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January 2012 Archives

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At eight years old the best reward I could hope for was a chance to listen to my mother’s vinyl copy of A Chorus Line. Years before I had my first opportunity to see a production, I’d memorized the words to every song. My favorite was “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three.” Careful to step lightly so the record didn’t skip, I’d twirl around the living room braying the song’s refrain: “Tits and ass, stage and balcony. What they want is what cha see.”
A Chorus Line was first produced in 1975 and offers a behind the scenes look at the life of dancers drawn to New York, each desperate to find stardom. Based on the anecdotes of actual dancers, several of whom joined the first cast, the show went on to win the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for drama not to mention nine Tony’s.

Last weekend I had the mixed pleasure of revisiting what has become one of my top five favorite musicals. Staged by Aurora’s charming Paramount Theatre, the show is directed and choreographed by Mitzi Hamilton, a veteran of the original London company and the inspiration for one of the lead roles.

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“It's my homage to (original director/choreographer) Michael Bennett,” Hamilton tells me. “He created a perfect musical; seamless. [The show] gives the dancer a chance to be in the spotlight. It celebrates their sacrifices and hard work.” Revisiting the show she adds is “like coming home.”


Having only seen Broadway touring productions, my expectations were perhaps inflated. Though Hamilton’s choreography compelled, several vocalists seemed to aim at rather than hit their notes. Still, Paramount’s production boasted several standout singers, specifically Katie Spelman as Maggie. Kevin Curtis (Richie) showed off some eye-popping gymnastic dances moves as well.

At heart however, A Chorus Line is a series of character studies, and if actors are encouraged toward cartoonish, larger than life portrayals, the show falls flat. Though Pegah Kadkhodaian delivered a model Morales, several more minor roles seemed inhabited by women directed to inflate their renderings to the point of caricature. Yet even when imperfect, A Chorus Line remains a favorite; it’s spirit cannot help but shine through.

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All photos by Kristine Sherred

In 2008 with the economy tanking, Robert and Sonat Birnecker took a chance and followed their bliss. Motivated to create a family business, the couple gave up academic careers to bring the distilling traditions of Robert's Austrian grandfather to America. The result? Koval, an organic distillery where spirits are made and bottled by hand. Our Town spoke with Koval’s National Distilary Ambassador Meg Bell about Koval’s unique products and techniques.

Our Town What makes Koval unique?
Meg Bell Our products are all made from scratch in the Chicago distillery. Each spirit is organic and kosher and does not contain artificial flavors or colors. Our whiskeys are especially unique since they are single grain.

OT Robert has distilled in both Austria and the US, how do the two compare both in technique and resulting product?
MB I think the best example of this is how Robert makes his whiskey. From his training in Austria and Germany, he distills smoother and takes a tight heart cut of the whiskey. Since this cut of whiskey is considered the best part of the distillate, it does not need to be aged very long. This differs from the way classic bourbons and scotch are typically made. These styles of whiskey distill lower and take a broad cut (more rustic so the distillate has more congeners and fusel oils), hence need to age their spirits longer to mellow this out. Both styles produce a great spirit, but are done in different ways resulting in dramatic flavor differences.

OT What made Koval decide to offer tours and workshops?
MB As a craft distillery and small business in Chicago, this was really important to us. Giving Chicagoans (and those visiting our great city) the opportunity to see how a distillery works up close only strengthens the business and the community.

OT How is your white whiskey different from say, Jack Daniels?
MB White whiskey is an un-aged whiskey. Since whiskey gets all its color and a lot of its flavor from being aged in oak barrels, a white whiskey tastes very different. White whiskey has flavor from the grain it is distilled from, but not the added flavor of aging in an oak cask. Jack Daniels is also white before they put it into a barrel to age.

OT In your opinion is there a particular grain that makes the best tasting whiskey?
MB That's a tough one. They all have such unique flavor profiles, but my personal favorite at the moment is oat in the heavy char barrel. I love that oat is a grain not commonly used for whiskey, and the way Robert distills it is so delicate. It has a creamy feel on the palette.

OT Lions Pride is a big favorite in Chicago. Can you talk a little about how it’s made?
MB Lion's Pride is our line of aged whiskey. We have a variety of mash bills that make up the line - each mash bill is 100% single grain. When the grain is fermented and distilled, the result is a white whiskey. We take our white whiskeys and age them in new American Oak barrels. Some of these barrels are heavily charred on the inside, and some are just lightly toasted. The amount that the inside of the barrel is burned greatly affects how the whiskey inside ages. The toasted barrels provide more tropical or citrus notes, while the heavy charred barrels provide more caramel, vanilla, and dark fruit notes. Koval distill five different grains: rye, oat, wheat, spelt and millet. Each grain is distilled separately and is available in 3 styles: un-aged or White, aged in a Dark Char barrel, or aged in a Toasted barrel.

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Photo by Billy Bungeroth

Katie Rich and Kate Duffy began writing together while traveling the country for The Second City's National Touring Company. Now, along with director Irene Marquette, the two bring their incisive talent to iO Chicago. Billed as The Mary Kay Letourneau Players Present..., their sketch show tackles everything from working-class girls recovering from a weeknight bender, to the fallout from a facially disfiguring monkey attack. Our Town spoke with Rich and Marquette about--what else?--writing and comedy.

Our Town How did you and Kate realize you had writing chemistry?
Katie Rich We toured together for Second City and when we [were] asked to write scenes individually, it got to the point where we were always saying, "We should probably just write this together." I knew any idea I had, Kate could make even better.

OT Take me through the process of writing a scene.
KR Kate and I also do a lot of our writing when we hang out. We will be chatting about something bugging us or something in the news and one of us will realize, "Holy sh*t, I think we just wrote a scene." Our show is a combination of scenes written the more traditional way, getting an idea and sitting down at the computer and banging it out, and scenes created through improvisation during our late night Sunday show at Second City.

Irene Marquette We had a fair amount of lead-time to discover the scenes. After each [Second City] show we talked about themes, individual scenes and characters. Scenes we really liked were transcribed. From there they were altered, improvised again and revised. We ended up with a massive amount of material that we began funneling into what became Mary Kay Letourneau Players Presents... We always knew we wanted to comment on celebrity, tabloid culture and human interest stories and we filtered everything through our belief that "everyone is one or two bad decisions away from disaster.”

OT Kate, ever have nights performing when you felt the audience wasn’t with you? As a performer how do you deal with that?
KR Many nights the audiences are tired, drunk, distracted, Republican, you name it. I like to find one person in the audience who is enjoying the hell out of our stuff and pretend I'm doing the show for just him or her. It's usually an older man who reminds me of my dad. Or a kid that is blown away just to be there.

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I’ve seen playwright and actor Rory Jobst naked, but I’ve also seen the unprotected profundity of his work. His new play, Samuel Beckett, Andre the Giant, and the Crickets is likely no exception, by which I mean it’s insightful, not that Jobst shows up naked in it—though I wouldn’t put it past him. Based on the real life connection between Irish Nobel-winning playwright Samuel Beckett and wrestler Andre the Giant, the show is part of Rhinofest 2012. Jobst spoke with me about his famous father Beau O’Reilly, his influences and even his nude interlude.

Our Town Your work tends to reflect on pop culture. What’s the fascination for you?
Rory Jobst People tend to regard pop culture as a passive thing; it's what you discuss on your lunch break. What you watch or listen to in your underwear. While those things are true to a certain extent, I think that pop culture is way more serious. Trends in entertainment are popular because they reflect the world we are living in. We relate to them on some level. "Write what you know," the old adage says. Well, I know plenty about [pop culture]!

OT Your father is Chicago mainstay Beau O’Reilly. What’s it like to enter the Chicago theater scene when your father casts such a long shadow?
RJ It's definitely something I consider, because we more or less have similar aesthetics. The odd thing is, [theater] is what I wanted to do growing up, and I didn't really even have a relationship with him until I was a teenager. I seemed to have been drawn to this lifestyle independent of his influence. That is not to say that he hasn't had a tremendous influence on my life and work. I even had the privilege of being one of his students in a playwriting class at SAIC [and] he has always been very supportive of my work, offering helpful, honest feedback, and getting me involved in some really cool projects to boot. As far as the Chicago Theatre scene, I've met and worked with some amazing companies and people the old fashioned way: by auditioning a lot and maintaining lasting partnerships. I feel like after about eight years on the scene I have developed a name for myself, and so has my brother, Colm, who has been on the scene for a long time, too. But what matters the most is that we are all supportive of each other’s work, and that has been fantastic.

OT You’re infamous at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago for taking to heart an assignment to reenact a dream and running through the halls naked. As an artist is it important to take yourself out of your comfort zone?
RJ Infamous, eh? I had no idea. And half naked, for the record. That was a very rewarding project, because the nudity just brought a vulnerability to that piece. I would always have these dreams of not wearing any pants, but walking around in public as if it were socially acceptable. I was fortunate to have a more or less positive reaction to it. It didn't feel as much shocking as a very private moment that I just happened to be sharing with about 30 people. I think it is important to be taken out of your comfort zone, not to say that I do enough of that myself. I've gotten very comfortable writing these two person pop culture mash up shows. Actually, for my latest piece, I found that getting out of my comfort zone involved resisting the need to be shocking. For instance, my work usually is chock full of profanity, sex, and violence. I am happy to say that there is not a single F-bomb in this piece!

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Attention Chicago Photographers:

Our Town announces our first PHOTO CONTEST.

Theme: Chicago (Take that as you will.)

Judges: Our Town photographer Patty Michels and Chicago wedding and portrait photographer Amy Harkess.

Send Submissions to: Ourtownphotocontest@gmail.com

Subject Heading: Photo Submission. (If you are emailing with a question, put “Question” in the subject line.)

Specifics: You can submit one photo only. Please put your name and contact information in the body of the email NOT on the picture itself. This is a BLIND contest; the judges will not know the identities of those submitting until they have chosen a winner. Please resize the images such that the photo’s longest side is no greater than 800 pixels. Files should be saved as jpegs.

Contest closes at Midnight February 14th.

The winning photo will appear on the Our Town blog!

Ready-set-go!

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez

Life's Ruff

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All photos by Sheri Berliner

Animal trainer Chris Dignan has one mission: to raise awareness about the plight of homeless dogs. A former dolphin trainer at the Shedd Aquarium, Dignan is now the President and Director of Training for The Dog Saving Network (DSN), an organization which highlights the benefits of positive reinforcement training. Our Town spoke with Dignan about training tips, his dog talent show, Life’s Ruff, and all things canine.

Our Town What drew you to animal training?
Chris Dignan You will have to ask my mom! As far back as I can remember I have been interested in animals; dinosaurs, whales and dolphins peaked my interest. There isn't a huge demand for dino trainers these days so whales and dolphins it was!

OT Describe your methods.
CD I'm a positive reinforcement trainer. I reward behavior that I like so the dog does it again or train a dog to do what I need him to. Like most trainers, I break a complex behavior into a series of smaller steps and systematically work towards the finished behavior. By using these small steps or approximations, you can teach a dog to do whatever it is physically capable of and it stays fun for the dog throughout!

OT What inspired Life’s Ruff?
CD We had a dog show [at the Shedd Aquarium] for a while about training pets using the same techniques that are used to train marine mammals. Tons of people would come up and ask if they could adopt one of the dogs in the show. The plan was to adopt out the dogs after the show was over so I had to tell people "not now" or "check back in a few months.” I never liked that answer so I started thinking of ways that shows could be used to raise awareness for homeless animals while highlighting the importance of training [but also] as adoption events. I want people to understand that anyone can train their dogs as long as they are committed to the process. Life's Ruff is the first of many new and different shows we hope to produce that can be used to super-charge adoptions while inspiring people to train.

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OT You hope to use your Dog Saving Network to change the way the country views shelter and rescue dogs and looks to provide an easy to follow alternative to some of the more popular, aversive training methods in use today. Can you expand on this a bit?
CD I hope to show people what homeless dogs CAN do, when given the chance, instead of focusing on their challenges. There are so many dogs that need homes right now and we, as a country, need to shift our mindset towards making adoption the first choice when looking for a dog. One of the hardest things for me to see is a dog misbehaving and an owner using the excuse of "he's a rescue" or "he's a shelter dog.” Yes, dogs that come from the shelter or rescue system can have behavioral problems but that can be true of any dog, regardless of their previous living arrangements. I want people to be proud of their adopted animals and understand that being a good dog owner requires work, not excuses. Every dog that comes from a shelter or rescue has a chance to become a messenger for all shelter and rescued animals. It's up to the owners to make that happen.

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Recently the New York Times published a sort of expose about the yoga industry, an odd phrase considering yoga’s spiritual roots. Yet, as more Americans flock to the increasingly mainstream discipline, yoga has become quite the sacred cash cow, more comparable to Starbucks than say, Buddhism or my own personal spiritual practice, peanut butter-covered spoon licking.

Actually an excerpt from William J. Broad’s book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards, the Times piece seems to me provocative in the way of a local news story that promises to “expose the secret killer in your cheese drawer.” In other words, it’s more alarmist than educational.

You can check it out for yourself here (although if you practice yoga everyone you’ve ever met has already forwarded it to you) but beneath the sensational language and terrorizing examples of allegedly yoga-induced injuries, the article basically says the following:

1. More people are doing yoga now than before; therefore there are more injuries.
2. Some yoga teachers are either inept or, intoxicated by that potent mix of open chakras and power, push students beyond their limits.
3. Yoga students both new and experienced don’t have the balls to tell an ersatz authority figure to back the hell off and maybe while they’re at it pop a breath mint. (Yoga teachers really like garlic; it’s an antioxidant, you know.)

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As someone who has practiced yoga fairly consistently for five years and was born shouting “you’re not the boss of me” you’d think I wouldn’t be susceptible to the faux dominion of some bendy chick in a Lulumon fur coat. (Lulumon does not actually make fur coats, but the yoga tanks they do produce are just about as expensive. Plus wouldn’t it be funny if yoga teachers wore fur coats?)

You’d think this, but you’d be wrong.

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January's Hot Writer: Conor Robin Madigan

My genre: Literary Fiction, Poetry, Magical Realism, Parable

My literary influences: Thomas Hardy, G.K. Chesterton, Muriel Spark, Arnold Bennett, John Carey, Cervantes, Boccaccio, Cioran, David Albahari, Leavis, Leonard Michaels, Novalis, Pasolini, Lawrence, Gogol, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Zola, Flaubert, Maupassant, Greene, Hulme, Kafka, Lagerkvist, Larkin, Desai, Doyle, Henry Green, Gunter Grass, Nadine Gordimer, Huxleys, Yates, Toibin, E.B. White, Whitman, Joy Williams, Mayakovsky, William Trevor, V.S. Naipaul, Baudelaire, Sherwood Anderson, Saul Bellow, Burney, Calvino, Carver, O Henry, Joyce, Ovid, Robert Penn Warren, Vonnegut, Leon Uris, Ian McEwan, Shintaro Katsu, Eamon Grennan, Heaney, Ellison, Hemingway, Hess, Gaines, Dante, Goethe, Raymond Chandler, Cather, Wendell Berry, The Brontes, Tolstoy, Beckett, Plutarch, Neruda, Orwell, Lessing, André Gide, Maxim Gorky, Mansfield, William Empson, Fitzgerald, Isherwood, Housman, William Golding, Hasek, Graham Swift, Swift, Auden, Conrad, Andrew Motion, Dostoevsky, Eco, Fred Chappell, Cheever, the Hymnal, the Old Testament, Paul's letter to the Romans, Bram Stoker, Thurber, F.H. Burnett, Kundera, Gilman, Athol Fugard, Faulkner, Agee, Joe Epstein, LL Magdalen, Ibsen, Bette Howland, Ondaatje, Andrew Hoyem, James Atlas, Gilbert Sorrentino, Winfield Townley Scott, Melville, Andre Bauchant, Bill Brandt, Robert Liddell, Lionell Trilling, Robert Lowry, Poe, Washington Irving, W. Sommerset Maugham, Robert Louis Stevenson, A. Conan Doyle, Schnitzler, Thyra Winslow, Jack London, H.G. Wells, Stephen Crane, Dreiser, Wodehouse, Franz Werfel, Ernst Glaeser, Louis Pergaud, H.E. Bates, Singer, Strindberg, Shikibu, and others.

My favorite literary quote: ...better be with the dead.../Than on the torture of the mind to lie/ In restless ecstasy. --Macbeth

My favorite book of all time: Riki Tiki Tavi

I’m currently reading: The Old Wives' Tale (Bennett), The Man Who Was Thursday (Chesterton), The Secret Agent (Conrad), Briefing For a Descent into Hell (Lessing), Pure Pleasure (John Carey)

My guilty pleasure book: Guilty Pleasures (Barthelme)

I can’t write without: quiet house (DEAD QUIET)

Worst line I ever wrote: "She was angry at what was becoming a horrible thing to say to him." (A Chapel Pond, '00)

Brief Bio:
I was born in Atlanta, GA. I live in Evanston now, and I work on guitars at Guitar Works, a little shop on Main Street. I'm very close to my family and I tend to enjoy laboring around their homes when I'm not reading, writing or at the shop. Pruning trees, car work, and house repair get me into my writing modes. Labor is a comfort. Cut Up, my debut novel happened April of 2011, and John Carey said of it, "acute, sophisticated, and like nothing I've ever read."

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez

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I’ve been writing The Crush of the Month Blog for over a year now, and in any long-term relationship, there comes a time when you need to spice things up.

So let’s talk about my crush within a crush, my inner sanctum of crushes, the true crush that lies below the false bottom of the crush proclivity you thought you knew.

I get crushes on couples.

In truth, my couple crushes are pretty tame. I find myself fascinated with relationship mechanics, enamored by the way two people become not a crock pot stew of codependence and resentment, but a crisp chopped salad in which the carrots are autonomous but care very much how the hearts of palm feel.

With that in mind I’d like to introduce you to January’s Crush of the Month: Husband and Wife, Sonny Mott and Erin O’Neill

Hometown: Erin-Chicago, Sonny-San Diego

Profession: Erin-Writer/Editor/Marketer, Sonny-Law Student

Hobbies: Erin-Reading, cooking, baking pies, and watching Bravo. Sonny- Law school and [daughter]Lucy.

Our Town: How did you two meet?
Erin O’Neill At the infamous Tom Tom Club in Washington, DC, going on eight years ago.
Sonny Mott I pursued her shamelessly.
Erin This is true.

OT Describe your wedding day.
Erin Which one? Because of Sonny's deployment schedule, we were lucky enough to get married (to each other) twice, so I got both my dream weddings. The first time, we got married at City Hall, then went to the White Sox game--a friend put our names up on the scoreboard, which was amazing-- and met up with friends in a bar to celebrate. The second, we had the big Catholic wedding, in the big white dress, then had the reception in my high school cafeteria (at St. Ignatius). Both were perfect, for totally different reasons, but walking down the aisle, seeing Sonny standing there, holding hands at the altar and exchanging vows meant way more to me than I thought it would.

OT Erin, you’re a writer. Any tips for those looking to freelance?
Erin I hate giving advice [because] I'm a pretty big believer that most of my "success"--if you call not having a job with health insurance success--is luck, timing, and a little networking. Overall, my best advice is to keep reading, writing, and submitting. Freelancing takes an incredible amount of passion, discipline, and hard work, but if you can make it work, it's the best gig going.

OT Sonny rarely reads your writing, why?
Erin I don't write the kind of writing he likes, and it's far too dangerous to my ego to have him not like my writing. I write creative non-fiction; a lot of personal essays about my life and relationships. The last time he read anything I wrote, it was a thinly veiled personal story about a family falling apart in a cabin in rural Michigan. When he finished, I asked him what he thought, and he said, "It was ok. It needed more wolves."

OT Sonny, you served in the US Marine Corps for more than eight years. How was it to transition back to civilian life?
Sonny Bittersweet. You miss the good times and the camaraderie but I enjoy all of the free time with our daughter Lucy.

OT Erin, what was the hardest thing about being in a relationship with someone deployed?
Erin Obviously, worrying about his safety was hardest. I obsessively watched the news, researched the Iraqi conflict, immersed myself in the military community in order to get any word possible. The other hard part was the lack of communication. During his Iraqi tours, we could go as long as six weeks with no word whatsoever. I still remember all the nights I'd hold my breath, after hearing about something on the news, and the elated feeling of relief when I'd get a letter or phone call from him. Sonny's brother is also a Marine and currently deployed to Afghanistan, and I'm hoping this will be the last wartime deployment for our family.

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Photo by Johnny Knight

Multifaceted writer/director/teacher Kelli Strickland emailed me from a swamp. Out of town for the holidays, her internet connection was spotty, but Strickland’s opinions came through loud and clear. Star of the much buzzed-about film Hannah Free, Strickland is on the cusp of opening her one-woman show "We’ve Got a Badge for That." A “love letter of sorts to the Girl Scouts,” the show has been performed locally and nationally. Below Strickland shares her thoughts on lesbian films, arts education and more.

Our Town How was your experience filming Hannah Free?
Kelli Strickland It was filmed at a rather breakneck speed but the people who came together to make that happen were a force to be reckoned with. The reception to the story was pretty overwhelming. I still get emails from people all over the world who have lost partners or grew up in a very different time period that tell me that it resonated with them.

OT How do you feel about the category “lesbian films?”
KS Categories are handy and can serve a purpose and inevitably tick some people off. You could argue that to describe any work as 'lesbian' in nature is to contribute to the gay ghetto-ization of a piece or you could argue that there are films made by and for lesbians, and why not label it that? I believe that stories are important. And so long as people are working hard to tell those stories and audiences are benefiting from hearing those stories, call it what you like.

OT I haven’t seen Hannah Free, so this isn’t a swipe at that film, but I’m pretty critical of most lesbian films. I have this sense that lesbians (even in 2011) are so desperate to see themselves reflected in art that they celebrate even the mediocre. Any thoughts on this?
KS I suppose that an under-representation in media does lead to a celebration of any and all representation. But I hesitate to lay the blame at the feet of audiences for not being discerning enough or even the art makers, for that matter. As your question suggests, that desperation for representation indicates what a dearth of films there were. Film is an incredibly expensive proposition and until recently, highly dependent on the literal and metaphorical green light from people who didn't seem all that interested in telling queer stories. So, yes, I think often the projects were and are homegrown, grassroots efforts – made by those same people who wanted to see themselves onscreen. Changes in the cultural landscape are definitely afoot, however, when a movie like “The Kids Are All Right” can not only get made, but get made with that kind of budget, that kind of cast, that kind of marketing and distribution and finally that kind of reception. Artists interested in telling queer stories, like all contemporary artists, are currently learning how to navigate a new media world where you can get product out and very process is much more affordable, accessible and therefore democratic. I think that's a good thing for storytellers, especially those storytellers who want to tell the stories that the heads of major studios won't. My guess is that we're in the midst of a great upswing.

OT If you could only act in one medium, which would you choose?
KS Theatre, without question. Especially now, when we consume so much of our films, television, music in isolation with buds in our ears and [on] a tiny screen. Nothing can replace live actors with a live audience sharing that ephemeral time together. It is pure, simple and a unifying act in an increasingly divisive time.

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This page is an archive of entries from January 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

December 2011 is the previous archive.

February 2012 is the next archive.

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