Briefly noted: three Manhattan actors in Manhattan

Variety, with its amusing lingo, recently pointed out that three performers from the cast of WGN’s Manhattan are now doing “legit projects” in New York: John Benjamin Hickey, Christopher Denham, and Mamie Gummer. In a conversation with the three of them conducted by Cynthia Littleton, they discuss the lure of the stage, the differing demands of stage and screen work, and the value of a theater background. Continue reading


…And a Passion: Q&A with Atra Asdou

“All you need for theater is two planks and a passion”—one version of a saying attributed to Spanish playwright Lope de Vega (who actually said something a little less pithy). Planks can be gotten anywhere. For passion, you need actors.

Given the cooperation of the Fates, this will be an occasional feature, exploring the life and work of actors by means of a standard set of questions. Earlier entries in the series can be found here. (Responses have been lightly edited.)

In this installment of my Q&A, which introduces a few new questions, actor Atra Asdou speaks to the casting issue that has recently stirred attention (for examples, see here and here), recalls playing to the family camcorder, and explains how her most recent role affected her perceptions. I discovered her, so to speak, while looking into a recent Steppenwolf Theatre production. You can find Atra on Twitter.

Atra-Asdou-Headshot-2-crop(w)Where were you born?
Chicago, Illinois.

Where do you live now?
Chicago, Illinois.

What’s your current role?
I just finished a run playing Julia in George Orwell’s 1984, a production in the Steppenwolf for Young Adult series. In February, I’ll start rehearsals for the role of the Wife in a Lookingglass Theatre Company production of Lorca’s Blood Wedding, which will begin performances in March.

What sparked your interest in acting?
My father has always been a huge movie fan. Spending all day at the movies was his favorite pastime when he was growing up in Iraq. When my siblings and I were children, we didn’t have a bedtime and we didn’t have restrictions as to what we would watch at night: it was whatever my dad wanted to watch. He’d, of course, manually censor any inappropriate moments by changing the channel then changing it back, but we’d watch every movie from Dumbo to The Godfather. Lots of Westerns, too. He’d quiz me on actors. “Atra, do you know who that is?” “Robert Redford?” “Robert Duvall.” When he bought a camcorder, my brothers and I would record silly premises and characters. My father would also take us to our cultural center to watch plays and sketches the people of our community would perform. I didn’t know acting could be a profession until fifth grade. That’s when I met my friend Nicole, who, at the time, wanted to be an actor. Her parents took her to the theater all the time, and she was involved in plays. They often had an extra ticket and were so gracious as to have me along to see shows like The Lion King. That was the first professional production I’d seen. That’s when I started pursuing it—taking classes in middle and high school, then majoring in theater at Loyola University Chicago.
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Neighborhood of doom: at the Flea, playwright Jennifer Haley takes apart the suburbs

N3RD photo 6 by Hunter Canning(w)

Two members of the ensemble cast in the Flea Theater production of Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom (photo by Hunter Canning)

In Ray Bradbury’s story “The Veldt” (1950), a parent who’s growing concerned about what his children have created in a simulated environment muses, “They were awfully young, Wendy and Peter, for death thoughts. Or, no, you were never too young, really. Long before you knew what death was you were wishing it on someone else. When you were two years old you were shooting people with cap pistols.” Jennifer Haley, in Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, a 2008 play perhaps inspired by Bradbury’s story and perhaps an independent creation, offers a contemporary take on a similar idea. A video game captivates teenagers in a community by duplicating their neighborhood, even its inhabitants, and allowing them to battle zombies—modeled on their parents—in a quest whose ultimate goal is to get away. For the teens, the game represents their consuming desire to grow up, take charge, fight their way free; for the parents, the game is taking their children away, from the dinner table and from the life of the family. The stakes are raised when, as in Bradbury’s story, the simulated world begins spilling over into the real one.

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Briefly noted: a WGN series finds noir in the bomb project


John Benjamin Hickey and Olivia Williams in a promotional graphic for Season Two of Manhattan. Copyright: ©2015 WGN America.

So many networks, so many shows. Last year, a cable network called WGN America launched a series called Manhattan (often rendered with parentheses around the middle “a”), which is a curious thing—a noir-ish 40s drama taking place amid the Manhattan Project. I can’t think of any parallels for what this show is doing—which doesn’t mean there aren’t any—but the idea makes sense. A climate of secrecy and suspicion, anxiety about the ultimate aims one is serving, the pressure on relationships that must arise in an environment of intense work—all this can lend itself to noir.

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Technology through the lens of art: a recent book looks at computer graphics, transistor graphics, and more

Inside the Machine cover (from Norton site)

In Inside the Machine, published in August, cultural historian Megan Prelinger surveys the visual presentation of advances in electronics. To study how increasingly abstract developments were given tangible form in order to convey them to businesses, workers in the field, and the general public is an ingenious and provocative idea. But reading the book provides a mixed experience.

Anyone who grew up learning about the scientific and technical developments she chronicles in her text is likely to trip repeatedly over her descriptions, and a reader who doesn’t already know may come away misinformed or confused. A few examples: Prelinger speaks of vacuum tubes “sorting” electrons; a better term would be controlling or modulating their flow. She refers more than once to three basic forces that govern all matter; she labels one of them “magnetism” and calls another “the nuclear force.” This may be her attempt at a convenient simplification, but physics recognizes four fundamental forces—the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force, electromagnetism, and gravity. She speaks once or twice of radar astronomy when she means radio astronomy. She seems unclear on a few aspects of computers and programming. She gives the impression that the jet engine and the jet-propelled airplane were invented in the U.S.A.—“Bell Aircraft had built the first jet in 1942 (with engines by General Electric)”—which as far as I can tell is thoroughly incorrect. She reports “the loss of all of the Ranger spacecraft to computer and navigational failures,” but the final three missions in that series succeeded. She refers to the prospect of “quark computing” instead of quantum computing. (For the record, I read the published version of the book, not an advance galley.)

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Briefly noted: On blockchains and Shakespeare

The cover of the October 31, 2015, edition of The Economist

The cover of the October 31, 2015, edition of The Economist

The current edition of The Economist contains both an editorial and a briefing on the subject of the blockchain technology that underlies Bitcoin, which is now being adapted for other uses and proposed for more. The basic idea of a blockchain is a ledger that’s distributed and relatively tamperproof. This means that a record of your ownership of something can’t easily be lost or tampered with, which can be very useful not only in finance but also in things like property records, as the opening example in the briefing illustrates. That doesn’t mean that bitcoins or other blockchain-based objects of value can’t be stolen. If somebody gets hold of my laptop, they can use the software that controls my Bitcoin “wallet” to transfer my money to themselves, just as somebody who gets hold of my real wallet can take out whatever cash it contains. But that’s not directly a problem with the system in either case. If you don’t know how blockchains work, or you do but want to know how they might be used, I suggest you read these two Economist pieces.

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