Thursday, June 30, 2011

Macbeth's Theater Curse in Marin?

In the realm of folklore, magic spells are cast with the intent of doing harm. The results can range from sickness to death. Curses are often vindictive and can come to life, so to speak, long after they are issued. Just think of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale and you get the idea.

They come in many forms. The more common ones include the use of an effigy designed to represent the target. In India, for example, waxed effigies are used. Ancient Egyptians also used waxed effigies upon which they would write the victims' name before tossing them into a fire.

In 17th century England one curse in particular took to the stage, thanks to William Shakespeare. His portrayal of witches in The Tragedy of Macbeth (often referred to simply as Macbeth) written during the reign of King James who was a witch hunter was – and still is - the cause of much concern among theater folk. It has been recorded that Shakespeare populated the play with spells and witches because he knew these were of interest to the king. But the play also gained the interest of those who practiced the occult arts.

Alleged witches who were being hunted and burned (by the thousands) didn’t like the way they were being portrayed on stage. Dancing around a black cauldron, calling out odd phrases and tossing weird ingredients into the brewing pot was not helping their cause. So, as an act of vengeance it is believed that they cast a spell – a curse – on the play that still haunts it today.

Saying the name Macbeth inside a theater will bring bad luck to the play and to anyone acting in it. Unless, of course, the word is spoken as part of the script. Fortunately, as is the case with most but not all curses, there is a remedy. But it’s not a straightforward one like the type associated with Sleeping Beauty who needed only to be kissed by her true love Prince Charming.

Over the centuries, Shakespearean actors have had to jump through more hoops. The curse-reversing ritual requires the one who utters the word to leave the theater, spin around three times while uttering a profanity and then ask for permission to return to the stage. And yes, as with all remedies, there are variations. In some theater circles, one has to spit over his or her shoulder or repeat the phrase: "Thrice around the circle bound, Evil sink into the ground." Some even believe you can request Shakespeare’s help and then resolve yourself with a quote from Hamlet, such as "Angels and ministers of grace defend us".

So what will The Marin Shakespeare Company performers do during the July 8-August 14, 2011 run of Macbeth that opens their 2011 Summer Festival Season at Dominican University’s Forest Meadows Amphitheater in San Rafael? Will a cast member forget about the curse and possibly bring down or extinguish the night stars that form the theater’s ceiling?

According to Director Lesley Currier, during rehearsal there were “a large number of family emergencies and deaths amongst our cast. But that may be because we have a cast of 29 people. I've seen several actors with scars from the final Macbeth/Macduff duel. It's a grueling role for the title character because he carries so much of the line load, and then at the very end of the evening needs to fight Young Siward and then Macduff. I don't want to tempt the theatre gods by saying much more until our current production closes on August 15!”

Here’s what’s happened elsewhere in the past:

  • William Shakespeare himself was forced to play Lady Macbeth during the show’s first performance after the boy designated to play the part suddenly became overcome with sickness and died.
  • In 1672, the actor playing Macbeth substituted the blunt stage dagger with a real one, and with it killed his co-actor playing Duncan right in front of the live audience.
  • During its 1849 performance at New York's Astor Place, 31 people were trampled to death in a riot that had broken out.
  • In 1934, British actor Malcolm Keen turned mute on stage, and his replacement developed a high fever and had to be hospitalized.

To avoid the curse in the first place, cast and crew are sometimes encouraged to refer to the play by its common nicknames, “The Scottish Tragedy” or “The Scottish Play”.

Currier doesn’t encourage or discourage anyone to respect or ignore the curse. “In the theater, you might as well be a little bit superstitious, carrying on traditions of several centuries. I personally touch wood when it seems warranted, and am always aware when I utter the word "Macbeth," particularly in a theater.”

In San Rafael’s outdoor theater setting everyone, including the audience, is exposed to the elements so fingers are crossed for a positive outcome. “So much of what we do depends on the weather cooperating, and actors and crew not getting sick or injured,” noted Currier.

I plan to see the play that has been and continues to be performed by some of the most respected stage and film stars that ever lived because it serves as a reminder that a thirst for power can be dangerous and that there may very well be supernatural forces at work shaping our destinies. Keeping this in mind, of course, I will also make sure I know where the safety exits are. Just in case…

Marin Shakespeare Company is presenting a great menu this season: the cursed Macbeth, The Complete History of America (abridged), and The Tempest. And, as always they have arranged for a variety of viewing options, from previews to Shakespeare-inspired dinners and theater talks. For details, visit the website.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Are Teachers Folkheroes?

Folklore is filled with folk heroes and heroines who overcome obstacles in a way that gives us direction. These characters – real or not – show us how to apply our values and stay with our convictions about what we believe is right or wrong. They also teach us in ways both profound and subtle how to remain authentic and true and how to acquire the skills we will need to meet the specific challenges within our society.

These teachers are everywhere. As professional educators they help give shape to our future - children who one day will become decision making adults. In today’s rough economic climate with dwindling school resources these school figures must work on many levels at once: they must uphold the importance of education so that it doesn’t completely collapse beneath the weight of dismal budgets and they must individualize the classroom experience so that it can address the needs of those students who may have no other support in their lives.

This Business of Children, a novel by Chloe JonPaul, chronicles the lives of several school teachers and the community of children they influenced.

The author captured in words today’s classroom: insufficient resources, emotionally traumatized students and teachers who struggle to lead by example.

I recently asked JonPaul a few questions. Here’s what she had to say:

Q: Folk heroes and heroines are everyday people who do extraordinary things. How are teachers folk heroes/folk heroines?

A: I believe that good, dedicated teachers ARE heroes and heroines because they are the ones who make all other professions possible. They are the ones who deal with some of the most difficult situations that kids find themselves in: poverty, abuse, sexual molestation, learning disabilities. A good teacher provides a safe haven for at least part of the day and gives students a hopeful look into the future.

Q: What societal values do the main characters uphold/represent and what are the obstacles they must overcome?

A: Each of the 4 main characters – Dee, Vera, Stu, Mark - upholds societal values in terms of fairness and doing what is right. Even Stu, the closet gay, makes a decision “for the sake of the children” when urged by Dee. Vera, also, joins the fight for what is fair – even though she had, up to the year of her retirement, taken a back seat in public affairs.

Q: Was this an easy story to tell? Why?

A: As Vera says in the Prologue: This isn’t an easy story to tell. As for me, the writer, it wasn’t exactly easy either because I had to be very careful with my character development. I don’t want readers to think that I’m writing about real people. These characters are purely fictional. I have experienced some of the event in the story – particularly where teacher union activism is involved. While I wanted the setting to be in Maine, I chose to create a fictional town because, again, it would be unfair to name a real place.

Q: Now that you’ve written The Business of Children “to set the record straight on the plight of elementary education” as you mention in the book’s prologue, what do you hope the book will provide others?

A: I think one of the endorsements I received captures it best:

"Chloe JonPaul has captured a period of time in the United States in which educators were working under conditions similar to today. Anyone reading her novel should be able to understand why teachers feel that the system is stacked against them and their students." Marty Hittelman, President, California Federation of Teachers

This book takes us behind the scenes where the personal and professional challenges of teachers and their students play out. Along the way we become better informed about the strengths and weaknesses of our educational system.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Wine: Fruit of the Gods

"Drinking good wine with good food in good company is one of life's most civilized pleasures” – Michael Broadbent.

Wine is defined as the fermented juice of grapes, made in many varieties, such as red, white, sweet, dry, still, and sparkling, for use as a beverage in cooking, in religious rites, etc., and usually having an alcohol content of 14 percent or less. Although little is known about the earliest production of wine, it is believed that ancient civilizations made it using different fruits including wild grapes. The most recent estimation of the earliest production of wine dates back to 8,000 BC in Georgia and soon to follow in Iran and Armenia in 7,000 BC and 6,000 BC. It was also prevalent in ancient Greece, Thrace, and Rome. The oldest known winery was recently found in Armenia in January of 2011. It is located in the Vayots Dzor Province in a small cave and when found, contained a wine press, fermentation vats, jars, and cups. It has been stated that the fact that winemaking was so well developed by 6,000 BC, indicates that the practice must have begun much earlier.

Wine has played many roles in the time if its existence. In ancient Egyptian culture, wine played a role in ceremonial life. In medieval Europe, it was largely accepted by Christians as an aid to help celebrate Catholic Mass and by the Jewish to celebrate Kiddush. Today, wine is still used for religious purposes but has also become a social experience. Many people have wine with dinner or while catching up with friends. Others dedicate their entire day or weekend to go wine tasting with their loved ones. Wine is truly a timeless treasure, especially here in Sonoma County, and continues to bring people together.

It comes as no surprise that the Sonoma-Marin Fair (North San Francisco, June 23-26) has chosen a wine contest to keep the tradition of wine alive in one of the California’s most popular wine regions. The 5th Annual Amateur Wine Competition is just a small part of the folklore offered at the Sonoma-Marin Fair. Amateur wine makers must provide two bottles of their homemade wine, including their label, which must identify the exhibitor name, class number & wine type. Another part of competition is the label contest itself. The design is judged based on size, shape, originality, humor, composition, and general appearance.

Fun Facts about Wine!

1. It is a common misconception that all wines improve with age. In fact, more than 90 percent of all wines should be consumed within one year.

2. The celebrity wines are on the rise! From race car driver Jeff Gordon to legendary musician Bob Dylan, to ice skater Peggy Flemming, everyone's getting in on the winemaking act. In fact, celebrity wine sales exceeded $50 million in 2008.

3. The term bouquet refers to the total scent of the wine. Aroma is the scent of the grapes. When wine tasters want to describe the bouquet and the aroma together, they use the term nose.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Origami: The Folk Art of Paper Folding

Paper has long been the basis of some pretty interesting folk art. The most commonly known of paper folk art is Japanese origami - ori (to fold) and kami (paper). Historic records suggest that origami originated in China in the first or second century and by the 6th century had been brought to Japan by Buddhist monks who used the paper, which was very expensive, for ceremonial purposes.
By the 17th century, origami butterflies appeared during Buddhist Shinto weddings as representatives of the bride and groom and versions of the folded paper art were attached to gifts exchanged by Samurai warriors.
In time, papermaking techniques improved and the cost of paper decreased. As a result, origami became a more popular art for the common people. Folding directions were passed down from generation to generation as is the case with most folk art forms. Over the centuries origami became part of the Japanese cultural heritage.
Besides the Japanese folding paper, were the Moors, who brought paper folding with them to Spain when they invaded that country in the eighth century. The Moors used paperfolding to create geometric figures because their religion prohibited them from creating animal forms. From Spain the folk art form spread to South America.
According to Think Quest the first written set of instructions appeared in 1797.
How to Fold 1000 Cranes contained steps for how to fold a crane. The crane was considered a sacred bird in Japan. It was a Japanese custom that if a person folded 1000 cranes, they would be granted one wish. Origami became a very popular form of art as shown by the well-known Japanese woodblock print that was made in 1819 entitled "A Magician Turns Sheets of Birds". This print shows birds being created from pieces of paper.
As is the case with all living folk art forms, origami continues to be an adaptive paper art. It is found all over the world and continues to represent specific elements of folk life, like birth and marriage and also has come to symbolize valued societal ideals, like world peace.
For fun, here are some free origami resources:

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Miners and Babylon Share Father's Day

Here are some interesting facts and folklore about Father's Day:
  • The earliest record of Father's Day was found in the ruins of Babylon. A young boy named Elmesu carved a Father's Day message on a card made out of clay nearly 4,000 years ago. He wished his Babylonian father good health and a long life.
  • The first recorded observance of Father's Day in the United States was on July 5, 1908. The Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church South in Fairmont, West Virginia held a special service to honor 360 men -- most of them fathers -- who had died seven months earlier in a coal mine explosion.
  • It was not officially recognized in the United States as a holiday until 1966 by Lyndon Johnson.
  • In Australia, the day is celebrated privately in households; often in the form of breakfast gatherings.
  • Celebrating Father's Day is a new concept in India and highly influenced by the U.S. celebrations.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Contemporary Art Tells A Story: Hawai'i

Art can tell us a great deal about a culture. For example, the culture of Hawai'i - a current National Museum of the American Indian multi-site exhibit - highlights some of Hawai‘i’s most dynamic contemporary artists.

New and experimental works of art explore what it means to be “Hawaiian” in the 21st century. Featured artists include Maika‘i Tubbs, Solomon Enos, Carl Pao, and Puni Kukahiko. This IS Hawai‘i is presented in tandem with the museum’s annual Hawai‘i Festival.

This IS Hawai'i

May 19, 2011 - July 4, 2011

Museum: American Indian Museum

Sponsor: Cosponsored with Transformer

I'm going to be in Washington D.C. (Smithsonian) in a few weeks and am going to check out the show.

Would love to hear from anyone else who might also see the show.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Folklore of Pearls

Every element of the natural world -animals, minerals, flora - has a specific place in the society where it exists. And its value and purpose can be found in how it appears in the every day world of folklore. Gems - as members of the mineral world - are often imbued with qualities that include healing and the ability to generate or represent wealth.

Here are some interesting folklore tidbits and facts about this beautiful jewel:

=Fresh water pearls are given on the 1st wedding anniversary.
=Pearls are also given on the 3rd, 12th and 30th anniversaries.
=In early Chinese myths, pearls were thought to fall from the sky where dragons fought.
=Ancient Greek legends noted that pearls were the tears of gods.
=It is the only gem that can be worn in its natural form.
=Pearl diving used to be one of the most dangerous occupations. The introduction of 'cultured' pearls - pearl farming - made reduced the need for pearl divers.
=It is known as the third eye of the Buddha as well as Shiva.
=The Christian literature draws a smile between the kingdom of God and a priceless pearl.

Whatever facts and folklore there are surrounding the pearl, it is one of the most beautiful and versatile gems around today and it has found its ways in cultures across the continents.