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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 6, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Bubble Gum, iTunes vs. Amazon, We the People

It's the curse of drama classes in every college and high school in America: all the plays seem to have casts that are mostly men, yet at tryouts there are five times as many females as males.

What's a drama teacher to do? Some resort to changing the sex of some characters; the few plays with lots of female parts get done over and over; and still you have the problem that many aspiring actresses go all through high school and college without a chance to sink their teeth into a decent role.

Meanwhile, any guy who can actually speak clearly enough to be understood will be cast in terrific parts.

As a result, any guy in a drama program in high school or college gets a great education, whether he has any talent or not. But most girls have little experience on the stage in a role with any kind of challenge to it.

Co-teaching playwriting courses at Southern Virginia University with my friend, Robert Stoddard, who is head of the drama program there, I realized that our students (mostly women, of course!) should be part of the solution.

"Write good parts for women," we told them again and again. "In fact, come up with plays that are dramatic and funny and mostly female."

Several of them heeded us and there are some very promising scripts in progress. I even planned to direct one of them here in Greensboro -- a brilliant piece about young girls on a softball team -- but for various reasons it turned out not to be ready for our needs right now.

Then it finally dawned on me. I'm a writer -- and I was a playwright before I was a novelist. Instead of just telling my students to write good short all-women plays for high school and college use, I should set the example and write one myself.

The result is a play called Bubble Gum. It's set at a slumber party of 14-year-old girls. Nine girls at the party, plus one younger sister, the mom, and a dog named Bouffant -- also played by a girl.

My goal was to make every single part memorable, fun and challenging to act, and yet within the reach of student actresses. And now that I've directed a cast of twelve girls in these parts, many of them the same age as the characters, I have reached the impartial judgment that the script totally works.

Because these girls have really made their roles come alive. They're funny, eccentric, wonderful -- I love seeing all the things they've discovered and invented for the characters.

And you can see them, absolutely free, in the world premiere of Bubble Gum tonight and tomorrow (Thursday and Friday, April 10th and 11th at 7:00 p.m.) at the LDS meetinghouse at 3719 Pinetop Rd., just across from Claxton Elementary.

Because the play is so short -- only 45 minutes, which is almost ideal for educational theatre -- we have made it a double bill. Back when I was in college, a friend of mine named Rob Nuismer wrote a quirky, funny, wonderful comedy called To Get to Know a Stranger -- which has three parts for women and one for a man.

Rob gave my mom permission to produce it in church theatre thirty years ago, where it worked beautifully -- funny and delightful. It was a perfect pairing with Bubble Gum. So Andrew Lindsay, who is familiar to our regular audience as Tevye, Starbuck, and other memorable characters, has directed an outstanding cast in a new production of Rob's play.

Together, the two plays take only an hour and fifteen minutes. Between them, though, they provide fifteen talented young women -- and one lonely male -- with a chance to show audiences what they can do.

When this production is over, we're going to put the script of Bubble Gum online and offer it to schools and other groups (for standard royalty rates, of course). Eventually, there'll even be a video of this performance (we're taping tonight) so people can see how it plays.

We hope to add other all-girl or mostly-girl scripts over the coming months and years, so that Southern Virginia University's theatre program can be a resource for educational drama programs all over the country.

We're planning an annual contest to encourage playwrights to create excellent scripts that meet the needs of educational theatre: Female roles! Significant age-appropriate subject matter!

So if you're involved in educational drama, come to this production so you can see what is possible for a large all-girl cast.

And even if you're only looking for an evening's entertainment to which you can safely bring your whole family, you can't do better than Bubble Gum and To Get to Know a Stranger -- especially at the price!

I know it's possible that some boys might think they don't want to go to "girls' plays." Here's my message to you: How else do you think you'll ever get to see what really goes on at girls' slumber parties?

Besides, both plays are really, really funny. Don't miss them.

*

Over the past week, I've had ample opportunities to use both iTunes and Amazon.com's MP3 download service.

Amazon wins easily.

1. Amazon's downloads are simple, unprotected MP3s. Any music player can access them. iTunes, on the other hand, uses Apple's proprietary file format, and it is "protected" -- meaning that Apple will decide when you've put it on too many machines.

Plus, you pretty much have to use Apple's crappy software (iTunes, of course). (I've tried various replacement programs and none of them are much better than iTunes -- for my purposes, anyway.)

That doesn't mean you have a right to give away free copies of Amazon downloads to your friends. That's still stealing. But Amazon doesn't try to play cop. It's up to you to obey the law -- which I scrupulously do. And so do you. It's nice to deal with a company that doesn't start with the assumption that we're thieves and treat us accordingly.

2. With Amazon, the first time you download an MP3, you download their tiny Amazon MP3 Downloader. From then on, when you pay for a download it immediately and automatically gets queued up and downloaded into a separate Amazon download directory.

Not only that, but it also -- automatically -- installs the new tracks on iTunes. Completely painless. You pay, and there it is, just as if it were an iTunes purchase.

But suppose, like me, you mainly use different software? Simple. Just tell that software to check for new files in that Amazon directory -- or copy the files to the directory you normally use. No barriers!

With iTunes purchases, however, in order to turn your tracks into mp3s you have to put them in a playlist and burn them onto a CD. Then you have to rip that CD with different software in order to have copyable MP3s. (This is, by the way, completely legal.)

In other words, iTunes doesn't really offer any more security to the copyright holder. It just wastes your time and money converting it to a format you can use on non-Apple-compliant MP3 players.

3. Amazon is Amazon -- if you look for a particular track and it doesn't exist as a download, you will still get referred to Amazon's huge catalog of physical CDs you can buy and have shipped to your home.

You also get Amazon's partners -- used-CD stores that will ship you titles that are completely out of print. Nothing like that is possible with iTunes.

So when I was looking on Amazon for "They're Coming to Take Me Away Ha-Haaa!"-- which I think of as the funniest song ever recorded (when we first heard it on the radio back in the sixties, we had to pull over in the car because even the driver was laughing so hard she was crying), I could order it on a compilation CD called 25 All-time Novelty Hits -- along with "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," "Alley-Oop," "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight," and "Junk Food Junkie."

It came in the mail two days later. Meanwhile, I found other novelties that I wanted -- "Purple People Eater," "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," "Love Potion Number Nine" -- as individual downloads.

4. The track information in iTunes downloads are riddled with misspellings -- nobody seems to proofread anything there. And with classical music especially, the iTunes text-entry robots seem to have no clue what they're doing. Embarrassing misspellings of well-known names and ridiculous misreadings of the names of movements, etc.

I have yet to spot a typo in the track information on an Amazon download.

5. Amazon does a much better job of leading you to more music that might appeal to you. For one thing, when iTunes listed my search results for "Love Potion Number Nine," they had several duplicates of the same recording -- but Amazon included a version by Neil Diamond that I had never heard of.

I clicked on the album name -- Up on the Roof -- Songs from the Brill Building -- and found a wonderful album of Diamond singing old rock and roll, the songs I grew up with. "Save the Last Dance for Me," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," "Don't Make Me Over," "Spanish Harlem," "A Groovy Kind of Love" -- these were songs I enjoyed when they were new, and Diamond's 1993 remakes are wonderful.

But it's more than just scanning the additional tracks in your search results. Amazon's "if you liked that then you'll like this" system has rarely worked for me in the book section of the store -- but it did a superb job of leading me to new music I might never have found.

Maybe that's because nothing on a computer can duplicate browsing a bookstore, so Amazon's attempts to do so fall short. But with music, it isn't what you see, it's what you hear that counts. So browsing through a music store with a bunch of wrapped CDs is painful -- you can't hear anything, you can only guess what's inside.

With Amazon's download service, though, browsing is easy. At the bottom of the window, underneath the information about the album you're actually checking out, they suggest other works by other artists.

Now, you can find lots of dead-end chains by clicking randomly on these -- but sometimes you get steered to wonderful music you'd never have found otherwise.

I won't try to repeat the whole chain that led me, in a single wonderful shopping spree, to find dozens of CDs I downloaded on the spot, but here is a sample of the results:

Works by the modern composer Alexei Lubimov, especially Bagatellen und Serenaden. Perfect mood music for writing a strange novel (which is pretty much the only kind I write).

New Age/Indian crossover music by M.R. Shajarian and Kayhan Kalhor, especially Night Silence Desert. There is zero chance I would have bought any of this music in a store; but because I could sample it online first, and then download it immediately, I now have hours of wonderfully expressive music from a tradition that was alien to me.

The Huelgas Ensemble doing rich renditions of medieval chants.

The gorgeous New Age music of Anouar Brahem.

Ghazal's jazz fusion with Asian instruments in As Night Falls on the Silk Road and The Rain.

The sometimes noisy but often brilliant work of Fauxliage on their self-titled album, featuring the vocals of Leigh Nash.

The contemporary Brazilian sound of Céu -- the name means "heaven" -- and

Justin Bianco's haunting improvisational piano on Blackbird, followed by Stefano Bollani's more energetic jazz improvs.

Lucia Micarelli's inspired violin work on Music from a Farther Room.

All of this started because I looked for any work by Julee Cruise that I might have missed. It ended because I had to go eat dinner. It was one of the greatest musical scavenger hunts I've ever been on.

And iTunes really doesn't have anything to match Amazon's ability to take you on a journey, link after link after link.

*

As a college teacher I sometimes despair about the deep ignorance of American history and institutions among the students I see coming out of the high schools.

Only a handful of my students in college have reached me with anything like a serious education about the way the political world works. Worse, most of them don't even care that they're so ignorant.

And of those who seemed most prepared and best educated, both were home-schooled.

That's what I found in my college classes. Here in Greensboro, I know several historically-aware schoolkids -- but most of them are home-schooled, too!

There was one notable exception -- a young man in the public schools who never seemed at a loss about the concepts of history that I talked about. In fact, he sometimes corrected me on errors of fact and challenged me on interpretations.

It was exciting to have a young man be both interested and interesting! Why was he coming out of high school so well educated and intellectually stimulated?

I think it's partly because he's taking part in a government-sponsored competitive-education program called We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution.

The idea is for high school students to get a deep understanding of the Constitution throughout history and what it means in the shaping of American society and American law.

If that sounds boring to you, it's only because you don't know enough about it to realize that these issues touch your life every day.

The students in this program work in small teams to prepare to answer the questions set out for the various state competitions. Questions like: "Compare the rights asserted in the second and concluding paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. In what ways are they alike and in what ways are they different?"

Are you ready to discuss "According to the natural rights philosophy, what should be the major purposes of government?"? These kids are.

But it's not just a matter of preparing for the questions assigned to a team. There are also questions that they haven't seen in advance. When they come together, state by state and then nationally, they have to know the Constitution, its history, its applications, its implications, and the underlying philosophy.

That means having a firm grasp on all of American history -- and much of European and philosophical history as well.

And they do. In fact, the team my friend is on at Northwest Guilford High School has done so well that they are going to the national championships in Washington DC.

When high school sports teams get invited to national championships, they rarely lack for funding -- people leap in to contribute.

I hope I'm not the only one who thinks that the kids on the We The People team at Northwest are every bit as deserving -- perhaps more, since their excellence is in something that actually has to do with education!

Reach for your checkbook. Here's the information you'll need to mail in a contribution:

Northwest Guilford High School, attn: Ray Parrish

5240 Northwest School Road

Greensboro NC 27409

Checks should be made out to Northwest High, Attention: We the People. Donations are tax deductible; the school's tax i.d. number is 566000522.

For more information about the program, check out the website at http://www.civiced.org.

Besides cash, you can donate objects to be auctioned off -- including services from your business or gift baskets. If you want your donation to be noticed publicly so that your company can be recognized for its community support, your donation will need to be received by 18 April.

These kids are doing what school is supposed to be about -- at a nationally competitive level. Personally, I think it would be great if we overwhelmed them with our support.

*

About the Camel and the Needle's Eye

In last week's Rhino I repeated a story I had been told many years ago about Rev. Henry Ward Beecher having made up the bogus idea of a gate called "The Needle's Eye" in the walls of Jerusalem.

I was right about everything except the identity of the person who made up the story. It had nothing to do with Beecher, who did not, in his printed sermons at least, say any such thing.

As several alert readers wrote to tell me, the story has been around since the fifteenth century. It is still false -- there never was such a gate -- and the motive was almost certainly the one I erroneously ascribed to Beecher. So the main point of my essay stands.

And, as a happy little extra lesson, I got to prove that even guys who think they're too smart to fall for phony stories can still fall for them.


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