Monthly Archives: April 2005

Ramona: A Quick Distinction

But wait.

It’s true, we are finally settled into the concrete rows of amphitheater seating. Yet it seems critically important that before the show starts, I discuss with you a distinction that might seem a bit esoteric. Ramona calls itself “California’s Official Outdoor Drama”. It also is titled The Ramona Pageant. But there is a difference between pageants and outdoor dramas.

Stick with me for this one.

Historical Outdoor Dramas generally belong to a genre known as the “symphonic drama,” created by Paul Green, a member of the celebrated Carolina Playmakers based in Chapel Hill, NC. Green had just won the 1927 Drama Pulitzer for In Abraham’s Bosom, a play about a Negro sharecropper who unsuccessfully attempts tries to rise above his given station. His work in general was animated by a deep commitment to social justice for the downtrodden (including Johnny Johnson, an anti-war musical drama written with my hero and yours—and if he isn’t, he should be—Kurt Weill.).

In this righteous vein of providing art for the unlikely, Green formulated his ideal of “theater for the common man,” the symphonic drama[2]. Symphonic dramas would be historical plays, generally set outdoors at the site of the historical event, and would synthesize poetic dialogue with music, dance, pantomime, and the dual spectacles of theatrical design and nature.

The symphonic drama was clearly inspired by historical pageants, a popular form of American historical performance that had its first hey day at the turn of the century.[3] Pageants aren’t plays, necessarily, but instead spectacles that celebrate the unique qualities of a locality, either through a town’s creation myth, or some other exceptional tale that reveals the spiritual or emotional truth of its geography.[4]

Here’s the point (finally, finally):

The symphonic drama attempts to use all the elements of spectacle in service of a story, of traditional rising and falling action building to dramatic climax.

Pageants use a story in the service of a spectacle. You don’t go for logical progression. You don’t go for the well-made play. The story is not the play: the story is the accumulated meaning of the tableaux vivant, moving pictures.

Hence, Ramona.

[1] This continues after his death—the Paul Green Foundation grants emerging playwrights and also works to abolish the death penalty in North Carolina, plus administering a writing and performance project for North Carolina women’s prisons. Right on.

[2] Green’s first symphonic drama about the disappeared Roanoke settlers, The Lost Colony (still running lo these 70 years later), was produced by the Federal Theater Project in Manteo, Outer Banks, North Carolina. As the outdoor drama movement had its surges in the 1950s and 1960s, Green’s blueprint for everyman’s theater held sway; it continues to be the gospel truth at the Institute for Outdoor Drama (IOD) at UNC-Chapel Hill.

[3] Pageants were once big business. Mark Sumner, former head of the IOD, told me about a working for a roving pageant company. They’d go from town to town, putting up pre-fab spectacles, tailored to the locality. He recalled borrowing bales of tobacco (does tobacco come in bales?) from farmers for a tobacco pageant in a farming community.

[4] Quite a few towns still have a local pageant going: remind me to tell you sometime about The Legend of Rawhide in Lusk, Wyoming.

Ramona: The Place


Let’s situate ourselves, shall we? We’re way the hell out in the middle of what has, at some point, been grandiosely titled “The Inland Empire.” If the Inland Empire had an emperor, he would rule over a land of desert, farmland, mini-malls and tract-home suburbs.

One might think this already describes the southern half of California quite succinctly. But once you start heading east, far enough for the ocean to become distant, you enter a different planet; in essence, the rest of the country: American-made vehicles bearing American flags, Jesus billboards, McDonalds. Strange suburbs have arisen here, seemingly without any relation to an urban center.

We pooled our scant knowledge of Hemet on our way, speeding through miles and miles of nowhere. Ben saw multiple police brutality cases from Hemet while clerking for the 9th Circuit; I remembered a 10-year old news story, something about the football coach at Hemet High rewarding his players by letting them sleep with his wife.

And then we arrived. Instant civilization. The sudden concrete sprawl, the sheer abundance of chain stores, simply dazzled. The town seemed comprised almost entirely of housing developments: at every block along the main strip, huge white sign-post directories pointed the way to each mobile and tract-home subdivision, of which there were dozens. How odd, I thought. What’s the industry? Who all’s going to move here and buy these houses? Who lives here?

Old people, turns out. And the people who care for them. I remember hearing that Hemet has killer thrift stores because so many failed Hollywood actors—like, the ones who never had a chance, meaning most of them—come out here to retire. It’s true. Second-hand shops occupy two full blocks of the old downtown. Ben found a gorgeous Yves St. Laurent suit coat, mint condition and a perfect fit, at the Hospice Thrift Store for $2.50.

We saw a fragile old couple walking down the sidewalk, carrying grocery bags. Well put-together teenage girls with frosted lipstick and skinny tanned legs stretching from short cut-off denim skirts. Boys on tricked-out low-rider bicycles. A homeless lesbian couple picking flowers for each other. Charismatic, evangelical denominations in weird buildings, like the Monolithic Dome housing the First Church of Religious Science (the most conservative-looking church we see turns out to be Seventh Day Adventist). A framing and photo shop advertises expert restoration of old California photos—all their examples involve the Mexican revolution. Mortuaries always are the longest-running, most established businesses in any community.

We get to the Ramona Bowl amphitheater; a little blond boy of perhaps 10 or 11 years, wearing what looks like a full security guard uniform, directs us to our parking spot with such jarring officiousness that we nervously looked for his gun. Tickets, hot dogs, and tamales are being sold out of a hacienda-style building, which also houses the Ramona Pageant Museum and Archives Office. I get our seats ($31 each! Ridiculous!). Audience members mill about the courtyard.

It’s nice. I mean, sure, they were selling trinkets and food, but it seemed contained, innocent, compared to the overwhelmingly conspicuous consumption at most street fairs and county carnivals. There’s a stand for fresh roasted corn (condiments include the largest squeeze bottle tub of mayo I’ve ever seen). A local health clinic gives free blood-pressure tests. Sales of copies of Ramona and candles shaped like red-pepper ristres. Margaritas and beer. The flavored ice booth clearly wins the popularity award. I actually heard someone ask for “half bubble-gum, half banana” syrup for his shaved ice, just as I was thinking how disgusting those two flavors must be.

We ducked into the Museum, in hopes of both air-conditioning and education. The two-story Museum combines the history of local Native Americans (entirely told through collections of arrowheads and baskets found by local white people) with the history of Helen Hunt Jackson and the novel. But mostly, the Museum is dedicated to the history of the Pageant itself, photos and old props and costumes presented behind glass. Elderly volunteers act as docents, confirming for me that yes, Raquel Welch (nee Tejada, a local San Diego girl) did in fact play Ramona in 1959. One of the women in the Museum talks loudly to her friends about playing the Señora in 1986.

It’s a paid gig for the main actors, but it all seemed like a local affair, created to generate tourism, local income and local pride. Local talent graced the courtyard with a little pre-show entertainment. A troupe of girls performed traditional Mexican skirt dancing (note overweight white tourists in the foreground, including, to the right, a woman taking a photo of me).

Also, a singing group of older ladies accompanied by a couple of men on guitar. The women dressed in their idea of young Mexican señoritas wore (although they were dressing more like hookers of the period, what with the wigs and the makeup and the strongly contrasting colored lace on silk “espanish” dresses). The attempt to look young seemed grotesque on the women in their 60s. One of the women, oddly, couldn’t have been older than 14. She clearly loved performing with them—probably thought it was really cool that she was doing this with grown-ups.

During one number (“Oh, Perfidious One”), she went up to and sang to helpless male audience members. I always love the opportunity to help make a moment of audience participation succeed, even at the expense of my loved ones. Encouraged by my smile, our little friend went after Ben.

Though the Ramona Pageant has corporate sponsorship, several plaques and renovated buildings point to a deep local interest (like the ticket hacienda, whose repair came with the donations of one Dr. Chadhuri, whose states his pride in this annual community festivity.) The Red Hat ladies, seated right behind us, gossiped about their children, exclaimed over the ornate sequined Mexican dance costumes (“Those pants are hand-sewn, can you believe it!” “Those skirts are gorgeous!” “Who’s in it?”–“Oh yes, that’s Pat’s niece in the play.”)

Ramona: The Set-Up

So this past weekend, I fulfilled a long-time desire: to attend The Ramona Pageant, America’s oldest continuously running Outdoor Drama.

Perhaps I would do best to reiterate the underpinning issues at play here. I have a long-standing obsession with finding, learning about and experiencing populist and popular forms of American performance—past, present and future. Theater that Americans actually go to because they want to, and not as a cultural checkmark.

And people go to Ramona. Oh, do they ever. On a nice day, like last Saturday, clear and sunny, they sold more than half of their 5,400 person capacity amphitheater. All kinds of people were there, too, milling around eating tamales and hot dogs and watching the pre-show entertainment. Elderly white folks made up the bulk of the audience, of course (leaving the show, we walked by the hi-larious sight of a long line of Boy Scouts with wheelchairs, waiting). But families and young couples, of diverse ethnicities and classes and styles, also attended—including, in our row, a pair of safety-pin crappy black sweatshirt wearing punk kids on a date. The Red Hat Society ladies, Riverside chapter, were out in full force.[1]

They all came to see the pageant, a two-and-a-half hour spectacle that takes place in an amphitheater where the stage is less a stage than a cleverly landscaped stretch of desert, audience facing a backdrop consisting of seemingly untouched foothills.

The production is based somewhat on the novel <a href=""target="blank&quot;Ramona, written by New England authoress and Indian rights activist Helen Hunt Jackson.

Some Background (with many thanks to Genevieve Bell)

Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885), was one of the most prolific and influential American woman writers of her era (along with childhood classmate and lifelong friend Emily Dickinson). Emerson regarded Jackson as “the greatest woman poet,” rating her superior to most of her male contemporaries. She also wrote novels and essays; and turned up in Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose, both as herself and, in many ways, as the model for book’s main character.

In the 1870s, Jackson first encountered stories of Native American oppression and discrimination; she also met and married her husband, a wealthy banker and railroad magnate, who ended up bankrolling her growing obsession with Indian rights.

Genevieve notes that Jackson became politicized around Native American rights before there really such a thing; she wrote A Century of Dishonor, a book documenting a hundred years of broken treaties, empty promises and government corruption with regard to the Indian population. At her own expense, she sent a copy to every member of Congress, admonishing them to: “Look upon your hands: They are stained with the blood of your relations.” The book, a shocking expose, didn’t excite any real interest. No one cared.

So Jackson tried another tack: she decided to write a novel “in a way to move people’s hearts” to the plight of American Indians, because “people will read a novel when they will not read serious books.” In this task, she must, of course, have been inspired by the success and infamy Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, itself the most popular novel of 19th century America, and a watershed cultural moment for abolitionism. After all, Lincoln said to Stowe, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”[2]

Ramona started something, but it certainly wasn’t a groundswell of support for Native Americans—instead, the novel created an enduring regional myth that started turning the wheels of Southern California tourism.

Originally published as a sentimental serial in a woman’s journal, Ramona tells the tragic story of beautiful half-caste orphan Ramona. Raised to be proper señorita on a californio hacienda, Ramona falls in love with Alessandro, an Indian (and “the noble savage,” if I ever read one). They run away together into the desert, and battle americano encroachment.

It was the first interracial romance to be a best-seller, which it was from the moment it was published. In 1886, the North American Review ranked Ramona as one of the two foremost ethical novels of the 19th century (next to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, of course). Unfortunately, people were far more interested in the luxurious Spanish ranchos and the love story between Ramona and Alessandro. Jackson was (I like the phrase), trying to deliver an aspirin in a banana split—and the banana split won out.[3]

Within a year of the novel’s first publication, people began visiting the San Diego and Inland Empire area in droves, looking for Ramona’s birthplace, for the site of her wedding, for Don Felipe’s hacienda—maps were sold to follow Ramona’s travels and travails. Never mind that none of these characters or locations really existed. (For a detailed exigesis on the impact of Ramona, check out Dydia Delyser’s Ramona Memories: Tourism And The Shaping Of Southern California. And see John Rollin Ridge’s Joaquin Murieta, for similar California mythologies created wholesale by novelists which “became real” over time).

Ramona sold 600,000 copies in 60 years, remaining continuously in print until well into the 1950s. It was adapted to film several times (including a famous silent version with Don Ameche as Alessandro, which the Hemet Movie theater screened while we were there), and is apparently the basis for the vague script of a daytime soap in Mexico.

In 1923, the enduring regional myth of Ramona was transformed into a tourist pageant, California’s Official Outdoor Drama. And the rest is history. Tomorrow, The Pageant.

[1] The Red Hats are women who meet in public wearing red hats and purple clothing, inspired by the Jenny Josephs poem that starts, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.” Truly legit members have to be over 50, but women over 40 can join–you have to wear lavender and pink, though.

[2] More about Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s complex and storied history as American performance, some other time.

[3] To be fair, historian Antoinette May (author of The Annotated Ramona) claims that Ramona was responsible for the enactment of the 1887 Dawes Severalty Act, the first comprehensive reform legislation for Indians enacted by Congress. The well-meaning though ultimately problematic, racist act (aren’t they all?) attempted to “civilize” Indians, making them farmers by dividing tribal lands into individual allotments—it also opened Indian reservations to white settlement.

part of the plot

Nothing much to say about the current abysmal state of our American theater this week (although for signs of life, check out the sidebar and all those great shows you should go see–and keep the notices coming!). I spent the week plugging away at El Paso and planning a journey to America’s Oldest Outdoor Drama (keep your eyes open for Monday’s road trip report!).

More compelling this week were the movies I watched, in my continuing obsession with musicals. Early film musicals seem to be about themselves–about theater or movies or vaudeville. One senses that it seemed inconceivable for those performers that their style of popular entertainment could actually disappear–films of musicals simply attempted to deliver the same goods in a different form, one which was cheaper and more easily reproducible.

Let me say that I’m tempted to watch Three Kings as a documentary about Iraq. Also, to watch Singin’ in the Rain as a documentary about the transition of Hollywood from silent film to talkies. If that gives you an idea my perception of “reality” w/r/t storytelling, or my feelings about the place of documentary in art-making.

Betty Comden and Adolph Green, screenwriters for Singin’ in the Rain, had been hired to write a script around songs they were delivered. The songs in no way further the plot; they do, however, provide breaks for entertainment. The logic behind that entertainment is straight vaudeville, straight early American theater. Songs, massive monologues, even character portrayals, didn’t assist to further a plot in unified Aristotelian fashion, but instead provided the opportunity for a performer to show off in a certain way, to do his or her schtick. That’s often what would draw an audience–a performer’s ability to DO something live onstage. Not the story.

Comden and Green knew that, and so, those clever devils, they created a story that reflected the style they were working in. They, and Gene Kelly as well, interviewed many former silent screen stars (themselves former vaudeville troupers), and used the collected stories to create one of the all-time great movies, a movie about Hollywood’s tricky transition into talkies.

So I followed my screening of Singin’ in the Rain with Broadway Melody of 1929, an early talkie musical about a couple of hoofin’ sisters trying to make it big, see, in New York. Parts of Singing in the Rain were ripped from Broadway Melody; the former, a love story set during the time and around the set of circumstances that created the latter.

A lot of racy pre-code stuff in Broadway Melody–gratuitous shots of women in their skimpy knickers preparing to take baths, or close-ups of showgirl legs in rehearsal rags, or changing in and out of costumes (they all seem to eschew brassieres) with some hot backstage smooches (with men) thrown in for good measure (although the sisters’ snuggling ain’t innocent). Luckily, since they were telling a story about vaudeville performers, those dirty rascals, it could be somewhat part of the mise en scene.

In the earlier musicals I’m watching, there’s both an homage to and dependence on on the tricks of vaudeville (The Big Broadcast of 1938, for instance, which seems nothing more than a thin ‘story’ holding together songs, dances, comedy routines, and scenes that seem to come straight out of burlesque). Early Hollywood actors were v-ville troupers or children of same, well into the 1950s.

The appeal of these movies to me–stuffed with bad over-acting, really obvious plot twists, and
a style of performance which they innocently didn’t see translating badly to film–is less the movies–they weren’t great movies–but the fact that they document the form of live performance that came before it–the skits, the language, the dance moves, the songs. Also, in their portrayal of the business itself–they document the culture, sometimes in generalized cliches, sometimes with artless, touching specificity.

Rogers & Hammerstein’s great innovation was to integrate plot and lyrics, so that all the songs had to do with all of the story. After that, musicals didn’t have to be about musicals, you didn’t need an excuse like that for a production number anymore.

And that’s about the same time Singin’ in the Rain came out, a nostalgic goodbye and thank you for what came before it.

no, you tell me

Once blogger stops being fussy as it has been all morning, you will be seeing some changes in the sidebar. I’d like to start linking to interesting shows in cities of people who I know might be looking at this.

(speaking of which–Twin A, whassup! Great to hear from you! Glad that the Polenberg reimagined Seder continues to evolve–I the warmest and fuzziest memories of the one I attended, way back in the day in New Haven. What are you up to? What are you working on?–wait, let’s bring this out of parens).

What are you working on? What show did you recently see that rocked? What company do I need to be keeping an eye out for? This can include dance, performance art, art, and music, as long as it’s (preferably) LIVE. Let me know what’s happening on your end.

BTW–anyone need an invitation for a gmail account? I have, like, 50 million.

tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones and good in (almost) everything

From my day job:
One day, I will open a show with a woman onstage, sharpening pencils with an electric pencil sharpener. Pencil after pencil. Making that grinding noise. As someone has been doing in the conference room for the past half-hour.

From Sir Peter Hall’s appalingly literal production of As You Like It:
As You Like It
is such a truly weird play–the fun, you-direct-Shakespeare-to-solve-’em questions the script raises (why does Rosalind maintain her hidden identity with Orlando for so long? What’s going on between Ros and Celia? What is Shakespeare doing have a melancholic running rampant through these funny and imperfect love stories? How do you make these disconnected stories work? How will the play (and characters, and design) transform once we’re in the Forest? Why is the forest continually referred to as a “desert”? How do you “solve” all the little magic-twist endings and integrate them into the being of the production so that they either don’t jar, or jar in a way that contributes to the overall arc of the production?) became all the more apparent as Sir Hall’s production attempted to answer absolutely none of them. Aquila, I’m sure, would bend that play over and spank it. So to speak.

No playwright is yummier for a director than Shakespeare–it’s both brilliantly written and conceived and characterized, of course, but has enough gaps to be malleable. Seeing the play made me want to sit over the script with my notebook in hand for a few hours–there’s a tremendous fable to be cracked from it, a (quite dark) masque about sexuality and love and time and identity.

Also reminds me that at some point I wanted to write “shell” plays, plays with gaps that would instruct completion by its creators.

From imdb:
This seems like it might be a bad idea. Discuss.

As a friend noted, “some, indeed many, events in history are so terrible that they are truly desecrated by Spielberg’s desire to find a story of human triumph in everything.”

If you’re in New York, go see this.

monday monday (la la, la la la la)

Dancers have oddly sectioned bodies, like insects; ballet dancers lower legs are pyramids, with calves flat across the back, sharp edged. I think I used to have calves like that. I don’t anymore, but it’s been nice to be dancing ballet again anyway. And yoga as well.

One year blogging. If you don’t count the six months that I disappeared. That’s good.

Writing is hard.

In just about two hours, the Illini WILL WIN. Go Illini! Go!

From David Mills, eloquent former executive director of Viva El Paso:

One of the things about Outdoor Drama is that it’s not just the play...Viva is unique to El Paso, it has to do with this community and what’s special and different about this community, so that, I think, involves the audience, and the city government, and the business community, and the educational community in a way that no other form of theater could.

And so I think that’s what excites me about it. That somehow we’re helping to shape…the community shape, the perception of the community of itself and to shape the perception of El Paso by the rest of the United States and the rest of the world as well, on a very small scale, but nonetheless I think we’re involved in that.