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Morning Lecture Recaps

Finally ready for prime time: Newman closes week with laughs

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  • Laraine Newman, an original cast member of SNL and founding member of improv group The Groundlings, discusses the emotional benefits of improv, play and humor on Friday, July 13, 2018, in the Amp. ABIGAIL DOLLINS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Laraine Newman knows play is an art.

The original “Saturday Night Live” cast member spoke to “basically how improv and humor can save the world” (and she was not kidding) at the 10:45 a.m. morning lecture Friday, July 13, in the Amphitheater as the punchline of Week Three’s theme, “The Art of Play.”

“Eve Arden, Madeline Kahn and Richard Pryor were my first major influences,” Newman said. “They led me into my life of comedy, they led me into understanding ‘The Art of Play.’ ”

Her comedy career began as a young girl in a toy store. Sweet and innocent, Newman said she would walk aimlessly through the rows of toys and then, in a flash, she would stuff rubber animal erasers down her underpants and run out of the store. Her scam worked — until she brought an unseasoned thief along.

The accomplice got caught by a salesperson. Newman, in a fit of panic, used her improvisational skills.

“We got those over at Newberry’s and if you don’t believe me, you can come with us over there and ask them,” she said.

The salesperson let them go.

“You might be saying to yourself, ‘Well that’s not improv, that’s just lying,’ ” she said over a burst of laughter. “And you’d be right, but it’s the lie of a 9-year-old pretty much feeling like she is fighting for her life. So the way I guess you say it is, ‘survival itself is an improvisation.’ ”

Newman explained the guiding principle of improv: to say “yes, and,” to any — and every — thing. This means that every response should be an affirmation, not a “no, and” or a “yes, but,” which Newman said is the same as a “no.”

“Yes, and” is not exclusive to improv; giving positive affirmations should extend into everyday life, Newman said, including for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Newman described her friend and fellow comedy writer, whose mother suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s.

Her friend began giving positive responses to her mother’s complaints that someone was in her house, with questions like, “Why do you think someone is there, what do they want?” rather than, “No one is in your house, Mom.” Both her and her mother’s frustrations rapidly decreased.

“Of course, it was always possible that she was actually being robbed, but that’s the risk with improv,” Newman said over an epic roar of laughter.

Improv can also be a problem solver and character builder, which she illustrated through an anecdote about being locked in a room in New Orleans with fellow “SNL” Not Ready For Prime Time Player Gilda Radner.

Too scared to leave for fear of being mobbed, the two sat in an empty room for hours waiting for a cue from the “SNL” crew that it was time to leave. Hungry, bored and cold, Radner fashioned a puppet out of the only other thing in the room — a trash can with a foot pedal.

“I remember saying something like, ‘Man, I am hungry,’ ” Newman said.

In response, Radner said, in a half-Italian, half-Oscar the Grouch accent, “I might have something for you to eat. I think I have some peanuts — oh no, sorry, there is something disgusting all over them.”

“Man, I’ve got to pee,” Newman said.

“Don’t look at me,” Radner (as the trash can puppet) said.

This banter continued throughout the day.

“It really made the four hours go by faster,” Newman said, reflecting on that fiasco. “We made the best of the fact that we were cold, bored, thirsty, hungry and had to pee.”

Later on in her career at “SNL,” Radner and Newman took part in a presentation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. That day, Newman was ill and took medication for her symptoms. Midway through the rehearsal of their speech, Newman’s jaw clenched and her tongue dropped to the bottom of her mouth from an allergic reaction to the medication.

They scrambled to come up with a routine, eventually landing on an act where Radner did all the talking and Newman accompanied her with sound effects. Newman’s noises ranged from a possessed chicken to a crying baby to a dog whose paw had just been crushed.

Newman, unexpectedly, demonstrated the shrieking dog for the audience. The high-pitched, ear-shattering noise threw the Amp into a frenzy of admiring “oohs” and painful “ahhs.”

“These moments with Gilda felt so dire, but thank god for her,” she said. “And thank god for our improv training, that fellowship that we both belonged to. The experience of imaginative play can transport us to a reality of our own making, and sometimes that reality we create can help us manage our fear.”

Play to manage fear translates into two fascinations of the early 20th century: haunted houses and horror movies, in which simulated horror gives people a feeling of invincibility.

“There are so many scary things in this life that we cannot control — economic failure, terrorism, a host of other things I don’t know if I should mention because I don’t know who I will offend, but you know what I mean,” Newman rattled off.

Haunted houses and scary movies aside, there are other ways for adults to enjoy play, she said, like cosplay or Dungeons & Dragons — “How great is it that dress up is no longer the exclusive domain of children?” But more universal than that, play is found in just playing with children.

“I think that we can all agree and recognize that there is something so intimate about shared, fun experiences that involve listening, cooperation and laughter,” she said. “It’s a special kind of bonding that shows (children) what relationships can be like out in the world.”

Play appeared in Newman’s parenting through party planning, creating and embodying the personality of their family dog and, of course, improv. Newman stressed the distinction between stand-up, improvisational and sketch comedy.

“A lot of people assume that if you have a comedy background, you’ve done stand up,” she said, violently shaking her head and pulling her arms tight against her chest. “No. God, no. … It’s an entirely different animal.”

Newman admitted she was “never a good improviser,” but when in character, like an angry Jewish poet, a flight attendant, an eccentric chef or a British groupie, she was “free.”

“When I first performed (my characters) and the audience responded, I felt like crying,” Newman said. “I mean the idea that what I saw — what other people saw — (meant) I wasn’t so alone in my perspective. I hope this doesn’t sound too overblown, but it really did feel like a Communion.”

Those characters helped create some of “SNL’s” iconic sketches. At Lorne Michaels’ loft in New York City, the cast of “SNL,” in the beginning stages of the show, met to improvise. Prompted by the phrase “alien family,” Newman, Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin took a trip to Easter Island using a kooky voice Newman created, and “Coneheads” was born.

“Some of the greatest improvisers I’ve ever seen seem to have an open channel to their unconscious,” she said. “Their unconscious is pretty damn funny.”

And before anyone fears ridicule or humiliation for trying something new, whether it be a hairstyle or improv, Newman had a reminder: “We’re all going to die.”

“How (can play, improvisation and humor) be a bridge for communication and empathy?” she said. “How it can evolve fellowship and community? … Every time you make someone laugh, follow someone’s lead, even if it’s a stranger, … every time we accept a child’s reality, we are giving love and affirmation. And how can that not make for a better world? Now go out and play.”

After the conclusion of Newman’s lecture, Chief of Staff Matt Ewalt opened the Q-and-A with the daily reminder:

“As we enter into our Q-and-A, I know a few of you have to leave for other programs, please be as respectful as possible —”

“Yeah, I’m not taking it personally at all,” Newman said as she sarcastically cried into her hands.

After Ewalt and the crowd had a good laugh, he asked Newman if the relationship between people onstage and people in the audience is important in improv comedy.

“(The audience is) really appreciative and they know how hard it is, so if you’re even slightly funny, they really appreciate it,” she said. “And also you’re working off of their suggestions, so they’re kind of invested in your success. But I do think that they are very different from a stand-up audience because the nature of stand-up is so different, and improv really does involve the audience.”

Ewalt continued the Q-and-A by asking that while previous lecturers established that there is a play deficit among children, is there a play deficit among adults?

“I think that there is something considered slightly shameful if we behave in a way that isn’t expected of adults,” Newman said. “More and more now, actually, our culture is supporting (play) as in things like cosplay. … So I guess it has changed somewhat to where people are really given the permission to play more.”

The audience was then given a chance to ask questions; one attendee asked what type of comedy works in the country’s polarized political climate.

“Irony. … I mean, to do comedy, you have to have critical thought, you have to be a reflective person. You have to be able to see the irony of things and be very sensitive to things, and I think that’s kind of more conducive to liberals,” Newman said, cringing and incrementally lowering her voice.

To close Week Three, Ewalt asked if Newman had any tips for someone looking to break into comedy.

“Listen to everybody so that you start where they leave off, so that you’re not a derivative of anybody that’s come before because originality is absolutely key,” she said. “Also, read — read, read, read.”

ABIGAIL DOLLINS / PHOTO EDITOR

Laraine Newman, an original cast member of “Saturday Night Live” and founding member of improv group The Groundlings, discusses the emotional benefits of improv, play and humor on Friday in the Amphitheater

PeacePlayers co-founder Brendan Tuohey extols power of sports’ ability to unite communities

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Malak and Romy were drastically divided — Romy is Israeli and Malak is Palestinian. Their backgrounds left them bitterly opposed to each other, but basketball and PeacePlayers International brought the girls together, bridging their differences and creating a long-lasting friendship on, and off, the court.

Brendan Tuohey, co-founder and executive director of PeacePlayers, spoke to sport’s unique ability to unite people, like Malak and Romy, at the 10:45 a.m. morning lecture Thursday, July 12, in the Amphitheater, putting a full- court press on Week Three’s theme, “The Art of Play.”

“There’s been a long-standing debate about the role of sport and its impact in society,” Tuohey said. “For some, sports is all about competition, with the main goal being one side vanquishing the other. And, yes, there are a lot of instances about sports serving as a divider, … But just as sport has the capacity to overinflate feelings of nationalism, prejudice and sometimes leads to violence, it also has the unique and powerful power to advance social cohesion.”

Tuohey and his brother, Sean Tuohey, founded PeacePlayers to “(unite) communities in conflict” and educate thousands of young people in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Cyprus and the United States through basketball and other sports.

The Tuohey brothers both played sports in high school and eventually college. After college, Sean Tuohey coached basketball in Northern Ireland, a region where Catholics and Protestants are sharply segregated. Catholic and Protestant youths are separated by neighborhoods, schools and sports — Sean Tuohey saw the power of basketball as a way to bring youth together.

A friend suggested the Tuoheys’ approach would be beneficial in South Africa. The brothers rallied $7,000 from friends and family and created PeacePlayers International.

During its time in South Africa, PeacePlayers used its platform as an educational resource to inform people about HIV and AIDS, which was a growing epidemic in the post-apartheid country. Eventually, the Tuoheys’ organization gained enough traction to bring a white school into a primarily black township for a basketball game — something that was unheard of at the time.

“(The white students were) greeted by a thunderous ovation of cheers and the two captains of the teams exchanged flags, the kids played on mixed teams,” Tuohey said. “The South African broadcast channel interviews kids and the coaches and the parents afterward to get their reaction. There was one common refrain from both, from everybody — ‘I was afraid, it was great, let’s do it again.’ ”

Throughout history, sports have always had the power the Tuohey brothers captured in PeacePlayers, like when the newly democratic South Africa hosted and won the 1995 World Cup, or when British, French and German troops ceased fire and conversed over a soccer game in the “Christmas Truce of 1914.”

Tuohey also referenced revolutionary U.S. athletes like Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball, and Magic Johnson, who publicly announced he tested HIV positive in 1991.

Because of its overwhelming influence, sport has been adopted by organizations as a way to create change. The United Nations has listed sport as a “means to promote education, health, development and peace.”

“Why sport?” Tuohey said. “It’s universal, right. Go to a soccer game, and it’s the same thing you see in Brazil and South Africa. It’s a level playing field; it doesn’t matter how much money you have, what color you are, where you come from. (The) question is, ‘Can you play?’ Competition brings people together, to achieve a common goal. Sports draw people, often young people, to activities that open the doors to education, to job training and to avenues to improve their lives.”

However, competition, while it may dilute conflict, is not enough, Tuohey said. To find “positive peace,” where “opposing groups are able to constructively manage disputes and interact non-violently,” societies need to look across party lines and form relationships, which peace studies stress is the most important factor.

“What better way to get this done than sport?” Tuohey asked. “Sport provided the platform to develop positive relationships — to see people that might look different or come from different backgrounds as human beings and to be judged on who we are, not the color of our skin, our religion or how wealthy we are.”

Tuohey turned the audience’s attention to the screen behind him and a video of the Israeli girls’ under-18 national basketball championship. The team won thanks to a down-to- the-wire two-pointer. In a fit of excitement, the girls, five Palestinian and five Israeli, embraced one another as parents ran onto the court.

“What other vehicle could make that happen other than sport?” he said.

At first, one of the Israeli team members was hesitant about playing with Palestinians. Tuohey described how she would attend intermittently, often just watching from the sidelines and not telling her parents about the program, fearing they would disapprove. Eventually, she picked up the ball, with her parents’ support. At the end of the season, her father invited the team over and expressed his love for the team, despite their backgrounds.

This fall, she will be playing on the first mixed-Israeli-Palestinian women’s professional team in the Middle East.

PeacePlayers replicated the Middle East program in Cyprus. According to Tuohey, Cyprus has been divided since the 1970s after the invasion of Turkey into the island nation. In the first years of the PeacePlayers Cyprus branch, which was located in the buffer zone, attendance and interest was low. Eventually, interest was piqued, Tuohey said, and for the first time in two generations, people crossed the border between the Greek and Turkish occupied Cyprus.

“I think one of (the) real special things about sports, and what we’ve been able to do, is that we make things happen that weren’t happening before,” Tuohey said, “and people see it — whether it be a white school going to a black township (in South Africa), a Catholic kid playing rugby with a Protestant kid or a Palestinian kid playing in an Israeli national league.”

After the conclusion of Tuohey’s lecture, Vice President of Marketing and Communications and Chief Brand Officer Emily Morris opened the Q-and-A. She asked what PeacePlayers is measuring for in terms of success and how it’s doing.

Tuohey said that the organization is tracking how children are creating positive relationships through and outside of the program. They are measuring this through evaluations and questionnaires.

Morris then opened the floor to the audience. An attendee asked what the gender balance was across the programs. Tuohey said in Israel, the ratio was 70-to-30 girls, but in other countries, the mix is more balanced.

“You look at the need, particularly in Palestinians and the stigma around sports, we felt really strong that we (needed to) give girls opportunities to play, which has led to them advancing their own college educations and self-confidence,” he said. “For us, it’s important to work with both (boys and girls).”

To close the Q-and-A, Morris asked what the next five years look like for PeacePlayers. Tuohey said in the next two years, the organization will be working on developing more programs in the U.S.

“Unfortunately, there is no shortage of need for the type of work that we do, and I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that that work is needed back here in our country,” he said.

Gray reveals the grim future of world without play

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  • Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College, talks about the psychology of play, Wednesday July 11, 2018, in the Amphitheater. BRIAN HAYES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

During his lecture, psychologist Peter Gray promised it would be “the least happy talk about play you’ve ever heard” — and he delivered.

Gray spoke to the inherent need for, and the decline of, play among children at the 10:45 a.m. morning lecture Wednesday, July 11, in the Amphitheater, continuing Week Three’s theme, “The Art of Play.”

“The absence of play is depression,” Gray said, a point he argued extensively in his book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant and Better Students for Life.

As an evolutionary psychologist by trade and a research professor of psychology at Boston College, Gray has focused throughout his career on the “curiosity, playfulness, sociability and willfulness” of children at a biological and social level.

Natural selection shapes the play of animals and humans alike, Gray said. Predatory animals play by chasing and pouncing to learn to hunt; preyed-upon animals play by running and dodging to learn to avoid being hunted.

“From a biological perspective … play is nature’s way of ensuring that young mammals practice the kinds of skills that they need to develop to live and thrive as their species in the environment in which they are growing up,” he said.

However, running, chasing, pouncing and dodging may not be “play” for Gray. He has a four-point criteria for what constitutes play: play is self-directed and self-chosen; play is intrinsically motivated; play is guided by rules; and play includes an imaginary element.

For play to be self-chosen, children cannot be directed to play by teachers, parents or superiors. Although games in school can be instructive and educational, it is not “play,” he said.

“(Play is) how (children) learn to make choices,” he said. “It’s how they learn to direct their own activities, and when we take that away from children by creating the activity for them, directing the activity for them, we are taking away the opportunity for them to learn how to create and direct their own activities, solve their own problems.”

The lack of these learned abilities can translate into adulthood. Children who play in risky ways and try new, sometimes dangerous, forms of play are better equipped to handle the challenges adult life might throw at them, Gray said.

“All of us are going to face real risks in our lives, and it’s a good idea to practice with risks in relativity controlled conditions of play, so that the first time you are in true danger … you can keep your head together and not have a panic attack,” he said. “So that little girl that climbs the tree too high, what is she doing? She is developing courage.”

For play to be intrinsically motivated, Gray said it must be self-chosen and must “discover and follow passions.” While play is an act of passion, it must also be guided by rules — rules established, chosen and accepted by children. Finally, play must have an imaginary element.

Imagination is the only thing that separates humans from animals, Gray said.

“In some sense, in play you are always stepping outside of the real world into a fantasy land, into an imaginary world,” he said. “Even in a game like chess, it is an imaginary world where bishops only move on the diagonal — unlike the real world, where they can go wherever they want.”

Despite the abundance of opportunities for play, over the last six decades Gray has seen a nationwide loss of play — an epidemic he called a “national tragedy.”

“There has been a continuous, gradual, but overall huge decline in children’s freedom and opportunity to play,” he said. “There is no comparison between the freedom that children had in the 1950s and the lack of freedom that children have today.”

Gray reflected on his own childhood in the 1950s:

He was able to play outside, without supervision, throughout the day with other children in the neighborhood; he described having two hours of recess a day and not having homework in elementary school.

“We never carried books or worksheets back home. We did in school what school was, at home we played with our families,” he said. “Our parents were not supposed to be assistant teachers. They were not there monitoring your homework; for the most part they didn’t know how we were doing in school. They didn’t want to know, and we didn’t want them to know.”

Gray said he had two educations growing up: traditional schooling and a “hunter- gatherer” education (the hunter-gatherer education was more valuable). In “hunter-gatherer” cultures, children are encouraged to play, especially at critical ages when most western cultures are pushing the importance of school on their young.

“Today, if you go out in almost every neighborhood in America, if you find children outdoors at all, they’re likely to be on some kind of a manicured field, wearing uniforms, being directed by adults — that’s not play,” he said, stressing that social lessons taught by unorganized, free play are more important than the technique of a sport.

Gary attributes the decline of play to three reasons: the spread of fear, increased pressure on children and a “schoolish” cultural outlook.

According to Gray, “the world actually is not more dangerous than it was decades ago,” and crime rates are steadily declining. But people are still fearful of traffic accidents, and yet in places with minimal traffic, children are still denied play. People are fearful of child predators, yet they fail to acknowledge the rarity of the crime, Gray said.

“We are so afraid that we deprive our children of what they most need — the opportunity to get away from us and play with other kids,” he said.

Students have been reduced to numbers and admissions — parents think about college applications while the child is still in the womb, Gray joked. School and extracurricular activities absorb children’s time because people fear that without structure, children won’t succeed.

“We have in our society, by and large, what I refer to as a ‘schoolish’ view of child development,” Gray said. “That’s the view that children develop best when directed by adults, and that children’s own activities are a waste of time. … We want to control them.”

And the desire to control children has dire consequences. In the last 60 years, Gray said rates of major depressive disorder have increased eightfold; anxiety disorder rates have risen between five and eightfold.

“Should we be surprised by that?” he said. “We have put children into what I think even we adults would regard for us as anxiety-provoking divides where you’re constantly being monitored, you’re constantly being evaluated, you’re constantly being judged, you’re constantly being compared with your peers.”

Gray asked: What is society doing to this next generation that is making them the most stressed demographic in the country?

“I’m calling it ‘play deficit disorder,’ ” he said. “And the only cure is play.”

After the conclusion of Gray’s lecture, Dave Griffith, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, opened the Q-and-A. He asked if there was a correlation between the decline in play and the rise in obsession with higher education.

“If we were seriously concerned about education, you would think about what are the things really, really important in our culture,” Gray said. “And I think what we would conclude is that things that are really, really important to learn, like being creative, like being self-directed, like understanding who you are, like being able to control your emotions, … none of these things are part of our education. These are things you learn in play.”

Griffith then turned to the audience for questions; one attendee asked if Gray’s research revealed gender difference in play.

Gray said that through ages 8 to 11, children self-segregate their play — boys playing with boys and girls playing with girls, something absent in younger children. However, Gary believes in the importance of letting children play with whoever they want.

To close, an audience member asked if video games were a form of play. Gray referred back to his four characteristics of play. He argued that video games fit each of those criteria and therefore are a form of play. However, he did stress giving children time outside as well.

“We have created a world where it’s not much fun for (children) to go outdoors,” he said. “There’s not much opportunity for them to find and play with other kids. Kids more than anything else want to play with other kids … and if there are other kids playing outdoors, they will go out and play, and they will balance that with their video games. … My feeling is that we just have to trust kids.”

Playworks founder, CEO Jill Vialet discusses importance of play for children, adults alike as instructive, community-building

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  • Audience members participate in a game during Jill Vialet's lecture. Vialet is the creator of the non-profit Playworks and spoke about the importance of play for people of all ages on Monday, July 9, 2018 in the Amp. ABIGAIL DOLLINS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Playworks founder and CEO Jill Vialet turned the Amphitheater into a playground at the 10:45 a.m. morning lecture Monday, July 9, when she kicked off Week Three’s theme “The Art of Play” with a game.

The game, appropriately titled “Stand Up,” required people to stand up or gesture in response to a number of statements.

“If you are a parent, stand up,” Vialet said.

Amp attendees swifty shifted into their appropriate positions. The questions continued, getting more specific as the game progressed. Vialet asked questions like, “Who listened to Justin Timberlake?” and “Who wore ‘powder blue’ to their prom?” (Chautauquans shared similar tastes in prom apparel).

Playing games is common for Vialet. Her nonprofit, Playworks, focuses on “the power of play” by bringing activities to children and schools across the country. Vialet’s inspiration for Playworks came during her tenure as executive director for the Museum of Children’s Art, which she founded with Mary Marx.

While visiting an elementary school as part of outreach work for the museum, Vialet was waiting in the dreaded school office as three miserable-looking boys emerged with their principal, who then ushered Vialet into her office. Despite her intent to talk about children’s art, the principal went off on a tangent and started venting about “why recess is hell.”

That was the “genesis of the idea,” Vialet said. She founded Playworks in 1996, coinciding with the birth of her first daughter. Both her “babies” are now 22 years old; her daughter just graduated from New York University and Playworks is projected to reach over 900,000 kids in 1,800 schools, and although they may seem like adults, both are still growing and learning, Vialet said.

“We started local, growing and growing and growing, and over the years, it’s been fascinating to watch why play is valued, what the justification is and how people rationalize making time for play in schools,” she said.

In recent years, Playworks’ research has been at the center of that justification.

Schools that have participated in Playworks have experienced increased feelings of safety among students, higher retention rates, increased physical activity and decreased rates of bullying compared to schools without recess programs, according to Vialet. Recess also teaches children important life lessons, she said.

“One of the great aspects of play, and making sure that kids have time to play in context of education, is that they really have the chance to lean in and come to experientially learn that most successes are predicated on multiple failed attempts,” she said.

Play is not limited to children, Vialet said. In Silicon Valley, companies are stressing the importance of play and how it sparks creativity and builds community. On Google’s campus, for example, there are beach volleyball courts and a culture that encourages employees to play.

“There was this recognition that optimal experiences are more often designed than they are discovered,” she said. “And so to maximize the likelihood of serendipitous things happening, infusing play into the process and helping bring out the best in people really changed the dynamic of the creative process — which is what brings me to entropy and the second law of thermo- dynamics.”

Vialet asked that the physicists in the audience not scoff if her metaphor was “ill-advised.” She said she finds comfort in the notion that a system without the necessary energy will fall apart. If it does, it doesn’t mean the system itself is a “degenerate,” it just means there wasn’t enough energy behind it.

In terms of the adult world, playful energy in the workplace increases the likelihood of having a positive return, and the same goes for schools.

“When I was talking to principals about why what (Playworks) did worked, they were often shocked,” she said. “They were surprised that play could have such an impact on their school’s culture and climate, … that this infusion of energy and this play could really help to bring out the best in not only the kids, but in the teachers.”

Vialet shared an anecdote that embodied the impact play has on students.

A Playworks employee Vialet called “Coach K” was warned about a student at her school who was “disruptive.” The student became involved with the Playworks intramural volleyball team and began to exhibit small, but noticeable, changes. Coach K was thrilled.

But during the last week of the Playworks’ program, the student became a “nightmare,” Vialet said. He stormed out of a match, called Coach K an inappropriate name and aimed a serve at another student. Traditionally, in this last week, Playworks concludes with an award ceremony where certain students are given honors.

Coach K was hesitant about giving this student an award, but per Vialet’s advice made him a “junior coach.” The student thanked Coach K, who in turn said it was a joy to coach him. The student teared up because Coach K saw his potential — the best he could be.

“We know from play that we need each other,” Vialet said. “And we believe actually that play has survived all these eons of evolutions, despite being a profoundly risky behavior, exactly because it teaches us how to navigate the messiness of our human independence. It teaches us to self-navigate, it teaches us how to collaborate, it teaches us essential skills that really make it possible to function in a democracy.”

But despite its being an instrumental part of life and identity, not everyone experiences play equally, and “who gets to play in America is telling,” Vialet said. From her research and experience, men are more likely to be playing as adults, and affluent schools are more likely to ensure that students have time to play.

“It is so easy to dismiss play as frivolous, as this extra thing, and yet my experience is that nothing can be further from the truth,” Vialet said. “That it is how we find ourselves and how we make connections with others. It creates this incredible opportunity that we see, and I would offer that in this moment in time, it’s never been more important.”

Following the conclusion of her lecture, Chautauqua President Michael E. Hill opened the Q-and-A by asking how the models of play have changed.

Vialet said the world has changed dramatically, but the fundamental need to play remains.

“I think what we’re seeing now is that there are fewer opportunities for kids to play outside in unsupervised environments,” Vialet said.

But apart from how technology is affecting play, there are also political influences altering the way children play.

“What I do, running kickball programs, feels not super-controversial,” she said, “and yet I get called a ‘recess fascist’ by people on the left and I get called a ‘vanguard of the Obama manuscript’ by people on the right. I must be doing a good job because I’m pissing everybody off.”

An audience member then asked if video games qualify as play, which Vialet answered by saying they did (in limited amounts).

Another attendee posed the question of how to make traditionally athletic games more accessible to those with disabilities or those who are not athletically gifted.

She said that play is adaptable, no matter the season or resources (children even play four square in the Minnesota winter by drawing lines with Kool-Aid in the snow).

Play is not about “finger wagging” or saying “you’re going to play together,” Vialet said; it’s about building trust and rapport as an opportunity for inclusion.

For Vialet, play is about collaborating and interacting with new and different people. Play is not exclusive to any one person — it’s for introverts and extroverts alike; girls, boys and nonbinary children alike; and abled and differently-abled alike.

 

Chua explores political tribalism at center of nation’s polarizing divide

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  • Amy Chua delivers her lecture, "Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations," at the Amphitheater, Friday, July 6, 2018. BRIAN HAYES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

A month after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Amy Chua read a passage from her first book World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability to an international business transaction class at Yale Law School.

“In developing countries, under certain conditions, demagogic politicians with no political experience can sweep to power in elections, to the horror of the elites, riding a wave of racially tinged populism,” she read.

She looked up to her class of now-stunned law students.

“Professor Chua, that sounds a lot like you are describing the United States,” one student said over the dead stares of her classmates.

It wasn’t about the U.S. — it was about former Venezuelan President and dictator Hugo Chávez.

That interaction inspired Chua’s fifth book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, which argues that tribalism is widening the political divide in the U.S. She articulated her point at the 10:45 a.m. morning, Friday, July 6, lecture to close Week Two and the theme “American Identity.”

Chua is an author and professor of law. She was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2011, one of Atlantic Monthly’s Brave Thinkers and one of Foreign Policy’s 2011 Global Thinkers. This was Chua’s second visit to Chautauqua Institution; her first visit she documented thoroughly in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, when her daughter auditioned on (and later quit) the violin.

While humans are tribal animals like their primate relatives, they are not just “a little” tribal — they are extremely tribal, according to Chua. This is not only evident in politics, and isn’t necessarily always negative; humans exhibit positive, tribalistic behaviors in families, friend groups and sports.

“We all know that America is in the grips of political tribalism,” Chua said. “We lament and we condemn this tribalism, even as we can’t help voraciously engage in it.”

Tribalism turns problematic when people begin seeing other tribes as inherently “bad,” which Chua said is apparent in the “bitterly divided” state of the nation.

“At this moment, we can’t get anything done, and we can’t even talk to each other,” she said. “We are at a point where many Americans see people (who) voted for the other side not just as the people that they disagree with and want to debate with, but rather as immoral, evil and ‘un-American,’ which is a dangerous state of affairs.”

Chau contributes this behavior to two factors; the first, the massive demographic shift from the waves of immigration since the 1970s.

“For the first time in history, whites are on the verge of losing their majority,” she said.

And it’s not just white people who feel threatened — every group feels threatened. Women feel threatened by Trump’s presidency, men feel threatened by the #MeToo movement and Christians feel threatened by the changing culture, she said.

This is not a generational issue either, according to Chua. Across college campuses, including her own predominantly liberal Yale, “group blindness,” or failing to acknowledge a group’s oppression, is “the ultimate sin.” Chua said it was “transcendent” for white women to wear a headscarf or a kimono when she was a student, but now it would be seen as a micro- aggression.

“If you champion group blindness, you will be seen as erasing the very specific experiences of oppression of minority groups,” she said. “So I see a lot more self-segregation (among) the different student groups.”

This leads to a hardening of party lines, which prevents conversation across said lines.

The second factor Chua addressed — market-dominant minorities — works simultaneously with racial and cultural changes.

Market-dominant minorities is a term Chua coined in her first book, World on Fire. It describes a minority that controls the majority of wealth in a country. For example, Indonesia’s Chinese ethnic minority makes up 3 percent of the population but controls 70 percent of the nation’s wealth. For these countries, the introduction of a democracy can be destabilizing.

“Americans tend to romanticize democracy,” she said. “We think that elections are the answer to everything. And I think we are now getting the taste of our own medicine. … Under certain conditions, especially when inequality traps certain deep, pre-existing ethnic or religious divisions, … democracy does not improve, but actually catalyzes, group conflict.”

Chua predicted this would happen in Iraq. Prior to the U.S. invasion, Iraq had a market- dominant minority — the Sunni. The Sunni comprised 15 percent of Iraq’s population, controlled its markets and victimized the majority Shia and Kurds population.

“What do you think the majority is going to do when you give them the vote?” she said. “I predicted that Iraq’s long-oppressed 60 percent Shia majority would likely use their new-found power as revenge against their former overlords.”

That’s exactly what happened, she said.

“Once in power, the Shia immediately began excluding and persecuting and executing Sunnis,” Chua said. “The Sunni minority instantly realized this democracy thing isn’t working, so they began joining the insurgency: al-Qaida and ISIS.”

This theory is not limited to developing countries. A new market-dominant minority is rising in the U.S., dubbed “coastal elites,” according to Chua.

“Something has changed,” she said. “Class or education has split America’s white majority. Indeed, today there is so little interaction and intermarriage between these two groups of whites in America — between coastal, urban, more educated whites and whites in the heartland, the South, more working- class whites. Today, the division between these two groups of whites is so deep that it practically constitutes what social sciences would call an ethnic divide.”

The “coastal elite” class includes Wall Street executives and Silicon Valley moguls, according to Chua, who share the same “cosmopolitan” lifestyle and progressive ideals.

This new economic superpower, and the changing demographics of the U.S., is causing the riff between tribes, but Chua said she has hope.

“(America’s) strong overarching American identity, coupled with its ability to accommodate individual subgroup cultures, make it a ‘super- group,’ ” she said.

The United States’ unique birthright citizenship policy makes “(it) the model for overcoming tribalism,” but Chua offered some additional suggestions.

Her first suggestion was that Americans need to be more protective of their country’s “uniqueness.” Democrats should be more aware of the harm of the “scorched-earth” approach to American identity.

“There’s a world of difference in saying ‘America has repeatedly and shamefully failed to live up to its open ideals and must do better,’ ” she said. “There’s a huge difference between saying that and saying that ‘the principles that we are supposedly founded on are all fraud, all lies.’ ”

Republicans need to remember that “real patriotism is more than just waving a flag or singing the anthem very loudly,” Chua said.

“The kind of overarching national identity that a super-group requires, capable of binding Americans together, all that balance cannot exist unless every person in the society has reason to love the country, has reason to be proud of the country,” she said.

Americans also have to start viewing one another as human again, “(looking) beyond those echo chambers” and bridging the gap between the coast and the heartland “to start reaching across divides.”

“America is an aspirational nation; our ideals have always far exceeded reality,” Chua said. “The American dream is a promise of freedom and hope. That is also a call on all of us to make true the myths we tell ourselves about what we tell ourselves America has always been.”

After she concluded her lecture with Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America be America Again,” Geof Follansbee, chief executive officer of the Chautauqua Foundation and Chautauqua Institution’s vice president of development, opened the Q-and-A. He asked what is “threatening” majorities.

“I think that there is a real fear that the country is changing and that it won’t be the country that it was,” Chua said. “I am an optimist because we have encountered this before. We’ve seen nativists, anti-immigrant and xenophobia waves happen before. Every other time we have overcome it.”

When asked what her ideal 2020 presidential candidate would be like, she said a candidate with strong leadership skills, who speaks authentically — without being “canned”— and who can reach the other side of the political divide.

To close that divide, Chua said the nation should focus on restoring one of its core values.

“I think that restoring upward mobility in this country should be viewed as a national emergency,” she said.

Fallowses talk America’s ‘becomingness’ in Independence Day lecture

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  • James and Deborah Fallows, authors of "Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America," lecture on the theme "American Identity" Wednesday, July 4, 2018 in the Amphitheater. RILEY ROBINSON/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

American identity is “becoming,” Deborah and James Fallows said at the 10:45 a.m. morning lecture Wednesday, July 4 in the Amphitheater as part of Week Two’s discussion on “American Identity.”

“The story of this nation is a contiguous start at every point, from the 1600s to the 2000s now, where you have forces of openness and inclusion and possibility and ideals, and forces working in the other direction,” James Fallows said. “And the story of our country is the endless frontier between those forces.”

The Fallowses have spent the last five years flying in a single-engine prop airplane to smaller- and medium-sized cities across the U.S., meeting with leaders, workers, young people and immigrants to see a “country busy remaking itself.”

Their book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, documents their journey through the City Makers: American Futures project — a partnership with The Atlantic and “Marketplace.”

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, currently based in London. He served as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, and as editor of US News & World Report.

He is the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermines American Democracy and China Airborne, a five-time finalist and winner of the National Magazine Award, a winner of the American Book Award for non-fiction, and a New York Emmy Award winner.

Deborah Fallows is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, where she writes about women, education and travel. She is also the author of Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons In Life, Love, And Language and A Mother’s Work. She previously worked on research for the Pew Internet Project and for Oxygen Media doing data architecture. She is also a graduate of Harvard University with a Ph.D. in linguistics, and speaks six languages.

The Fallowses first visited Chautauqua Institution almost 30 years ago — they have been returning and active Chautauquans ever since.

“Chautauqua has such a special place in America’s imagination and identity and history and future, and in our own family’s life,” James Fallows said.

He opened the lecture by polling the audience. He asked who thought the current direction of America was on “the wrong course”; the majority of attendees shot their hands in the air, and a snicker echoed through the Amp. When he asked who thought the country was on “the right course,” only a few hands rose.

“We have within this Amphitheater, and the parts of America and society that you represent … people (who) feel that the nationwide scale of the American identity, the American ideal, is in trouble,” he said.

But despite the overwhelming majority of people who think American ideals are changing, the Fallowses believe that cities are rebuilding themselves — and their identities.

“Just at the moment when the ‘us-ness’ and identity of America seems darnfully troubled in ways … a reinvention of the United States, of the ‘us-ness,’ of the American identity of the American idea and ideal is happening city by city, state by state, region by region,” James Fallows said.

He asked how many people’s parents were born outside of the U.S.; a few hands hung in the air. He asked how many people’s grandparents were born outside of the U.S.; more hands rose. He asked how many people’s great-grandparents were born outside of the U.S.; by then, almost every hand was in the air.

“My understanding of the history of American immigration is very much like what we’ve heard from the stage in the previous two days — it’s never been fair, it’s never been easy,” James Fallows said over a crack of thunder he called “natural underscoring.”

For many immigrants, their first taste of America comes in a prepackaged orientation. Here they learn how to do basic tasks — things that seem intuitive to most people — like flush the toilet, how to turn on the stove. More importantly, how to turn off the stove and “how to call 911 when they forget to turn off the stove,” Deborah Fallows said.

After the basics, the orientation skims over how to find housing, pay rent, get health insurance, enroll in school and secure a job.

For students, some of whom have never been to school before, they’re tasked with learning English — no easy feat — or how to write or even how to hold a pen, she said. But schools across the country are accommodating students: giving Muslim students a separate lunch room during Ramadan so they aren’t tempted to eat while fasting, and hiring more English as a second language instructors.

“What do we hear when we were going around these communities?” Deborah Fallows said. “I’ll tell you: we never heard ‘Build a wall.’ In some instances we hear, ‘We need each other, we rely on each other, we are richer for it.’ ”

In November, Deborah Fallows contacted her sources and connections in refugee centers across the country.

“In Erie, Pennsylvania, the phones were ringing off the hook asking, ‘How can I help?’” she said. “In Burlington, Vermont, people had lined up around the block saying, ‘How can I help?’ ”

The head of a national organization for refugee processing in North Carolina, whom Deborah Fallows contacted, met a Syrian refugee who said: “If I was sent back, I want Americans to know that I am grateful for the time I had here, and they have been very good to me.”

As Deborah Fallows read that statement to the audience, her eyes teared up and her voice cracked.

“The history of immigration has and will always be disruptive, there’s always been exclusion, there’s always been prejudice and yet … the promise of the United States is that overall people have become ‘us,’ overall there’s been this imperfect slow continuation of expanding the ‘us’ of the American identity,” James Fallows said. “We can tell you that continues now.”

These communities are also experiencing “institution innovation” in their libraries, public schools and public-pride organizations, according to the Fallowses.

In Duluth, Minnesota, the community is using art as a “reckoning” of the town’s dark history, Deborah Fallows said. Duluth is notoriously known as the site of the “most northern lynching” in America. The town did not acknowledge the lynching until a national alt-weekly magazine highlighted its twisted past.

In memoriam, the town built a park near the scene of the hanging.

Other towns the Fallowses visited are using art to brand themselves; like Bend, Oregon, whose “ flaming chicken” statue has become a staple of the town, and even Chautauqua Institution.

“(At Chautauqua) you have done it to perfection. Everything at Chautauqua is infused with everyday life, and I think it brings this ‘not everyday life’ perspective into what the American life is,” Deborah Fallows said.

The Fallowses said the struggle to define the American identity is between two forces; a force at the national level, where the government is paralyzed, polarized and fearful, and a force at the local level.

“There’s another force that we have seen at Chautauqua, and Erie, and Sioux Falls, and San Bernardino and Greenville — dozens of other places of people reinventing a idea of this country, renewing its promise,” James Fallows said.

He proceeded to read a selection from their book, Our Towns, which summed up the couple’s belief in the strength of redefining American identity at the local level. The last line read: “This is the American song we hear.”

Following a thunderous round of applause (and thunder from a looming storm), Chief of Staff Matt Ewalt presented Deborah Fallows with a gift from Smith Memorial Library: a T-shirt with the phrase “Libraries Rock” printed on the front, for her passion and enthusiasm for libraries.

Ewalt then opened the Q-and-A. He asked how effective the cities the Fallowses visited have been at telling their stories.

More important than having a craft brewery as a point of pride for many cities, James Fallows said, “it’s knowing the civic story.”

“Chautauqua knows what its story and its role in America’s past and the future that Chautauqua has,” he said. “Most of the cities we thought were doing well, they conveyed to their citizens ‘this is what it means to be in (our city).’ ”

He mentioned Fresno, California, as an example. Fresno, a once-underappreciated city, now feels that it’s “coming up,” so much so that it has rebranded itself to “Fres-yes,” James Fallows said.

One attendee asked if cities had found their “sense of place.”

“As people that travel around a lot, we were struck by the ‘placeness’ of the U.S. now,” James Fallows said.

When asked what town or city the couple wanted to visit next, Deborah Fallows sharply replied: “Brownfield, Texas.”

Who is the ‘we’ in ‘We the People’? Cobb examines ‘fundamental divide’ of racism in defining identity

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  • Staff writer of The New Yorker Jelani Cobb discusses the history behind "American Identity" and how it has made a personal impact on his life at the Amphitheater on Tuesday, July 3, 2018. ABIGAIL DOLLINS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Who are the “we” in “we the people?”

Jelani Cobb, staff writer for The New Yorker, took a hard look at what “we the people” has meant throughout history at the 10:45 a.m. morning lecture Tuesday, July 3 in the Amphitheater, continuing Week Two’s discussion of “American Identity.”

During Cobb’s tenure at The New Yorker, he has written extensively about race in America. His articles, including “The Anger in Ferguson,” “Murders in Charleston,” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Reparations,” tackle injustice, the police and race.

He is the 2015 recipient of the Sidney Hillman Prize for Opinion & Analysis Journalism, the 2017 recipient of the Walter Bernstein Award from the Writers Guild of America East for his PBS Frontline series “Policing the Police,” and a Fulbright fellow.

This was his first visit to Chautauqua Institution.

“This is an immense country — sprawling — and if we were to ask ‘what America is,’ we could give any variety of answers,” Cobb said. “We could say that it is a nation-state, in North America — the North American continent — that covers 3.8 million square miles. That it has a population of 325 million people…”

Cobb rattled off facts about the U.S., from religious makeup to racial breakdown. He told the audience “a lot about the United States,” but not “who we are.”

“ ‘Who we are’ is a much broader, philosophical question,” he said. “It is best understood by our responses in times of difficulty. It is what we do in our most mundane moments. It is what we hold onto in our most cherished values.”

The question of who are “we the people,” Cobb said, is central to decades of unresolved conflict — he called it “the fundamental divide” — because for most of the nation’s history, “we” has been exclusive to white people.

“The first-person plural ‘we,’ we’ve never sufficiently understood and defined who was included in that word,” he said. “And as a consequence, we had a dynamic in American history of an expanding concept of ‘we’ and a contracting and fearful idea of who ‘we’ should be.”

This dynamic constantly replays itself, like a “Freudian nightmare, (recurring and recurring) until the underlying conflict is resolved,” he said.

Cobb referenced the Declaration of Independence — and its inherent hypocrisy.

In the original declaration, Thomas Jefferson drafted arguments for separating from England. One of the grievances stressed that the British were guilty of thrusting slaves on the American colonies, and if the slaves revolted, it would be at the expense of Americans, not the British, according to Cobb.

“This is as stinging a rebuke of the institution of slavery that we see from Jefferson’s pen,” he said.

That clause did not make it into the final draft, weaving oppression into the nation’s founding document.

“It is essentially copy-editing black freedom out of the original document. We begin with this disparity and distinction in the capacity in the word ‘we’ to not include all human beings of this country,” Cobb said.

Moving through history, this “disparity” pitted the young republic against itself, erupting in the Civil War — a war fundamentally rooted in the question of “who we are,” Cobb said.

Cobb, who lived in Georgia for a number of years, said “people will tell you ‘the Civil War was fought for a number of exotic reasons.’ ”

“It’s widely accepted that slavery was the active ingredient, which is to say it was not the only cause, but it was the cause which without it, we would not have war,” he said. “It was the intractable element in this, and this issue of slavery would prove more fundamentally as a question of identity.

“Could the people who imagined a republic where there had been none imagine an interracial republic where there was not one?”

States used slavery as a bargaining chip: California could join the Union if southern states could enact tighter fugitive slave laws. From these “compromises” arose a government bureau dedicated to capturing and returning fugitive slaves and attempts to impose a constitutional amendment to prohibit the abolition of slavery, according to Cobb.

None of this resolved the question of “who we are.”

“It’s like a tire that has been patched and patched and patched, and sooner or later the tire is going to fall apart,” he said.

Cobb recalled seeing a statue of Abraham Lincoln on the drive to the Institution. Most people remember Lincoln as “the Great Emancipator,” but Cobb said people admire him for the wrong reasons.

According to Cobb, Lincoln spoke openly about “(consigning) the Negro race to a position of inferiority.” It wasn’t until his party pushed for the abolition of slavery and the Union was victorious at the Battle of Antietam that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Cobb noted that the proclamation only freed slaves in states that had seceded from the Union, and a constitutional amendment was needed to truly end slavery (only for those who had not been convicted of a crime).

“This is back to this expansion and contraction of ‘who is we?’ ” he said.

The rise of the Klu Klux Klan in the late 19th and early 20th century and the sharp increase of immigration laws were also bound in this question of “Who are we?”

Cobb jumped forward to contemporary history.

“In 2007, there were exactly four people in the United States who thought the country was ready to elect a black president, and they all lived in the same address on the south side of Chicago,” Cobb said over a roar of laughter. “But this happened, and it was an amazing thing to witness.”

He said regardless of political views or opinions, Barack Obama’s election to the highest office was a “novel development in American politics.”

However, the election of the first African-American president did not deter the “fundamental divide” from tearing at the social fabric of this new era.

A 2010 and 2011 opinion poll showed a small sliver of white people thought the most disadvantaged group in the country was themselves — despite making up 61 percent of the country and holding 91 percent of political offices, according to Cobb.

“We have yet to triumph over the most narrow sense — the most zero-sum understanding of who we are. We have yet to permanently inscribe a concept of democracy that sees itself as enriched with the presence and success of others. … This can be a difficult thing to grapple with,” he said.

But Cobb has hope. He shared an anecdote about a flight from Atlanta to New York City he took shortly after 9/11. A tall man with olive skin and a long beard boarded the plane wearing a tunic and baggy pants; he sat a row behind Cobb.

Cobb looked over his shoulder and asked the man where he was from; the plane fell silent.

The man turned and, in a rebuttal, asked Cobb where he was from. Cobb responded: “I’m from Queens, and I’m asking because I think you’re also from Queens, and if you are who I think you are, we were in the same breakdance crew in high school.”

“Everybody around us exhaled — he’s a breakdancer, he’s not going to kill us,” Cobb said over the audience’s laughter. “I’m now the large black man that made the white people around me feel more comfortable.”

This experience taught Cobb that it is possible for the country to see beyond its narrow view of itself and widely adopt openness and acceptance.

“In short, it is possible for democracy to exist in this land — it does not quite at this moment,” he said. “This struggle we have inherited from generations past, but I have no doubt that as people of conscience and diligence, it will. It will one day.”

After a thunderous standing ovation, Chief of Staff Matt Ewalt opened the Q-and-A by asking if Cobb finds confidence in the younger generation’s ability to further advance inclusivity.

“We do in instances find that young people are more open-minded about questions and being less mired by the decrepit thinking of older generations, and I think that’s hopeful,” Cobb said. “But I also think that we can’t kind of think that we are on auto-pilot, that these issues will resolve themselves.”

One attendee asked Cobb’s thoughts on whether Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel for the national anthem is a response to social injustices, or a lack of patriotism.

Cobb, who is close friends with Kaepernick, said that people mistake his decision as “unpatriotic” to gloss over the actual issues at hand, like police brutality.

“Patriotism is supposed to include dissent,” Cobb said.

‘Our Towns’ authors Fallowses to examine nation’s ideals in context of current climate

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The American identity is changing, according to James and Deborah Fallows.

The Fallowses will discuss how cities are redefining American ideals and their new book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, at their 10:45 a.m. lecture Wednesday, July 4 in the Amphitheater to continue Week Two, “American Identity.”

“(Chautauqua Institution) has a way of understanding how the long-term elements of the American identity and American ideals match the realities of this moment of the political trends and emerging crises,” James Fallows said. “It’s particularly relevant right now because a lot of both national and local politics involve this effort to figure out what is America, who are Americans and what does it mean to be of this country.”

Over the last five years, the Fallowses have traveled by prop airplane, reporting on smaller-to medium-sized cities that are reshaping what it means to be an American on a local level. This project, in partnership with The Atlantic and “Marketplace,” is called “City Makers: American Futures.”

Along their journey, the couple met with civic leaders, factory workers, immigrants and entrepreneurs — Our Towns is a collection of those interactions, “an account of a country busy remaking itself.”

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic — he has written for The Atlantic since the late 1970s. James Fallows was the chief White House speechwriter under former President Jimmy Carter for two years and served as editor of US News & World Report for two years. He has authored Breaking the News: How the Media Undermines American Democracy and China Airborne. He is also the author of Blind Into Baghdad and Postcards From Tomorrow Square; these works are based on writing from The Atlantic.

He is a fifth-time finalist for the National Magazine Award, which he won once, recipient of the American Book Award for non-fiction and a NewYork Emmy Award-winner for the documentary series “Doing Business in China.”

He and Deborah Fallows have lived in Shanghai and Beijing, travelling through China for three years.

Deborah Fallows is the author of Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language, a reflection on her struggles while learning Mandarin. She is also a contributing writer for The Atlantic and co-creator of “City Makers: American Futures.”

Deborah Fallows is a graduate of Harvard University with a Ph.D. in linguistics. She has worked in research and polling for the Pew Internet Project and data architecture for Oxygen Media.

For their morning lecture, the Fallowses will touch on the contrast of American identity at the local and national levels.

“At the national level, there’s just a really pinched battle about who can be an American,” James Fallows said. “We’re contrasting that to what we’ve seen in the local level, where there is this city-by-city, ongoing reinvention of the American identity, which we’re saying is actually much closer to what has been over the century.”

The Fallowses have visited the Institution many times over the last few decades.

“Since we’ve gotten to know a lot of people at Chautauqua, we’re looking forward to seeing them again,” Deborah Fallows said. “We always look forward to the kind of community family village atmosphere of Chautauqua that’s different compared to maybe our hometown.”

James Fallows said he is interested in the way the Institution has evolved.

“One of the things that makes Chautauqua most distinctive in American life is the tradition,” he said, “the way it is deliberately set apart from modern chaos and trying to give people a chance to think seriously about ideas and books and matters, both of reason and of faith and of culture, and all those things have been consistent since its foundation. … It’s recognizably the same place, but is also clearly responding to the new ideas, challenges, opportunities of each age.”

Deborah Fallows said the Institution “maintain(s) some of the things about American society that the country has always valued.”

James Fallows agreed.

“(American identity) has been one of (the Institution’s) trademark themes over the decades of understanding both the permanent and continually changing nature of the American identity,” he said, “permanent in the ideals of inclusion, mutual effort to make a more perfect union and all the other aspects that were said at the start, but changing and continuing with the ethnic mix and international and domestic challenges.”

For Deborah Fallows, the Institution, despite its isolation and microscale, ignites inspiration for change across the nation.

“I think (Chautauqua) offers something different, which is maybe a chance to be more creative about the kinds of changes and renewal that are possible,” she said. “That comes from hanging out in the summer with people you don’t live with every day during the winter and the community problems you don’t live with during the winter, so it’s a chance to, in a micro-cosmic way, listen to the country at large.”

Caragol frames ‘American Identity’ through portraits

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  • Dr. Taína B. Caragol, curator of painting and sculpture and Latino art and history for the National Portrait Gallery, talks about the importance of representation in the Amphitheater, Monday, July 2, 2018. BRIAN HAYES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

For Taína Caragol, American identity is visual.

Caragol, curator of painting and sculpture and Latino art and history at the National Portrait Gallery, framed identity through portraits at the 10:45 a.m. morning lecture Monday, July 2 in the Amphitheater to kick off Week Two,“American Identity.”

“Identity is a grounding force — it tells us who we are and by that it centers us, defining not just our own selves, but also how we relate to the world,” she said. “Identity, personal or national, is led by shared experiences and values that are informed by our past and our present.”

Prior to her appearance at Chautauqua Institution, Caragol said she spent a lot of time thinking about her identity.

“I thank you all for throwing me into a new identity crisis,” she said.

This was Caragol’s first visit to Chautauqua, but she quickly realized her identity was more closely tied to the Institution than she thought.

Within hours of the announcement that Caragol would deliver a lecture this season, an unfamiliar face with a familiar lineage contacted her.

A Chautauquan and distant relative reached out to Caragol. It was a “great cousin on her father’s side,” whose family was from Liverpool, England, and born to Catalonian parents. This inspired Caragol’s title for her lecture: “Catalonia to Chautauqua, One Way.”

On the journey from Catalonia to Chautauqua, Caragol took a brief ( five years and counting) stop at the National Portrait Gallery.

Caragol has been at the foreground of the effort to increase representation of Latino figures and culture at the National Portrait Gallery. She previously served as curator of education at Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico and as the Latin American bibliographer for the Museum of Modern Art.

As one of Washington’s oldest public buildings, the structure that now holds the National Portrait Gallery was built in 1836 to house the U.S. Patent Office, injured soldiers during the Civil War and, eventually, President Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration.

The traditional Greek Revival building was marked for demolition in the 1950s to make way for a parking lot, but survived and was incorporated into the Smithsonian. The National Portrait Gallery was founded in 1962 and authorized by Congress to “acquire and display portraits of ‘men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development and culture of the people of the United States.’ ”

Although the gallery displays images of influential figures, Caragol stressed “(the gallery) is not a hall of fame.”

“I take the time to go over our building’s history to convey the fact that American identity — the question of who we are collectively, as a nation — permeates every aspect of the National Portrait Gallery’s mission,” she said.

When Caragol interviewed for her current job, she asked why the institution was looking for a Latino art and history specialist when their collection of such art was minimal. That was the reason they needed her.

At the time, less than 1 percent of the gallery’s 22,000-piece collection featured historical Latino figures. African-Americans comprised about 5 percent and women less than a quarter.

According to Caragol, this lack of representation was partially because of biases in the portrait industry.

“Not everyone has been worthy of a portrait or able to afford one. Early American portraiture, until the advent of photography in 1839, is mostly white and male,” she said. “When postage portraiture presents most often the original history of the elite, written history is most often related from the point of view of the notorious and powerful.”

The lack of representation of minorities could lead to insecurities among youth, Caragol said.

“The portrait gallery, as the national compository for portraits of great American men and women, exists not only to tell their biographies but to let younger generations know by example that they can and should live on in history,” she said. “In this context, the mere absence of Latinos from the gallery … and from its collection suggests their lack of belonging.”

During her tenure at the National Portrait Gallery, Caragol has helped acquire 150 pieces depicting Latino figures — most by Latino artists. The collection has grown from 1 percent to 2.5 percent — a small but significant change.

“There’s more work to do, but that means job security, right?” she joked.

The collection includes portraits of Rubén Salazar, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the first Mexican-American journalist to cover the Chicano community in the mainstream media, painted by Rupert García; Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and third female Supreme Court jus- tice, painted by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders; and activist and founder of Agricultural Workers Association, Dolores Huerta, painted by Barbara Carrasco.

“In the last five years, I’ve been working hard to make sure that the history of the nation that you see in our museum, its past and present, reflects the integral role of Latinos in shaping its culture,” Caragol said.

Caragol referenced a work from “The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11 to Now” — a collection she co-curated — called “Home” by Vincent Valdez, which moved her.

The multimedia piece included a video of businesses and neighborhoods of San Antonio, Texas, with a coffin of an American soldier floating through each scene as a tribute to the artist’s fallen friend. She shared a clip of the piece with the audience.

Caragol said the work, although it is by a Latino artist and depicts Latino culture, has a universal message that people can relate to despite political or social opinions about war, race or ethnicity.

“That is the power of art. By agreeing to our humanity, it can connect people with many different experiences. It can be a vehicle of solidarity, while also conveying specificity. So if you see someone you do not know or does not look like you show up on the walls of your National Portrait Gallery, they might be connected to your identity.”

-Taína Caragol, Curator, Painting, Sculpture, Latino Art and History, National Portrait Gallery

As Caragol finished painting the relationship between art and identity to the Amp’s audience, President Michael E. Hill opened the Q-and-A. He asked how the curatorial team fills gaps in American history through portraits.

Caragol said that while the museum follows the “traditional, official historical narrative — the one written in textbooks,” it tends to be exclusive, and therefore, the museum also relies on specialists in different fields to accurately portray history.

Hill then opened the floor to audience questions. One attendee asked how the gallery told larger stories, like of mass immigration and the Japanese internment camps, through single portraits. Caragol explained that other mediums are often included to better sculpt history.

“Some of (the collections), we don’t have all the necessary portraits to put that story together, but then we borrow them from other museums, we go to archives and documents that can help us tell that story,” she said.

In the context of the broader, national conversation about removing Confederate monuments, one audience member asked if the National Portrait Gallery will remove any of its controversial pieces.

The National Portrait Gallery does not gloss over history — even the difficult subjects — according to Caragol.

“As I said, we are not a hall of fame — history cannot be a hall of fame, there are parts that are really painful, that are disturbing and we should not simply ignore them — it’s not possible,” she said. “We need to study them and understand them fully to make sure they don’t happen again. That can’t be possible if we decide to turn a blind eye on them.”

Playwrights Hnath, Hamill take stage to talk writing, theater with Kahn

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  • Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn leads the Morning Lecture with Playwrights Lucas Hnath and Kate Hamill in the Amphitheater on Friday, June 29, 2018. HALDAN KIRSCH/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In the finale of “The Life of the Written Word,” playwrights stepped out of the wings to discuss taking their scripts to the stage.

More than 30 years after leaving his mark on Chautauqua Institution, Michael Kahn returned to lead the 10:50 a.m. (the 10:45 a.m. lecture started five minutes late) conversation Friday, June 29 in the Amphitheater as the curtain call of Week One.

Kahn, the founder of Chautauqua Conservatory Theater Company, now Chautauqua Theater Company, is the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. He will retire in 2019 after more than 32 years with the company.

In 1983, he was nominated for a Tony Award for his direction of Show Boat. His work at the theater earned him the award for Outstanding Regional Theatre in 2012. Kahn is an inductee in the American Theatre Hall of Fame and was named an honorary knight of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

Now, he said in regard to his panelists, “we are in a golden age of playwriting.”

An international playwright, Lucas Hnath’s work includes A Doll’s House, Part 2, a look at what happens to Nora after the bold ending of A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, Hillary and Clinton, Red Speedo, The Christians and Death Tax.

Hnath is a 2017 Tony nominee for Best Play, a recipient of Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play, the Windham-Campbell Prize and an Obie Award. He serves as an assistant professor in the Department of Dramatic Writing at his alma mater, New York University.

For Hnath, theater combines his childhood loves: Disney, which was in the backyard of his childhood Orlando home; megachurches, which his family attended often; haunted houses, which he hated; and magic shows, which he adored.

Kate Hamill works both behind the page and on the stage; named The Wall Street Journal’s Playwright of the Year in 2017, her work includes an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which won the 2016 Off-Broadway Alliance Award and was nominated for the Drama League Award. She debuted the role of Marianne.

“I think of ‘Kate the actor’ and ‘Kate the playwright’ as two different people,” she said.

She has also written adaptations for Vanity Fair and Pride and Prejudice; she acted in both plays. Hamill is also working on The Odyssey and The Scarlet Letter.

Kahn opened the conversation asking why each playwright chose to write for the theater.

“I get to make my own little stage, and I get to put something in three dimensions,” Hnath said. “There’s no other form where you really get to do something that moves through real time and space like that.”

For Hamill, the theater feels like a unique religious ritual.

“As opposed to when you watch a film or TV or something,” she said, “a play is actually changed by an audience.”

Hnath’s work presents characters with polarizing themes that challenge their beliefs. For example, A Doll’s House, Part 2 challenges the idea of monogamous relationships.

“It comes from a desire to understand something I don’t agree with,” he said.

He recounted working for a nonprofit law clinic, listening to people talk about horrific moments in their lives, and how it shaped his playwriting. Hnath’s job was to establish cases for his clients, but to do so he had “to understand the argument against them.”

He asks himself a series of questions when writing a play: “What do you know?” “How do you know it?” and “Are you sure you know it?”

“If you have a really big problem that people can connect with for 90 minutes, you might have a play,” Hnath said.

For Hamill, her inspiration for “woman-central plots” stemmed from a frustration about the lack of powerful roles for female actors.

“I would go to an audition where there would be 400 women in an room trying their best to play the male protagonist’s wife, or girlfriend or prostitute,” she said.

Her work is also focused around personal questions. For Sense and Sensibility, Hamill played with responses to social pressures.

For adaptations of 19th-century novels, Hamill begins by reading or re-reading the book, then researching context and themes, and then writing. Her plays are not a “copy and paste” of the original work.

“I start writing and try to meet the author where they are,” Hamill said.

Hnath usually starts with a conflict — maybe a few characters — but he builds his stories around “fragments.” They might just be a few lines he concocts after his morning coffee or full pages of dialogue, but they fill in holes in his scripts.

He deletes and rearranges ideas by playing with the fragments and the actors during rehearsal — insisting he directs the first few workshops for each of his plays.

He described workshopping the Broadway production of A Doll’s House, Part 2 with actor Laurie Metcalf.

“When we went into rehearsal, I did not realize that Laurie was both off book — she had memorized all her lines — but she had pretty much memorized all the fragments too,” he said. “When I would ‘Oh, this one moment it’s not right,’ she’d say, ‘Oh, I remember fragment dated such and such, I could try that here,’ and she just knew it.”

Hamill said she also periodically thinks of snippets for plays — some make it into her work, others wait in the wings.

“Sometimes I write segments, and I don’t quite know what play it goes to,” she said.

Like Hnath, Hamill also workshops her scripts during rehearsals; she changes lines and stage directions if they feel unnatural to the actors, “shaping everything to fit the actor’s mouth.”

The playwrights said they each write everyday and are constantly working on multiple pieces.

“It helps me to have multiple projects at once so if one drives me nuts, I can switch to another,” Hamill said.

Despite having a myriad of ideas and finished plays, Hnath is very critical of the work he presents to the public.

“I just have to ask myself, ‘Does this need to live in the world?’ and sometimes it just doesn’t,” he said.

Kahn asked the playwrights if there’s anything they ask of the audience during a performance.

“Don’t unwrap hard candies,” Hamill said jokingly over a wave of laughter and applause.

Hnath said there is a difference between playwrights’ and audiences’ language; for the audience, it usually boils down to whether the play was “realistic or not.” Hnath hopes that audiences “endeavor (to find) more words to describe plays.”

For Hamill, openness and empathy is key for her audiences.

“It’s so easy to be cynical and too jaded about what you’re seeing, or (have) prejudice against ideas or prejudice against viewpoints, …” she said. “If our lives were reflected on the stage, we would not like our petty hypocrisies in our lives that we tell ourselves, and our behaviors reflect it. I think it’s so interesting to come in with openness in mind and empathy, and hopefully you can put yourself in someone else’s skin.”

Prompted by a question from President Michael E. Hill to open the Q-and-A, the playwrights said they don’t “lock in their words” for future performances, but hope theaters and directors respect their initial vision.

“I don’t have children myself, but it must feel a little bit like you raised a child and the child is in the world and you’re like, ‘I hope you don’t go to jail,’ ” Hamill said.

Kahn, a director himself, said he feels responsible for honoring the playwright’s intention, dead or alive.

Hill closed the lecture — and the week — by asking where the panelists think the future of theater is headed.

Hnath sees more playwrights directing their own work; Kahn doesn’t know where theater is going, but he is sure it will persevere.

“Everyone is always predicting the death of the theater, but I don’t think it’s dying,” Hamill said. “It’s been around for thousands of years. I think the old girl has still got some kick in her.”

Stamper dives into words’ origins, ‘irregardless’ of consequences

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  • Lexicographer Kory Stamper lectures on the secret lives of words in the Amphitheater Thursday, June 28, 2018. RILEY ROBINSON/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

As Chautauqua Institution gets ready to close the curtain on “The Life of the Written Word,” Kory Stamper pulled that curtain back to reveal the secret life of language.

The lexicographer delivered the morning lecture Thursday June 28 in the Amphitheater as the second-to-last-lecturer for Week One.

Stamper joined Merriam-Webster in 1998; she worked for the company for 20 years, and was responsible for explaining the “F-bomb” entry in the dictionary. Stamper is the author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, and her writing has also been featured in The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Stamper opened her multimedia presentation with the definition of “lexicographer” — an author or editor of the dictionary.

“I did not write that definition by the way,” she said over a roar of laughter. “It was already there.”

But what does a lexicographer really do? It’s a question Stamper asks herself often.

“If you’re anything like I was, you didn’t even realize lexicography was a job,” she said. “I didn’t realize it was a job until I was hired to do the work. And when I started doing the work,I thought,‘Why? What do you mean dictionaries need to be written? We already wrote the dictionary.’ And then I thought, ‘How do dictionaries get written and what kind of person writes dictionaries?’ ”

And some of you are probably thinking, ‘They let you write dictionaries?’ ”

To be a lexicographer, reading is a must — compulsive reading is a bonus, Stamper said.

“I am in fact a compulsive reader,” she said. “I am not an avid reader; I’m not a voracious reader — I am a pathological, compulsive reader. I am the woman on the train who you see reading her receipts from her pockets if there’s a delay. That’s me.”

Lexicographers spend at least two hours a day reading, and it’s not just novels. Anything in print is up for grabs, according to Stamper — from beer bottles, to diaper boxes, bills, the Yellow Pages and menus — especially menus.

“When you’re reading, you’re not reading for content. I don’t read David Brooks’ column in The New York Times to find out what he thinks about our current economic situation, I’m looking at the word level, I’m looking for a brand new use of the word ‘voodoo’ in voodoo economics,” Stamper said. “So, I read compulsively, but remember nothing about what I’ve read.”

But although David Brooks might use the word “voodoo” in reference to economics, that doesn’t guarantee that definition will make it into the dictionary.

At Merriam-Webster, new words or new uses for words are flagged, and lexicographers must evaluate and decide if they merit an entry. To merit an entry, the word must have widespread, sustained and meaningful use.

Widespread use is both geographical and tonal.

“I want a word to be used in the Wall Street Journal and in Vibe magazine,” Stamper said. “I want to see a word that’s used in the The Washington Post and The New York Times Book Review and People magazine and on somebody’s blog.”

Sustained use is the second criteria.

“A word needs a shelf life to be entered into the dictionary because once a word gets into the dictionary, people tend to use it more, and it’s really hard to get a word out of the dictionary,” she said.

The final measure is meaningful use. Stamper clarified the distinction between “significant” and “meaningful” use.

“Of course, words have meaning, but not all printed words get used with a meaning I can grab onto. The word ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ appears in print as an example of a long word, but it doesn’t mean a long word. Nobody would say, ‘He put a lot of disestablishmentarianism in his dating profile to attract women’ because that’s not what that word means,” she said. “In that case, ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ does not have meaningful use.”

Language enthusiasts have two principles of thought: prescriptivist and descriptivist. Prescriptivism is “an approach to language that champions the best English,” according to Stamper. Most people would agree that dictionaries are “prescriptivists.”

Descriptivists believe that all language is equal — that there is no “good or bad English.”

“People that care deeply about language hate descriptivists,” Stamper said. “So, you will imagine my surprise when I discovered that dictionaries are descriptivists. The reason that dictionaries are descriptivists goes back to Noah Webster. He said, ‘Collect, arrange and define all the words in a language.’ And it’s not until you start doing this job that you realize the language goes in some really weird and ugly places.”

The audience erupted into laughter.

“If you’d like to get up and leave now, I won’t be offended,” she said, as the word “irregardless” appeared on the screen.

“Irregardless,” the most hated word in the English language, Stamper said, turned her lexicographic career upside down.

Stamper read an email, which she received from an upset consumer early in her career at Merriam-Webster:

“To whom it may concern;

As any educated Mississippian knows: ‘irregardless’ is the superlative form of regardless. Not used in lieu of ‘regardless’ as it states by y’all.

Regards.”

Dumbfounded by the thought of a nonsensical word appearing in the dictionary, Stamper went to work to prove this disgruntled reader wrong; unfortunately, she proved herself wrong — irregardless was in the dictionary and was used in abundance from the 1700s through the early 20th century, according to Stamper.

The audience burst into murmurs and gasps.

“Irregardless is a dialect term,” she said.

Dialects are subsets of language that people usually associate with accents but that also have their own grammar.

“There’s Southern English, then there’s whatever they speak in Boston,” she said. “There’s California English — there’s whatever they speak in Boston … everyone grows up speaking a dialect, in fact most of you speak multiple dialects and you switch between them easily, but none of you natively speak standard English.”

English is a written standard, a standard that grew out of the development of the middle-class and fall of the upper-class. To maintain their power, members of the upper-class clung to manners and language to assert their dominance — they pinned “elegance of language with elegance of mind and elegance of character.”

“Prescriptivism champions the best of English and what are the best practices — those that are right and correct and, you know, morally good,” Stamper said. “Then, clearly descriptivism, with its lack of attention to rules and boundaries and belief that anything in use in a language is fine is just too loosey-goosey and a little corrupt and must be morally bad.”

“I will remind you that dictionaries sit on the morally evil part of the spectrum,” she said. “So, you start your job as a lexicographer thinking that you are going to save the language, and it turns out that you are a hippie, liberal, pinko, commie nut job that puts ‘irregardless’ in the dictionary.”

The idea that the “best practices of English are morally right” is how people have come to assume that certain dialects are associated with lack of education.

But practices of poor grammar are not exclusive to the “uneducated” — Shakespeare was a grammatical mess, Stamper said.

“Verb to nouns — uncle is not a verb nor is grace — pronoun problems, subject verb issues in Julius Caesar,” she said, rattling through a list of errors on the screen. “Nope … not correct … double negatives …”

The best practices of English are not static. One-hundred and fifty years ago, the phrase “the house is being built” was considered incorrect; the structure “the house is building” was preferred, Stamper said.

Instead, she said, think of the English language as a child.

“You ask them as unruly teenagers, ‘Can you just clean this up a little bit, can you get rid of “irregardless” no one needs to see that,’” Stamper said, “and the language slumps in its chair and writes ‘irregardless’ all over its arms with ballpoint pen and says that you’re ruining its life, and it goes to its room and listens to moody music in the dark.”

Stamper reiterated themes from throughout the week like inclusivity,which Lisa Lucas stressed in her morning lecture Wednesday June 27 and the power of words from Tyehimba Jess on Tuesday  June 26.

“The glorious thing about English is that it is by design inclusive,” she said. “No one person has any say over the language. I don’t get to say where the lan- guage goes, we all together get to choose where the language goes; it is a truly democratic institution in that way.”

To close the lecture, Stamper left those who criticize younger generations for ruining language with the words of Wendell Berry:

“Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

After the lecture, Vice President of Marketing and Communications and Chief Brand Of cer Emily Morris opened the Q-and-A with what words Stamper thought will be added into the dictionary in 2019.

“Lexicographers make lousy clairvoyants,” Stamper said.

However, she did predict that new definitions of “collusion” would be added to Merriam-Webster.

When asked about accepting “they/them” pronouns, Stamper said that English is fluid and people will adjust as they did 700 years ago with the transition from the singular pronoun “thou” to “you.”

“It’s a really a matter of respect; it’s a matter of honoring someone’s decision — regardless, no irregardless — of what you might see,” she said.

Finally, Stamper assured she would “never say irregardless again.”

National Book Foundation’s Lucas pushes for literary diversity and inspiring youth

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Lisa Lucas, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, delivers the 10:45 a.m. lecture at the Amphitheater on Wednesday, June 27, 2018. ABIGAIL DOLLINS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Lisa Lucas wants reading to be “cake, not spinach.”

The executive director of the National Book Foundation delivered the morning lecture Wednesday, June 27 in the Amphitheater during Week One, “The Life of the Written Word.”

This was Lucas’ first visit to Chautauqua Institution.

“I’m not intimidated at all,” she joked to open her lecture. “This is all very normal.”

Lucas started working in theater — a path vastly different from her current trajectory — for Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. Later, she moved to film, serving as director of education at the Tribeca Film Institute and as a consultant for the Sundance Institute, San Francisco Film Society and Reel Works Teen Filmmaking.

Before joining the National Book Foundation, Lucas served as a publisher of the nonprofit online magazine, Guernica.

She is the first woman and African-American to serve as executive director of the National Book Foundation, which is responsible for the annual National Book Awards.

Lucas called herself an “independent reader” from a young age, but she never anticipated taking a hobby and turning it into a career.

Lisa Lucas, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, delivers the 10:45 a.m. lecture at the Amphitheater on Wednesday, June 27, 2018. ABIGAIL DOLLINS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“I never really even dreamed of taking this thing that I loved and actually just get a job at 32 years old, working in publishing — something I’d never done before — but I did it,” she said. “Almost two-and-a-half years ago, I found myself appointed director of the National Book Foundation.”

Her new job came with a long history.

The first National Book Awards were awarded and celebrated in 1950 through a joint effort by the American Book Publishers Council, the Book Manufacturers Institute and the American Booksellers Association. In 1980, it broadened and was renamed the American Book Awards, which awarded 28 prizes.

Its gross expansion watered down the impact of the awards, and in 1986, the organization returned to being the National Book Awards.

“We were no longer just thinking on how to sell a book, or two books or 27 books maybe — we weren’t about just making money,” Lucas said. “It was about thinking about the core of what the book is to American culture and thinking about how to protect and preserve that.”

Lisa Lucas, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, delivers the 10:45 a.m. lecture at the Amphitheater on Wednesday, June 27, 2018. ABIGAIL DOLLINS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

From there, the organization worked to reignite the glamour of books. Lucas described the National Book Awards as “the Oscars on a bad year.”

“We spent a lot of years making (the National Book Awards) into a big benefit that actually drew the eye and brought people to celebrate the work we do,” she said.

Her first encounter with the organization was at the after-party in 2012. Lucas described being in awe of the authors, designers and publishers she was surrounded by, thinking that she had ”made it”; she returned to that party every year after.

After the former executive director of the National Book Foundation announced his impending retirement, Lucas received a call from a recruiter asking if she knew anyone who would be a good hire. She rambled off names before giving some choice advice.

“You really should think about having a person of color,” she said, before breathlessly rattling off that “you probably should think about hiring a woman. Because there really aren’t many women running things and there aren’t really many people of color running things, and you know things are really changing because things are the same as they were 20 years ago, and you should think about that.”

The recruiter said “Why not you?” Lucas submitted a resume and was rejected.

She returned to the after-party that year, upset. But, later the National Book Foundation called again with the job offer.

When she first got the news, she thought of the offer as a great opportunity.

“I really just thought about a couple of ex-boyfriends that might be really sad they dumped me,” Lucas said. “I thought about my parents being like ‘Oh, that’s a good job.’ They were always a little concerned about my path that I chose.”

Lucas didn’t think about the magnitude of her accomplishment until stories and interviews with publications like The New York Times and NPR began piling up. When the news broke, the response was overwhelming.

“There was this constant repeated message — everything changed,” she said.

Lucas called her presence at the organization “woke.”

One of her first tasks at the National Book Foundation was to update the mission, which she read to the audience:

“The mission of the National Book Foundation is to celebrate the best literature in America, expand its audience and ensure that books have a prominent place in American culture.”

A key element of the mission that shifted, according to Lucas, was to celebrate the “best literature in America” rather than the “best American literature.” Prompted by this, the organization added a fifth National Book Award for translated texts earlier this year.

“We thought, ‘We’re talking to Americans, Americans are from all over the world’ — we’re a country of immigrants. So why should we encourage reading only our stories when we should also be reading stories from Japan, Kenya, from China, from Mexico and from all around the world? All of these cultures influence our culture and are a part of us.”

Lisa Lucas, Executive Director, National Book Foundation 

“We are looking outward — even though we are an American institution devoted to celebrating American literature — we also want to celebrate the American reader,” Lucas said.

Lucas acknowledged diverse characters in books, but said inclusion must go further. She pointed to the publishing industry.

“It’s not only the fact that we don’t see ourselves,” she said. “It’s also that no one is telling us that books are for (minorities).”

Marketing in most publishing houses is aimed at white women, according to Lucas, and it is affecting the reading habits of underrepresented youth.

“Who’s telling you that (reading) is cake and not spinach?” she said.

But building a love for literature starts at home, Lucas said, to make sure kids are getting their “spinach” and enjoying their cake. Lucas emphasized the urgency to change the narrative around representation in books and the health of the book business.

“The book is definitely— 100 percent, in no way — dead,” she said.

Book sales are raising among young people, bookstores are becoming community hubs and the electronic book is not overpowering paperback sales, according to Lucas.

“We have to believe in the book, support our institutions, and celebrate the book and support our authors,” she said.

After her lecture, Chautauqua Chief of Staff Matt Ewalt opened the Q-and-A by asking Lucas how to address dated cultural attitudes in many classic novels.

Lucas said it is important to impress that “there are different cultural narrative(s)” throughout history and that parents, teachers and mentors should impress onto young people that, despite oppression faced by minorities in 19th- and 20th-century novels, they own their own narrative.

Ewalt then opened the floor to audience questions. An attendee asked how people manage to find time to read among other obligations.

“I hear people say ‘I have to go to yoga, but oh, did you see ‘The Wire’ last Night? I watched all ve seasons,’ ” Lucas said.

She reflected on the Harry Potter craze, where everyone found the time to read the series because everyone was talking about it, according to Lucas.

“When there’s cultural pressure, people will find the time to read,” she said.

The lecture concluded with a question that asked how to encourage and influence more people to read.

“It’s like how everyone that likes a candidate brings two people to the polls — bring 10 to the bookstore,” Lucas said.

Reconstructing history, deconstructing poems: Pulitzer-winning Jess shares syncopated sonnets

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  • Tyehimba Jess reads poems from his book "Olio" during the morning lecture in the Amphitheater, Tuesday, June 26, 2018. BRIAN HAYES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Tyehimba Jess brought the written word to life.

The accomplished poet highlighted his unique — and crafty — style Tuesday, June 26, in the Amphitheater for Week One’s second morning lecture and the first Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Roundtable.

An award-winning slam poet turned author, Jess’ first book of poetry, Leadbelly, won the National Poetry Series competition in 2004 and was hailed one of the “Best Poetry Books of 2005” by Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review.

Jess’ most recent work, Olio, won awards such as the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and The Midland Society Author’s Award in Poetry.

The word “olio” describes a mixture of “heterogeneous” ingredients; in historical and the book’s context, “olio” refers to the middle of a minstrel show.

“Minstrel show is a form of entertainment started in the 19th century which consisted of white performers putting on blackface and tattered clothes in order to make caricatures of African-Americans,” Jess said. “It was principal for a form of psychological warfare that continued throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century and still manifests today.”

Jess pointed out a book — “a handy dandy guide for how to put together a minstrel show.” The first entry was titled, “How to Black Up.”

Olio centers on African-American artists and creators, an interest spawned from Jess’ curiosity about the origin of black music, he said.

Millie and Christine McKoy are Jess’ subjects for five pieces in the book.

The McKoy women were conjoined twins, fused back-to-back from the base of the spine to the tailbone. The two were born into slave-state North Carolina in 1849 and their master sold them to the circus at 18 months old, according to Jess.

“The twins did not just stand and get gawked at,” Jess said. “They sang — duets of course.”

Jess’ first poem about the twins — “Millie and Christine McKoy” — is written, and can be read, in three parts. The first from the perspective of Millie runs down the left of the page; Christine’s voice runs down the right. Their united voice runs through the center.

“We’re fused in blood and body — from one thrummed stem/ budding twins blooms of song,” Jess read down the center. “We’re a doubled rose…”

Jess moved to read Millie’s side:

“We’ve mended two songs into one dark skin / bleeding soprano into contralto…”

Then from Christine’s side:

“We ride the wake of each other’s rhythm/ beating our hearts’ syncopated tempo…” he read.

Jess finally blended the three columns and two voices, reading:

“We’ve mended two songs into one dark skin / we ride the wake of each other’s rhythm/ bleeding soprano into contralto/ beating out hearts’ syncopated tempo / — we’re fused in blood and body — from one thrummed stem, budding twin blooms of song. We’re a doubled rose…”

Olio is structured to give the reader flexibility.

“The reader can choose any path they want in these poems — I just make the decision as I go through about which way I want to go,” Jess said.

This line of continuity runs through each poem and even onto the cover, which spells “olio” from the left, right, up and down.

Following “Millie and Christine McKoy,” Jess read a poem titled “Millie-Christine: On Display.” The piece cries out in response to “egregious damnation,” Jess said, to which the McKoy women were subjected, forced to expose themselves to prove they were conjoined.

Again, the middle of the poem reads as the twins’ conjoined voice:

“We count the blessings of our doubled shell / as we pay our dues. We’ve proven ourselves / for science. We’ve been taken town to town / like prize bovine: We’ve been pawned up and down / each sawbone has searched us from spine to loin / our wondrous one- ness exists. We’re conjoined / We’re not frauds, but born of providence / God mended two souls into one dark skin,” Jess read.

Jess demonstrated the flexibility by reading the poem backward, adding in lines from the left and right sides, both Millie and Chris- tine’s voices.

In the next piece, Millie and Christine have been kidnapped and taken to Britain to perform, forcing their mother to choose between the United Kingdom, which had abolished slavery, and “Dixie’s rebellious mouth.”

Their mother ultimately chose the South.

The McKoy twins were able to profit from their act and eventually buy the plantation on which they were once enslaved. Jess jumped from line to line in the poems, skipping and repeating phrases, owing from one stanza to the next.

The final piece, a star- shaped poem, merged each of the prior poems and featured repeating lines throughout.

“A star of syncopated sonnets — because the McKoy twins were stars right?” Jess said over murmurs of awe from the crowd.

The final sonnet’s features mimic that of its subjects — not only a star, but two heads, a conjoined middle and two bases. The son- net can be read in infinite combinations, Jess said.

“Whichever direction you want to go with your eyes, tracing across the bottom of the poem in the same way that the gawker’s eye traced across the body of the McKoy twins,” Jess said. “Except in this case, you are taking the story of the McKoy twins and you are getting involved in their story and not just looking at their body.”

Jess also shared the story of Bret Williams and George Walker, comedians he described as the “Key and Peele of their generation.” His piece is a dialogue between the two men.

“There’s a coherent relationship between the right and the left side,” Jess said.

He, again, jumped and repeated lines, demonstrating the poem’s flexibility and how the connotation changes with every combination of lines. Each line of the poem can be paired with any of the five surrounding it, Jess said.

“… believe the human / might be saying ‘Look at that handsome man!’ Nobody/ might be saying, “Look at that handsome man!’…” Jess read.

After Jess finished “Brett Williams / George Walker Paradox,” he grabbed Olio, moved in front of the lectern and ripped the page from the book’s spine. He began folding the page to reveal new combinations of the poem. He brought the edges together to form different cylinders; with a fold and a twist he created a Möibus.

“I want the reader to deconstruct the book in order to reconstruction the people inside the book,” Jess said.

After the lecture, Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education David Griffith opened the Q-and-A with a question about Jess’ transition from slam poetry to prose.

Jess said competitive slam poetry taught him how to engage with — and keep — an audience.

“The harder you work on the page, the less you have to work on stage,” he said.

Griffith then turned to questions from the audience. One attendee asked about the reasoning for the church names that line each of Olio’s pages.

Lining the pages with the names was inspired by activist organization Black Lives Matter’s practice of repeating the names of those killed by police, as well as the lack of tribute to black churches that were burned down in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jess said.

A year prior to Olio’s publication, nine people were shot and killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. To Jess’ surprise, that church had also been burnt down decades earlier; it became the first and last church listed in Olio.

The final question asked whether Jess has or would write poetry about the current political climate — echoing a similar theme from Monday’s conversation with John Irving.

“All kinds of things happen around the word that deeply trouble me, and I think what I’m writing about now answers or corresponds with what’s happening the world today,” Jess said.

Irving, Paul discuss writing methods in regard to present politics, social issues

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John Irving always starts with the end.

The renowned author spoke to his reverse writing process in a conversation with Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, on Monday, June 25, in the Amphitheater to open the season’s morning lecture series and Week One’s theme of “The Life of the Written Word.”

Irving’s work has earned him accolades, including three National Book Award nominations, winning once for his 1980 novel The World

According to Garp. His works have been translated in over 35 languages — A Prayer for Owen Meany is his best-selling novel in every language.

Outside of the literary circle, Irving won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Cider House Rules, and The World According to Garp became an Academy Award-nominated film starring Robin Williams.

Pamela Paul, a journalist and author herself, grew up reading Irving (after watching the movies).

For his first four novels, including The World According to Garp, Irving started with the ending — something he thought he’d outgrow.

But, his method stuck.

“I don’t know where else to begin,” he said.

His process usually takes him around the plot; he starts with the ending, moseys around the story and ends at the climax.

“Even after the end comes to me, the novel will wait eight, 10 or more years before I decide to begin,” Irving said.

For Irving, the characters don’t drive the plot, and there’s no guarantee that they will be alive for the whole novel.

“You’ve heard writers say ‘the characters tell me what’s going to happen,’ but not with mine. I’d kill that character off very quickly,” Irving said.

Irving described his cataclysmic approach as a product of his “disaster- prone imagination.”

“If there weren’t something in the novel that I hope never happens to me or someone I love, if there wasn’t that element in the story and if that element wasn’t crucial to the story, I don’t know why I would give it so much thought,” Irving said.

His ending-driven plots reflect his love for 19th-century literature.

“Whether you finished Moby Dick or you just can’t, you know you can’t get on the Pequod and get home safe,” he said.

Despite the influence of writers like Melville and Dickens, Irving said his writing could never sound anything like them — even if he wanted to — because of cultural differences. Irving said the language and attitudes toward sex have changed, allowing him to write about what his predecessors could not.

Addressing timely political and social issues is a driving force in Irving’s novels, which proves to be timeless in works like his 1978 novel, The World According to Garp.

“What I think really went into the writing of The World According to Garp was principally a lot of anger and disappointment at what I thought was going to be a sexual revolution, at what I thought was going to be a feminist movement and a sexual liberation movement,” Irving said.

Irving reflected on how Garp echoes similar themes in 2018, despite celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

“The sad thing about that novel is that its not to my credit that it’s still relevant — it’s an embarrassment,” he said.

The Cider House Rules addresses abortion, which was legalized 12 years before the book’s publication. While working on the novel, Irving said people thought it was “quaint” that he was writing literature on a issue that was “solved.” In response, he said, “This one will ever be solved.”

“I said, let’s tell a story where a lot of awful things happen, not one of which would have ever happened if abortion had been legal, safe and available,” he said. “Everything in Cider House Rules happens because abortion is illegal, not safe and not available.”

He said it’s upsetting how his predictions for the future are usually wrong, but his prediction about the discussion surrounding abortion rights is the “small political point (he’s) been right on.”

Paul prodded at this, asking how Irving felt about the political state of the country. Irving paused.

“I never thought I’d hear myself say I wish George W. (Bush) was back,” he said over a cacophony of laughter and applause.

Now a permanent resident of Toronto, Irving is eligible for Canadian citizenship but plans to keep his American citizenship.

“I don’t want to not ever be able to vote here,” he said. Irving stressed the right to vote — he emphasized the importance of not wasting a vote by not voting.

“I expect Republicans to disappoint me; I am angry when my fellow Democrats disappoint me,” he said, regarding the millions of Americans who forwent the voting booth in the 2016 election. “I don’t care if you don’t like either candidate, one is always better than the other.”

Paul asked if Irving could see himself writing a protest novel about the current political era and what that would look like. Irving said he “doesn’t do the future well.”

Irving went on to compare President Donald Trump’s “bullying” tactics to that of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini — Irving specified that Mussolini had better hair.

“The vulgarity aspects of Mr. Trump aside — the extreme narcissism aside — fascism is looking alive and well, and not only in the United States,” he said.

Fascism is seeping into developed countries from Italy to Canada, Irving said. Paul added to that with examples including Brexit and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

“Xenophobia is not Mr. Trump’s idea. Hatred of others, blaming of others instead of addressing what the problem is here at home, is an old, old tactic,” Irving said. “If we don’t make education the priority of every functioning democracy, how can we expect everyone to know that? We always need to know more, but I’ve never lived in a time when so many of the general population know less.”

After the conversation, Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill started the Q-and-A with speakers’ advice for young writers.

“My advice to anyone that wants to write is to read,” Paul said.

Irving agreed and added that he was fortunate to be an avid reader as a young man.

Hill closed the Q-and-A with an audience question about the writers’ daily writing routines.

For her most recent book, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, Paul said her time to write was limited to the 38-minute train ride to and from work. She said having that tight window forced her to crank out pages at a time.

“That’s impressive,” Irving said. “I’m trying to think of the last time I did anything in 38 minutes.”

Irving compared his routine to training for wrestling, or any sport.

“The discipline comes in loving repetition,” he said. “You have to love the process itself; you can’t be enamored with the end result.”

Conrad: ‘Do what is in your heart and soul and spirit’

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Barbara Smith Conrad speaks during Thursday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

During her lecture at 10:45 a.m. Thursday in the Amphitheater, Barbara Smith Conrad did what she’s always done best: She sang.

The small woman on stage approached her friend, pianist Patsy Sage, to decide which song to sing. The words that escaped her lips were much more booming than her voice had been before — even with the aid of the microphone.

She sang: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace./ Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”

That first song, “The Prayer of Saint Francis,” was sung in its entirety, followed by Fred McDowell’s “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.” She also sang part of W.B. Stevens’ “Farther Along” and ended her time on stage with “Amazing Grace.”

“My sister said that I was a preacher woman,” Conrad said. “Well, I don’t think so. What I am is a girl born in Northeast Texas into a rural Baptist church, whose values have never changed, whose dreams basically have never changed, but has been fortunate to meet people who have expanded my life in a way that I never dreamed possible.”

Conrad, the fourth speaker in Week Four’s topic on “A Case for the Arts,” is an African-American mezzo-soprano opera singer. She has possessed a natural talent for music since she was very young, growing up in Center Point, Pittsburg, Texas. Though she said she wanted to visit the Chautauqua Institution for a very long time, this visit was her first.

Her speech focused on her various life experiences regarding opera.

Geof Follansbee, Chautauqua Foundation CEO and Thursday’s moderator, said Conrad’s life itself is a case for the arts.

She discussed her time at The University of Texas at Austin, where she inadvertently became a pioneer in the push for equality and diversity at universities.

“To all the people who dream these dreams,” she said of anyone with aspirations in life, “don’t let anyone stop you. Ever.”

Accordingly, Conrad was cast as the female lead in the university’s 1957 production of Dido and Aeneas with a white man as her counterpart, causing a stir. The story gained national attention when the situation reached the Texas legislature, which leaned on the university president to remove her from the cast.

Eventually, a white woman was cast as her replacement.

In response to this event, famed activist Harry Belafonte offered to finance her way to any school in the world.

“Do you know what that means to a young singer?” she said, beaming. “It’s wonderful.”

When she went home to discuss the offer with her parents, her father simply told her to do what she felt was right. Ultimately, Conrad chose to remain where she was, eventually graduating in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in music.

“At the end of the day, you have to do what is in your heart and soul and spirit to do,” she said, “or you will miss out on a big chunk of life.”

Since then, Conrad has performed in well-known venues across North America and Europe alongside, as Follansbee said while introducing her, some of the most talented symphonies in the world.

Conrad said it amazes her to think that she went from living in a deeply segregated world to being able to stand in front of an audience to share her story. She said she is deeply grateful for the chance.

She commended the Chautauqua Institution’s staff and scenery, saying how visiting this place had been a lifelong dream that she never got around to completing. Now that she has, it’s just another dream she’s been able to achieve.

She reminded the audience members to never let go of their dreams.

“Even if it means just singing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’” Conrad said, “get up and sing your song and let no one stop you.”


Q: You were part of the first class with African Americans in it at Texas, as I understand. How did that figure into your decision or not at all?

A: Oh, very much so. I was lucky to have one voice lesson per semester where I was. And it’s just that the school was not designed that way. There was interest, always. Where there are people who like singing, you’re going to find someone who can do something. But really, it boiled down to that I wanted something resembling an education that would let me go someplace and to do something beyond the boundaries I was used to. And a man came by and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and that’s when I went to my second year of college.

Q: Quickly you were thrust into a situation where this came to the fore where, having been cast in a role where within the music school, all of a sudden you’re surrounded by a university-wide controversy. How do you respond to that? What impact did it have?

A: Well, first you get mad. That’s a healthy thing to do: Just go get mad. And you’ll do something — who knows what that’s going to be. But you have to do something. The university offered me several opportunities, the first being, “Can you stand on your own two feet?” Yes, I can. I used to tell everybody, “My father is Conrad Smith, my mother is Gerrie Smith and we can do anything.” That was very important. Those are the things you grasped. But then you start to meet people who have a similar dream … because I didn’t know quite what to do, Belafonte said, “Choose any school you want and we’ll go there,” and when I talked to my father about it, he said, “If you want to go, go. If you don’t, don’t go. Go right down to that University of Texas and show them how to do it.” Well, that was more (easily) said than done, but it led me to where I am.

Q: (In 1957), when you remained at Texas, were you able to continue your music studies? Were you able to perform in other offerings?

A: That’s a good question. This is why friendships mean so much. Because … they knew I was way behind in everything and hadn’t even had an opportunity to stop and even look at what (Center Point) looked like. So I had support from students and friends and faculty. The thing that’s always impressed me, is how the staff at the College of Fine Arts could be one way and the rest of the world was asleep. We weren’t going anyplace; we were Texans. We had not so many choices, especially those of us who dreamed of having careers of any kind having to do with music. But the best thing of all is: No. 1, your faith, your family, your friends, your dreams; that all comes together. One way or the other, you’ll figure it out — and you do.

Q: What are your favorite roles and songs?

A: Oh my God. Through the eyes and ears of the passions of my brother Denard, who is also a French major, French songs are way up there. But in terms of dramatic roles, the lady at the piano really messed over my life when she said I should sing (Wagner) — one of the best days of my life, actually. [Asking her accompanist, Patsy.] Am I the only African American who did that in Brussels? I met all of those girls, and that was a huge victory. First of all, I’m clearly not German, but may as well be when you’re around Patsy. So — how do I put this? — it was fortuitous. I went from doing lots of Verdi and Carmen … and then found myself falling in love with Wagner.

Q: What are the lessons you consciously teach your students today about character and motivation?

A: Very good question. It’s my Aunt Maggie again, or my grandmother, and she would sit me down in her big rocking chair and she’d say, “Come, let us reason together,” and that started when we wanted band suits for our school, because schools were still segregated then. And then, at the end of that … she said, “You have a built-in motivation for living, child, and you just don’t know it yet.” And that’s been my credo.

Q: Another question has just come up that wants to know a little bit more about your parents and to ask, how did they receive an education for people of their race and generation in the South? It’s remarkable that they were able to become educated.

A: Center Point is Center Point, because anyone who ever lived there or went to school there is enamored with it, because it was the first and only accredited black school in the state of Texas. That’s No. 1; No. 2 is it took on a whole community of people who have something they could be proud of and proud about, and a way to make a living. My father was (one of) five children: He had three brothers and a sister whom I didn’t know, but they walked every weekend, 22 miles from Newsome to Center Point throughout the entire school.

Q: What is your next challenge in life and work that you look forward to taking on?

A: Well, like many people of my generation, I didn’t record as much as I could have and should have. So I’m trying to do some of that. I’m doing a lot of work with AT&T; that’s something that I had not even had any thought about ever in my life. But now I understand what my father meant when he said, “Carry the torch and carry it steady.”

—Transcribed by Emma Morehart

Lynch: Arts are an absolute necessity for the nation

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Robert Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, gives Friday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

Robert Lynch’s career began with a lie.

It was January 1975. He’d had his hand in the creation of the New England Artist Festival and Showcase, today called the New England Arts Biennial.

The team of founders — including Lynch — marketed it as “New England’s largest gathering of artists, craftspeople, performers, poets and other creators.”

The lie: It had never happened before this; there was a chance no one would even show up.

That wasn’t the case.

The event, held in May, attracted 20,000 people. And as this was Lynch’s first adventure into marketing, a variety of mishaps ensued.

Tickets cost 99 cents, but the event organizers hadn’t expected patrons to want the penny change; they had to come up with 20,000 pennies

The volunteers providing security showed up dressed in riot gear and carrying billy clubs, despite the festival’s family-friendly image.

A symbolic release of white doves was actually a flock of pigeons, and they stuck around once released — and with them came their droppings.

Finally, when the North Hampton mayor boarded a hot air balloon there, it lifted 10 feet off the ground before blowing sideways 100 yards, plowing over two interns in the process.

“I was completely booked,” Lynch said. “The excitement, the energy, the arts.”

He said once all the problems had been solved, people were free to enjoy the music and the artwork. It was then that Lynch understood: Art can bring communities together. There was a sense of understanding among the patrons.

Lynch, the final speaker in Week Four’s topic on “A Case for the Arts,” said art is so instrumental he questions why communities have yet to take it seriously.

Lynch is the president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, an organization that promotes art and art education. His speech, titled “America at a Cultural Crossroads,” explored the history and benefits of the arts on communities and education.

Benefitting from the arts

When Lynch was growing up, his parents had a very different view of how his life would go: His mother wanted him to a dentist, while his father wanted him to be a lawyer.

“I chose creative writing, specializing in poetry — where the big bucks are,” Lynch said sarcastically. “So I got out, and I discovered all the poet jobs were taken.”

Though he joked about this, he said the arts actually contribute to the economy quite well — $166 billion a year, to be specific. They generate 1.7 million jobs and $30 billion in taxes.

Furthermore, arts can result in creativity, self-actualization and self-discovery. Lynch said most people already know this, thanks to religious services, communities, environments and personal lives.

When asked in a survey what inspires innovation, superintendents said the No. 1 factor is arts education in schools. Similarly, a group of American businessmen said arts education is the No. 2 factor.

Arts have had a place in America’s history since the very beginning, he said.

It’s mentioned in the Constitution, reading that Congress should have the right “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Even today, interest in the arts is thriving, despite reports from the National Endowment for the Arts saying otherwise. The NEA reached that conclusion because of fewer ticket sales — but Lynch said the organization failed to take online and television views into account.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, he said, is responding to this demand by inviting amateur musicians 25 years of age or older to play with its members. Although the orchestra expected only a few responses, 400 people took the opportunity.

“It’s out there,” Lynch said. “The hunger (for the arts) is there.”

It’s these facts, he said, that policy makers need to hear about if supporters of the arts hope to make change.

The issue behind it all

Despite all these positive trends, Lynch said, the arts are getting very minimal government funding.

Sixty percent of funding comes from revenue earned by individual art organizations, and foundation and corporate funding provides about 4 percent each. Individual donors make up about 20 percent, with the remaining 12 percent coming from the government.

The NEA, he said, provides less than 1 percent of total funding for the arts, even though it’s one of the most known supporters of the arts.

Lynch said the main goal behind it all should be to find a way to make people understand the necessity behind the arts. Arts education is one way to solve this.

Presidents have enjoyed the arts; militaries have utilized the arts; communities depend on the arts. Yet, Lynch said, governments officials don’t recognize their impact.

“We’ve enjoyed the fruits,” Lynch said, “but we need to spread the word, making the value of arts — in a very practical nation — better understood as a critical need right now.”


Q: As we begin, I’m thinking of the opening lecture of the week, Rocco Landesman, and the three people that are standing there (representing the ratio of National Endowment for the Arts funding to the gross amount of arts funding). He made an interesting statement, which I wonder if you find is a contradiction. One of the things he talked about was a misallocation of supply and demand. He quoted the number of people actually attending arts productions and then turned and quoted the number of nonprofit organizations that have grown in that same period of decline of membership. He was saying that there’s something wrong with this picture; we have a glut of participant organizations and an increasingly smaller attendance population. He thought we just had too many of these organizations; we need to cut them back. What’s your reaction to that?

A: Great. Actually, how many people heard Rocco’s speech? What a character, don’t you think? I love Rocco. I actually talked to him personally about that question when he first came out with those statements, because I have a very different point of view. He said, ‘I’m just trying to get the conversation going,’ and so I thought that was terrific. So here are my thoughts on it. The first thing is that you have to understand and look carefully at what studies say, and then what they mean for the larger context. So, for example, there are many studies that say that attendance in various arts activities is down, meaning people sitting in seats, listening to opera, watching dance or theater. So the NEA has interpreted that as demand for the arts is down. I do not. Because when you look at other kinds of demands — online demands, for example — different kinds of ways that, whether they are electronic or through new kinds of arts activities — hybrid arts activities — people are engaging in the arts. Demand for the arts is actually quite strong. Demand for a particular kind of art form in a particular kind of venue is not as strong. What that means to me is that we in the arts world have to do some serious thinking about our marketing approach, about the products that we have and the places through which we deliver those products. That’s not good if all you are interested in is people sitting in seats seeing you; you’ve got a tough time. If we can, as the Metropolitan Opera and other entities have done, expand the way of looking, we have more audiences to deal with. So that’s one thing. The second thing is we have a very different system in America than anywhere else in the world. We have a market system for arts organizations coming into being. Nobody is supporting those 109,000 non-profit arts organizations with enough money to be able to make a difference about them coming or going. Meaning, they survive on a mix of public, private and earned money. And so what that means is that when there is no longer a demand or an audience, they’ll go out of business. But for us to say that there’s too many of them, and that they should be put out of business, is not the way we’ve done arts growth in America, and I, first of all, don’t think it can be done. I think what you’re going to see are more arts organizations changing and some merging and even many new kinds of organizations coming into being. I think you’ll see growth.

Q: This person declares that he’s a dentist with a piano in his waiting room — I thought it said he’s also an amateur surgeon, but it actually says an amateur singer — so he agrees with the arts being valuable and all but then goes into a long piece about how governments can misuse the arts. He quotes Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s use of artists and basically asks at the end, therefore, isn’t it better if the arts remain in the hands — that is, their support — remains in the hands of private individual?

A: Well, two things. In America. the arts are in the hands of private individuals; you just have to look at the numbers I gave you: 60 percent earned income, that’s you voting with your pocketbook; and 30 percent private individuals, business; 10 percent, even less than that, government. So government is not in control; that’s the first thing. Secondly, the value of government is not to say what art gets delivered to you or not. The value of government is to help stimulate more of it for everyone; at least, that’s what I feel. That’s why the great leveraging power of those three bodies up there (the three people in the audience who represent the government portion of arts funding) — and you see how cutbacks are happening; there’s two of them sitting there right now — becomes, I think, really critical to understand that it’s about the leveraging, it’s not about any kind of control. The third thing I’ll say is that we must not confuse government — which every nation has — with Hitler or Stalin. Those were bad people, bad governments. Everything can be abused. Our job is to have good government and not abuse the things that we want to have for our people, like the arts, and the arts should be one of them, as far as I think.

Q: How many members of Congress have some background and education in the arts? How can Congress in general be more encouraged to participate more in the arts?

A: You know it’s interesting, how many people here sing in a chorus? Would you raise your hands? How many people here — leave those hands up — play an instrument for yourselves at home? How many people here write poetry? So now we’ve got almost every hand in the room up. Congress comes from the people, just like you; you are a good example of what Congress comes from. Almost every congressperson has something that is related to the arts in their background; that’s what I find. Every March, we have something called National Arts Advocacy Day. About 600 people come in from around the country, many others from online, and we visit almost every congressional office. If you go to every congressional office, you’ll see pictures of music-making or of visual art or something that connects to the arts. About 20 or 30 of them have some sort of professional connection to the arts. The others enjoy the arts even if they vote against the arts, all the time. Many years ago, I got to meet with Jesse Helms and he said, ‘Bob, I love the arts,’ but he always voted against the arts. So that interest is there. Making it understood as a public sector priority, as a policy priority, that’s another question. Those congresspeople might participate, and we want them to more of that. But getting them to understand why it’s a public good — why it does help with some of the things their constituents want done — that is what gets them to vote for the arts. I’ll just say this: Sadly, in some ways, the No. 1 reason that we have seen growth of federal money for the arts — according to the surveys that we’ve done — is the economic impact of the arts argument, as opposed to the inherent value argument. So we need to do both more, but it’s important for us to know what they respond to.

Q: Every speaker at the Hall of Philosophy this week at 2 p.m. mentioned that he or she had one or two mentors, most of them accidental. Could, or does, Americans for the Arts encourage or sponsor formal mentoring programs at the local level?

A: You know, that’s a great idea. We do not have a formal mentor program. We do have a number of programs, conferences and leadership forums, where we bring speakers and bring local leaders to be there and meet with other people and form their own mentorship opportunities. The woman who was my mentor — a woman named Lee Howard, here from Huntington, N.Y. — I met in that way, some 35 years ago at a conference for this organization. I came to the conference, and here was this person going on about fighting the fight at the local level, and we bonded and she helped me. So I think that’s a great idea to make that even more formal. So I’m going to take that back, and maybe you’ll see one next year.

Q: Pretend you’re meeting face-to-face with an inner-city elementary school principal, and you want them to purchase a well-respected series of dance classes. What two or three points do you make to convince them the arts are critical to the students?

A: In a study done with the Department of Justice and the city of Atlanta, the city of Portland, Ore., and the city of San Antonio, it was clearly done that with the involvement of dance and music and theater in classrooms for inner-city kids, particularly at-risk kids, recidivism rates went down, juvenile delinquency reportage went down, the ability to communicate went up, the ability for kids to graduate went up and the track record of kids going on and getting jobs and being contributors to the community was much higher than without the arts.

—Transcribed by Sarah Gelfand

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