Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Folklore/Supersitions about the New Year

Celebrating New Year’s Day is a time-honored tradition. In ancient Babylon, New Year's Day was celebrated in March which was the beginning of spring. The Romans also noted March as the new year until 46 BC when Julius Caesar designated New Year's Day as January 1st. The idea, it was reported, was to make sure the days were back in touch with the changes that the sun went through. After many changes of the Roman calendar, the days were so out of sync with the sun that order had to be restored. January 1st was also observed by Egyptian and Celtic cultures.

The Babylonians were also credited with the custom of making resolutions on New Year's Eve in order to begin the New Year with a clean slate.

Since then there have been many superstitions and folklore beliefs about how to bring in a prosperous and healthy new year. Here are a few of them:

• Pay off bills and loans so as to not bring debt into the New Year.
• Opening all doors and windows at midnight lets the old year escape.
• Babies born on New Year’s Day are said to have the best luck.
• Kissing at midnight assured affections would continue throughout the year.
• Church bells rung at midnight scare away evil spirits.
• Empty cupboards on New Year’s Eve bring a year of poverty.

If you've got folklore to share, let us know!


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Who is Jack Frost?

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose…

Who is Jack Frost and how did he come to be the mischievous folk lore character we have all grown to love during the holiday season?

Jack Frost also better known as Jokul Frosti ("icicle frost") is a sprite- like character with roots in Viking lore. In the United States and Britain, Frost is best known as Old Man Winter who is responsible to frosty weather and nipping the nose and toes of young children. The depiction of Jack Frost was made popular by Thomas Nast, an artist who published his work in Harper’s Weekly in 1864. The picture is winter in Central Park depicting Jack Frost as a creature covered in icicles. Thomas Nast is also responsible for the number of popular images of Christmas and Santa Claus. In 1902, L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus book explains that Frost is the son of the Frost King. Jack Frost with a jolly personality takes pleasure in nipping noses, ears and toes of children. Santa asks him to stop, but Frost mistrusts him and cannot resist the temptation.

Jack Frost has always been known as a figure from folklore, looking as an elfish creature who personifies crisp and cold weather. He is always known to leave beautiful patterns on autumn leaves and windows on frosty mornings. In Russia, frost is represented as Father Frost, a smith who binds water and earth together with heavy chains. In Germany, Frost is an old woman who causes it to snow by shaking out her bed of white feathers.

Although Jack Frost has no connection with Christianity, he is sometimes hijacked to appear in modern Christmas entertainments. He also often appears in literature, film, television, song, and video games as a sinister mischief maker.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas Tree Lore

The Christmas tree, also known as a “Yule” tree, is a decorated evergreen tree tradition that began in Estonia/Latvia in the 15th century. First documented uses of a Christmas tree were by The Brotherhood of Blackheads, an association of local unmarried merchants, ship owners, and foreigners active in present-day Estonia and Latvia.

It was reported that members of this military organization danced around the tree and by 1584 the pastor and chronicler Balthasar Russow wrote of an established tradition of setting up a decorated spruce at the market square where the young men “went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame.”

The first American Christmas tree can be credited to a Hessian soldier by the name of Henrick Roddmore, who was captured at the Battle of Bennington in 1776. He then went to work on the farm of Samuel Denslow in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, where for the next 14 years he put up and decorated Christmas trees in the Denslow family home.

The first American President to set up a Christmas tree in the White House was Franklin Pierce, and the first to establish the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House was Calvin Coolidge.

In 1979 during President Jimmy Carter’s term only the tree’s crowning star was lit in honor of the Americans being held hostage in Iran.

Contemporary Christmas trees now include artificial trees that have grown in popularity; especially among those who do not want to cut down live trees or cannot plant a live potted tree when the season ends. People who live in city apartments where space may be a concern use oversized tree branches placed on table tops or mantles, decorated with simply themed ornaments or standing up in vases.

In these modern times there are also mini-Christmas trees for those who live in mobile homes or travel during the holiday season and want to take the season’s spirit with them on the road. From traditional to contemporary, Christmas trees – in whatever form – are still an essential holiday ingredient.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Gingerbread: A Winter Treat

In America, gingerbread is a staple item in celebrating the holiday season. It is defined as a sweet food that contains the flavors of ginger, molasses, and honey, and can be found in a soft, moist cake consistency, or hard, like that of a cookie. Originating from Armenia in 992, it has made its way throughout many regions of Europe and into the homes of millions of people.

Gingerbread, as it was known in Armenia in 992 A.D. was brought to Europe via an Armenian Monk, Grégoire de Nicopolis. It was not until the 13th Century that the recipe was brought over to Sweden and Norway. It was here that the recipe began to grow and form a tradition. The first gingerbread biscuit dates back to the 16th century, where it was a custom to paint them and display them in store windows. The United Kingdom then became recognized for their gingerbreads in the town of Shropshire and now proudly displays it on their entrance sign into town. By the 18th century, gingerbread had become widely popular among Europe.

The practice of preparing gingerbread differs widely across the world. In England, gingerbread is actually more of a bread than a cookie and is often soft and moist. Flavors such as pepper, raisins, nuts, apple, and mustard are often added for a delightful twist. It is commonly enjoyed on what is called “Bonfire Night” in England. In Croatia, gingerbread is usually formed into the shape of a heart and is used as an ornament. In the United States, however, gingerbread is predominantly a holiday treat. It is brittle and most often if the form of a cookie, which is then molded into either a small man or into a house for decorating.

The tradition of decorating gingerbread men and gingerbread houses originated in the court of Elizabeth I of England, where she had gingerbread made into the shapes of people and had them decorated to look like her guests. The practice of making gingerbread men is also a vital role in the Norwegian holiday celebration, where they make an annual gingerbread town. Norway actually pays for every child under the age of twelve to make a gingerbread house with their parents.

Today, gingerbread plays a significant role in the winter season. Many children all over the world look forward to preparing gingerbread men as well as gingerbread houses. They provide families with a means to grow closer together while working on an edible project that the whole family can enjoy. Not to mention, they make for a great holiday decoration!

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Vibrant Winter of Folk Art in Hollywood

Folk art is often considered to be art of the folk (the common man or woman) and, as such, it is often kept separate from fine art. That's primarily because people make distinctions between art that is primarily utilitarian and decorative and art that is purely aesthetic. (Hard to pour water from a canvas, right?)

Folk art is often described as the art of indigenous cultures, peasants, or tradespeople. But what about the art work of literate, classically or formally educated and/or explosive artists who produce pieces that draw from the deep wells of their own cultural experiences in a way that everyone can relate to?

At the Winter Folk Art Show at La Luz De Jesus Gallery in Hollywood, such work is both folk art and fine art alive and well. A handful of artists have brought together images we all can recognize and relate to.

For example:

Gin Stevens (upper left) traced the history of Blues in this 2010 collection that culminated in a large scale work tracing of the three distinct genres of Blues music: Chicago, Delta, and Texas.

Jessica Goldfinch(upper right) studied and focused on world ideologies and creatively incorporated them into her art. Here she depicts religious imagery in an organic and humanist sense.

The show runs from Dec. 3 through Jan. 2.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Cinnamon: A Holiday Spice

As the holiday season quickly approaches, so do the spicy sweets. Think gingerbread and cinnamon rolls. When it comes to winter treats, cinnamon is one of the most commonly used spices during the holiday season. Dating back to 2800 B.C. Chinese records, it has long been a highly desired and fragrant commodity.

A native of Sri Lanka, (known as kwai in the Chinese language today) its botanical name is from the Hebraic and Arabic term amomon, which means fragrant spice plant. Ancient Egyptians used cinnamon in their embalming process. Ironically, the Italians called the cinnamon sticks canella, meaning "little tube," after their word for ‘cannon’.

Ancient Egyptians used cinnamon in their embalming process. Medieval physicians used cinnamon in medicines to treat coughing and sore throats. In Ancient Rome, cinnamon was used during funeral processions. In 65 AD, Roman Emperor Nero burned a year's supply of prized cinnamon at his second wife Poppaea Sabina's funeral in order to show the depth of his grief and remorse for having murdered her.

In the 17th century, the Dutch learned the source of cinnamon on the coast of India. They were said to have bribed and threatened the local king into destroying it to preserve keep their monopoly on this valuable spice.

By the 19 century that monopoly began to crumble. It was discovered that cinnamon could easily be grown in places like Java and Sumatra. Today can also be cultivated in South America, the West Indies, and other tropical climates.

Available in shops all over the world, it has found its way into a variety of fun holiday recipes. Here are two:

Cinnamon Cider

Cinnamon Toast

Cinnamon Surprise Coffee Cake

Friday, November 11, 2011

Bowling Frozen Turkeys?

Bowling is one of the most popular sports in the world. In the 1930’s, British anthropologist Sir Flinders Petrie discovered objects in a child’s grave in Egypt that appeared to be have been an early form of bowling. If this is true, then bowling can date back as far as to 3200 B.C. It also shows up in 14th century England during the reign of Kind Edward III. Records show it didn’t become popular until King Henry VIII. The first permanent bowling alley of the modern world was in New York’s Battery area on a small patch of grass, which is still known today as the “Bowling Green”.

In the late 1800’s bowling grew in popularity in the United States although it was banned in a few states where it was associated with gambling. By the end of the 19th century the American Bowling Congress was formed. Two decades later, in 1917, the Woman’s Bowling Association was started. By the mid 20th century it made its television debut on NBC’s, “Championship Bowling”. Today over 95 million people enjoy the game in over 90 different countries.

Here in Rohnert Park, the game has taken on a twist. Turkey Bowl III is a bowling tournament like any other tournament EXCEPT that instead of using bowling balls, the players bowl with FROZEN TURKEYS! In the spirit of Thanksgiving, Rohnert Park’s Grocery Outlet & members of the local business community are hosting this fun event November 19th from 11am – 4 pm in the Rohnert Park Grocery Outlet parking lot.

Every penny of the $50 team entry fee will be used to purchase food that will be delivered to Neighbors Organized Against Hunger (NOAH) food bank in Rohnert Park which serves more than 200 families weekly. American Heritage Girls will also be on hand to collect non-perishable food donations.

The tournament takes place on customized outdoor bowling lanes and the public is invited to bowl, too, during tournament breaks. People who donate $5 to the Grocery Outlet store will be purchasing a full bag of groceries for NOAH, said Cheri Weir, the store’s owner. She added that as a thank you, those donors will also have a chance to win a FREE turkey (while supplies last) if they earn a Strike.Last years efforts resulted in more than 2000 non-perishable food items and over 150 turkeys for families in need of extra help. The goal, according to John McDonald of AM Printing & Graphics is for the business community to help others in need. “These are hard times for so many of us. It’s important that we help where we can.”

Monday, October 31, 2011

White Roses for All Saint's Day

Kastania Corpuz, a Communications Major at Sonoma State University, writes about a very special November 1 tradition: All Saint’s Day:

This day is celebrated on November 1st as a day to remember the dead in most cultures around the world. In my El Salvadoran heritage, we know this day to be a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church. Generally, we go to Mass in the morning and then go to the cemetery to visit our passed relatives for the duration of the day. Every day for years my mother and I have gone to pay our respects to family buried in Colma City which is near San Francisco. We deliver white roses to my Abuelos, Tias and Tios. My mom told me once that the white rose symbolized death and the birth of a new life. I was closest with my Abuelita and her favorite flowers were pink roses, so I would always make sure a bouquet was dropped off for her on this special day.

Here are some examples of how different countries have made their own unique All Saints Day traditions.

Mexico: Dia de los Muertos is the “Day of the Dead” celebrated with altars in homes or at the gravesites to celebrate those relatives and friends which have passed. Dia de los Inocentes is the “Day of the Innocent” which is celebrated for the children and infants which have passed. The altars consist of pictures, favorite clothing, food, and candy skulls.

Portugal and Brazil: Pão-por-Deus children go door to door and collect cakes, pomegranates and nuts similar to the American version of Halloween.

Sweden, Poland, and Germany: People will light candles in the cemeteries to remember those lost and have now gone to a better place.

Philippines: “Undas” or Todos los Santos literally means “All Saints”. Both October 31st and November 1st are celebrated by spending the night at the cemeteries eating, drinking, lighting candles, saying prayers and offering flowers.

What the White Rose symbolizes:

Ancient Greece: It was believed that all roses were white until Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love and Beauty pricked herself on a thorn; that rose in turn came the red rose.

England: At the wedding of Queen Victoria in the 1840’s white roses were predominant and are now considered to be a wedding flower. It symbolizes the reputation of women in society as clean, untainted, pure and innocent.

Ancient Rome: White rose bushes were planted at the graves of deceased young women to indicate their virginity and innocence.

Germany: During World War II, “The White Rose”, an anti-Nazi student political group was set up in Munich. The group was created on ideals of political freedom which also symbolized secrecy, since they couldn’t be public during the Nazi Regime. The White Rose also represented loyalty because the students remained true to what they stood for until their death. When discovered most members were killed and the rose stood for purity of youth.

Italy: In the 16th century, the Pope declared that a rose be carved in confession booths to symbolize confidentiality, secrecy and privacy. In time it also came to be synonymous with spirituality and holy union between those who have passed and life after death.

For centuries this time of year has become a special time to remember loved ones who have passed on. It’s no surprise that people want to believe their ancestors and other family members are all now in a better place; a special place as suggested by the white roses that are placed upon graves around the world.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Crimes of the Heart folk heroines

Spousal abuse, birthday wishes and unsung songs all reflect the poignant passions of three Mississippi sisters who form the core of Cinnabar Theater’s production of ‘Crimes of the Heart’ in Petaluma (Northern California).

The Magrath sisters – Meg (Dana Scott), Lenny (Sarah McKereghan) and Babe (Ivy Rose Miller) are folk heroines because they traverse the edges of shared family bonds, including their mother’s suicide and, holding firmly onto one another for support and for courage, leap into an uncharted future that they believe will bring them better days.

Reunited around the table of Old Granddaddy’s kitchen table in Hazelhurst, Mississippi after Babe shoots her husband, the three young women share elements of their pasts they have kept hidden. Meg never did make it in Hollywood, Lenny gave up on her one chance for romance and Babe fell in love with the wrong person at the wrong time.

As typical siblings, they tease, taunt, and love each other in a way that has the audience laughing one minute and anxious the next. Their confessions are hilarious and heartbreaking. Can they be trusted to keep each others' secrets? Will they ever forgive themselves and each other for their choices?

These folk heroines face challenges familiar to us all. Who hasn't made mistakes that alter forever the course of life? Who hasn't felt all alone in the world? And they remind us that sometimes - in the midst of it all - there is hope and that, coupled with the love of those who accept us flaws and all, is exactly what we need to move forward. As these sisters plunge into their futures, so do we, knowing that at any moment any of us may find the love and happiness we seek.

It’s easy to see why “Crime of the Heart” written by Beth Henley in 1978 is an award-winning play. Credits include:

Directed by Sheri Lee Miller, the play runs through November 6. To find out more about this production and the rest of Cinnabar Theater's 39th season offerings, visit www.cinnabartheater.org.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Oktoberfest Festival

October is a special time of year for beer and food lovers. It’s Oktoberfest time and festivals are one of the easiest ways for people to gather together to celebrate a particular culture.

Oktoberfest is an annual celebration that began in Germany on October 12, 1810 in celebration of the Crowned Prince Ludwig’s marriage to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. King Ludwig wanted the entire Free State of Bavaria to revel in the excitement of his new bride. The celebratory event of choice consisted of a horse race, which drew in a crowd of about 40,000. King Ludwig even named the grassy field where it took place, “Theresienwiese”, meaning Theresa's meadow. The presence of the Royal Family, horse races, and monumental size of the event helped shape it into a celebration of Bavaria, and eventually Oktoberfest. The celebration was held again the following year, but this time included an agricultural aspect in order to boost Germany’s agriculture. Although the horse race eventually was lost from that festival, the agricultural show still remains a prevalent aspect that many festival goers look forward to. Other aspects of the festival include carnival booths, a carousel, swings, and a massive parade, as well as a plethora of German food including sausages, pretzels, chicken, roast pork, dumplings, potato pancakes, sauerkraut, and cabbage.

In the United States each Oktoberfest celebration is unique. Entertainment choices and local foods and beverages all create special regional flavors. Even so you can still count on some things remaining the same everywhere: live Bavarian style music, such as polka music, authentic German foods and German beer. Here are some of the more common dishes:

· Sauerkraut: The most well known German food is finely sliced green cabbage that has been pickled. This gives the cabbage a distinct sour flavor, which is where it gets the name Sauerkraut (sour cabbage).

· Wiener Schnitzel: A breaded veal cutlet that is dipped in flour, egg, and bread crumbs, then fried in butter or oil to a golden brown. It is traditionally served with a lemon wedge, which you can use to drizzle fresh lemon juice over the schnitzel.

· Dampfnudel: A traditional Southern Germany dish made from yeast dough formed into balls that are cooked in a pot with a little liquid (milk and butter or water and butter). As the liquid boils, it both cooks and steams the Dampfnudel.

· Hendl: Whole chickens grilled on a spit and typically sold in halves. Variations are the spit-roasted duck or goose.

Fun Oktoberfest Facts:

Most Popular Oktoberfests Outside of Germany

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bunco: Pure Luck?

In the world of folklore games provide people with an opportunity to get together and have fun. For children, the rewards are often very simple: toys, the joy of doing something with friends, etc.

For adults, games can take on a different tone. Prizes are perhaps more elaborate and selective and the focus becomes more fixed upon beating the odds and/or outwitting luck.

here are few games that have lasted throughout the course of a century, and Bunco proves to be one of them. A dice game of pure luck that has been redefined throughout the years, it continues to be one of the most popular played games in the United States. From it’s early beginnings in 18th-century England it has continued to gain popularity and now even has a Facebook application. In fact I found seven different Bunco Facebook Pages from all over the country!

Bunco made it’s way over to the United States, specifically San Francisco around the 1850s, and quickly gained a reputation for being a gambling game. It was played in gambling parlors, also known as Bunco parlors. During prohibition in the 1920s, the game was re-popularized and played in speakeasies, where police squads, nicknamed “Bunco squads” would raid the venue.

The game made yet another come back around the time of the 1980s but gained immense popularity in America around 2005. It has been reported by the World Bunco Association that in 2006, 27 million people played Bunco. Currently, Bunco is played by anyone from young adults to the elderly and can be played in a home setting or a fundraiser.

A popular trend for women is having “Bunco Parties” where a hostess will invite women over to play the game at her house and provide food and beverages. The women will often take turns hosting the other ladies. Prizes create an edge to the game and offer an incentive. Bunco fundraisers are also becoming increasingly popular and have created a new avenue in the fundraising world.

Among young adults, the game has also been turned into a drinking game, affectionately entitled, “Drunko”.

The rules of the game go as such: Bunco is a dice game played in different rounds. There are teams of two and they sit at a table of four. The goal of the game is to accumulate as many points as possible for your team. During each persons turn they try to roll a specific set of numbers that are given. If they roll at least one of those numbers, they can continue to roll until they do not score anymore. If they roll a three of a kind, they score five points and if they score all three numbers that they were suppose to, they score the ideal twenty-one points. The first team to score twenty-one points wins. Since there are several teams playing, everyone (even at other tables) must stop when the original winners call, “Bunco!”. Whichever team has the highest number of points at that time wins for that table. At the end of each game, the losers go toward the losing end and the winners move up towards the winning end. Partners are also switched to avoid playing on the same team as someone twice.

Above all, Bunco is a social game. It invites people of all backgrounds to come together and relax while playing a fun game and interacting with others. Many times the game is accompanied with appetizers, snacks, dinner, dessert, cocktails, wine, and many other delectable treats. It gives people an excuse to drop their troubles at the door and get caught up in the festivities.

If you're in the North San Francisco Bay Area on Oct. 27 and want to experience the game for yourself, come check out the Rotary Club of Rohnert Park-Cotati's Bunco Tournament. Who knows, that might be your lucky day!

Friday, September 30, 2011

My Sonoma State University intern Alivia Snyder loves ballet. So I invited her, a dancer, to write about this art form with a history steeped in European folklore:

Ballet is one of the most enchanting and well preserved styles of dance in the entire world. Beginning as a form of entertainment for royalty, it continues to touch many lives today. The strict precision and technique that is evident in ballerinas today is much different than what was displayed for Kings in 15th and 16th century Europe.

The Renaissance was the birthplace of a style of dance entitled ballet de cour. This original form of ballet included traditional clothing and shoes from the era. Tutus and pointe shoes were simply nonexistent. It was also more of an interactive performance, in that towards the end of the dance, the rest of the court would join in and dance all together.

Throughout the 1400s, ballet was appreciated and performed mostly for royalty. Catherine de' Medici, an Italian aristocrat had a passion for the arts, which gave ballet a vehicle through which to spread throughout Europe. When Catherine de’ Medici married French royalty, she was able to provide a platform for ballet in France through her newfound wealth. The first ballet de cour was entitled Ballet Comique de la Reine (1581), which lasted for more than 4 hours and included 24 dancers.

King Louis XIV (1653) of France also had a passion for dance. His personal dance teacher, Pierre Beauchamp, created the five positions for the feet and arms, which are still used to this day. The king even created a dance school, Académie Royale de Danse and appointed Beauchamp the school’s director.

Throughout the 1800s, ballet evolved into the dramatic art form that it is today. Ballet also flourished in Russia with the help of Tchaikovsky. Classics such as Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, The Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty were all choreographed and composed during the late 1800. Themes for these productions included mostly European folklore. Pointe shoes, tutus, flowing skirts and pastel colors all started to emerge and ballet found itself in the same league of entertainment at opera.

In the United States, ballet was first introduced in New York City. George Balanchine developed state-of-the-art technique at his studios in New York and Chicago. Balanchine is also recognized for his specific style of neo-classical ballet: a mix between classical and contemporary ballet. Although there are many other styles of ballet, they can all be broken down into classical, neo-classical, and contemporary.

Ballet is an incredibly difficult style of dance to master. The meticulous movements and balance that are required are only truly known to those who study the art. For those of us watching, it is merely appears that the dancers are floating; their poise and grace fill the stage.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Kite's Book: Tales of an 18th Century Hitman

Societal and cultural values are preserved through a variety of mediums. In folklore, which I believe is the street face of mythology we find a world of motifs (themes) that basically are regionalized interpretations of universal truths.

This means, for example, that the motif of hero may appear in one culture as a truly virtuous person (SuperMan) and in another may be presented as a masked man (think Zorro).

In the medium of American theatre,the hero takes on many forms and faces many issues, namely how to remain true to valued principles, such as justice. Keeping in mind that every group of people has its own renditions of what constitutes justice, I recently interviewed Playwright Robert Caisley about his play Kites Book: Tales of an 18th Century Hitman.

The play which explores issues of justice and judicial reform, has it's West Coast premiere on September 30 at the Sixth Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa CA (Sonoma County wine country). In it hitman Harry Kite swashbuckles his way through old and new world versions of crime and punishment basics. No easy feat.

Here is the Q/A with Caisley, Head of Drama Writing, Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Idaho:

Q: Seeking justice is a noble act. In the world of folklore the motif (theme) of justice is explored from many angles. How justice is defined, and who determines punishment are among the questions raised in your play which touches upon both 18th and 20th century sensibilities about justice. What are the most notable differences?

A: The 18th century was an interesting period of transition and change in thinking for social philosophers. There had existed this belief that the criminal tendency was innate and the natural bias it was a disease of the lower classes. You can see this idea being advanced that someone was born with criminal tendencies, lived a sordid anti-social life, and went to the grave a criminal and there was very little society could do to change that ineluctable fact. The only choice society had was to segregate the bad apples from the rest of decent (meaning wealthy) society. So the idea of rehabilitation was a very modern, revolutionary one that would begin to emerge in the 18th century in stark contrast to the wrong-headed view of crime and criminal behavior. In the early 18th century we didn’t have the benefit of modern neuroscience and psychology. Medicine had been dominated for at least 2,000 years by Hippocrates’ theory of the Four Humors (four substances flowing within the human body, the imbalance of which accounted for mood and behavior. Not very scientific.) It certainly didn’t help that the pseudoscience of Phrenology, developed in 1796 by Franz Joseph Gall, a German physician, was making wildly speculative claims about the relationship between the size and shape of the skull being an indicator of innate behavior and intellectual development. There was even an Italian doctor poking around within the prison system who was fond of measuring cheekbones and studying hairlines and the such and suggesting these physiological traits were empirical markers for criminal behavior. So you had all of this “backward” thinking, but at the same time we start to see, beginning in the 18th and on into the 19th centuries, a sharp rise in new and progressive social philosophy that started to take into account the social causes of crime within society, and what society’s moral response should be. So these two views clash in the play.

Q: Does the character Harry Kite possess traits that allow him to face personal and professional obstacles? If so, what are they and how are they important?

A: Harry Kite is obviously modeled on the popular cult hero of English folklore, Robin Hood. He is living “outside” the law, but that is only because the laws and lawmakers are so corrupt. So he’s an anti-hero.

Q: Societies can change their attitudes over time. In this play have the attitudes about crime and punishment shifted over time? Or are there intrinsic, non-negotiable truths about what justice is and is not?

A: I’d like to believe that in 2011 there is a very different view of crime and the criminal, but I think there is still a pervasive bias that crime and anti-social behavior is associated with the poor and under-educated. It’s a difficult myth to dispel because the empirical evidence suggests there is a direct, causal relationship between these two things. In the last few years we’ve seen numerous headlines in which the perpetrator of a crime is a large multi-national corporation that has defrauded the American public out of hundreds of millions of dollars. The executives of these companies usually receive a golden parachute, a slap on the wrist and an extraordinarily lavish severance package. By contrast, a young black male found in possession of a stolen vehicle will most assuredly feel the full weight of the law. So there continues to be a discrepancy between how the law is applied to the Haves and Have-nots.

Q: Theater is a powerful social tool as well as a form of entertainment. It lets people see themselves (through the guise of actors). What is it you want this play to show audiences about themselves?

A: I don’t think a single play can do anything to change this, but I think it’s every artist’s responsibility to raise questions about what is wrong with society, and hold the “mirror up to nature.” This is what the theatre is all about.

I encourage you to find out for yourself if theatre can chance your ideas about crime and punishment.

Kite's Book: Tales of an 18th Century Hitman - West Coast Premiere, Sept. 30 to Oct. 23, 2011

6th Street Playhouse: Historic Railroad Square, 52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa, CA

Tickets: 707-523-4185 or visit www.6thstreetplayhouse.com

Photo: Rahman Dalrymple as Harry Kite

Monday, September 19, 2011

Storytelling: The Personal Touch

I want to share an article by Jessica Fischer in the Times News that I read today about a really nice explanation of the place of personal stories and experiences in storytelling.

Storyteller adds family tales to repertoire

International Storytelling Center’s teller-in-residence series continues to celebrate its 10th anniversary season with a week’s worth of performances by storyteller and mime Antonio Rocha.

Rocha will offer daily matinees throughout his residency, which runs Sept. 13-17. All concerts begin at 2 p.m. in the Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall, an intimate theater in the heart of the Center’s headquarters in downtown Jonesborough.

Rocha is celebrated for his unique take on traditional storytelling, which incorporates fluid movement into the spoken form. (He studied under master mime Tony Montanaro.)

“Mime is an eloquent body language,” Rocha says, observing that it’s used, to some extent, in all storytelling. “When somebody is on stage making facial expressions and gestures or leaning towards the microphone, that’s all body language. Even when you’re sitting down, you’re doing it. So to a certain extent, everybody mimes a little bit, whether they realize it or not.”
ut the more he worked with traditional stories, the more Rocha realized his own life followed similar rhythms and rules.

“Folk tales eventually helped me recognize all those archetypal characters in my own life,” he explains. “Folk tales aren’t about crocodiles and chickens; they’re human characters played by animals. I woke up to the fact that, my gosh, there’s a lot of stuff from my own life that I want to bring to the stage.”

In addition to stories about his childhood in Brazil, some of Rocha’s favorite personal pieces revisit his first years in the U.S.

“There are all these little snippets of my life in America, such as my story about being a millionaire for five minutes,” he says. “Now, you have to understand that I was a college student. I didn’t know much about American culture at the time. I got a letter from Mr. McMahon saying I had won a million dollars. I almost had a heart attack. My name was spelled right. Nobody spelled my name right in those days. I have five names, and they were all written correctly!”
It was a dark hour when Rocha’s American friends had to explain the phenomenon that is Publishers Clearing House.

“I was like, what do you mean I didn’t win anything!” he recalls, laughing. For someone who gained and lost a fortune in the course of one day, he was a very good sport.

During his week in Jonesborough, Rocha also looks forward to sharing a wide range of Brazilian and African folk tales. He relishes the opportunity to play with new forms and showcase new material for the Storytelling Live! series.

“It’s always good to come back to TIR,” he says. “It’s great to present new material and connect with new faces and the folks who know my work.”

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Chili 'N Wheels: Community Folk Festival

When people think of folk festivals, they generally think about 'old time' folk music, arts and crafts, and foods. They think about way back when... not here and now.

The upcoming 2011 Chili N' Wheels Fall Classic - held September 10, 10-4, is all about chili and pre-1975 classic cars.

Here are some details:

Presented by Fat Dogg Productions and Rohnert Park Business Community

Highlights include FREE admission, chili, and family entertainment, including a demonstration by the Rancho Cotate High School Marching Band. Other activities include cooking awards, car trophies, and beer garden. Plus:

  • 50+ booths of chili to sample.
  • Appearances by former National Football League Players including Honor Jackson.
  • Automotive Alley sponsored by RPM Automotive: 75 car will be on display including foreign car, custom car and American classic.
  • Chili judges: Heidi West (Heidi West Catering), Mayor Gina Belforte (Rohnert Park), David Templeton (North Bay Theatre Critic and Playwright), Angela Hart (Editor: Rohnert Park Patch.com), and Letitia Turner Hanke-Ryzhkov (President: North Bay Black Chamber of Commerce).
  • Event sections include Entertainment Alley, Automotive Alley, The Beer Garden and more.

This is a benefit for Fence at the Top, a non-profit dedicated to providing mentoring services to at risk youth.

555 Rohnert Park Expressway, Rohnert Park, CA

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

To Farmer's Market We Go!

Farmers Markets are festive events that connect communities with individual farmers and other vendors. It's popular today for people to gather in the streets or parks of their cities or towns on weekends or in the evenings after work to sell their wares: meats, fruits, vegetables, beverages, prepared foods, and arts and crafts. This community event which has rapidly expanded across the nation is a hybrid of earlier days when people took their goods to a common outdoor site for barter and sale.Open air markets - once a standard way for people to get supplies - quickly dwindled once the shopping market came along. With the retail brick and mortar locations came delivery of foods from other places; foods that were foreign, so to speak. Imagine a pineapple or mango in a Kansas open-air market, for example.

The tradition of growing and supporting local businesses, fostered by a wave of eco-friendly lifestyle changes led to the revival of what call today The Farmer's Market.

In 1934, a group of farmers in Los Angeles decided to bring their rurally grown produce to the heart of the urban city. They displayed vegetables, fruits, and flowers from the backs of their trucks and everyone enjoyed the opportunity this presented them. From there the farmers’ spontaneous idea grew into a contemporary event.

Pretty soon the spot became known as Farmer's Market and, hence, developed into a national institution with over 5,000 markets across the country, all promoting the core idea of buying from local producers. They have become individualized to suit the needs of individual communities. Some have dancing, music, art,others have sports and/or pony rides.

In Sonoma County where I live there is a Farmers Market in almost every town. Rohnert Park and Cotati, for example, offer delicious food, wine/beer, art activities and other entertainment activities suitable for those of all ages.

These examples of Farmers Markets harken back to the days when and they also reach into a sustainable future with organic, tasty products.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Washboards: A Folk Music Transformation

For centuries, musical instruments have evolved from their simpler origins into complex tools of melodies. Many have continued to be played in ways that are similar to their first use, but one unexpected instrument has had such a complete transformation from its original purpose that it’s made more than 180 degree turn around. The washboard made its musical transformation in the early 1900’s when it was adopted by a new age revolutionary era of music.

Before its musical debut, the washboard was widely known in the 18th and 19th century as a tool used to dry off articles of washed clothing. It was comprised of a rectangular wooden frame with a configuration of multiple ridges down the middle where clothes were rubbed on to drain off the water out. Then came the 1920’s with its “Roaring Twenties” jazz culture.

With the inclusion of metal in the washboard’s structure, the washboard morphed from almost daily household use to an instrument of modern music. It grew in popularity among zydeco (product of the blues genre), jazz, jug bands (used home-made instruments) and other forms of folk music.

Musicians who used the washboard would wear metal thimbles on most of their fingers, and strum the, along the ridges of the washboard. A thin piece of rope or string was worn around the musician’s neck and attached to the washboard for stability. The results included zany and rhythmically enhancing sounds that infused folk music with a new style.

Like most instruments, the washboard’s structure and usage went through several transitions. In zydeco music, the washboard took the name “frottoir.” In time it was created to with metal ridges and was worn like a vest. The thimbles were replaced by spoon handles or bottle openers in an assortment of strumming and tapping movements. In jug bands, the washboard acted as the drums and was played as the back beat to other instruments.

Seen as the “poor man’s instrument,” the washboard helped to usher in a new era of instruments and melodies. Its popularity flourished in the “Flapper Era” while keeping its southern rhythm and blues tempo. As is the case with all folklore, this folk musical instrument was adopted by people to meet different, yet specific times and needs.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ice Cream: The Sweet Stuff of Summer

One legend has it that ice cream originated from China and slowly made its way around the world. But there are also other legends about this popular summer time treat.Citizens of the Persian Empire are believed to have eaten concentrated grape juice over ice in approximately 400 B.C. Ingredients such as rose water, nuts and saffron were mixed in for a sweeter taste. It is believed that Arabs were the first to incorporate cream or milk. The recipe dates back to ancient Mesopotamian, Greek, or Roman recipes and became widely manufactured by the 10th century.

The Chinese have been credited with inventing the tool to make sorbet or ice cream as we know it today. They started by mixing in the ingredients, heating them, and then cooling them at below freezing temperatures. The tale continues that Marco Polo visited and passed on the techniques to Italy, where they altered it to make what is known as gelato.

Due to lack of modern-day refrigeration, it was a hefty task to produce ice cream. Many times, slaves ventured in to the mountains to retrieve snow, which was stored under ground or in brick ice houses to keep cool. It was an expensive treat, which made it exclusive to royalty until about the 16-1700s.

During the wedding of Italian duchess Catherine de' Medici to the Duc d’Orléans in 1533, it has been rumored that Catherine brought Italian chefs over to France in order to serve ice cream in honor of their wedding.

The first traces of published recipes of ice cream begin in the 1600s. The Oxford English Dictionary recognized ice cream for the first time in 1744. In Colonial America, ice cream was introduced by Quakers and eventually enjoyed by early presidents such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. At inaugural ball of President James Madison, his First Lady Dolley Madison served ice cream as a treat.

The Industrial Age played a large part in the mass production of ice cream. In the 1800's inventions like the small-scale, hand-cranked ice cream freezer by Nancy Johnson set a new standard. The American sweet tooth grew with the innovative ice cream twists that appeared on the scene: ice cream sundae, ice cream soda, and the ice cream cone developed in the early 20th century were among the more popular versions.

The World’s Fair is said to have been the birthplace of the ice cream cone. Although there is no 'hard proof' other than that of folk lore, the story goes that when the ice cream booth ran out of cardboard to serve its ice cream on, the neighboring waffle stand gave them waffles to use. The result: the waffle cone.

There were even instances of ice cream parlors replacing bars and saloons during prohibition as a place for Americans to come together and socialize.

Throughout the 20th century, ice cream has taken on a variety of forms and been modified in many ways, but it’s ability to create a sense of instant joy still holds true today. Ice cream is known as a carefree, youthful treat that can be savored by all.

Friday, August 5, 2011

History: Fact, Fiction or Folklore?

After attending the opening night of Marin Shakespeare Company's The Complete History of America (abridged) I'm convinced that the one who tells the American story holds the key to its truth. And the version this production tells is definitely worth seeing!

Actors Darren Bridgett, Cassidy Brown and Mick Mize under the direction of Robert Currier led the audience on a wild goose chase across the 200+ landscape of American history. Sitting beneath the stars at the Forest Meadows Amphitheater (Dominican University, San Rafael, CA) everyone was kept spell bound as the cast romped merrily from Amerigo Vespucci to President Barak Obama in less than two hours.

They held us captive as they zig-zagged into and out of American aspirations, ingenuity and inspirations. From start to finish, well-timed antics and patriotic colors framed this fast-paced production that ultimately showed us how Americans - a unique species on the planet - may not really be so different from their neighbors.

For example, their renditions of a Civil War slide show with Yankees and Confederates posing mid-war for posterity suggests we all are looking for moments of glory. The sleuthing efforts of Detective Sam Spade tell us that lone, crime-solving tough guys really may not be so tough when it comes to love.

I have written before that the distance between folklore and history is not as vast as many would think. This play confirms for me that while history chronicles the data of events in a particular documented sequence (who did what when), it is the folklore - the beliefs, traditions and customs of a certain people - that actually fill in the blanks of our humanity.

The actors' perfect timing and obvious chemistry captured the audience's attention. Not a moment was wasted. Even my teenage daughter and her twenty-something cousin were kept in stitches as the scenes flew by, reminding all of us - regardless of our age - how we got from Vespucci's map to President Obama's bump and grind.

The play, made popular by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, runs through September 25. Here are the details:
The Complete History of America (abridged)

Forest Meadows Amphitheater, Dominican University,1475 Acacia Ave., San Rafael, CA
Box Office: (415) 499-448.
Photo by Eric Chazankin

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Amazing Grace is for Wretches

Amazing Grace is one of the most popular songs in the English-speaking language. Written by John Newton and published in 1779, it remains a treasured part of Christianity. Of course, it can be interpreted in many ways and means something different to everyone. Newton, being the author, wrote it as a lonely, foul-mouthed sailor participating in the slave trade, who suddenly received his calling from God. He spent most of his life at sea and prided himself on the fact that he could produce such profanity that no one had even heard of at the time. He lived a dangerous life, having near death experiences far too often. After one night at sea during a rigorous storm, he shouted, “If this will not do, then Lord, have mercy upon us!” This was the first time that he reached out to God to protect him, and it left him pondering. For the next eleven hours he steered the ship, contemplating what he had said and how God and Christianity had come into his life at that very moment. When he reached land, an enlightened Newton dedicated his life to the religion. He proposed to the love of his life, stopped sailing, and settled down in a small town to study theology.

John Newton wrote the song and connected to it in a very literal way. For him it meant that forgiveness is possible, even given the sins you may commit, and that a person’s soul can be saved from despair through the grace of God. He probably referred to himself as a “wretch” because of his destructive lifestyle as a filthy sailor and a heartless slave trader. Everyone, however, interprets this song differently. Many people also experience life changing events such as being almost killed, which make them reconsider the direction their life is going in.
This song has the capability to inspire people to realize their potential.

It certainly inspired journalist and playwright David Templeton at the ripe age of eleven. This is when he decided to be a “Born Again” Christian. Interestingly enough, he also decided against it years later. Today he still holds true to Christian values, treasuring the parts that still resonate most with him. He has written a one man-show called, “Wretch Like Me” which explores his experience with the religion throughout his teenage years. The comedy conveys what it was like growing up in Southern California, with a suicidal lounge sister for a mother and trying to fit in to the Downey High Jesus Club, all while struggling with the idea of what it means to be a good Christian.

The show has been called, “relentlessly funny,” “charming,” “magical,” “hysterical,” and “unforgettable” by a variety of theater critics. Templeton says that he became obsessed with the song at an early age and even memorized it front and back. When he turned 20 however, he turned his back on Christian fundamentalism asking himself, “Is it really a good thing to train ten year-olds to believe they are wretched, worthless, unworthy?” Templeton also states that the reason he chose the phrase “Wretch Like Me” for the title of his show is because it embodies the struggle he has had with the religion. He believes that it is his job to help create the world that Jesus had envisioned, “a world where everyone knows they are loved by someone, and no one ever has to feel like a wretch”.
“Wretch Like Me” is playing:

• August 5 & 6 at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma
• August 26 & 27 at Santa Rosa Junior College
• September 9 & October 19 at Main Stage West in Sebastopol

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Family Folklore: Why Mary's a Democrat

My dear friend Mary Connell - a talented journalist and newspaper editor - is also a gifted writer. She recently sent me this guest blog about her reasons for being a Democrat. The reasons date back to family stories that not only touch her as an adult but also reveal values that were instilled in her at a very young age. These are the gifts of family folktales.

I was going through some of my grandmother's old things the other day and was reminded yet again of why I'm a Democrat.

I came across her FHA mortgage passbook, issued by the Turtle Creek Bank & Trust of Turtle Creek, Pa. Her home, at 412 James St. in Turtle Creek, is lovely. Brick, two stories, three bedrooms upstairs. Not fancy, but comfortable. A beautiful stained glass window over the front door, a big, airy, high-ceilinged kitchen and a nice backyard.

My Uncle John took me to see it in the summer of 1980 and we met the couple who lived there. They were very gracious and sent me home with two souvenirs -- a huge, gorgeous tomato just picked from the backyard and a shiny lump of Pennsylvania coal from the cellar. I still have that chunk of coal.

It wouldn't have been my grandmother's first passbook because it begins in October 1938 and the family had rented the house at least from the mid-1920s. The FHA was created in 1934 but I can't say when my grandmother bought the house. She made monthly payments of $25.47 until May 1946, when she sold the house, leaving a balance of $867. In November, she and her younger daughter, my Aunt Gertrude, packed up their car -- a Hudson? I can't remember -- and headed West, a trip that provided my cousins and me with wonderful stories of being freed from a snow drift by hulking Texas Rangers and seeing Indian women going to the polls on Election Day, Nov. 5, in Tucumcari, N.M. with their babies on their backs. It must have been an exotic sight. Makes me want to travel the old Route 66.

Without FDR and the New Deal my widowed grandmother -- my grandfather died in November of 1930, five months after my mom graduated from high school -- would never have been able to buy that home, least of all during the Depression. She was fortunate to be hired to run a WPA - women's sewing project; I think the ladies made Civilian Conservation Corp uniforms. The FHA, Social Security, an array of farm programs and a great deal more transformed America, providing opportunities for everyday people that had previously been enjoyed only by the upper middle class -- just like the G.I. Bill would do after the war.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Is History Abridged Folklore?

The distance between folklore and history is not as vast as many would think. History basically is a way of chronicling events in a time sequence that is specific about the who, what, when, where and why. The information, more or less, has been documented in a way that is 'irrefutable', so to speak. Who can argue with an audio recording of a famous speech like The Reverend Martin Luther King's "I Had A Dream" speech or with the handwritten letters that John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson sent to one another?

Folklore, too, is about chronicling events and customs that have specific value. Only, instead of recording big, cataclysmic or global events, it focuses more upon everyday lives of everyday people. Just think of weather folklore that would dictate when a farmer planted or harvested his fields or rite of passage customs like tying wedding shoes onto the back of the bride and grooms car to show that they are now under one roof.

The two - history and folklore - come together beautifully in the upcoming production of Marin Shakespeare Company's The Complete History of America (abridged) .

Tickling the funny bone of American history is a folkloric way to interpret historical data. This play takes a fast-paced look at what this country's touchstones are in a way that reveals their lighter side. And who can argue with the role of humor in our ability to make sense of ourselves?

The play, made popular by the Reduced Shakespeare Company,attempts in approximately 90 minutes to review almost 600 years of American history, staring with questions that still today incite controversy.

== Who really discovered America?
== Why did Abe Lincoln free the slaves?
== How many Democrats does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Actors (pictured L to R) Darren Bridgett, Cassidy Brown and Mick Mize under the direction of Robert Currier fill the Forest Meadows Amphitheater at Dominican University in San Rafael with a roller coaster of answers. And who's to say these answers are less accurate than any others?

It's important to note here that in history as in folklore, interpretation is everything. It alone tells us what we really think and feel about any given situation. Whoever is telling the story, so to speak, can present the facts, suppositions and suspicions in a way that best reflect his or her cultural values. An Eskimo, for example, might look at ice differently than an Australian because of their relationship to it; their personal experience of the subject.

Even historical scribes, artists and others, such as those credited with writing great historical works such as The Bible were influenced by the times they lived in. Who isn't?

So, take a historical spin across the American landscape - as written by Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor in the mid 1990's - and recently updated by Sonoma playwright Reed Martin for this summer's Marin Shakespeare Company presentation, its second of three for its 2011 Summer Season.

Here are the details:
The Complete History of America (abridged)

July 22- September 25 (Preview: July 22, Opening night: July 30).
Forest Meadows Amphitheater, Dominican University,1475 Acacia Ave., San Rafael, CA
Box Office: (415) 499-4488

Friday, July 15, 2011

Italian Culture Marks SF Bay Area

Dane Greco - a communications intern at Sonoma State University - has been assisting me with a pr campaign for the upcoming musical concerts of Due Zighi Baci. This talented duo performs European Cafe and Neapolitan music that celebrates well-loved French and Italian melodies.

At my urging, Dane wrote this guest post about the Italian influence in California's North Bay:

What sets the North Bay apart from other regions in California is its rich and dynamic cultural layout. It is a melting pot that has adapted to many different kinds of cultural entities. Each culture brings its folklore: traditional foods, music, language, religion and other qualities that, over time, have adapted to their new setting. One of the major cultural groups to contribute to the San Francisco Bay Area are the Italians who brought with them customs and folkways that quickly took root.

Italians made up one of the first waves of immigrants to land on Ellis Island in New York during the 1892 immigration boom. They were also among the early immigrants to first settle in California. The most popular example of this can be found in North Beach in San Francisco, which has appropriately been deemed “Little Italy.”

What attracted them to this location was a familiar (Mediterranean) climate and the waterfront where there were vast amounts of docks and fishing wharves. Italians made their way into business with grocery stores, cafes, bars and delicatessens that flourished. It didn’t take long for this trend to move further north towards Marin and Sonoma County.

The rapid growth of this culture within the North Bay can be seen in the numerous music, art, and food festivals that occur throughout the region, all of which offer others a peek into this vivacious community.

Italian cultural centers, such as Sons of Italy and North Bay Italian Cultural Foundation help keep the customs and awareness about them alive. Festivities that include promotions of Italian Neapolitan (Naples, Italy) music in restaurants, art like what is produced at the annual Italian Street Painting Festival in San Rafael), and even food-related activities at local professional sports games (Oakland Athletics, etc.).

Even the Italian language and culinary arts have taken hold in the area. Courses are offered at most colleges, community centers and at many high schools.

From the myriad of authentic Italian cafes and restaurants that sweep the North bay region, to the Neapolitan melodies that local Italian folk music groups, such as Due Zighi Baci, (Two Gypsy Kisses), Their unique interpretation of time-honored Italian favorites shows how versatile music is. It can be both traditional and contemporary in its presentation.

But why is this important?

The Italian community in the North Bay is a perfect example of how our melting pot country works. The folklore of the old world becomes the folklore of the new world where many cultural traditions fuse together. Each able to co-mingle and yet preserve the essence of their own unique cultural identity.

It is healthy for communities to embrace this because understanding and participating in the folklore ways of a culture different from one’s own encourages acceptance and appreciation of diversity.

The Italian-American community of the North Bay continues to do a great job of opening its cultural doors to others.

For more information:

Sons of Italy

Knights of Columbus

North Bay Italian Cultural Foundation