Category: Arts and Entertainment

Ramona Ausubel inspires creativity

I went to the Ramona Ausubel reading on Nov. 2 with few expectations. While many students in attendance were well-read English majors with their copy of Ausubel’s “Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty” at the ready, I was an English major who didn’t even know the author’s name of the talk I was attending. It’s Ramona Ausubel by the way, and the talk far surpassed expectations. 

Ausubel is a contemporary author who wrote “Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty,” “No One is Here Except All of Us” and short story collection, “A Guide to Being Born.” She has won many highly credited awards and her work has appeared in Tin House, The New York Times, The New Yorker and on NPR’s Selected Shorts as well as in many other esteemed locations. 

Ausubel, however, didn’t become a successful writer overnight. Setbacks sprinkled her journey as she, like many of us writers, struggled to find her voice. Ausubel told us of a writing experience in graduate school when she decided it was time to write a baseball story. Although lacking any passion – or knowledge for that matter – about baseball, she wanted to write the “timeless” and “All-American story.” Everyone loves a baseball story. 

But Ausubel quickly found herself bored. She was stuck in a rut, the dreaded writer’s block. Instead of scrapping the bland, unoriginal strike of a story, she decided to liven it up. The little boy became a little girl learning baseball from a ghost Civil War soldier in the middle of nowhere. Ausubel added quirky family dynamics and a spunky protagonist and suddenly the story everyone loved became one she did. 

That’s Ausubel’s secret: write about what interests you. Write about your passions even if you think no one else will want to read it. 

Ausubel’s specialty seems to be creative, out-of-the-box pieces. She began the talk with a reading of her short story, “Tributaries.” Inspired by a creative writing prompt, she tried to answer the question: what would happen if people showed their love on the outside? 

In the story, everyone grows love arms. Fingers and nubs spout from bodies as proof of falling in love, and, if the love is true or long lasting, entire arms form. Some people have one extra arm, some ten, some zero. A group of teenage girls dream about their future love arms, hoping to one day grow arms as some girls hope to find Prince Charming. One girl jokes that her grandmother had seven love arms even though she was only ever married to her grandfather. The story takes the idea of love handles to a whole new level.

Now, had I just read “Tributaries” in print, I may have written it off as an odd story. It’s not everyday you read about grown men bragging about their extra limbs … well … However, hearing the words from the mouth of the author who drafted them gave them an entirely new meaning. Ausubel is like her story – kooky and creative. She is in love with her work and she, like the love arms in her story, wears her passion for everyone to see. 

Ausubel inspires me. Here is this writer – living in a world where rejection runs rampant and the rulebook for writers simply states “Don’t do it!” – who writes for passion and pleasure. She writes for herself, knowing that she maybe the only person who enjoys the finished product. 

When Ausubel was in graduate school, she had a realization while reading canonical authors who pushed the boundaries with their creative flair. “Wait, I can write that?” Ausubel said the more she read. 

I had a similar realization listening to Ausubel’s talk. Wait, I could write about a civil war ghost? I could write about phantom love limbs? Or even, I could write about my own passions? Huh. And according to Ausubel, we writers can and should.

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Muse Project stages “Crucible”

On Saturday, Nov. 4 and Sunday, Nov. 5, The St. Olaf Muse Project performed its fall show, a production of Arthur Miller’s classic play, “The Crucible.” The company performed their show in Tomson 280 lecture hall.

The St. Olaf Muse Project is one of three student theater organizations on campus. The group specializes in feminist theater and gendered performance, often playing with the implications of casting women in traditionally male roles.

“The Crucible” marked a change for the org’s policy. In the past, casts for Muse Project shows were limited to only actors who identified as female ever since its first show, Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” However, this semester the group began allowing people of all genders to be part of the show as well.

This semester also saw the Muse Project venture into much more contemporary material for its productions. Though “The Crucible” was written 54 years ago, it strikes as relatively modern in contrast with last year’s performances of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” and Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” It also stands out from these previous shows by being the first dramatic play by an org that had until now leaned heavily towards comedy.

Though in its own time, the play was written as a commentary on McCarthyism and the politicized witch hunt of the HUAC hearings during the Red Scare, the production’s co-directors – Noah Letscher ’20 and Emily Schrader ’20 – hoped to use the show to explore the gender norms of plays written in the 50s Broadway era.

The Muse Project has yet to announce its spring production but if it keeps to its traditions of the past couple years, it is likely to be a play by William Shakespeare.

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Acting training inspires life philosophy

One of my closest friends, Christine Menge ’18, and I are in the midst of an Independent Research project exploring many different schools of actor training. Since the start of the semester, we have read six different training methods and practiced them in a studio, using either a selected scene or monologues that we prepared. Though I expected to learn quite a lot from our project, I could not have predicted the utility an applicability of this knowledge off the stage. I am finding that many of the principles touted by the practitioners we read contribute to a healthy lifestyle, and I believe that increasing my skill on stage is linked to becoming a healthier person, both physically and mentally.

Many practitioners of actor training reprimand actors’ propensities for neglecting their acting partners. They notice that actors tend to prepare a very specific way of acting a scene and do their best to recreate this exact way whenever they perform. Instead, they recommend acting truthfully by listening carefully to the input of one’s scene partner and responding in character. Though this requires a hefty amount of preparation to assemble an idea of the character and their actions, it ultimately creates a more compelling theatrical moment. Similarly, I challenge myself to act more truthfully in the moments in my life, and attempt to listen to what people are saying without any preconceptions of what they will or should say. An important element to this is releasing fear about both the past and the future. English director and actor Declan Donellan claims that fear attempts to rule the past using shame and the future using anxiety and anticipation. This rings true for me especially on the stage, but additionally in life as I attempt to recover from the workaholic perfectionism instilled in me by high school and St. Olaf.

Furthermore, physical exercises help actors to get in touch with their body and their physical capabilities. These exercises sometimes resemble workouts but usually manifest as stretches that warm up and engage one’s body. I have found these extraordinarily helpful in improving my relationship with my body. I am more confident and knowledgeable in what my body can do, and my body image has only positively increased.

Lastly, Christine and I found one of Sanford Meisner’s acting techniques incredibly helpful in our own relationship. The exercise, though simply structured, represents quite a large challenge in execution. Two people sit across from each other, and speak observations about each other, one at a time. In response to an observation, the observed person will repeat the observation, adding either “I am…” or “I am not…” to the beginning. The exercise requires careful listening and attentiveness. Christine and I, in our observations of each other, came to a few of realizations about the ways in which we interact with each other and people in general. We were having a very intense dialogue about nothing other than our relationship and current state of body and mind. I highly recommend this exercise not only for actors, but also for those wishing to become much closer friends.

Frequently in the arts we talk about the tortured artist, how this has been the norm in the past and whether there is still an expectation of this now. But it is refreshing to come to an understanding of healthy art as originating from a healthy person, body and mind. Taking care of one’s self represents one of the best ways to become a better artist, and I might suggest, a better person on all levels.

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Inside scoop: Swing Dance

As Jazz II was hastily making our way through the opening set of last Saturday’s Halloween swing dance, I started to get an uneasy sense that something wasn’t necessarily going as planned as I played through the lead trumpet part on “The Way You Look Tonight.” Perhaps the finest method for effectively communicating this mental dissonance is to take you through my mindset during the piece’s opening moments, and so I shall:

“Hmm… You know, it feels like we’re rushing. It’s a pretty young band, first concert of the year, that’s pretty understandable. We’re excited. It’s an exciting atmosphere. But man, we really have to chill on the tempo, this doesn’t feel like optimal time whatsoever. Am I doing something wrong? Is it me? Maybe I should stop compulsively glancing at my phone to check the World Series score every few seconds and focus on counting more accurately, otherwise … ”

But before I could continue tangentially drifting into horrific flashbacks of my first time seeing the film “Whiplash,” the persistent problem identified itself during a sudden, surreal epiphany.

“Oh, look at that. At this moment, I do believe we’re a good four to eight measures ahead of the vocal accompaniment. Um… UM…”

Suddenly, as if telepathically sensing my exponential panic, conductor Dave Hagedorn knowingly cut off the band, joking that we’ll take a mulligan and restart. This is normally a taboo when performing, but instead of booing, hissing and otherwise jeering, our audience applauded with encouragement and resumed swinging, as swing dancers are prone to do, as per usual upon our next downbeat. We still rushed – collectively fixing these things on the fly is a herculean task for a band that’s been rehearsing together for less than two months – but held together consistently enough for the dancers to accelerate and align with our more frenetic pace, thus igniting the energy within the Pause to a high that remained consistent for the duration of our set. Somehow, thanks to an auspicious, dynamic interaction between band and audience complimented by what can only be described as fortuitous divine intervention, the entire incident worked in our favor to create a better experience for everyone. 

At this point, I came to a realization: swing dances, for my money, are considerably more fun than your standard Pause dance. 

Let me describe to you my typical experience at Pause dances. First, I arrive, fueled by cautious optimism at having even made it this far beyond the quiet comfort of my dorm room. Second, I use that optimism to attempt and break into the hysteria driven mass of college students partying like there’s no tomorrow. Third, I fail, gingerly moseying over to the corner of the Pause, rolling up into the fetal position like a disgraced pill bug, and proceeding to roll out of the venue in shame, perhaps grabbing a pizza on the way out to drown my self-perceived social ineptitude in delicious affordable cuisine. Now, being a pill bug isn’t all bad – you’re able to inconspicuously hide in tight spaces and some people enjoy your presence – but in an extremely active environment filled with hundreds of likely intoxicated college students, odds are you’re going to get squashed. At Pause dances, I feel squashed. And thus, I roll away.

But the swing dance feels different. Perhaps it’s because there’s tangible purpose behind the event as an outlet to express by synthesizing dance technique and jazz, but there’s a certain amount of intentionality and jovial spirit that’s palpable throughout its duration. People genuinely want to be in attendance in order to communicate a specific passion that they rarely get the opportunity to publicly display – it’s a culmination of efforts from two dedicated organizations that attracts outsiders to the intrigue of our chosen art forms and demonstrates the joy and power of collaboration in the process.

So as I continued the set, frantically switching back and forth between notes on the page and World Series updates, as is natural for anyone caught in limbo between the music and athletic worlds, it became increasingly obvious why messing up so badly mere moments prior was overlooked and even celebrated: everyone is there to have fun at a school dance, which, for me and I imagine many others in the room, is likely not usually the case. Yeah, we rushed a lot. Things got messed up for a bit. But in the end, when everyone in the room was so immersed in their otherwise latent element for even a brief moment in time, it could hardly taint the experience.

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Halloworst film fest a treat

The 2017 Halloworst Film Festival, an annual event put on by the St. Olaf Film Production Society (FPS), had a dramatic increase in submissions from last year, from five to fifteen. There was also dramatic music, dramatic overacting and a few dramatic forced laughs from the audience. In fact the entire premise of Halloworst, a chance for students to create intentionally horrible short films in the spooky Halloween spirit, is pretty darn dramatic. That’s what makes it so fun.

The festival led off with “Paranormal Pooptivity,” a short by Grace Fogland ’19 and Jakob Otten ’19 about a series of spooky misadventures had by a young man just trying to leave his toilet stall. It was very creative, very odd and mildly amusing, setting the stage for the rest of the festival.

“SOUL FOOD” by Cookie Imperial ’19 gets the maximum points for effort. It was shot in Australia, featured a convoluted plot about dead triplet brothers and a demon from the underworld and had lots of fairly involved special effects.

“Don’t Feed the Birds” by Paige Dahlke ’18 made use of some nice horror-movie tropes of frightened-girl running-through-the-woods and a very creepy bird mask. “Reach,” created by several FPS members, was remarkable for its camerawork if not its premise. But both fell a little flat in the laughs department. 

“Sample text” by Henry Miller ’20 and Jack Thull ’20 was a meditation on the truest campus horror of all: looming ignored tasks and procrastination. “new ghost” by Annika Saboe ’20 was cute and meta if a little stilted, and “Hallowmeme” by Carolyn Carpenter ’21 & Meredith Enersen ’21 featured strong acting and a weirdly compelling mysterious dancing pumpkin meme come to life. I, for one, was invested in the “Hallowmeme” story.

A few films were played for sheer absurdity, like “Time Cube” by Luke Fowler ’19 and Rexton Laird ’19. The best part was when actor Anders Mattson ’19 broke character and smirked at the ridiculous script he was clearly reading off of a cue card. “The Wirus” by Daniel Balle was another bizarre entry featuring the saga of a computer-generated virus and a heavy voiceover by “Herman ze German” which ended in several minutes of a German death metal song paired with Google image results for Germany. It was not remotely engaging, but did it serve as a kind of unintentional intermission that gave audience members a chance to recap and chat with their friends in the middle of the hour and a half long festival. 

But the best films were ones where you could sense the careful attention and love of the art of filmmaking itself. “House” by Lucie Madec was hilarious, cutting between a typical black-and-white horror scene and the behind-the-scenes chaos: “Do better, people,” the director deadpans as the ghost fumbles its sheet. “It Grows! With Teeth and Eyes then Nose!” by Jack Schoephoerster ’19 was an homage to 1920’s silent films with impeccable attention to details, a keen sense of humor and a bit of legitimate creepiness. The simulation of a DVD menu screen and the “How to Bond With Your Stepson” book were particularly impressive touches. “The Monster of Mankind” by Jacob May ’21 was also a fun compilation of horror tropes, from the ditzy girl to the sacrificial hero to the enormous cheesy monster created by a mad scientist. 

Josh Garver ’18 had no less than four submissions: “Found Footage” with an excellent twist on the found footage genre (“That was a pretty good murder, guys”), “RAZOR Trailer” and “RAZOR: ORIGINS” which might very well be the start of the next mindless horror franchise, and “The Night of That One Killing and Some Bloodshed RESTORED,” an updated project from last year with a very large, very bloody dagger.

The Halloworst Film Festival was creepy, kooky and proof of the growing popularity of the Film Production Society. The group meets every other Wednesday at 7 p.m. in BC 222.

About Rebecca Carcaterra

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