Arts & Culture Blog
A Sampling of the 31st Annual Steinbeck Festival
August 9, 2011
The 31st annual Steinbeck Festival suffered a similar affliction as that of other big, stuffed, multi-day events like Cannes Film Festival, Miami Book Fair or Monterey Jazz Festival. There might be a name for it. Maybe "festivalitus?" or "festilemma?" It's when there are so many events happening in succession, and on top of each other, that inevitably one has to miss good stuff in favor of even better stuff.
Last time it happened to me was at Rock the Bells, having to choose between Nas and Damian Marley on the main stage and RZA of Wu-Tang Clan on the second stage. (I split the difference.) It happened at the Steinbeck Festival, on Sunday. The choice was between the concert of original, Steinbeck-inspired compositions by members of the Monterey County Composers Forum, from 3-4:30pm at First Presbyterian in Salinas, and a performance of Of Mice and Men by the formerly incarcerated members of theatre group Poetic Justice, going down 3:30-5:30pm at the Steinbeck Center. I and about 140 other people opted for the play.
But most of the programming for the festival was laid out as sensibly as a buffet line, with back-to-back high quality choices throughout. And you have to give credit to a literary festival that ends its opening night, Thursday, with "A Literary Brawl and Pub Crawl." Missed that one.
Friday's opening reception on Friday, of artist Pierre-Alain Bertola's original drawings from his graphic novel adaptation of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, drew on the synergy of Oldtown's First Friday Artwalk. Bertola was there at the Steinbeck Center, explaining, in a charming, staccato Swiss-French accent, his intent.
He drew Lennie as a big, clumsy cross between a child and a bear; though Steinbeck specifically wrote that Lennie wore a hat (as field hands would), Bertola drew him hatless.
"To make him more vulnerable," Bertola told a small gathering. He drew George, on the other hand, with sharp facial features to illustrate his keener intelligence. He gave Curly's wife a thick mane of hair, almost as an ominous and ironic harbinger. Bertola explained all this with fervor and animated movements. He set something down from his hands to demonstrate the walk he envisioned for Lennie.
"Watch. You see? Normal human beings walk like this," he said, swinging his arms counter to his legs. "But Lennie walk like this. See?" He swung his arms and legs in unison, like a lumbering golem might walk.
Bertola danced around the artwork on the walls, explaining, with infectious enthusiasm, his work. Then the crowd was ushered outside into the lobby where he read, at a podium, in French, about what Steinbeck means to him and others in Switzerland, which Steinbeck Center Executive Director Colleen Bailey relayed in English. In the meantime, authors from the next program, a group booksigning, began filtering in, including Thomas Steinbeck, looking eerily like a cross between his father and sometime Steinbeck portrayer, Taelen Thomas.
On Saturday afternoon, the atmosphere at the Steinbeck Center—between sessions of panelists, speakers, archive and off-site tours, workshops—was as casual as breaktime. Steinbeck historian Susan Shillinglaw sat in the lobby at a table, lightly engaged with two or three women, just as accessible as can be for questions or conversation. Bertola also lounged in the lobby, speaking discreet French to a woman.
Less free-form was the 2:45pm talk by actor David Conrad (Wedding Crashers, TV's Roswell and CSI: Miami) on "Why Read Steinbeck Aloud." A big audience came to hear the dashing looking gent speak, eloquently and with conviction, about Steinbeck.
"Steinbeck is the most moral writer this country has," he said, reading from a prepared essay. He noted that we all hear the written word before we can, ourselves, read it—it's read to us by parents, teachers, older siblings. He made a damn fine case for reading Steinbeck aloud, revealing his own mastery and love of the written word, ending his talk with the plea: "Now go well, and next time you read your favorite book, make some noise."
In the Q&A that followed, he fielded questions about doing audio books. He said he doesn't, that his voice bounces between high and low, but said he would love to because he knows some people who do and it's a cush gig. As to what makes for a good reading voice, he ascribed to "consistency" and "rhythm," and said Vanessa Redgrave spoke about certain voices having the "ring of truth."
He said Steinbeck's East of Eden was, perhaps, his "masterpiece" in the "Abrahamic tradition of homilies and parables."
Conrad said he was, himself, tough and violent as a kid, until a sixth grade teacher gave him a book and said, "Here, read this." He became hooked on books, then theater; according to IMDB, he turned down a role in Boogie Nights in order to do work in theater.
Later that evening, at 8pm, a panel convened that shined more light from Hollywood figures, this time onto the festival's theme of "Friends and Foes." The "Villains Panel: Bad Guys & Why We Need Them" was made up of writer and executive producer Walon Green (The Wild Bunch, Eraser, NYPD Blue, ER), Deadwood and NYPD Blue co-creator David Milch, and husband and wife team of writers David (Blade Runner, Unforgiven) and Janet (Twelve Monkeys, Leviathon) Peoples, moderated by executive producer Susan B. Landau (Cool Runnings, Princess of Thieves).
"David [Peoples] read Grapes of Wrath to me aloud when we were courting," said Janet, a feat that impressed her then. Some wisecracker in the audience muttered, "I wonder what would have happened if he read her Henry Miller."
Milch, pontificating on the question of villainy, had to repeat one phrase, which he did, verbatim, at the request of the moderator (I think she wanted to see if he could do it): "The slow process of the discovery of educability of the human soul made possible by initial allegiance to the idea of villainy."
Then he got more direct, to the degree that he apologized once, in talking about the various characters of his HBO show Deadwood, including the Nigger General Samuel Fields and Al Swearengen: "Swearengen becomes impotent…he blames the prostitute…his mother was, herself, a prostitute…restraint instead of castration…"
I think I have to watch this show now.
Green backed up Milch's point that "to the writer, there are no villains" by citing iconic film characters: "Taxi Driver. Harvey Keitel is only a bad guy because you don't spend enough time with him. Rocky. There is no bad guy; there's an antagonist."
On the question of ethnicity in writing for film, Janet told the audience, "Some of our toughest screenplays are not made and a lot of them are based on other ethnicities. 'We love the script, but we just don't think we can make it.'"
Moderator Susan B. Landau, daughter of Barbara Bain and Martin Landau, ended that heady segment (during which Steinbeck's name or books rarely were talked about—film people!) with a happy ending story on the 1993 Disney novelty movie Cool Runnings, about the 1988 Winter Olympics' Jamaican bobsledding team.
People, black people, mothers especially, come up to her to this day, she said, thanking her for producing a positive movie about black people at a time when Hollywood only allowed black characters to be either "gangsters" or "criminals."
"And that's a good place to end this talk," she said. And she was right.
Sunday's events at the Steinbeck Center were free for Monterey County residents, and between the live from Cairo interview with graphic novelist Magdy El Shafee and the pre-recorded conversation with American opera composer Carlisle Floyd and Jane Smiley introducing her new book, True Blue, set in Salinas Valley, there was little program skimping.
While some, including Steinbeck Center Executive Director Collen Bailey, fielded the concert at First Presbyterian, about 140 folks took in an intense, two-hour theatrical adaptation of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, performed by former convicts and addicts of Poetic Justice.
A review would convey little. More importantly, it was done with fidelity, earnestness, feeling and liveliness. The dozen or so actors were not polished, but that felt right, given that the story's loyalty to the underdog, its tough circumstances, and its raw look at human emotions, motives and desperation, don't lend themselves to polish.
Angel McGee, as Curly's bored and sultry temptress wife, got a good laugh when she complained that ranch living was too crude for her: "I wasn't meant to live like this; I'm from Salinas."
And in a surprising and telling bit of awareness and human understanding, Crooks, a broken, old black ranch hand played by William Brown, says of his segregation from the white ranch hands: " Books ain't no good. A guy needs somebody to be near him. A guy gets so lonely he gets sick."
It was a tumultuous and endearing ride that carried the audience to the tragic conclusion, the final scene between best friends Lennie and George. And when George compels Lennie to look away across the river to the horizon, to a place where "nobody can hurt you," some in the audience braced themselves and wiped tears away. After the conclusion, they then stood up and boisterously cheered the actors, who stayed for a "talk back" session with their audience.
Some had been in prison nearly two decades. Two had been out of jail or prison less than two months. Some had been addicted to drugs. All had gone wrong somewhere in their lives, and were attempting, through the humanity of theater and the camaraderie ("family" is how two put it) of their Poetic Justice group, to live with a deeper and higher consciousness.
The actors were candid in talking about their backstories.
Morry Talaugon, from the production team, said he had "clean," and Jon Vinas, who played the Boss, said he had been "sober," for seven years apiece. Nick Homick, who played Lennie, said that he was grateful to be in the theater group.
"Grateful to be anywhere. By the time I was 21, 11 of my friends were dead. That's the nature of addiction."
Roy Henry, who sang bluesy interludes between acts, said he had been in prison 30 years ago, but described himself as a "recovering convict" and that "we all get a little peace out of this."
Phil Jones, who played one-handed ranch hand Candy, looked older than his fellow cast members and said he'd done motion pictures, television, stage plays, voice-overs for cartoons like Thundercats. He even worked with Alfred Hitchcock.
"Made a lot of money," he said. "Lost it."
McGee, the sole woman cast member, said she'd been locked up in many counties across California, but that "this cast saved my life."
When asked if any had been scared by the prospect of acting in front of people, Guillermo Willie, who played George, responded, "When you go in front of a federal judge, when you're so strung out you don't know where you'll get your next fix, that's scary. To share, with your brothers and sisters, art, which fills you—it's not scary."
McGee, on the other hand, said "I have to say, this is the scariest thing I could have done. But I'm all for doing scary things now. Now that I have this family to back me up."
Festival co-director Erika Koss then compelled actor David Conrad, who had been sitting in the back, to come to the stage and read the first paragraph of Cannery Row. The actors of Poetic Justice made room and listened to the dramatic reading and seemed happy to give their stage over to a fellow actor—more accomplished in that craft, of course, but a fellow actor nonetheless. An equal.