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A Day of Díaz

It’s not often a bunch of students get to hang out and talk with an award-winning rising literary star whose book they’ve just read.

And yet that’s exactly what happened on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in McCullough Social Space when Junot Díaz was in town.

Díaz is a Dominican-American writer who holds a prominent place in the realm of provocative literature. In 2008, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize and The Dayton Literary Peace Prize for his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which was selected this year as the common reading assignment for all incoming first-years. It’s a culturally contemporary story of a young immigrant, Oscar, who is often described by Díaz as a “science fiction, comic book, fantasy-loving overweight nerd.” The immigrant experience has always been central to Díaz’s work, and it’s no coincidence that his characters’ lives bear strong similarities to his own as a young transplant to Paterson, New Jersey.

No stranger to irreverence, his talk to the group of college newbies was peppered with the smooth profanity of casual conversation. And when students asked those predictable questions about “what something meant” or “the author’s intention,” Díaz tossed the questions right back at them—“What do you think it meant? What does it mean to you? I’m just the writer. You’re the ones doing the reading.” And later, as one student admitted to not really “getting the point,” Díaz railed against the college-student must-know-it-all mindset and said, “Listen, it’s normal not to understand everything all the time. That’s the way life is.”

Due to lingering back pain, Díaz opted not to sit in the armchair provided next to Dean of the College and Chief Diversity Officer Shirley M. Collado for the “fireside chat,” as the first-year-only event was promoted. Instead he paced the stage, gesticulating as he spoke—sometimes emphatically, sometimes barely a mumble.

When asked why he thought Oscar Wao made a good choice for the common reading, he dove into what’s clearly a topic of frustration for him. “Nothing could be more community-oriented than getting a bunch of young people roughly the same age and locking ‘em up in a little strip of Vermont for four years to live and learn. That’s like some wild spaceship. But even that ideal experience has been contaminated by this larger cultural fragmentation, where people are separated from each other even when they’re together. You’re here at college, right? Well, 90 percent of your mind is somewhere else. You go to a club? Everybody’s on the phone.”

The audience, with their own buzzing cell phones jammed into pockets, laughed nervously, not quite sure where this was going.

“We’re not there,” he said quietly. “We’re not present. But a common reading, no matter what the book, is an intent to keep alive something that is important, which is that we’re all present in one space with each other at the same time. These are very precious moments, I promise you, and they’re not moments that are encouraged in the larger culture. The book, then, is an excuse to do something that we need to do more and more of, being present, being together.”

Later that evening, Díaz stood before a slightly larger audience in Mead Chapel. No less profane, his voice rose and fell over a range of edgy concepts, from the “culture of respectability” as a form of privileged oppression to the power of toxic authoritative narrative in dictators to Superman, with his unerring good will, as the perfect cover for a serial killer.

When he read a short section from Oscar Wao, his voice became sonorous and hyper-enunciated, giving breadth and depth to each word. The animosity and self-loathing that pervades the characters were palpable. There was a lot of quiet listening going on.

Afterward, he took questions. When one listener expressed an inability to feel sorry for the ever-suffering Oscar as a protagonist, Díaz jumped at the opportunity to talk about compassion. “Most of Oscar’s suffering, comes from people around him lacking compassion, and ignoring him. To have compassion means you can’t ignore. Most people on the planet endure enormous suffering. Does that mean they are less worthy? We could all do with a little compassion.”

Bittersweet End of the Line for Bread Loaf’s Streetcar

It’s a bittersweet end to the summer for Sherry Brown, our Bread Loaf student-on-the-scene. She has spent the last six weeks studying the plays of Tennessee Williams with veteran professor Michael Cadden–and the last week watching full-house final performances of  A Streetcar Named Desire, starring a professional troupe of Equity actors-in-residence led by Director of the Program in Theater Alan MacVey.

Throughout the summer Sherry has reported on the class (see here) and the rehearsals (see here), and finally, here are her thoughts on seeing the play, which took place each evening at 8 p.m. from July 27 – 30:

“It was with mixed emotions that I saw the last performance of A Streetcar Named Desire come to a close. I was aware that I was at the end of something extraordinary.

I spent so many hours discussing Streetcar in class, viewing various productions, watching rehearsals, and writing papers that I was concerned that I would not be able to enjoy the performance. On the contrary, I found that the awareness of and appreciation for all of the choices which Alan and the actors made enhanced my experience as a spectator.

This has been my first year at Bread Loaf and I value the time I was able to spend here among people who are passionate about literature, art, and the exchange of ideas. This is an extraordinary place, but is made even more unique by the opportunity to interact with and learn from Michael Cadden, Alan MacVey, and the equity actors. They are generous with their time and talents and I feel honored to have been able to learn from them.”

Many thanks to Sherry!

Bringing the Streetcar to Life

Here’s the latest update from MiddMag’s Bread Loaf student-on-the-scene Sherry Brown. (Read the first installment here.)

In her course this summer on Tennessee Williams, Sherry’s getting to see first-hand how a play is read, taught, studied, rehearsed, and ultimately performed by a professional troupe of actors when A Streetcar Named Desire opens there later this month, starring Equity actors Elizabeth Bunch, Angela Brazil, and Chris Hutchison (L-R, below). Performances are Wednesday, July 27, through Saturday, July 30, at 8 p.m. in the Burgess Meredith Little Theater on the Bread Loaf campus. For tickets call the Middlebury College Box Office at 443-2771.

The course Sherry’s taking is called “Tennessee Williams at 100: How to Take A Streetcar Named Desire,” and professor Michael Cadden has invited several of the Equity company-in-residence actors into the classroom to perform and discuss parts of the plays they are reading. Director of the Program in Theater Alan MacVey (at right below, directing Hutchison and Bunch) has held open rehearsals throughout the summer, and Cadden asks his students to attend several of these as well.

Here are some thoughts and observations from Sherry after attending one of those rehearsals:

“Watching the Streetcar rehearsals as Alan MacVey and the actors develop the characters has been quite an experience. I had expected that it would be educational and interesting on an intellectual level. It certainly has been that; however, I have been taken by surprise at the depth of my emotional response to the characters. When I read the play, I didn’t particularly like the characters – it was easy to judge them. As the actors bring the characters to life, however, I’m struck by the fact that I’m not so different from them after all. Like Stanley, I have hurt people I love. Like Mitch, I have been awkward and ham-handed in relationships with people, and like Blanche, I have lied to protect myself. The immersion in Streetcar has been very intense.

“As well as attending rehearsals and Michael’s class, we have viewed the Streetcar movie and teleplays. This very close reading of the text and attention to the various interpretations of the characters has opened up the play to me in an unexpected way.

“Each time I read or see a scene performed, I participate in the creation of that character anew. This is an understanding that I hope to bring to my students in our study of drama in the classroom. There is not one definitive Blanche, or Hamlet, or Willy Loman. The creation of a character happens in the space between the actor’s portrayal, the staging of the play, and the interpretation of the audience member.

“That said, I am looking forward to stepping away from Streetcar for a little while. Although we have not exhausted all of the nuances and interpretations of the play, it has exhausted me! We will be spending some class time discussing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, before returning to Streetcar for the final Bread Loaf production.”

Stay tuned for the third installment when we’ll hear from Sherry after the final performance of A Streetcar Named Desire from Wednesday, July 27, through Saturday, July 30, at 8 p.m. in the Burgess Meredith Little Theatre on the Bread Loaf campus.




Catching a Streetcar at Bread Loaf

What’s it like to read a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, study it with a legendary drama professor and then see it performed by Equity actors—all in six weeks?

That’s what Sherry Brown (left) is doing this summer at the Bread Loaf School of English. This is her first year at Bread Loaf, and the secondary school teacher from San Antonio is in for a ride.

The class is called “Tennessee Williams at 100: How to Take A Streetcar Named Desire,” and it’s taught by Michael Cadden (right), a Bread Loaf veteran of 30 years and an absolute genius at building bridges between the worlds of academia and professional theatre.

And as the course comes to a close later this month, the class—and anyone else who wants to attend the public performance—will enjoy the focus of their summer study come to life. Alan MacVey (left), another one of those talented Bread Loaf veterans, is directing the summer program’s Equity company-in-residence in A Streetcar Named Desire. Like most plays performed each summer, it will likely be sold out, but Sherry plans to be front and center.

In the meantime, she’s going to keep MiddMag posted about her experiences while taking this class—from the readings and rambunctious discussions to visits from Equity actors and sneak peeks at the dress rehearsals. Here’s her view after the first two weeks of class:

“Before arriving this summer, we were expected to read everything for the course including Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and Williams’s plays, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as well as a production history of Streetcar.

We’re not studying the play scene by scene but looking at various aspects of the play, such as characterization, theme, and staging, and also exploring the influence of previous playwrights on Williams. We’re exploring the social and economic setting of the play, and discussing the production history—of this play and plays in general.

I have always loved the theater, but have only experienced it as an observer so I was intrigued by the idea of watching the play take shape and seeing how the director and actors work together to make the creative choices that lead to the final production. Also, we teach quite a bit of drama in my classroom (Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansberry, and others) with mixed success. Without the luxury of taking the class to a live production of the play, I’m looking for ways to make the study of drama more engaging for students.

On our first day of class, the major actors for Streetcar came in to talk about their roles and the production. We’re also expected to attend several hours of rehearsal each week, which is really interesting. You get a whole new appreciation for an actor’s every move—each one becomes so significant.

And yesterday, an actor came in to read two monologues from The Glass Menagerie and talk about his experience playing Tom in the Vermont Stage Company’s production last fall. Last week, Michael got us all tickets to see a recording of the National Theatre production of The Cherry Orchard at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury.”

Stay tuned for more from Sherry in the coming weeks!

Rain or Shine

Every year in May, a dedicated crew from Facilities Services takes on the task of readying the campus for Commencement. Their duties are numerous and their days are long. Assistant Director of Facilities Services Luther Tenny gives us a brief glimpse into one of those jobs, and the spirit and efficiency with which they do it!




Shared Shelf is Launched!

ARTstor has notified us that all of the Middlebury Visual Resources images have now been ingested into our Shared Shelf collection in ARTstor.  There are 3,143 images in the collection (This is, to date, the largest Shared Shelf Collection in existence.)  The collection is quickly growing as we add images for teaching your courses.

These images will turn up when you search all collections in ARTstor, or you can choose to search just the Middlebury VR collection.