolution reading (and re-reading) the works of John Updike, Leo Tolstoy, Pearl Buck, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and others, noting that “the books don’t change, but we do.” Put another way, the reader’s evaluation of a particular book is shaped as much by the reader’s life experience and circumstances as by the work’s innate qualities. As such our appreciation (or lack thereof) for a particular title may change over time, but the consistent commonality among the books we treasure is that they never fail to evoke a strong response. Patchett believes the writer’s primary task is to elicit that response by inviting the reader to become an active participant in their story.

Patchett’s approach to the reading public is refreshingly un-elitist. She stresses the importance of what she calls “gateway drugs,” books of dubious literary worth that may encourage readers to explore other authors and genres. She applauds the success of “trashy” pop novels such as “Fifty Shades of Gray” and “Twilight,” no matter their pedigree, for their role in re-vitalizing book sales and energizing the publishing community. What matters most to Patchett as both author and bookstore owner is that the reading habit is fostered and encouraged, and in that endeavor, there’s no place for snobbery.

Click here to watch An Evening with Ann Patchett

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