Sunday, August 17, 2008

Competing With A Courtroom Sketch Artist

Last Monday I reported for jury duty at Manhattan Criminal Court—there were about 200 of us milling around the assembly hall with newspapers, books, laptops and Starbucks coffee cups. After a couple of hours the clerk called the names of 80 potential jurors (including me) to go to a courtroom where an armed robbery trial would begin after jury selection.

The voir dire process of jury selection makes you feel pretty good about the fairness of American jury selection. Our own energetic "Judge Judy" peppered the potential jurors with serious questions like this: "If a police officer testifies, would you presume he's telling the truth? Or do you think he'd probably lie?" Along the way, she tossed in a few quirky questions to get inside juror brains: "What do you do like to do for fun?" And this wandering query: "If you could have a ticket to go anywhere, where would you go?"

A courtroom sketch artist came in and she began to make a color sketch of the defendant and the team at defense table. This, of course, triggered my competitive juices. So with notepad in hand I tried to capture the spirit of the event (and it was an event) by using both quick sketches and fragments of the words being spoken, aided and abetted by a few red-boxed captions.

After 74 of the 80 potential jurors had been called up to be grilled by JJ and the lawyers from both sides, the final jury of 12 was selected. That means more than 70 good people answered their questions in ways that either disqualified themselves or put them on somebody's "reject" list. In this jury-pool lottery I was one of the six who remained sitting—uncalled—out in the courtroom.

But if called up for questioning, how would I have swung at this softball: "What do you do like to do for fun?"

Probably would have said: "Draw courtroom sketches..."

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The 2007 Tony Awards—Picture That You Know One Of The Winners

Two score and seven years ago, Jack O’Brien and I were fraternity brothers at The University of Michigan. Even as callow youths, all of the brothers were aware that Jack was an uncommon talent in our midst. He had an amazing ability to sit down at the fraternity’s beat-up old piano and with no effort—and no sheet music—play and sing an endless stream of Broadway show tunes. Delt house Saturday nights were always parties to remember. As those boozy evenings went on—and things got a little more romantic—the cry would go up: “Hey, has anybody seen Jack? My date wants to hear Blue Moon…”

Jack went on to an astoundingly successful career in the theater—directing plays, musicals, and even opera. In 2003, he won the Tony Award for “Best Direction of a Musical” for his direction of Hairspray. And on this past June 10th, he took the stage at the 2007 Tony Award telecast—and claimed the Tony for “Best Director of a Play.” When accepting his award for The Coast of Utopia, Jack had, in my slightly biased opinion, the best quote of the evening. Brandishing his shiny new Tony he proclaimed in ringing tones : ''Now let's have no more nonsense about the state of the American theater.”

By the end of the night, a total of seven Tony Awards had been won by The Coast of Utopia—a record for the most Tony Awards ever given to a play. But calling it a play doesn’t begin to hint at the complexity and challenges that “Coast” presented. A trilogy written by Tom Stoppard, it is three separate plays that portray a group of Russian intellectuals during the revolutionary turmoil of the 19th Century. Audiences remained riveted as, on three separate evenings, they followed the characters journeying across a wide sweep of history—moving from Russia, to France, to England.

This powerful, ambitious trilogy certainly represents a Big Idea in the world of theater. And—since my blog’s title also includes the word “Picturing”—I had a keen interest in how Jack had visualized this Big Idea.

In a review of the trilogy’s first play, "Voyage," Ben Brantley, theater critic for The New York Times, compared it to the initial production he had seen in London four years earlier. His review included this observation: “Mr. Stoppard, Mr. O’Brien and the genius set designers Bob Crowley and Scott Pask have refitted and streamlined the play in ways that both quicken pace and enhance clarity. And not to sound shallow when the subject is so deep, but did I mention that it all looks absolutely ravishing?” (Italics added.)

Several weeks later, Brantley reviewed the second part, “Shipwreck.” He wrote that the play “…is directed by Jack O’Brien with the same seductive vividness he brought to the trilogy’s first part...” (Italics added.)

Brantley—who I’m willing to bet is a visual wonk himself—also reviewed part three, “Salvage.” His review began with two extraordinary picture-making sentences: “What an ungodly mess. What a heavenly spectacle.” (Once again, italics added.)

Hmmm… “looks absolutely ravishing”… “seductive vividness”… “ungodly mess” and “heavenly spectacle.” Since these were all colorful, visual references, I figured I’d better call my fraternity brother and get the scoop. I reached him in late June, after he’d returned from a brief vacation in Spain.

JOHN: Let’s start here, Jack. The first time you read a script for a new play, do you think about it visually?

JACK: The process is visual but it doesn’t begin visual. I think of it much more as an emotional thing, so I want to do pieces that move me—pieces that touch me personally, and create some visceral response. After all, I’m a storyteller and my medium is people. So as opposed to a sculptor looking at a slab of marble or a painter looking at a canvas, the thing that excites me—or will trigger something—is my ability to communicate a particular story by explaining my feelings to the people who will have to interpret it.

It strikes me that directing a big, wide-spectrum play must be a little like herding cats?

The whole idea of directing a play or an opera or a musical is to try to get everyone there, independently, to tell the same story in exactly the way you would have told it yourself. And you can’t do that except by convincing the actors that what they’re doing is their own idea. Theater is for all intents and purposes an act of faith—the actors must actually believe in the moment and then, by their conviction, they make the audience believe it too.

Take me back to when you first saw Tom Stoppard’s script for The Coast of Utopia—did you read it with a growing sense of excitement?

No… no… on the contrary! I didn’t understand it at all. In 2003, Tom sent me the first play, only the first of the three. Since it was a trilogy, I was both intrigued and intimidated. But frankly I wasn’t that excited about it—it was going to take too much work.

What changed your mind?

To begin with, I went to see an initial performance of “Coast” at the National Theater in London.

When you watched it did you begin to have preconceptions of how you would direct it?

No—I was totally mystified. And when it was over, I didn’t think I could do it. As a matter of fact—I didn’t want to do it. I felt it was a very complicated, very ambitious piece and that it was not for me.

Was Tom Stoppard assuming you would direct the American production?

Bob Crowley and I had collaborated on two previous pieces of Tom’s and so it was sort of assumed that we would be doing it. And Tom was still working on the script. So over the next three years I spent a lot of time being with Tom, and discussing the plays, and listening to him.

What is your creative relationship with Tom? As you discuss things, does he take creative input from you?

(LAUGHING) To begin with, I’m a University of Michigan graduate—and he’s Tom Stoppard. But mostly I’m with him as a student and I need to know more. And so I’m questioning: “I don’t understand this? Why is this in here?” And he tells me. Little by little, we talk more about what it should be and how he wants to make it clearer. Eventually we’re coming together. He might say:

“I need to do more work on this.”
“I think I did this better once.”
“I think I can make this clearer.”

But through all these conversations, I still didn’t know how to do it.

What was the overall timeline?

I went into rehearsal almost exactly four years after I saw the show in London. During the first three years, Tom and I would find each other at various places around the world. For those three years we would talk and I would be trying to clear my brain and figure out what this was? Then there was one year of actual creative work—of actually preparing it.

How does that happen in the theater?

It begins by trying to convince all these designers to work together. The play was so big, nobody could do the project on their own—they didn’t have the time. But they decided it would be a lot of fun to collaborate. I like a lot of people—and a lot of egos—around me. That doesn’t intimidate me, it turns me on.

Do you always use collaboration when directing a show?

The amazing thing about the theater is it uses the most amount of collaboration of any of the performing arts. It takes a combination of talented people to convince the audience that what they’re seeing on stage is happening at the very moment they’re seeing it. And to create that illusion, the play ultimately must look like it’s one person’s vision—even though it is clearly the “visions” of about 13 people.

So there were 13 collaborators?

Yes, I convinced these enormously talented people to work together, including the composer, the set designers, the orchestrator, the dance arranger, the vocal arranger, the stage manager, and the people who handled wigs, props, and speech authority for dialects. And they were all looking forward to it. Then, when we were one week away from our first meetings, they started saying: “Don’t expect US to come up with it! YOU better tell us something that turns us on!” And they laughed because they knew that this was going to be impossible.

At that point did you have a vision—a picture—something to turn them on?

I didn’t have an idea in my head—not one.

What are the elements of visualizing—or picturing—a show?

There are four questions I ask myself:

First, in what space is this show taking place?
Second, what are the actors wearing?
Third, what time of day is it?
Fourth, is there any music?

Those are very visual questions. Except for “Is there any music?"

Actually, you can think of that question as visual because the show might need music if we’re moving from one location to another.

Let’s get back to your amused collaborators who insisted that you turn them on. Were you able to come up with something?

This is what I said to them at those first meetings:

“Okay here it is. There are three plays.

The first one takes place on a dome that is in fact a field of blue flowers. And only at the end of first act do you understand that you’re not looking at a dome with blue flowers on it but you’re looking at a painted Russian Easter egg.

Number two. The second play takes place in black and upstage you see a giant Fabrege egg. And slowly that egg comes downstage until it’s in front of the audience and then it splits and is in fact the apartment that is being rented in Paris. All of this is suspended about 8 to 10 feet in the air. And when the revolution happens the egg cracks in two and the rest of the scenery is red or bathed in red light and the characters don’t notice it. They look across—and act across—the void but they don’t notice that it’s broken.

And the third play? It takes place entirely in—and of—eggshells.”

Those are stunning pictures. How did they react?

They were gobsmacked. They loved it! They roared, they laughed, and John… (PAUSE FOR EFFECT) …we didn’t use any of those ideas.

Good story, huh?

(CONTINUING) But, y’see, what it did it was prove to them I was completely audacious and brave. And it proved to them that I was way out of box and that they should not be careful.

Thank you Jack. You’ve given me a powerful picture of how a very big idea came to life.


In conclusion, Dear Blog Reader, let me recommend that if you ever get a chance to see one of Jack O’Brien’s breathtaking stage productions, don’t miss it. Because there’s a very good chance you’ll be—gobsmacked.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A 9/11 "Picture Memorial" That Lives Alongside The Survivors

Sadly, New York City still does not have an "official" memorial honoring the heroes who gave their lives trying to save others at The World Trade Center Towers on September 11, 2001. It's been almost six years now and there is still much dithering going on. In late 2006, ground was broken for the new Freedom Tower—on a site that will include memorials. But you can't go stand in front of a memorial yet. And, doubtless, you won't be able to for years.

Frustration and delay. That's what happens when Big Politics and Big Money get mixed up with the memorial-building business.

It's a different story in my midtown neighborhood, where we're blessed with some take-charge firefighters on East 51st Street. Their firehouse is designated Engine 8, Ladder 2, Battalion 8 and it's located four miles away from where the towers stood—a number of Manhattan firehouses were situated much closer to the scene. Engine 8, Ladder 2 may have stood further away, but they lost ten heroic men on 9/11.

The men in our firehouse wanted to honor their fallen brothers. And so they designed (themselves) and erected (themselves) a powerful memorial that stands just inside the always-open firehouse doors. I get a little choked up every time I walk by on the sidewalk and look inside. The memorial uses the emotion of pictures that frame a peaceful, back-lighted display made of stained glass. You see the ten faces and ten names of the firefighters who perished that day. You look at them as real people—real heroes. Mostly, they were young men, many with families, and they left this world much too soon.

Last week, I stopped by the firehouse and asked one of the men to tell me about the memorial.

"Did the city give you the budget to build this?" I asked.

He smiled and looked at me like I was a little daft. "No, the guys paid for it."

He continued: "Once the city gets involved in something like this, it gets all screwed up."

"The stained glass is beautiful," I said. "Do you mind if I ask what you had to pay for that?"

"One of the guys has a father in the stained-glass business," he said. "We didn't pay anything."

It is a potent, compelling memorial. The ten firefighters it honors are listed below. May God bless them:

Chief Tom DeAngelis, Battalion 8
Capt. Fred Ill Jr., Ladder 2
Firefighter Tom McAnn, Battalion 8
Firefighter Dan Harlin, Ladder 2
Firefighter Dennis Mulligan, Ladder 2
Firefighter Carl Molinaro, Ladder 2
Firefighter Denis Germain, Ladder 2
Firefighter George DiPasquale, Ladder 2
Firefighter Mike Clarke, Ladder 2
Firefighter Rob Parro, Engine 8

I'm sure that whenever today's firefighters jump on their trucks to answer a call, they take a quick glance to their right and look at their fallen brothers.

And those brothers always look back.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Sometimes It's A Big Idea To Have A Bigger Boat

This pix just came wafting in from cyberspace. Don't know if it's a gen-u-ine unretouched photo—or a masterpiece of Photoshop manipulation. In any event, it's funny or, if you happen to be great-white-shark-averse, it's a tad unsettling.

The lesson here seems to be that this out-of-shape guy wearing a porkpie hat and sitting in his dinky 3.8 meter sea kayak perfectly illustrates the IMAGINATION-GRABBING POWER of a picture. It would be impossible to communicate the essence of this situation if you were limited to using words alone. BTW, if you click on this picture you'll get a much bigger, and much scarier, image.

TIP TO PORKPIE-HAT GUY: Keep your fat little hands inside the boat.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Pick Your Genius—You've Got Two Hours

It's Memorial Day weekend and New York City is a ghost town. And that makes it a great time to stay here and enjoy the city. Last night, a small group of stay-in-towners had dinner in the backyard cafe of i Trulli, a tucked-away Italian restaurant on East 27th Street. (Try the risotto with shrimp, basil and crispy sage.)

The conversation turned to geniuses and I mentioned my good fortune in getting to spend 44 minutes interviewing Bill Gates in 1990, while researching a book on creativity.

So we asked everyone: "Name any genius from the beginning of time who you'd want to spend two hours with?" The answers ranged from Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha to a Civil War amateur historian who wanted his two hours with Abe Lincoln. My choice was "Mr. Picturing Big Ideas" himself—Leonardo da Vinci.

Da Vinci was, of course, an astoundingly brilliant painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician and scientist. But there were many other geniuses who excelled in those categories during the Renaissance.

What set Leonardo apart was his ability to invent things that no one else had conceived. When inventing his concepts he sketched and described them in his amazing notebooks.

For example, his pictures show a parachute that worked when tested, a defensive war machine that would push away an invader's assault ladders, an air-screw "helicopter," a projector that worked with a candle inside—and hundreds of other brainstorms, all sketched and described. Leonardo's notebooks perfectly illustrate the guiding mantra of this blog: "If you picture it, more ideas will come."

And how would I use my two hours with Leonardo? I think I'd invite him to meet me at i Trulli for dinner. And I'd definitely recommend that he try the risotto.

Then I'd begin by asking him how he develops his ideas? Does the picture come first—or the words? (My money is on "picture first.")

Next, I'd haul out a laptop and explain what a computer can do. He'd probably get it in 60 seconds so I'd ask: "Okay, Leonardo, what kind of uses can you think of for this thing?"

I'd explain the Internet (another 60 seconds) and ask what he'd do with it? Naturally, I'd have a notebook with me—and would sketch and describe his ideas as he created them.

Finally—lingering over our espressos—I'd tell him how many of his 400-year-old ideas were at work today: from the airplane and parachute to projectors, military tanks, and dozens more. It would be one hell of an evening!

REQUEST FOR POSTINGS: Which genius would you want to spend two hours with? Why? And what questions would you ask?

Saturday, May 26, 2007

World Trade Center Towers—With Gold Ribbons

Every amateur photographer deserves one great shot in a lifetime. Well, I've got a lot of lifetime left but I've got my photo. And it illustrates that a "Big Photo," just like a "Big Idea," must be pounced upon. ACT FAST or you can lose it. Here's the story of this photo.

For 25 years I was a private pilot in the busy New York City area. A frequent trip was to fly at 800-foot altitude and go south down the west side of the Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty. Then I'd circle to the east and fly north up the right side of the Hudson to pass with my wingtip just 500 feet away from the World Trade Towers. It was always an awesome sight to see those two gigantic gray shapes—it felt as if you could reach out and touch them. Late one October afternoon in 1986 I made this flight in my single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza. As I passed the Twin Towers, two brilliant gold ribbons suddenly flashed—for just one second. The beveled corners of the towers had momentarily reflected the setting sun.

I'd flown by the towers well over a hundred times, but had never seen these golden ribbons before. It was a stunning picture, a Big Photo, and I knew I had to go back and capture it. Picking up a Nikon with telephoto lens and a motor drive, I began a 360-degree turn to return to a point where I could see them again. But would the gold ribbons appear again? It would take three minutes to complete this turn and the sun might set one degree further toward the horizon. With the sun's angle changing by just a fraction, would the ribbons still be visible?

To slow for better photos, I reduced power and lowered the landing gear and flaps. By halfway around the turn, my initial speed of 165-mph had dropped to a lumbering 70 mph. I put the Bonanza on autopilot and picked up the camera.

Now I waited for the first glow of gold. There! CLICK… CLICK… CLICK… Thanks to the plane's slower speed I was able to fire off three shots—but when the film was developed only one photo showed the golden ribbons. In years to come I flew by the towers many times, always looking for my ribbons.

I never saw them again.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Big Idea Needed—Early Warning System for Cars

This story gets my goat. A month ago, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine was being driven at high speed in an official van—Corzine was in a rush to get to a non-essential meeting at the governor's mansion. The state trooper at the wheel had emergency flashers on and was doing 91 mph on the Garden State Parkway. As the press initially reported the story, a red pickup truck had "drifted off the road onto the grassy shoulder" then "swerved sharply back onto the road." This caused a Dodge Ramcharger in the right lane to move left to avoid the red pickup—and it bumped the side of the governor's van just as it was rocketing by. The van spun off the road and slammed sideways into a guardrail. Corzine, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown around the van's interior and sustained serious life-threatening injuries, including a badly shattered femur that was broken in two places.

Initially, the bad guy was designated as the driver of the red truck. Especially since he had left the scene. But he turned up later and was absolved. I'm guessing that when the red pickup driver suddenly spotted the fast-closing van with lights flashing, he swerved onto the grassy shoulder to get out of the way. Then he began to lose control on the grass and pulled back on the highway to stabilize his pickup. After investigating, The New York Times concluded: "It now seems clear that Mr. Corzine's own vehicle was responsible for the crash."

So there you have it. This accident was caused by a vehicle bearing down on law-abiding traffic at an outrageous 91 mph! How often has this happened to you? You're moving along in the middle lane with cruise control set at the speed limit (oh, well, maybe you've got it 3 or 4 mph above) and from out of nowhere a car, truck, or state trooper whooshes by in the left lane—traveling at least 20 mph faster than you are. Yikes! Where did that guy come from???

How about something in the car that warns you about an approaching "highway missile" five or ten seconds before it hurtles by? I'll start the ball rolling with the video below picturing an idea that might work. If you've got another idea, post it on my blog for the world to see.

NOTE TO GOVERNOR CORZINE: As you know, the femur is the longest and strongest bone in the human body. It also takes the longest to heal. Last Labor Day Weekend, I took an 8-foot fall and shattered the top of my femur in four places. I had surgery similar to yours. It took a full six months for my femur to fully heal. Good luck during the wait—and when you're back in the van, fasten your seat belt and ask your "NASCAR driver" to keep it under seventy.