Categories
Acting

What’s New in Pleasantville?

Pleasantville Astrology opens for business on February 1st 2024. And we are running an Opening Special.

Pleasantville is very fine town in Westchester, north of New York City. It has a great transport link in the shape of the Metro North (Harlem Line) railway and it takes a manageable fifty minutes to get to Grand Central. So is it a dormitory town for commuters working in the city? Only up to a point.

The town of Pleasantville links to the great NYC, but it has its own vibe, its own virtues. The Jacob Burns Film Center is a flagship point of focus. The Burns has a creative programming policy, they show the most interesting of the latest commercial releases and they combine that with quasi-obscure indie movies from international sources. There are quiet dramas, niche documentaries, quirky comedies, and if you’re a member you get free popcorn on a Wednesday.

It could have gone another way … The property now occupied by the Burns was being eyed by a chain clothing store, and the word is that the popular vote would have gone that way, but a single elected representative stuck out and stuck up for film art. The town is better for it. Because it’s a destination. 

Wheeler Avenue has one of every kind of restaurant; Asian fusion (Actually 2 of them), a Pizza place, one of three in the wider municipality with one more on the way; a couple of delis, a trattoria, a micro brewery, a steak house, a fish and chip shop (alas now closed; I cried; it’s a British thing), and more delis sprinkled around corners, a sushi place, a Southern kitchen, an unusual meld of French and Indian (You don’t believe it? Catch a train up here and I’ll show you). And you can get tacos and take-out. But there’s more.

Of the seven emporiums selling alcoholic refreshment there is one advanced establishment which serves Irish Whiskey aged in Guinness casks (think of it!?!).

And there are four denominations amongst the churches; Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopalian, plus a synagogue, oh five if you count the Korean place now closed which has turned its grounds into a community garden and a place to do al fresco yoga in the summer. At the Presbyterian church they host a FREE chamber music performance from top-notch musicians, four times a year.

There are three or four dry cleaners, a gym, two nail salons and a car dealership. But there are only three national chains (Dunkin’, Starbucks, 711 ) and they nestle a real live coffee shop where you can borrow a book, or take it home, or leave one for someone else. There is a farmer’s market every week. Fresh fish, all kinds of produce, cheeses to sample on friendly plates, bakers, Tibetan steamed dumplings, grass fed beef. There is a vegan food-to-go spot too, where you can get wheatgrass shots and an excellent mulligatawny soup. They have a bicycle shop here, and there are dentists and psychologists should you need them.

Pleasantville Community Television produces an eclectic mix of local small screen stuff. There’s a swimming pool. And don’t forget the Norman Rockwell type diner, glistening in chrome and marble in Memorial Plaza. A car mechanic. An opportunity shop. There’s more … The Jean Jaques bakery in its third generation makes amazing quiches. You can buy lottery tickets at one of the four gas stations. I only ever do so when the jackpot reaches nine figures, after all, you’ve got to have a reason to cross the road.

We have a barber, three or four hairdressing salons, three vintners and a supermarket. There is a volunteer fire department, and every now and then someone over there sounds a base-note klaxon which is reminiscent of an elephant farting. (Not that I’ve ever heard an elephant fart.)

One town down the track, the aptly named Valhalla boasts a magnificently landscaped cemetery of several hundred acres with a pond and ornamental trees. Al Hirschfeld’s last remains rest there, as do Danny Kaye’s.

One town over towards the three thousand acres of semi-wild managed woodland that is the Rockefeller Preserve, is the village of Pocantico Hills where the Union Church (another denomination) boasts half a dozen stained glass windows by Chagall, with a Rose Window by Matisse. The Preserve itself was a sanctuary during the lockdown, Trish and I walked there in all seasons. At Pocantico there is an internationally known restaurant called Stone Barns – it wasn’t known to me, and when I asked if there was a table for two for lunch, the charming lady on the door told me that bookings for lunch were running on a six month waiting list.

There’s a great library.

The Pleasantville schools are sought after. Young and growing families move here from urban pressure-cooker situations where micro spaces go for late-capitalism macro rents.

There’s a theatre too. Arc Stages is in the middle of a capital campaign to raise funds to improve the space. Lots of town kids want to act, so there’s a youth group that supports them, and a couple of times a year the season is sprinkled with Equity members. Usually theatre economics means that the Equity shows are limited to two-handers, but they are balanced by the community shows which boast big casts.

There’s a yearly music festival and there’s a table tennis centre run by a man – the only one I’ve ever met – who designed his own degree at college – the puzzle master of the New York Times and beyond, Will Shortz.

Not far away in Chappaqua there is a walk in the woods that takes you up to a cascading waterfall. And there is a maze.

If ever there was a town which lives up to it’s name it’s this one. Pleasantville. I remember reading about Smallville where Superman came from (after Krypton) when I was a boy in England. Now I wonder if the super-hero equivalent  here is the lady who runs one of the last physical bookshops in the county. It’s just not the same buying online is it?

All kinds of goods and services are available here in Pleasantville. There was a dojo where I did T’ai Chi for a little while. Sadly it fell out of service in the lockdown. But the town is thriving. In Memorial Plaza, where flags wave, a recently completed new apartment building with 70 or more deluxe places with deluxe rents has just opened for business.

Parking is an issue. I mean in civic terms. At town meetings there is spirited discussion on parking. I say nothing. Except, if you want to do parking, try it in north-west London, UK. That’s parking.

And in the Black Cow coffee shop you’ll find copies of Natural Awakenings, the holistic listings directory. Holistic dentistry, divorce counseling, Reiki, nutrition, yoga, and more.

And amidst all this variety and life. Was there an astrologer available in Pleasantville? 

There is now. 

Take a look: pleasantvilleastrology.com

Pleasantville Astrology
42 Memorial Plaza, Suite 131, 2nd floor
Categories
Acting

Solo Bard

As far as we know Shakespeare never wrote a solo. Well there are the poems of course. From time to time some brave actor has a go at the sonnets – an enormous challenge, and there are the narrative poems: Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and the shorter, The Phoenix and the Turtle and A Lover’s Complaint – you seldom see these last named because if they do get an outing it’s usually a semi-desperate actor struggling to come to notice in one of the further-from-town venues at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Of all playwrights Shakespeare is surely the hardest to destroy.

Patrick Page in All The Devils Are Here. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

By which I mean, although it is distressingly easy to act Shakespeare badly, even when poorly done, something of the essence survives and makes the show worth seeing. Well having said that, I can think of at least one stand out exception at a major institutional theatre. Oh, alright more than one – but even in the worst of The Bard, you can close your eyes and forgive any shortcomings in diction, articulation and breath-support and imagine what your favorite actors would have done with it, can’t you? And if you do that, you can get drunk on the language.

Bad Shakespeare is, I admit pretty disturbing. But think of Shaw badly done, or, I will go further, Ibsen, nay, Pinter. When these masters are chopped up by practitioners that never found the rhythm, the result is often narcotic.

But when Shakespeare is well done … ah, that’s the stuff.

All this is a long preamble to me saying kudos to Patrick Page who has brought us a solo titled, “All the Devils are Here”. The show is an amalgam of theatre lore, well-chosen villainous Shakespearean soliloquies, (with a dash of Marlowe as a celebrity guest) and everyday chat nicely sprinkled with humor.

I persuaded Trish to accompany me on a visit to NYC to watch “All the Devils Are Here.”

It was fabulous.

I had been apprehensive. Sir John (Gielgud) has set the bar (his “Seven Ages of Man” solo) at a height to which few of us can aspire. Although his voice in recordings now sounds firmly rooted in its period; for diction, articulation, breath-control and above all, economy of expression, and once you get through all that, for the simplicity and the force of his characterizations, he stands alone.

Sidebar here: I saw “The Motive and the Cue” in London a few months ago. It has now transferred from The National to the West End, and there has been an announcement that it is hoped to bring it to New York.

The play treats on Gielgud directing Burton in Hamlet in 1964 on Broadway. A fabulous mixture of theatre gossip, and two actors divided by a mutual love of language and all that it can do. If the play does make it over here, run don’t walk for tickets.

But a solo Shakespeare? I half expected to have that experience that Peter Brook describes in his book, The Empty Space, that is to say, mouthing the words of the soliloquies that one half remembers, at the same time being mildly bored because of indifferent delivery from the performer on the stage.

Not a bit of it!

Patrick Page, who is a quality Shakespeare veteran was supported by an excellent production in terms of the lighting, set, and direction as well as his own superb skills as an actor, including a lean physique and strong baritone. His phrasing approached Sinatra-like detail and his vocal variety was finely judged. The show came in at 80 minutes which I think is clever. At 60 minutes the audience has fully tuned in and is thinking, “this could go on for a while” but at ninety minutes, the audience starts to look at its watch.

As well as all that, we had the New York City cosmopolitan experience of running into two dear friends, Carol and Bob, one friendly director, Gus Kaikonen, and a friendly actor Walker Jones – so there was theatre schmooze as well.

If you have Bardic leanings, I highly recommend this show, and even if you don’t!

Go here for tix.

Categories
Acting Alternatives

Straw

I would like to say that straw bale building is the future.

Why so?

Because straw is currently a waste product.

Because when properly constructed with the right techniques, straw bale building is

thermally efficient, durable, eco-friendly.

Because it’s a lot of fun.

See what we did?! You could have one too!

But much as I’d like to say that straw bale building is the future, returning home along i80 through Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and finally New York State, and becoming increasingly aware of the monoculture that flanks an interstate highway, as mall follows gas station, and giant placards advertise what passes for food in our chemically infused culture, possible though straw bale certainly is, at scale it seems unlikely.

A week and a day ago I drove out of Westchester County, New York, crossing the Cuomo bridge and then along i80 West, in company with many trucks. For the first 4 or 5 hours thickly wooded slopes on both sides were all there was, all punctuated by the above-mentioned malls, gas stations and placards. Another 4 or 5 hours and I arrived in Cleveland Ohio for a stop-over at my old friend Haley’s house. She and I braved the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1999, and she and her family are recently transplanted from urban Brooklyn.

The next day I drove to lower Michigan and found the building site about 3 miles from the small town of Manchester.

I arrived a day early and set up my tent, having had some practice with a couple of Haley’s helpful elves along the way.

Me and the tent elves

The forty acre site comprised two alfalfa fields over a rolling hill on one side, leading to a small wetlands area and a flat height on the other, divided by an unmade road.

Dawn at the site

Preparations had been made. Two shipping containers were in place, one holding tools and building supplies, the other stacked with foodstuffs. Generators were powering a mobile kitchen, and there was overhead tenting above trestle tables.

A fire pit was ready to go, and further down the track the house itself, with pristine wooden framing rising from a concrete slab. The gaps between the wooden studs were waiting to be filled with the straw bales which were stacked in a cart and, somewhat concerningly, open to the sky. You’re meant to keep the bales dry at all costs – or so I thought. On either side piles of lumber were neatly arranged.

Getting ready to unload the bales

This was reminiscent for me. Many years ago – and for my younger readers I mean way back in the previous millennium in England, I did a similar building workshop. The company then comprised 20 people ranging in type from a muscled eighteen year old bricklayer (male) to an elegant retired seventy-two year old ballet teacher (female), and everything in between. The build was a conventional wooden frame using many 2” x 4” lengths of timber, many 8’ x 4’ sheets of ply, and lots of sheet rock. And I did use these skills when I later built a studio at the bottom of my London garden. 

Ah … but that was when the world was young, and I was too.

Don’t get me wrong. In this group seniors were well represented. I met a lady farmer in her seventies, clearly infused with the pioneer work ethic whose constant effort made me mildly embarrassed by comparison, and a married couple of similar age who travel in their mobile home. I was the lone Brit in the group, and there was the odd Tea and/or 1776 joke, as well as a Bill Bryson connoisseur who had spent a year at Durham university, where Bryson was Chancellor from 2006 to 2011.

Brandy is enthusiastic about Bryson (and plastering)

Others in the group – and we were 54 people give or take one or two – were couples of various ages hoping to homestead and build a non-toxic house. You know the kind of thing – the house that does not release chemical gasses, the one made of bio-degradable materials.

Bruce about to trim a bale with a chainsaw
Wall going in!

The deal with these eisteddfods is as follows: the owners of the site, the ones who already have a site and want to build a house (in this case using straw), host a week- long workshop which is run by an expert straw-bale enthusiast, a chap called Andrew Morrison. Check the site. It’s easy to find because it’s usefully called strawbale.com. Some time ago I joined his mailing list, and so I knew that this was to be his last workshop (his 98th). So if I wanted the skinny it was now or never. Actually he is handing the brand over to a couple of successors – Timbo who has successfully designed and built straw bale for clients, and Dainella who shares the passion and has a business background.

www.strawbale.com

Hosting included supplying the group three meals a day, and some mobile toilet facilities (this last feature needs no description and is best left to the imagination). There were four showers of varying temperament rigged in the field delivering water of varying heat. But the cuisine was impressive and nicely varied – especially so, considering we were in field conditions.

Maria and Chrisie
Indian food in Michigan – who knew? Delicious!

So. Straw ……

Yes, I know the story of the three little pigs.

Here’s how you do it – follow this method and I am assured that you can achieve an R-Value of 40 (as if I knew what that means). You compress the straw by re-tying the bales, and then leaning on them in a move known technically as “bale-humping”.

Peterson in that technical move

Once cut to size and compressed, the bales are tightly stacked in the wall cavities, and then tamped to achieve maximum possible compression and smoothness. 

Meaghan tampes a bale

The next stage involves waterproof flashing (as if I knew what that means), and encasing the installed bales with wire netting which is then sewn with a bale-needle and twine  from either side. After that treatment the bales become rigid and stable, such that even a squadron of large pigs or wolves on steroids (I forget which) could not make a dent.

But it’s the three coats of plaster – one of clay, two of lime – that are the great secret. Because the plaster, as it cures, actually turns to limestone, which is a substance harder to penetrate than a 1990s politician’s indifference to global warming. At least so I am led to believe.

First scratch coat

Straw is a waste product. Straw is plentiful. Straw is thermally efficient. And when packed and plastered – fire resistant. Adaptable. Free of toxic chemicals. And although labor-intensive, easy to install. 

But… the quality of available bales has declined because Big Ag likes to cut the straw lengths as they are harvested because shorter stalks are easier to dispose of. And.….there  is plenty of resistance from the quarters you might expect.

At the moment straw bale building is a niche method and unlikely to become a majority one, but it does have international presence, along with rammed earth, slipstone, log and sod. Interestingly the group on this one reflected, by its diversity of interests, the growing awareness that there might be other and better ways. Permaculture, clean wine, and hydroponics to name a few.

And then…There was that phenomenon that I am used to with theatrical troupes. Which is that by day three you feel as if you’ve been on the gig for weeks, and it’s the only play you’ve ever done, and you’re all one big family with all the well-known family dynamics.

The group watching the first plaster mixing

The inclusivity took its tone from the guy leading the workshop – a man always ready with a joke – but with a depth of experience, and knowledge of building in general, and of straw bales in particular. Also a guitar player and singer who gave impromptu concerts around the fire when the day’s work was finished.

The hosts whose house we were building took their duties seriously, supplying generously, including some choice wines and beers.

Jen smiles

I had answered truthfully when asked what I do, and so it was known that I was an actor. Kyle invited me to give a demonstration. So one evening around the fire pit I recited the fourth chorus speech from Henry V – You know, the one that begins, “Now entertain conjecture of a time when creeping murmur and the poring dark fills the wide vessel of the universe…”

I have to say it was, more or less, ideal conditions in which to do that speech. It was dark, and the flames leaping from the large metal drum that encased them were casting spooky shadows. The gathering had had a chance to mellow after the day’s work and were lubricated with a little hooch, and I reckon I was a novelty item. By which I mean surely you don’t get more than four or five classically trained actors reciting Shakespeare on any given straw-bale build? And if it’s not too immodest to say so, it went well, and the group was generous in its appreciation.

It’s the working together that brings people together. There were some with experience of working on building sites, and some with none, and everything in between. But having to shift many bales of straw more than once and having to share tools, and having to ask more than once, “How do you do that?” eases the distance between people.

Jen and Yasser
Bob and Yvonne.
Brooms were important. Straw gets everywhere

In the mornings Andrew gave a talk and we proceeded to the next stages – the special knot, the wire mesh, the lath, the ties. But (to my mind and eyes anyway) it was at the scratch coat of plastering that something almost magical happened. We, all fifty plus of us, we became a Unit. We rough plastered the exterior of that sucker, to use the American vernacular, in the shank end of an afternoon. And if it hadn’t been so tough on the shoulders and upper arms I would have said it was as much messy fun as a boy could have and stay legal.

Sandy smiles

At some point I turned to Bruce, a fellow straw-baler, and said incredulously, “And we paid to do this?”. He agreed that we did, and we remembered that Mark Twain got there first when he had Tom Sawyer charge his friends goods and money to help him paint a fence, “Does a boy get a chance every day to whitewash a fence!” Says Tom, planting desire of the hard-to-attain in his neighbors’ minds. Genius.

Raymond with a bale

It was a unique experience and a lovely one. To an urban softie like me, the challenge of sleeping under a tent braced by waking in the cold night and having to stumble though alfalfa to pee, was obliterated by the vision on the one night when there was a clear sky, and the vivid stars were secretly commenting on the huge stage where we all live. See Shakespeare, sonnet 15, he puts it better than me.

Some of the group survey one of the window openings

I left on the morning of the final day. A few others had already departed to take up their lives again. I reckoned the remaining majority would finish the interior plastering faster without me. That sense of connection with people you don’t really know very well, but who you can quickly talk to when put together in unfamiliar circumstances, has a poignancy to it. Actors know what I mean. Because you never see that exact combination of people again. You might remain in touch with a few of them or even quite a few, but that exact company doing that exact thing – that doesn’t come again.

Charles. I bet him a beer that it wouldn’t rain. It rained on all nights except two.

Civilizations rise and fall. As do houses. When this one goes back into the earth one day, it will have done “none harm”.

The owners Meaghan and Nayan plant the very first bale. An emotional moment. It’s been quite a ride to get to this point!
Categories
Acting

Books and Tomatoes

Books and Tomatoes.

The two nouns in the title may not usually associate, but to me this season they represent success. I’ll explain.

Last Christmas I was given a plant incubator, a device where you can plant seed pods and stand back. I have lived a peripatetic life (so far). In my earlier youth I lived in 33 places in London for example – I only counted those where I stayed more than a month – and lots of briefer stops when on the road. I’ve always hankered for a plot of land in which to grow my own organic vegetables and an equal hankering has been for stable bookshelves that stay in one place.

At the time of writing I have access to both these goods. The combination makes me happy.

The tomato plant is the gift that keeps on giving. See picture below with all kinds of small green globes ready to ripen, and this after two months of bumper crops already. I pruned this plant before it began to bear fruit. That was according to the best advice available online so as to bring light and air to all parts.

A move had to be made with the books. By which I mean I did something I have never done before which is … I culled the books. At first I took only those with broken spines,  or with titles and pages so faded to be illegible, or with the old-library-mildew-scent that comes from having spent too much time in a cardboard box in some storage facility. But later I was more decisively surgical. 

At first it was a wrench. And I thought I would feel as if I had undergone surgery myself, nipping and tucking internal organs. But no. See below, now arranged alphabetically by author.

The sensation of a purged collection is more akin to having had a long overdue haircut.

And I do admit to being a kindle convert. So there’s that. To condense cubic feet of physical books into, as one friend calls it, “an expensive little glass slab”, well … at first the concept appalled me; that singular experience of a book with tangible pages, possibly paired with a cup of tea, a glass of something, or just its own silence transmitting knowledge or entertainment, was this to be lost? But you’ve got to hand it to the geniuses who gave us these tablets. To have at hand the complete works of: you name it: the scriptures of all faiths; P G Wodehouse, the antidote to depression; and Franz Kafka, the antidote to optimism. And all convenient in a glass slab, handily accessible on any journey in plane, train, or if you happen to be traveling by auto, there’s the audible version.

I mean where else would you get that? Not in previous centuries.

Categories
Acting

Spoons and Planets

Now that we are fully one quarter of the way through 2023, I’d just like to point out that there is a fortune to be made by a canny importer bringing authentic soup spoons to America and organizing distribution in the nation’s thousands of restaurants. You heard it here first.

Sadly I just don’t have the time to take this one on. So if you do find this improvement to the quality of life in all the Great States falls to you, please remember where you got the idea and cut me in for half a percent.

I do not mean this:

There are all kinds of spoons out there announcing themselves as spoons dedicated to soup – falsely so, in my opinion. A true soup spoon is simply a justly shaped semi-circular bowl at the end of an elegantly shaped handle. The bowl should have some depth, but not approach to that of a ladle, nor to an imitation of those porcelain or plastic scoopers you get when you order hot and sour, or corn egg-drop.

Not this, functional and handsome though they are: 

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I would post an image of the perfect soup spoon. But I can’t find one!!! You take my point? This is what things have come to!?!

I must be getting on for retirement age, this is the kind of mildly disgruntled, mildly splenetic letter-to-the-editor type prose that could appear in an edition of The Oldie.

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In other news:

Pluto, as you are doubtless aware has entered Aquarius, and is giving us a teasing taste of its presence there, before it does a brief nip back into Capricorn in mid June before finally settling in for its twenty year residency in the airy sign of the water bearer in January next year.

Pluto and Charon courtesy of Nasa.gov

What does this mean? Well right on cue Pluto in Capricorn bookended its time there with the 2008 banking crisis and the 2023 one. 

In Aquarius? Of course I don’t know, and if you are interested there is a generous supply of astro-punditcy on the subject in the usual outlets. Given that some Plutonic attributes are: invisibility, power, and volcanic disruption; and amongst Aquarian ones we have: the creative co-existence of the Conformist archetype with the Maverick.

possible effects might be:

Ever more surveillance 

Expansion of digital currencies

Explosion of interest in astrology

You don’t need to be Madame Arcati to notice that these trends are already up and running. Whatever Pluto does in this sign we are likely to notice.

And while we’re on the subject, the International Astronomical Union (IAR) has decided to categorize Pluto as a dwarf planet. There is a page of explanation here.

One is minded of George MacDonald’s fairy great-grandmother in his novel Phantastes: “Ah, that is always the way with you men. Size is nothing, but form is much.”

On the other hand, the IAU has elevated Ceres to equal status with Pluto … if you, like me, credit mythological significance, this is a good thing.

From an astrological/mythological point of view there can be no question that Pluto may be small, but he is mighty. Likewise, Ceres.

And finally, the editorial decision is that over the next couple of years this blog will post less frequently than formerly. I.e. once a quarter. 

Can’t get the staff…

Happy (late) Equinox.