My week in Cuba, part 2: The art and music scene

Last week I wrote about my week in Cuba, with details on our itinerary, lodging, transportation and information briefings. If you missed My week in Cuba: Land of Hope and Dreams, you can catch it here. Cuba has a lively art and music scene although it’s not clear whether the artists and musicians can earn a living with their talents. (But then that’s a problem here too, isn’t it?)

We had a chance to visit artists’ studios, galleries, shops and street stalls to chat, view and shop for art and inexpensive artisan wares. We heard a lot of music, most of it played during our meals at paladars. Almost every paladar had a small group—trio or quartet—playing for diners. We enjoyed the music of a trio at lunch at Paladar Le Moneda Cubana in Old Havana one day and then found them playing for our breakfast the next morning at the hotel. Most of the music tends to be global pop, rather than the authentic Cuban music I would have liked to hear.

Raul Castro has loosened the restrictions on private enterprise to some extent. There are hundreds of paladars now and many private homes operating as bed and breakfasts. The main governmental control, according to locals, is inspection to be sure the full operation is being taxed. Artists are able to show and sell their work, but their income is heavily taxed, like other entrepreneurs. (In many of these places, we were not able to take photos.)

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The art of Arian and Andrey

One evening a few of us visited two artists’ studios to meet the artists and see their work. Our guide was Jose Camilo Lopez, a cultural guide and friend of our tour manager. Along with his driver, Daniel, we zipped around Havana neighborhoods.

Irsula Studios is both gallery and workshop for artists. Arian Irsula, the owner, was able to use family money to lease and redo two floors of an old house. The space, still being renovated, features 15-foot ceilings and pillars with Corinthian capitals. It has now become a slick modern gallery and workspace. We saw collages and paintings by Arian and Andrey Quintana as well as other artists. An example from each of them is in the slide show. Arian has created some collages that I really liked. They’re black and white abstracts with bits of glass and mirror. I really would have loved to buy one (they were not cheap) but was unsure about (1) any bureaucratic restrictions about taking art out of Cuba, and (2) that the collage would be broken in travel. So I settled for buying a small print at a museum shop. (See below.)

Visiting Reynerio

We also visited the home, gallery and studio of Reynerio Tamayo, an established artist who works with, the government arts agency. His work makes use of many media and much of it is humorous or satirical or based on pop culture references. Reynerio is a delightful and charming guy and we spent quite a bit of time viewing his gallery of work and visiting with him and his family.

I should note that these artists usually don’t have websites; they may have Facebook pages, but they have very limited internet access. (See Cuba Part 1.) Typically, they’ll show you additional examples of their work on their smartphone galleries.

Dinner and a jazz concert

Later the same evening we went to the luxurious home of a Havana art dealer in the neighborhood called Nuevo Vedado. Odette Pandoja, a friend of the Smithsonian group, had invited us for dinner and a jazz concert. The home was large and beautiful, as I described in Cuba Part 1. I was particularly taken by a series of large black-and-white abstract photographs, which would be very happy in my apartment.

After dinner, a jazz trio made up of musicians on keyboards, percussion and clarinet played a fine concert for us. I bought the band’s CD/DVD combination as a gift for my musician son (after I play both of them myself, as he knows I will).

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Art on the street and in museums

While we were in Cienfuegos, we had free time to walk around the square visiting artists’ studios and the street stalls where other artisans sold their work. I bought some bracelets and other jewelry, but my favorite find was these wooden cars (ostensibly for my grandsons) that look like the 1950s cars that are driven all over Havana. (I think I’m going to give them as gifts, but I’m growing fonder of them every day.) In Trinidad, a quartet of elders played in the park as we walked by on the cobblestone streets. We also visited an artist’s home and gallery there after a too-long and unmemorable lunch at Paladar El Dorado.

On our last morning before flying from Havana to Miami, we visited the Museum of Fine Arts in old Havana, where we saw work organized by decade. There was not much inspiring work there and we saw much work from the 1960s and ‘70s that was derivative of modernists such as Warhol and Picasso. In fact, we saw a 1965 painting that was almost a replica of Picasso’s Guernica. Cuban artists of that period created a lot of political art and pop art multiples. At this museum, like most others, we toured with a docent whose Spanish was translated into English by our guide.

One other museum stop I should mention was in Miami, the day before our departure for Havana. My friend Christa and I made a quick trip to PAMM, the Perez Museum of Art Miami, where we saw two exhibits and shopped in the excellent museum store. The museum is new and modern but there was a lot of construction going on around it so I wasn’t able to get a good photo of the exterior.

The most interesting exhibit was Bloodlines by the Dominican artist Firelei Báez, who now lives in New York. Her paintings of African-American and Cuban women are rich in detail and color; they often depict hair designs, textiles and body ornaments.

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Music and dance

While in Cienfuegos, we had some interesting musical entertainment. After walking around the square, we climbed several flights of stairs to hear a special concert by the Choir of Cienfuegos, a chorus of about 24 local men and women, who performed a concert of Cuban and international songs and show tunes. One of them, incongruously, was the American folk song, “Shenandoah.”

The day we were traveling from Cienfuegos back to Havana, we stopped at the Museum of Guanabacoa (in the colonial township of Guanabacoa) for a folkloric performance of music and dance by Grupo Olurún. This ended up with many of us joining in the dancing, but for some reason, there are no photos to record this.

More Cuban music

The music we probably think of as real Cuban music is that of the Buena Vista Social Club, a Havana members club that closed in the 1940s and was reconstituted in the 1990s by guitarist Ry Cooder and then filmed by director Wim Wenders. Here’s some footage from the Wenders 1999 documentary, Buena Vista Social Club.

Another song playing in my mind last week has a famous Havana reference. It’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” by the late great rocker Warren Zevon. It’s from his 1979 album, Excitable Boy, which is better known for the title track and the iconic song Werewolves of London (one of the ringtones on my phone). Zevon sings:

I was gambling in Havana
I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money
Dad, get me out of this.

My week in Cuba: Land of hope and dreams?

Cuba has always seemed a land of mystery, glamour, music and passion. The desire to visit lurked on the edges of my memory as I read books like The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (by Oscar Hijuelos), Dreaming in Cuban (Cristina Garcia), To Have and Have Not (Ernest Hemingway) and Los Guisanos (John Sayles). Films like Our Man in Havana, The Mambo Kings, Before Night Falls and even Chico and Rita, the 2010 animated film, enhanced my yearning for this exotic city. So I had my vision of Havana and Cuba and somehow, it took many decades before I finally achieved my Cuba dream.

I spent last week in Cuba with a group of about 30 charming and interesting travelers as part of a Smithsonian Journeys tour. The week was fascinating and intellectually invigorating while also being tiring and enervating. Cuba is beautiful, its people are warm and welcoming, and its economy and infrastructure are in desperate need of investment and some good old capitalism. Here are my thoughts after being home for a few days.

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First, the basics

We may have renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba but the trade and travel embargo are still in place. You can’t go to Cuba by buying a ticket from Miami to Havana. US citizens risk prosecution if they travel directly to Cuba until Congress lifts the trade embargo, which requires action. (Congressional action; that would be an oxymoron.) You can travel to Cuba now with an educational or “people to people” mission, organized by a licensed tour organization.

Besides your passport, you need a tourist visa to travel to Cuba. There’s a rumor that a bootleg trip to Cuba wouldn’t be tracked because the Cuban immigration officials don’t stamp your passport. That may have been true in the past, but our passports were all stamped on arrival and departure at Jose Marti International Airport.

Smithsonian Journeys arranged our trip and all arrangements were managed extremely well. The Smithsonian tour manager (the saintly Claire) was extremely competent and attentive to our needs and schedule. Our local tour guide was Yoandry, a Cuban charmer who is very well informed but never strays from the party line. In addition, Enrique, an emeritus professor of Spanish from the University of New Mexico, was our study expert. Bernardo was our bus driver and maneuvered floods, 500-year-old cobblestone streets, and Havana traffic with skill. The coach in which we traveled around Cuba (far too much coach time) was comfortable, air-conditioned and equipped with vast quantities of bottled water.

About half of the cars on Havana streets are beautiful old cars from the 1950s, most of them shiny and cared for. There are many new cars now too, however, especially Kias and Toyotas.

Cuba’s infrastructure is sorely lacking and they are definitely not ready for a flood of tourists, should the US travel embargo be lifted. Water and sanitation are serious problems. You can’t drink the water anywhere, many toilets don’t flush and you can’t put paper in the toilets. (At toilets outside the big cities, you typically are greeted by an attendant who hands you a wee scrap of toilet paper and then flushes the toilet with a bucket of water. You clean your hands with hand sanitizer.)

The climate is tropical, of course, and hotter than I expected. Beastly humid and hot, in fact. Hats and sunscreen are required as is bug spray in many places. Very few buildings have elevators or air-conditioning. (Our hotels had both.)

Cuba has little or no internet access so my smartphone was used as a camera only. It is possible to buy internet cards and get spotty reception at hotels, but I had decided I was just going to put my phone on airplane mode for the week.

The itinerary

We arrived in Havana early on a Saturday morning. The Havana airport is a zoo and I was happy to have Claire guiding us through the maze and people swarms. We spent three days and nights at the Melia Cohiba, a luxury hotel in Havana, then drove three hours to Cienfuegos, where we spent two days, including a side trip to Trinidad, the 500-year-old city. Finally, we drove back to Havana for a final night in a state-run hotel and departure the next day for Miami. Along the way, we made stops at sugar cane facilities, museums and the Bay of Pigs invasion site. (Yes, really.)

Tour highlights

 I’ll just say that the only time we spent on the beach was at the Bay of Pigs invasion site. Trust me, this was not a resort vacation. See travel embargo above.

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Ernest Hemingway’s estate in Finca Vigia, just outside Havana. We were able to walk around the house but mainly peer in to the rooms through windows and doors. I also walked up the stairs of his “writing tower” to see the room where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. The docent was kind enough to take photos for me, including the priceless shot of his typewriter.

A walking tour of Old Havana with a local architect, including a glimpse of the 1930 Bacardi building, a gorgeous art deco structure. We also visited Hemingway’s room in the Pink Hotel, where he lived with his then-wife, Martha Gellhorn, for seven or eight years. It’s on the fifth floor but the building has one of those cage-like old elevators. Hem got his exercise every day, going in and out to have lunch and drink daiquiris at the bar in Café Ambos Mundes.

I have now visited five of Hemingway’s homes. I’ve visited his childhood home in Oak Park, his Key West home and I regularly walk by the building at 1239 North Dearborn Street where he lived in Chicago with his wife Hadley in 1921 (on the fourth floor of a 19th century row house, now a single family home).

A tour of the University of Havana (founded in 1728 by the Dominicans) with Yoandry and university administrator Nestor as our guides. We met in the Aula Magna, the great hall, in the oldest building for a briefing and then walked around the campus. The university has about 12,000 students who receive their five-year undergrad educations and all services at no cost.

A briefing at the US Embassy with the impressive political chief, Justin Davis. He gave us a good overview of the current Cuban political and economic situation and US legislation that restricts trade and travel. The embargo not only restricts investment by US companies; it prohibits any company that invests in Cuba from investing in the US.

Cuba imports 80 percent of its foodstuffs, much of it from the US (agricultural products are excluded from the embargo) and most of its oil from Venezuela. Cuba exports only rum and cigars. About $2 billion of Cuba’s GDP is made up of remittances from Cuban-Americans. The average wage for a government worker is $25/month. He also discussed the political situation given the advanced ages of the Castro brothers. Raul Castro has said he will step down in 2018. The Cuban constitution allows only the Communist Party to stand for election. The likely successor to the Castros is the first vice minister, Miguel Diaz Canel.

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An economic briefing from a professor of economics at the University of Havana. I wasn’t expecting to hear economic data that contradicted government positions, but he needed speaker training. He read all the bulletpoints on his slides, with his back turned to the audience. Among the humorous things he said were claiming a 3.8% unemployment rate and a 4.1% projected growth in GDP. (The embassy official cited 2.4% as the projected 2015 growth.)

A meeting at Cuba Emprende, a church-supported nonprofit that trains and advises entrepreneurs. Raul Castro has loosened restrictions on private business and there is evidence of small business activity—especially in the paladars or privately owned restaurants and hostels—and this group offers workshops and advice for startups. We had a chance to visit a classroom where about 30 students were just beginning their four-week workshop on how to start and run a business. Most of them were starting small service businesses and many were hoping for capitalization, which is very difficult. Most entrepreneurs need their own savings or family money to get started.

Visits to artists’ studios and shops in Havana and Cienfuegos and the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. (I’ll write about the art and music scene in my next post, Cuba: Part 2.

A dinner and jazz concert at a magnificent private home filled with art and beautiful Cuban and Spanish antiques. (Clearly Cuba has its 1% elite population.)

A briefing on the beach at the Bay of Pigs invasion site and a tour of the nearby Playa Giron Museum. I have absolutely no doubt that the CIA planned and botched the Bay of Pigs invasion and it was interesting to hear about it from a Cuban point of view. The museum was filled with captured American weapons, photos, maps and humorous propaganda on the bilingual exhibit legends.

Farewell dinner. On our final night, we left the Hotel Nacional for our farewell dinner, expecting to be transported by our HavanaTur coach number 3779. Instead, a fleet of gorgeous 1950s convertibles was waiting for us and we cruised around the city like locals to the paladar where we dined. I rode with Miguel in a 1959 blue Ford convertible. On another occasion, I had a taxi ride in a 1973 Lada, with no window glass or seatbelts. The driver called it his Russian jalopy.

The Cuban people

May I say the Cuban people are beautiful? The men are handsome at every age and the women are equally beautiful. They are warm and welcoming without exception and those who speak a little English like to talk to Americans.

Yoandry, our local guide, has a bachelor’s degree in Russian studies from the University of Havana (because Russian was what was on offer when he went to school) and speaks quite good English. He’s very well-informed on Cuban history and fairly well informed on economic matters. He brought his girlfriend to our farewell dinner and they share the career goal of being tourist guides, for which they earn about 30 CUCs (about US$30) a month. (The CUC is the Cuban convertible currency, which is tied to the US dollar in a one-to-one relationship. There’s also the national peso, a local currency, which tourists cannot use.)

The food

Do not go to Cuba for the cuisine. Hotel breakfasts were okay and we ate all our other meals in paladars, many of which are in remodeled private homes. A few of the meals included tasty entrees or soups, but for the most part, the food is bland and boring. The typical menu is black beans, rice, and a choice of sliced pork, beef or chicken. Occasionally fish or lobster was served and one night I had a flavorful lamb stew. With black beans and rice.

The Cubans don’t seem to have any herbs or vegetables for seasoning and don’t use much salt. About the middle of the week, I decided to ask for hot sauce (“Tiene usted salsa picante?”) and that improved the black beans considerably.

Some people thought the food would be spicy but I had been to Cuban restaurants in Chicago so I knew what kind of a menu we would have.

I was obsessive about not eating or drinking anything that would make me sick (having had a dreadful experience once in Mexico), so I drank only bottled water (as recommended), drinks sin hielo (and I love my ice), and no uncooked vegetables or unpeeled fruit. Liquor flowed freely and mojitos or other cocktails were routinely served at lunch and dinner; beer and wine were usually available too. Expresso was usually good but regular coffee was mediocre. I usually drank warm bottled water and was glad to get home to iced coffee and iced tea.

Government, politics and the economy: Cuba’s future

The end of the Castro reign over Cuba probably will not mean much change, given the governmental structure. Images of Che are everywhere and he’s clearly a national hero, 48 years after his death. There’s Fidelismo too, but images of Che predominate. There’s no reason to be optimistic about political liberalization.

However, the US trade embargo will probably be lifted in the next few years. The question is what kind of investment will result. I just hope that hundreds of golf courses don’t pop up on all that vacant farm land. But more foreign investment and more foreign visitors may well change the mindset and improve the financial wellbeing of the Cuban people.

Cuba, of course, does not have freedom of speech or press. Right now, access to the open internet in Cuba is limited to about 5% of the population, nearly the lowest in the world. Investment is sure to bring better telecommunications and internet functionality. But will the government allow Cubans to access world news and use social media to communicate? The likelihood of a “Cuban spring” is low, it seems to me.

Land of hope and dreams?

Some Bruce Springsteen song is always playing in my head. Last week it was “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a classic train song, with lyrics like this:

This train, carries saints and sinners
This train, carries losers and winners
This train, carries whores and gamblers
This train, carries lost souls

This train, dreams will not be thwarted
This train, faith will be rewarded

And this refrain:

Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams.

I feel that my week in Cuba was visiting a land of hope and dreams, but I’m not optimistic about when the Cuban peoples’ dreams will come true.

Coming up: It’s all about the art and music scene 

Please watch for my next post on the lively art and music scene in Cuba.

All photos by Nancy Bishop, taken with an otherwise useless iPhone 6-Plus. 

Fall farrago: Cultural treats for you via stage, screen and museum

This will be a quick post before I leave for nine days of travel. When I return, I’ll have plenty of notes for my next essay. For now, here are a few things you won’t want to miss.

George Orwell’s 1984 at Steppenw0lf Theatre

This is a production of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, which basically means high-school-age youngsters. This is a heady play, very thought-provoking and extremely well done. As my review headline says, Steppenwolf recreates the dystopian past and strongly suggests dystopia still threatens us. My grandson James and I reviewed it and we both loved it. He has read the book and so was eager to see how it played out on stage. Here’s our review. The play is targeted at school groups so the weekend performance schedule is brief. I strongly encourage you to see it before it closes November 20.

Wim Wenders retrospective at the Gene Siskel Film Center

You can see some of the great films by this German master at the Siskel Film Center. The retrospective opened earlier this month but there are still some great films in store in the next few weeks, such as Wings of Desire (one of my favorite films of all time), Paris, Texas, and Until the End of the World. Here’s my preview of the retrospective.

The Siskel gallery is also showing a nice exhibit of film posters titled Wenders and the New German Cinema.

Stagestruck City exhibit at the Newberry Library

The Newberry has created a marvelous exhibit from its plentiful archives of Chicago theater history. The exhibit tells the story of Chicago theater from before the 1871 fire and brings it to the opening of the Goodman Theatre in the 1920s. I described the exhibit here. Fascinating and scholarly, not flashy and animated, the exhibit runs through December 31. Don’t miss the Newberry bookstore while you’re there; it’s one of our better bookstores, and deserves our appreciation in this era of the demise of real bookstores.

My October madness is on stage: Politics, technology, families

It’s October Madness again, that month that drives me crazy because a year’s worth of special events, festivals and conferences are scheduled and I can’t do and see everything I want to do and see. Ideas Week, Open House Chicago, Chicago Humanities Festival, Chicago Architecture Biennial (at least it continues through the rest of the year), Chicago International Film Festival (and several other film festivals). On top of all those things, this year we have baseball in October too!

Here are a few review recaps of plays I think you’ll appreciate. They’re all still on stage.

Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys at Raven Theatre thru November 14

This tragic story of nine Alabama boys who were falsely accused of a crime that was never committed is told in scalding language and vaudeville performances. The case became a cause celebre in the 1930s and was an early predictor for the civil rights movement that finally erupted 30 years later. The ironic combination of verisimilitude and satire makes for a production that is heart-wrenching, funny and sad. Each of the nine talented actors who play the Scottsboro boys also put on masks to perform as characters in the various trials that ensue. When a black actor puts on white-face, it adds a certain richness and depth to the irony.

Direct from Death Row is an important and riveting production by the always-reliable Raven Theatre. I didn’t review the production; you can see a compilation of reviews here.

No Beast So Fierce by Oracle Productions thru November 8

GB-NBSF-oracle-joe-mazza-brave-lux-GloucesterOracle Production refers to itself as public-access theater. Its tickets are always free and they rely on donors for sustenance. Oracle does excellent work, so I hope this theater model continues to work for them. Their regular performance venue is on North Broadway; this show is being staged at the Storefront Theater on Randolph Street. No Beast So Fierce is less than successful, partly because it compresses the original Shakespearean script to 90 minutes. However, it offers many tense moments and compelling performances. It’s an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III by the director, Max Truax, and it’s also notable for starring a woman as Richard. The acting is generally very good and Katherine Keberlein, who plays Richard, looks regal and delivers her lines beautifully. Keberlein plays Richard as a woman fighting for control in a male world but she lacks the fierceness and evil strength that we expect to see in actors playing Richard.

The staging and original music add a great deal to No Beast So Fierce and all in all, it’s a play worth seeing. See my full review here. 

The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence at Theater Wit thru November 14

I’m sure I will put this production on my Best-of-2015 list. It’s smart, funny, fast-moving and insightful about the impact of technology on modern life and love. Theater Wit’s production, directed by Jeremy Wechsler, si excellent and all three actors are superb. Joe Foust, who stars as four Watsons (see my review to sort that out) is absolutely terrific. The action moves so fast and the actors tear around so quickly, putting on and removing layers of costume, that your head may spin. Even if there are moments that go by so fast that you miss a line here and there, don’t fret. But do see this brilliantly written and performed play.

Love and Information at Remy Bumppo Theatre thru November 1

GB-Love-Info-PenelopeWalker,DavidDarlowLove and Information is another play that moves quickly with many short–some very short–scenes. It too reflects and builds on our technology obsessions, as well as touching our memories and paranoia. It’s one of the newest plays by the acclaimed British playwright Caryl Churchill, whose work is always interesting, but not always emotionally rich. She has been called the David Bowie of contemporary theater because she constantly reinvents her approach to playwriting. I would compare her to Richard Powers, the American novelist whose work I have praised here often. They’re both literary/intellectual writers whose work brims with challenging ideas but whose characters do not swoop you up in a paroxysm of emotion.

Nevertheless, Remy Bumppo creates an intriguing 90 minutes with this production. See my review.

Disgraced at Goodman Theatre thru October 25

Playwright Ayad Akhtar won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for this play, which generally receives excellent reviews from critics and sometimes divides audiences. My review acknowledged that award and then added, “But that doesn’t mean you won’t be squirming in your seat in mental discomfort as the 85-minute play progresses. The play tackles questions of Islamaphobia, Muslim-American identity and identity politics in general. The smartly written script offers equal-opportunity political incorrectness, something to offend everyone.”

Whether you agree with it or are offended at some point during the 80-minute play, I don’t think you’ll be bored.

East of Eden at Steppenwolf Theatre thru November 15

GB-eastofeden_production05This Frank Galati adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel is gripping, even at its three-hour length, with excellent acting and a deceptively simple but beautifully designed setting. I suspect Steppenwolf intends this play to have a second life on Broadway (as did the Galati/Steppenwolf production of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath in 1988), but the script needs work before a move east. To me, Galati tried to cram too much of the long and dense novel into the script, which means some things happen offstage or without explanation and some characters are not fully developed. I would like to see the father-sons relationship built up because it is the heart of the story and of the biblical references to the Cain and Abel story.

Those are my notes for the company. Despite that, i highly recommend this play for a fulfilling and thought-provoking theater evening. One of my Gapers Block colleagues reviewed the play.

Technology disruption: The revolution happened while we weren’t looking

Did you ever stop to think how the internet and the world-wide web changed our lives without our noticing it? If you’re a Millennial, you didn’t notice it because it was always there. Smartphones, texts, snapchat, all that. For older generations, an earthquake of technology happened in the late 1990s and 2000s. We love it and most of us wouldn’t give it up for anything. And that’s because as consumers, we love everything new and shiny.

But for businesses—of all kinds—the internet/web revolution came as some kind of surprise and upset many business models. Look at what happened to newspapers, book publishing, telecommunications, music, movies, television, retailing, real estate and other industries that weren’t paying attention until their business models imploded.

newspapers (1)

Sunday detritus.

Newspapers still haven’t recovered from the revolution in their business model. Most of them ignored the web for the first few years, hoping it would be a novelty and go away. It’s really only in this decade that newspapers have figured out that they have to change the way they do business. Some newspapers and magazines are relatively successful, using a pay wall and retaining digital subscribers. Many are floundering, laying off staff, cutting back publishing frequency. Only the older generations read newspapers at all, so newspapers will die eventually.

The news revolution has affected TV and radio too, although not so drastically yet.

News outlets now are being advised on how to make money in other ways, through memberships, events and beating ad blockers.


Soon to be considered “vintage.”

Book publishing also is still floundering, figuring out how to manage and make money from e-books. Amazon, the giant that started this revolution, eventually will get so big that it will fail too and be replaced by something that a 10-year-old kid in Schenectady is dreaming up now. (I think I owe an HT to someone for that kid-in-Schenectady idea, but I don’t remember who.)

The music industry (and TV and films to a lesser extent) also are suffering from the internet notion that all content should be free and available on our terms. CDs aren’t selling much, even though vinyl is making a retro comeback. We want to listen to music on something we carry around, even if the sound quality is poor. And we want to watch TV and movies on our terms, not when the network or theater happens to schedule them.


Some of my retro music.

Artists, writers and photographers are impacted by this content-should-be-free phenomenon. If no one wants to pay for content, then the publishers of content don’t want to pay for content creation. So, goodbye freelance businesses.

This internet/web revolution didn’t just happen overnight. Decades of technological development went into this phenomenon, but businesses were caught off guard. Even though most of them had some kind of computer or IT departments, the message of the coming revolution wasn’t acknowledged, or passed on. (Another factor in the revolution was the microchip, which enabled the miniaturization of our devices. It was introduced in 1959 but no one was paying attention to that either.)

The revolution happened while everyone was looking the other way.

  • The modem was invented in 1958 at Bell Labs and the router (an Interface Message Processor) in 1967.
  • In 1972, a guy named Ray Tomlinson invented email—a way to send messages across a network. It was his idea to use the “@” sign as the email standard address: user@host.
  • In 1974, Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler led the team at SRI International’s Network Information Center. Among other things, they created the Host Naming Registry and the primary domain names we use today: .com, .gov, .edu, .org, .net, .mil.
  • In 1974, Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn coined the term “internet.”
  • Most importantly, In 1977, Lawrence Landweber created the Computer Science Network, a network for US university and industrial computer research groups. By 1984, more than 180 university, industry and government computer science departments were participating in CSNET.

In the middle 1980s, I was working on my first Mac at home but it wasn’t connected to anything. At work, no computer because the Wang word-processing machines were only for secretaries. My son was a graduate student finishing his PhD in economics and talked about getting “email” from his advisers. “Email,” I said. “What’s that?”

Then in 1989, when AOL started its first online service, I got email too. It was that pitifully slow telephone dialup access, but it was still a thrill to hear “You’ve got mail!”

  • Finally (and skipping over many key technological advances), in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web and Robert Cailliau developed the first web browser for the Macintosh operating system. This is when business should have started paying attention and figuring out how their companies could take advantage of this new web thing.
  • And all this happened years after the US Defense Department invented ARPA in 1958 and ASCii in 1963 so that machines from different makers could talk to each other. ARPAnet, the actual network, was initiated in 1966.

I owe my superficial surf of technology history to the Internet Hall of Fame’s internet timeline. Check it out here. There’s also this and this

I decided to write this essay because I felt like venting. How could all these revolutions have happened to industries so important to me (newspapers, books, music, movies) without the industries being aware and preparing for the revolution? Big companies all have prestigious “strategy” officers and departments. What were they thinking about in the 1980s and 1990s? Not much, apparently. Or they were listening to big-name management consultants who probably were talking gobbledygook about customer intelligence, global advantage and supply chain management. I know whereof I speak on that one, because I used to work with those guys.

The theater review I’m working on now is about a fascinating play titled The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence. It’s a time-tripping play full of ideas and technology. At one point, a character says, “we’re at this critical moment in our society when technology is developing more rapidly than our social and political infrastructures can keep up with.”

That is one of the problems.

All the photos above taken by Nancy Bishop in her own home, site of prerevolutionary media and all the other kind too. 

On stage in Chicago: Mini-reviews

Some theater recommendations from my recent reviews and theater adventures in Chicago.

The Tempest at Chicago Shakespeare

CST_TEMPEST_04_Prospero,CalibanYes, you’ve seen this play before but never with such magic and music. Chicago Shakes’ new production features music by the great Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. The music is bluesy and has notes of vaudeville and medicine shows as well as early blues. The production is adapted and directed by Aaron Posner (Stupid Fucking Bird) and Teller of the magic duo Penn and Teller, and the magic is very impressive, including Ariel’s (Nate Dendy) sleight of hand and card tricks and an enchanting levitation scene. When Prospero speaks the famous line, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep,” to his daughter Miranda and her lover Ferdinand, it gains a new poetry in his reading.

See my reviews here and here. The Tempest runs until November 8.

Geneva at Shaw Chicago

GB-Geneva CastShaw Chicago produces “concert readings” of the work of the great GBS. I wouldn’t call them staged readings because they’re not blocked; the actors are at their music stands with script books. But they are costumed, made up and superbly acted by the whole cast. This production is a rarely performed Shaw set in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1939. The premise of the play is that the leaders of Spain, Germany and Italy–the dangerous buffoons who brought you World War II–are called before the International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity. The script is witty and surprisingly current. Geneva just closed, but watch for the next Shaw Chicago production. They perform at the Ruth Page Center on Dearborn Street.

See my review here.

Green Day’s American Idiot at The Hypocrites

NSB-American-IdiotCongratulations to the Hypocrites for acquiring the Chicago rights to the production based on the Green Day album about suburban teen angst after 9/11, including, of course, sex, drugs and punk rock. The New York production ran for 400+ performances in 2010-11 and got generally favorable reviews. The Hypocrites’ version is smaller scale but still powerful and uses the pop/punk music to advantage. It’s loud, raucous and fun. Jeanne Newman, one of my Gapers Block colleagues, reviewed the show and her review is here.

American Idiot runs at the Hypocrites’ new home at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue through October 25. If you don’t own the album, borrow or download it so you can listen to the music before you see the show. You’ll enjoy it more if you already appreciate the music–and Green Day’s lyrics.

August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at Court Theatre

This late August Wilson play, the tenth in his Century Cycle about his home neighborhood, the Hill District of Pittsburgh, is set in the earliest decade of the 20th century. It resonates with the misery of the African-Americans whose ancestors were slaves or who remembered slavery themselves and the trauma of the Middle Passage, when slaves were transported across the ocean. Goodman Theatre produced this play in its 2002-03 season and I remember having mixed feelings about it then.

This production features very strong acting, especially by Jacqueline Williams as the mystic Aunt Ester and Jerod Haynes as Citizen Barlow, a young man who wants to save himself, “cleanse his soul,” and seems to speak for Wilson. Act one is strong although it runs too long, and in act two, Aunt Ester prepares for a spiritual visit to the City of Bones (see them in the video clip).

Gem of the Ocean runs through October 11 at Court Theatre in Hyde Park.  It has had generally favorable reviews (I didn’t review it).

Photos and video clips courtesy of the theater companies.



New York Report #2: Riding with the fishes + the art of history

It was a slightly overcast Friday morning and that didn’t make me unhappy. Down in Battery Park, I could walk along the water without worrying about sunburn. It’s an easy place to reach on the #1 train from midtown. Battery Park is a beautiful place with gardens and monuments and an excellent white tablecloth restaurant as well as snack and drink stands. It’s the place where you can board a boat to take you to Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty, but I’ve done those things before.

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I was interested in the new Sea Glass Carousel, which just opened in August. It’s housed in a circular building like a nautilus shell made of glass and steel that’s near the water and a short walk from the MTA station. The carousel is populated with many different types of fiberglass fish—a 14-foot-tall angelfish, a butterflyfish, yellow lionfish, triggerfish and a Siamese fishing fish, among others. 30 fish in all. For $5, you can sit in a fish of your choice and ride for about four minutes.

On another rainy day, I visited two interesting New York museums that I had missed on all my other trips. The Museum of the City of New York is housed in a grand building at 103rd and  Fifth Avenue, built in 1932 as a museum. I was particularly interested in several exhibits there:

Everything Is Design: The Work of Paul Rand, one of American’s pioneer graphic designers. Rand developed dozens of familiar logos and the corporate identity systems that supported them–mainly back in the day when an identity system meant a massive binder of instructions for every conceivable corporate application, from stationery and publications to trucks, signage and uniforms. (Today those guidelines still exist, of course, but not on paper.)

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Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival. An expansive exhibit of folk music in New York from pioneers such as Ledbetter and Guthrie to Dylan and famous venues such as Gerdes’ Folk City and Greenwich Village “basket clubs.”

Hip-Hop Revolution: Photographs by three photographers. I had seen Hamilton the night before, so of course I had to pay homage to the hip-hop artists who inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Activist New York. The drama of New York activist groups and issues over the years, from abolition (1830-65) and suffrage (1900-20) to civil rights (1945-64), gay rights (1969-2012) and bicycle lane advocacy (1965-2011). And a fascinating corner about the power of the pen: the Proletarian Literary Movement (1929-41).

The exhibits are all well curated and displayed. The three-story building also has a cafe. And there’s a beguiling door that displays this title: “This is New York’s most exciting stairwell.” And indeed the stair is lined with posters and billboards illustrating the city’s history and culture.

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Over on Central Park West is the New York Historical Society, where I wanted to see the exhibit, Art as Activism. The exhibit asks the question: “How did political messages go viral before the internet?” and answers it in a mesmerizing way, showing 70 posters from the 1930s to the 1970s. They’re all from the Merrill C. Berman collection at the historical society.  The posters are framed and installed like paintings. They tell stories you wouldn’t have learned in your US history classes unless you were using Howard Zinn’s remarkable People’s History of the United States.

All photos by Nancy Bishop except where noted. 



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