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UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies plays role in multi-national efforts to restore Afghan educational system

December 25, 2011 1 comment

 

 

 

As unlikely as it may seem, the University of Nebraska at Omaha of all places is home to a major archival and training resource having to do with Afghanistan.  UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies has been actively engaged in Afghan matters in educational, expert and consulting capacities, alone or as part of U.S. and United Nations efforts, that have gone on before, during, and after the Soviet invasion and the more recent U.S. war on terror waged there.  Many Afghan leaders have participated in UNO programs.  Even though UNO was unable to operate in Afghanistan itself during the Soviet occupation and during the Taliban’s rule, the university’s Afghan support programs continued in Pakistan and in Nebraska, where Afghan exiles and refugees accessed various services.  Since the Taliban’s overthrow the Center has ramped up its programs.  The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is one of a series of pieces I did on the Center’s work in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  You can find the other stories I did about the Center under the Afghanistan heading in the category roll on the right, including a profile of Thomas Gouttierre, who directs the Center and whose deep ties to that country go back to the 1960s.  You will also find a more recent story about an exchange between UNO School of Communication faculty and students and peer communucation faculty and students from Kabul, a subject I will be revisiting in 2012.

UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies plays role in multi-national efforts to restore Afghan educational system

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

It seems as soon as one plague leaves Afghanistan, a new scourge surfaces in its place. In a constant state of upheaval since the early 1970s this ill-fated central Asian nation has variously fended off foreign invaders, waged civil war, chafed at restrictive measures imposed by harsh rulers, suffered under international boycotts and dug-out from the rubble of both man-made and natural disasters.

Now, in the aftermath of decades-long warfare that wreaked such widespread havoc that not a single school was left unscathed, the country’s fragile interim government is struggling to find its way out of the abyss with the aid of an Omaha institution with deep ties to Afghanistan. Just as it has been involved in past revival efforts there, the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Afghanistan Studies is right in the thick of United States-led rebuilding efforts aimed at shoring-up that nation’s gutted infrastructure, including restoring a ravaged educational base.

The new Afghan ruling class UNO is working with includes many American-educated, including UNO-trained, leaders from the Northern Alliance that helped depose the repressive Taliban regime and assisted U.S. forces in the war on terrorism. Before the Taliban instituted stifling cultural decrees that all but snuffed-out formal education in the country, the UNO center operated a program in the 1980s and early ‘90s that focused on developing leadership and nation-building skills among Afghans, whose training took place in Nebraska, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

With the Taliban now relegated to the fringes of power in the wake of the recent U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, the UNO center is implementing a new education program funded by a $6.5 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Called America’s Rapid Response to Education Needs in Afghanistan, the program is helping jump start the nation’s dormant education system by, most visibly, printing and distributing millions of textbooks for students of all ages now attending school in makeshift sites across the country. Throughout the Afghan civil war and the more recent U.S. campaign to root out Taliban and al-Qaida elements, UNO maintained long-held offices and printing presses in Peshawar, Pakistan, where it also stored textbooks and other educational resources in warehouses. UNO kept more than a symbolic presence in Peshawar, where Afghan refugee camps are located and where UNO education programs train teachers. When the interim government’s Ministry of Education announced plans to reopen schools in March, UNO emptied warehouses and geared-up presses for an unprecedented run of textbooks and materials that continues today. UNO also stepped-up its ongoing training of teachers, many of whom lack any rigorous secondary education.

Thomas Gouttierre, director of the UNO center, recently returned from a weeks-long visit to the war-torn nation. Gouttierre, who’s served as a senior political affairs officer with the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan, oversaw the Rapid Response program’s startup phase and met with Afghan leaders to assess educational needs and how UNO may play a lasting role in helping meet some of those needs. “The task is somewhat monumental. We’ve lost three generations of students who have not had the chance to go to school in many parts of the country. There may have been some parts of the country where there was some sporadic education but, for the most part, there was very little and, for women, almost nothing. And because there’s been no census, we don’t really know how many students there are. We’re probably going to find out by taking a count of the books we’ve distributed and subtracting that number from the total we publish,” Gouttierre said from his office on the UNO campus.

 

 

 

 

In addition to elementary and secondary education, he said, “there is a real need in vocational-technical education and in trying to wean people away from the culture of the gun, where they get paid to bear weapons, to some other kind of work where they get paid” to weld a joint or repair a car engine or drive a nail or fix a leaky faucet. “Also, there was a lot of literacy lost during these last three decades and so each of the major urban centers in Afghanistan needs to have literacy programs for adults in those regions. Afghanistan’s literacy level has dropped to the level it was at when Afghanistan was emerging right after the Second World War. After that, education went through boom lets — developing rapidly enough at times to reach a significant part of the non-educated population. In the last three decades, however, that underserved segment has been missing out on any educational opportunities.”

According to Gouttierre, the rebuilding process must encompass both soft and hard infrastructure features. “In terms of teaching and administration, there are many, many people assuming roles today both in teaching and management of education whose primary qualification for those tasks has been experience and not actual higher education or, if they do have some higher education, it is one of not any real substance. So, there has to be training of what I describe as ‘the barefoot teachers’ — the people who are essentially teaching the ninth grade because they’ve had an 11th grade education or are teaching the third grade because they’ve had a seventh grade education. It’s not realistic for them to go back to school and start the whole process over at age 50 or whatever. So, in-service education is the thing for them. It has to focus on making these teachers better teachers. We’re doing that right now, and that’ll go on for a long time.”

“In terms of schools, I did not see one that isn’t in need of major rehabilitation. I saw schools in the neighborhoods in which I used to live in the capital city of Kabul where there were three walls or two walls up and no roofs,” said Gouttierre, whose own experience in Afghanistan extends back some 40 years as a former Peace Corps volunteer, Fulbright scholar and Fulbright administrator. He has appeared before the U.S. Congress, the British Parliament and the French National Assembly to discuss Afghan matters. Despite the many challenges there, by the end of April UNO was expecting to have printed and, hopefully, distributed 10 million textbooks in a little more than two months time. But even getting textbooks into the hands of children is equal parts adventure, faith and improvisation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The actual distribution of books and materials is a problem. The roads are bad. The Ministry of Education doesn’t have the money for trucks to take books from, say, Kabul to some outlying area, where they then need to be distributed by smaller trucks to villages and schools and from there to even more remote sites.” To facilitate the books’ delivery, UNO has formed a “cooperative” network enlisting facilities, vehicles and workers of many agencies.

There are also constant security concerns in a country rife with tribal animosity and terrorist-extremist threats. “We were told while we were there that there had been a threat uncovered from al-Qaida against our education program,” he said. “We increased our security, but nothing came of that” threat.

Even with all the problems, he added, there “are some upsides. First of all, there is this curriculum created by Afghans that students have in-hand in the books” UNO is making available. He said the curriculum is one that has been “developing over the last several decades through the help of USAID, Columbia University and UNO. That curriculum is a resource for them and one they can decide to do with as they wish.” Regarding criticism leveled against the curriculum by officials with UNICEF and other agencies who allege it relies heavily on rote learning and contains inappropriate militaristic and religious references, Gouttierre said the content in question was long ago removed or revised. Besides, he said, critics fail to take into account that symbols of, for example, dead Russian soldiers used in math problems came in the context of the nation’s bloody war with the Soviet Union.

When Gouttierre considers Afghanistan’s plight, he sees a country desperate for normalcy but unsure how to get there. He said the road ahead will need to be an entirely new one for a country reeling from more than a generation of violence — a period that saw it fracture along fault lines of both internal and external origin. A succession of disruptions destabilized Afghanistan to the point where war became an every day reality. The chaos began with the ouster of former King Mohammad Zaher Shah in 1973, quickly followed by the Soviet Union’s installation of a puppet communist government. When civil unrest threatened Soviet interests, the Red Army invaded in 1979. A bloody 10-year war ensued. By the time the Afghan rebels  — the mujahideen — defeated and drove out the Soviets, most of the country lay in ruins and millions of Afghans were dead, wounded, politically exiled, dispossessed as refugees or long-since fled to the safety of other countries. Then, in this still largely feudal land where ethnic and religious rivalries viciously compete for the hearts and minds of its beleaguered people, civil war erupted between factions loyal to opposing tribal warlords and to opposing forms of Islam. In the midst of this power struggle, the extremist Islamic movement known as the Taliban allied itself with the Pashtun minority in the southern part of the country and engaged in civil war against the more moderate Tashik majority in the north, whose forces came to be known as the Northern Alliance.

Today, even with the Taliban and al-Qaida removed from power, outbreaks of violence continue, countless thousands of civilians remain homeless and millions of mines litter the landscape. It is an embittered populace with virtually no family left untouched by the carnage. In a society bereft of much of its pre-war leadership and still divided along ethnic-religious lines, the pervasive culture of the gun looms over the scene, with the threat of coups, insurgences and feuds never far away.

As Gouttierre sees it, Afghan leaders and their international partners must look beyond cultural-political differences and focus instead on forging a common vision for public programs like education that operate at the national level. Because he estimates about “80 percent of the real brain trust of Afghanistan has been drained,” the country is starving for human and material resources and is being flooded by NGOs (non-government organizations) trying to corner the market in relief or aid programs, including education programs. He said the country is so desperate for help that it feels obliged to accept any aid, regardless of whether it conforms to or helps further national education aims.

 

 

“What’s needed but what is lacking is an emphasis on the national nature of the educational mission. Programs are needed that have a cohesive nation-building content. I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge now. That’s one of the reasons why Afghans’ new leadership chose the curriculum we were safeguarding. It was their curriculum. It was comprehensive. It was cohesive. And it was, more than anything, theirs.”

He said the U.S. has a major part to play in any process that makes Afghan education a source of unification rather than division. “We have to do whatever we can to increase the capacity of the Ministry of Education. The infrastructure of the ministry is somewhat skeletal right now. There are people filling a lot of positions who are now faced for the first time with a national mandate. All the mandates up till now have been somewhat regional or else lacking totally. But education in Afghanistan is now a national program. It’s not divided up into regional school districts or local school districts or anything like that. It’s national. So, we have to increase the capacity of the ministry to call the shots for what should be done in that country.”

What is being done now, he said, is “an immense” reclamation project that seeks to  not only revive but reinvent an education process interrupted and largely destroyed by the hostilities of the past 23 years. He said as more Afghans migrate to urban centers from rural provinces, where the traditional practice of agriculture has been rendered next to impossible by the presence of land mines, adult vocational education will become paramount. He added that education for women will need to be a primary focus in a country where “female empowerment” is a new but crucial concept. “Women have been unable to work for so long but there are so many of them who are eligible for the workforce, age wise and need wise, if not skill wise.”

Even as conditions remain difficult and dangerous throughout the country, the wish of the Afghan people to resume education is so strong that weeks before the official start date for schools to reopen on March 23 students began gathering in all manner of impromptu settings to attend class. School was to begin in two phases over a several month period, but citizens’ interest in seeing school start NOW was overwhelming enough that the government opted to open all schools at once. “People had been deprived of education for so long they all started at the same time,” Gouttierre said. “They are just so eager. They’re really embracing this concept, especially the girls.”

 

 

 

The deluge of students has been such that no real attempt is being made now to place individuals according to ability or age. “Nobody’s making a challenge,” he said. “I think everybody feels that if someone says he should be in the fourth grade then let’s put him there and let’s work with him because, bottom line, we’ve got to get this thing going rather than wading through endless challenges. Besides, there’s not the means to find out for sure where people should be placed.”

While attending the launching day ceremonies for the new education initiatives at a ramshackle school in Kabul on March 23, Gouttierre said it was apparent to him and the Afghan nationals present that a historical milestone was being witnessed. “Everybody understood they were marking time,” he said. “That they were marking a major departure from the way life had been for the last decades in Afghanistan and that they were trying to relaunch modernization, development and progressive movement.”

The festive ceremonies included not only Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai and other high-ranking Afghan officials, but a parade of peasant families, including parents accompanying young children who had never attended school before. The scene left Gouttierre with some lasting impressions. “I have two very vivid images in my mind from that. One is of all the mothers and fathers coming to register their children for school. And to see the excitement and enthusiasm and hope and desire on their faces was just very, very meaningful. The other thing was seeing this parade of boys and girls in uniforms and of teachers and administrators in suits and dresses enter the school. Watching that, one recognized something happening there that hadn’t been going on for nearly three decades. People were crying, as was I and as was Hamid Karzai. We were thinking about the sacrifices and losses and the new opportunities.”

Securing a stable education system in Afghanistan, Gouttierre said, demands two things. “One is establishing universal security. The second is making sure the international communities really do provide what they’re promising to provide and haven’t yet — namely, the kinds of money and in the right forms” Afghanistan requires. “There’s a lot of money being spent on putting the elements into place and that’s mostly in management and administration. The actual programming money, I think, is still to come. Whether or not there’s going to be that delivery of funds is the important thing.”

He said the symbolic return in mid-Aprilc of long-exiled King Mohammad Zaher Shah may bolster the rebuilding efforts underway. “It could mean a lot. It might mean more credibility to the current process if he’s supportive of all this and I think he should be and will be. He is highly popular and, again, if he is part of all this it will give it a historical-traditional foundation that would help. Now, he’s 87-years-old, so he’s not going to be dynamic. He’s going to be symbolic. He’s going to be presiding. He’s going to be a great-grandfather kind of figure. But that’s an important thing for Afghanistan, which has lost out on so much of its traditions and history.”

If nothing else, Gouttierre said, the rebirth of education in Afghanistan expresses the will of the people and represents the first national program sponsored by the interim government. “This action is the first comprehensive program initiated and sustained by this government that has national reach in Afghanistan. Everything else may not reach beyond the confines of Kabul. I think there is a consensus behind it. The only place there would be a lack of consensus would be among the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida and those of like-mind.”

Whether the present leadership remains in office to carry out its educational mission will be determined by a congress of Afghan elders convening in June. The loya jirga or grand assembly will decide if Karzai and his ministers retain power or are replaced in a new transitional government until democratic general elections are held in two years.

UNO’s efforts in rebuilding the educational system in Afghanistan were honored by President and Mrs. Bush during a March 20 event in Alexandria. Va. The university’s current grant through USAID ends at the end of 2002. In the meantime, Gouttierre said, “we’ll look at what other areas we might be able to do and do well for Afghanistan. We think the one that might be most down our line would be something like vocational education.”

Dick Boyd found role of his life, as Scrooge, in Omaha Community Playhouse production of Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol”

December 24, 2011 3 comments

As hometown traditions and staples go, the Omaha Community Playhouse musical production of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol is a must see for lots of folks, and not just here either because the original production designed by Charles Jones tours nationwide courtesy the Nebraska Theatre Caravan company.  This has been going on for two generations and I have to admit I’ve never bothered to catch the show.  The closest I came was watching part of a rehearsal for the following profile I wrote about Dick Boyd, the man who portrayed Scrooge in the production for decades.  He was still very much the voice and face of Scrooge here when I did the piece, but it wasn’t long after the story appeared that he announced his retirement from this role of a lifetime.  I hope my article didn’t in some way hasten his abandoning the part he’d become so strongly identified with.  As the story reveals, Boyd enjoys a very full life outside the Scrooge persona, which is of course far removed from his real demeanor.

 

Dick Boyd as Scrooge in 2005, ©photo by Mikki K. Harris, USA TODAY

 

 

 

Dick Boyd found role of his life, as Scrooge, in Omaha Community Playhouse production of  Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

For generations of audiences Charles Dickens’ perennial classic tale A Christmas Carol has come to represent the transforming power of the Yuletide season. When the story begins, its lonely, tightfisted, bitter old protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, tyrannically administers to his cold, spare counting-house, running roughshod over cowed clerks, denying them the comfort of coal-fueled fires or even the courtesy of retiring early to be with their families on Christmas Eve. Only the plight of sweet Bob Cratchit’s crippled son, Tiny Tim, seems to move him. Otherwise, the craggy Scrooge dismisses the holiday and its celebrants with his trademark “Bah-humbug!

But then, in a series of apparitions, ghostly visitors reveal to him the wayward, misspent path of his life. By the end, the stingy skinflint repents, expressing regret for hardening his heart and for coveting monetary gain over cultivating mortal kindness. Redeemed, Scrooge embraces life again, opening his coffers and rejoining the human race with renewed vigor. His being born again proves it’s never too late to change but also serves as a cautionary tale that the pursuit of material wealth can lead to ruinous end. So embedded is Scrooge in the popular culture that mentioning the name elicits an image of cold-hearted, penny-pinching avarice. The word long ago entered the lexicon as the embodiment of a “mean-spirited miser” — precisely how the American Heritage Dictionary defines it.

All of which brings us to Dick Boyd, the very unScrooge-like fellow who’s been portraying Ebenezer for 28 years now in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s candy-coated production of A Christmas Carol, a spectacular that’s become a holiday staple for generations of area families. The play runs now through December 21.

A veteran actor on area stages for many decades, Boyd, who along with his wife and sometime acting partner Miriam, are longtime Council Bluffs residents, has made the part his own. He’s played Scrooge in each of the nearly 700 main stage Carol productions performed since former Playhouse director Charles Jones first adapted the story and staged it in 1976. In all that time, covering all those shows, the trouper, a longtime educator in Nebraska and Iowa public schools, has never missed a single performance. When he launched the role he was a 53-year-old English instructor. Now a robust 81, he’s long retired from teaching and a grandpa many times over. In what is surely one of the longest-running theater engagements an actor’s ever had, anywhere, Boyd swears he never tires of the role.

“No, never, certainly not, or I wouldn’t be doing it 28 years,” he says in his basso profundo voice. “It’s a joy. There’s a lot of aspects that make it a joy. The people involved are probably some of the greatest people you’ll ever associate with and every year you get a few fresh new faces in there. Everybody brings something new to each part every year. There’s always different reactions, so it never gets stale.”

Back in 2000 rumors circulated he was wanting out of the role, but he says that was unfounded. “I don’t know who started that, but people seem to be surprised I’m still at it. People have been asking me about it. But as I told Carl,” he says, referring to Playhouse artistic director Carl Beck, “any time you get tired of me, let me know. I’ll go as long as I’m able.”

Besides being a richly-contoured part that allows Boyd to play a wide gamut of emotions before packed houses every night, there’s the side benefit of being rejuvenated by the character’s spiritual rebirth. “It’s the ultimate experience every night for me. Very few people get redeemed 20 or 30 times in a Christmas season,” he says, meaning the approximate number of times he plays the role each year. He feels it’s this quality of redemption that makes the Dickens story such an enduring classic and one retold over and over again in print and film and on radio, television and stage. “I just think people enjoy the spirit of the thing more than anything. They just really like the idea of somebody being renewed.”

Boyd’s association with the story goes back a long time, all the way to his childhood in Nebraska City, Neb. “As for the story itself, I’ve been involved with it ever since I can remember. I’ve always read the story…I always find something new in it. In the good old days of radio Lionel Barrymore did his annual interpretation (of Scrooge). We were always gathered around our old Majestic waiting for that to come on.” Reading the tale and playing the role as long as he has, Boyd’s developed a keen understanding of Scrooge, a symbolic figure he believes is too easily caricatured but one he finds all too human. “I, of course, have changed my opinion of Scrooge over these 70-80 years. Well, he’s a hard-nosed and flinty miser, but I’ve come to realize Scrooge is no different than the rest of us. He has his foibles and his protective devices he uses. His protective device is he simply withdraws from the people that have given him trouble and hurt him, to more of an extreme than most of us, but still, in all, he’s just a human being under all of it.”

In true Dickensian fashion, Scrooge’s coming of age reads tragic. “He’s taken back to his childhood, which shows he was kind of a cast-off,” Boyd says. “He apparently lost his mother at an early date and his little sister, whom he adored, died off in her early marriage. There’s a couple scenes where he’s left by himself in this boarding school, kind of a shabby one at that, and has to spend his Christmas alone and rely on himself. So, in his early youth a lot of things were taken away from him and not much was given to him. And, so, he got to the point where money and success were important things and relationships were kind of tentative. The money was something he could hold onto…the one thing he could grasp and keep without it fading away. His Scrooge behavior is all a defense mechanism to cover his hurt.”

After the spirits force him to confront everything he’s lost by virtue of his vindictiveness and to view the suffering his spendthrift ways might yet inflict on the Cratchits and their ailing son, Tim, Scrooge’s humanity surfaces, most poignantly in befriending the struggling family. “You see, his affinity to Tiny Tim is that they’re both cripples, really,” Boyd says. “I mean, he’s an emotional cripple and Tim is physically. They kind of mesh there.” It is the shock of recognition that turns Scrooge around. “As soon as he’s shown why he’s doing these mean things, he starts snapping out of it,” notes Boyd. “I guess the popular concept today is you go see a psychiatrist and he talks you through these past (traumatic) experiences, where Dickens uses the device of these ghosts.”

 Dick Boyd with Mary Peckham, 1977

 

 

 

Still, the figure of Scrooge has become so identified with the image of an unfeeling tightwad that Boyd acknowledges “it’s kind of hard” to make him a real flesh-and-blood man rather than a stereotype. “After having done this role for so long I always ask Carl (Beck) to make sure that we’re not getting into any cardboard type of characterization. I know that we overblow the part a little bit. Of course, on the stage, you have to do that to get it across, but we try to steer clear of too much of that aspect. Hopefully, it’s a human portrayal.”

Touchingly human it is. When the part calls for it, Boyd dominates the proceedings with his early rendering of Scrooge as the mean, willful, narrow-minded old cuss. He groans, grouches, growls and grumbles with the best of them. But as Scrooge’s gaunt facade crumbles in the face of the cruelty he glimpses from his past, present and future, Boyd is appropriately nostalgic, afraid, exasperated and remorseful. At Scrooge’s most vulnerable, when viewing the wreckage of his life, Boyd essays a deeply wounded, apologetic soul.

The actor’s own bigger-than-life presence makes Scrooge’s fall and subsequent rise all the more telling. Boyd is a great lion of a man — from his mane of silver-gray hair to his impressive stature to his sonorous voice to his courtly manner, he carries himself with a certain majesty that only magnifies Scrooge’s callousness, making him seem smaller in the process, and that later elevates the character’s kindness, making it seem grander in comparison.

To his credit, Boyd avoids a cliched performance. Not by accident either. Rehearsals for A Christmas Carol began October 19 and ran through November 20 and during this stretch Boyd worked on both the broad strokes and fine nuances of his performance. In a mid-November rehearsal, he showed remarkable range in the scene where the Ghost of Christmas Past has him revisit his youth as an apprentice under dear old Fezziwig, who celebrated Christmas by treating all his friends, loved ones and employees to a big party. Face to face with the bright young Ebenezer, Boyd’s Scrooge acts overjoyed, as much by facial expression, gesture and carriage as by words, at the holiday merriment and warm human interaction he once indulged in. Forgetting he’s invisible, Scrooge joins the party, upset he cannot break through the bonds of time. When the ghost chides Fezziwig for his unrequited generosity, Scrooge defends his beloved old boss, practically sermonizing about how it’s better to give than to receive, before realizing he’s contradicting his own parsimonious ways.

 

 

 

When Scrooge looks at himself as the earnest young apprentice, he sees the promise for happiness he once held and that he foolishly squandered away in blind pursuit of wealth. He cannot bear it when young Ebenezer spurns the affections of a girl and the prospect of a happy life together for the toil of work and the tinkle of coin, desperately wishing he could reverse the lonely course his life took. Later, when it’s revealed what an object of derision he’s become to some and what a figure of melancholy he represents to others, Boyd expresses profound anguish in the contortions of his face, the collapse of his body and the caterwauling wail of his voice. Everything about him is heavy, slow, sad.

By the end, when a repentant Scrooge pledges in front of his own tombstone to reform — “I’ll be good from now on” — he’s a man reborn. His burden has been lifted. Everything about him seems lighter, brighter, bolder. This scene, along with the final one when he greets everybody with rousing wishes of “Merry Christmas,” are among the actor’s favorites.

Boyd, who makes a point of rereading Dickens’ original A Christmas Carol in preparation for the play, describes how his take on Scrooge has changed as his own experience has caught up with the character’s. “I like to think you get a little more understanding as you get older anyway,” he says. “You see some of the things underneath the outward appearances of people. I know more about Scrooge than I did 28 years ago. Quite a bit more about him.” For a long while, though, the actor didn’t suspect his characterization had altered from the start. “I thought I was pretty much the same as always until I looked at some tapes from past performances and saw there has been a little bit of growth over the years. I think I show more of a change from the earlier character to the redeemed character. I carry the last scene a little farther than I used to. I used to be within myself more and now I try to involve more of the other characters on stage…as many as I can get a hold of, and I think it shows a little more warmth than it used to.”

He credits Charles Jones, the man who originally adapted and staged the Dickens classic at the Playhouse, for emphasizing the warmth of the piece. “He saw all the joy that’s bound up in it and I think that’s really one of the reasons why this has become so successful around here,” Boyd says. “Nobody ever leaves that show feeling bad because he always gives them that lift.”

Something else Jones encouraged Boyd and his fellow actors in is developing back stories to anchor their characterizations in a context that provides motivation for their actions. Scrooge’s background is basically all there in the Dickens tale, but not so for supporting-peripheral characters, and it’s with these parts, Boyd says, that Jones made sure every actor, down to the last extra, developed a story that described, “Who are you, what are you doing, and why have you been doing it? It’s not just coming on the stage, it’s living the part,” is how Boyd explains it.

He says the production has not changed appreciably since Jones left the Playhouse in 1998. The approach still centers on making the drama as fresh and alive as any current event. That includes the authentic sets designed by set designer James Othuse. “One thing about James Othuse’s sets is that when you step on stage you feel like you’re in the place he’s trying to recreate. In other words, you feel like you’re on a street in Victorian London. James is probably a genius at this. Whenever you get the snow falling and the crowds moving and all the color with the shops in the background, it sets a mood.”

©photo by Mikki K. Harris, USA TODAY

 

 

 

Like any performer, Boyd gets a charge from the high energy the cast and crew and audience give off during performance nights. “You can’t explain it. It’s kind of an electricity you feel.” He says working with a new cast practically every year keeps him on his toes. “A lot of if depends on who you’re working with on stage. If you get some dullards in there, it kind of drags things down, but that’s the nice thing about this one — we never get any of those. Of course, the kids have boundless energy. They’re ready to go every night. I guess we oldsters kind of feed off of that. I have a new Cratchit this year and a new Tiny Tim. Everybody has a little different approach to it and then of course you have to react to that.” As for audience reactions, he says, “It’s a horrible feeling if they’re not with you, I’ll guarantee you. You get feedback from them. It’s a give and take situation. If your audience is good, well, you may not be so good, but you act a little harder.”

Audiences anticipate his bellicose bellowing of that most signature Scrooge line, “Bah-humbug,” and Boyd knows it, so he plays to their expectations. “I listen to the audience.” he says. “It always gets kind of a snicker the first time it comes out. You can pretty much gauge if you’ve done it right.” He suspects that during hearing impaired performances the signer assigned to shadowing him on stage may “sign something other than bah-humbug,” perhaps an expletive “you wouldn’t exactly repeat in public, because the audience sure gets a snicker out of it.”

As closely identified as Boyd is with Scrooge, including being recognized on the street, the part hardly defines his performing life. His stage credits are impressive. He even has an award named after him at the Playhouse, whose most prestigious acting honor, the Fonda/McGuire Award, he’s won. Two of his favorite roles came as noble Atticus Finch in the Chanticleer Theater’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird and as curmudgeon Norman Thayer, opposite the legendary Mary Peckham, in On Golden Pond. He recently collaborated again with Charles Jones in a Grande Olde Players staging of The Three Penny Opera. Boyd and his wife of 53 years, Miriam, who appears with him in Carol, have been active members of the St. John Lutheran Church (Council Bluffs) choir and the Omaha Symphonic Chorus.

Although acting’s been an avocation, not a livelihood, it’s filled a large portion of his life. His performing days date back to high school in Nebraska City, where music became an early passion. After two years at Scottsbluff Junior College his university studies were interrupted by a three-and-half-year hitch in the Army signal corps that took him to the South Pacific during World War II. Upon returning stateside, he studied music and drama at Midland Lutheran College in Fremont, Neb. Already possessing a fine bass voice, he sang in the school’s touring a cappella choir, and it was on one tour that he fell for fellow choir member and future wife Miriam, whose father was the then-president of Midland. He eventually earned an education degree and spent the next few years teaching and serving as a school superintendent in Shelby and Ceresco, Neb. Miriam also became a teacher.

It was in Shelby, in the early ‘60s, where Boyd first got greasepaint fever. The late artist Terence Duren recruited him to play the lead, opposite Miriam, in the Shelby community theater production ofDirty Work at the Crossroads. “I was the hero and she was the heroine,” Boyd recalls. A few years later, after moving their growing family to Council Bluffs, the Boyds, at Miriam’s urging, landed chorus parts in a Playhouse staging of Kiss Me Kate. “We went on from there and did quite a number of shows,” he says, encouraged by Omaha’s then leading arts mavens, the Levines. Joe Levine was the Omaha Symphony director and his wife Mary, a musician and theater patron. The Boyds also performed with the Omaha opera company. When the couple’s four children were quite young, they often accompanied their parents to the theater and concert hall, playing backstage. “Oh, they had a ball,” Boyd says. Three of their adult offspring have worked in theater, one on the technical end, another as a music director and a third as an opera singer.

By the time he went up for the coveted role of Scrooge in 1976, he figured he had no shot at it. After all, his stiff competition included accomplished actor and former vaudevillian Bill Bailey. When, to his surprise, Boyd bagged the flamboyant part, he never imagined he’d still be at it. So, is there any downside to being Scrooge? Besides a danger of “letting a little Scrooge creep into my other acting, no, none. It’s a joy,” he says. Any worries about typecasting? “Bah-humbug!”

Activist actor Danny Glover takes creative control

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Several years ago I interviewed actor Danny Glover in advance of a speaking engagement he made in Omaha to help usher in the city’s Holland Performing Arts Center.  Glover is one of those weighty figures who brings a certain gravitas to his work, no matter the genre or the role, and in some cursory reading about him before the interview I discovered, not surprisingly, that he’s involved in many social and humanitarian causes.  This short story gives some insights into the foundation for some of his activist beliefs and actions.  I was also interested in how he has fashioned a career in which he’s used his more mainstream commercial work to help leverage his riskier art or political work in film and on stage and how he’s become quite active behind the camera as a producer and director.  The following story refers to a Charles Burnett film he was to star in, Nujoma: Where Others Wavered, whose title became Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation.  The story also refers to a couple projects he was planning to make with his production company, Toussaint Louverture. But neither Toussaint nor God’s Bits of Wood has been realized yet, which is not unusual given the development hell that is common in filmmaking.  There can be a price to pay for being as outspoken as Glover is and one wonders if the reason he’s not seen in big studio films anymore is because of his political activity or because his interests lead him to smaller independent projects that are more aligned with his passions.  It’s also interesting to speculate if being black and politically controversial carries a heavier price tag than for, say, someone like Sean Penn or Tim Robbins or Martin Sheen, who are also known for their vocal and visible social actions and yet seem unaffected career-wise by their stances.

 

 

 

 

 

Activist actor Danny Glover takes creative control

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The heavy, breathy, jazz-tinged voice greeting you on the phone is unmistakably that of Danny Glover, the earnest actor whose work increasingly reflects his deep-rooted social consciousness and world-wide humanitarian interests.

Glover spoke to The Reader in advance of his emcee duties for the Holland Performing Arts Center’s Friday grand opening, where he’s replacing actor Richard Dreyfuss. A marketable name and impassioned artist, Glover’s eschewed the popcorn antics of the Lethal Weapon action pics that made him a star in the 1980s and 1990s to focus on more serious, personal projects.

Earlier this year he announced the formation of his new production company, Louverture Films, a name inspired by Toussaint Louverture, the slave-turned-leader of a Haitian revolution (1789-1804) that won independence from French colonial rule. Aptly, the company’s first of six planned independently financed feature and documentary projects is the dramatic historical epic Toussaint, with Don Cheadle starring as the charismatic title character and Angela Bassett as his wife. Glover is directing the film, which begins shooting in April in Mozambique and South Africa. Glover’s co-founder in the company is screenwriter Joslyn Barnes, co-scenarist of Battu, a 2000 film by Malian director Cheick Oumar Sissoko that Glover cameoed in.

Louverture’s stated mission of developing movies of historical relevance, social purpose, commercial value and artistic integrity is an outgrowth of Glover’s long held commitment to doing relevant work. A self-described “child of the civil rights movement,” his humanist sensibilities came of age in the rich counter-culture stew of San Francisco, a fertile ground for the Black Power, anti-war and gay rights movements. His postal employee parents were involved in union and NAACP struggles to achieve workers’ rights and racial equality.

”I was very much shaped by that,” he said. “Both the idealism and the reality. That’s an important part of my life. That’s the foundation. My parents came out of organizing the union they were in. They were politicized as well. So, there’s a whole kind of legacy that goes along with my own involvement. It happened long before I became someone that people recognize on the screen or on the street.”

At San Francisco State College he fed off the fervor of the times through campus and community activist groups. He assisted inner-city children and ran reading centers. It was at college he met his future wife Asake Bormani and got his first taste of working in the theater. After college he worked six years in San Francisco’s office of community development, where his grassroots advocacy is still remembered by residents today.

But it wasn’t until 1975, at age 28, he devoted himself to acting. His experience in the Black Actors Workshop at the American Conservatory Theater and his work with area stage companies allowed him to explore his social concerns in a new way.

”Theater became a different, more expressive form of saying things and trying to re-envision the world and my relationship to the world,” he said. “For me, it was a real important moment defining how much I wanted to be an artist. It was a vibrant theater community here in San Francisco and without that vibrancy and dynamic I don’t think I would have grown in the way in which I’ve grown as an artist.”

 Actor and activist Danny Glover, seen here in 2013 speaking at a BART rally in Oakland, is in a new ad for Propositions F and I.  Photo: Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle

Photo: Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle

 

 

Glover first came to national prominence via his association with Athol Fugard, the South African playwright whose acclaimed works reveal the evils of apartheid. The actor appeared in a revival of Fugard’s Blood Knot off-Broadway and was chosen by Fugard to play the lead in Master Harold and the Boys on Broadway, a part that brought Glover to the attention of Hollywood. He went on to act in and/or produce many films dealing with the African-American and African experiences, including The Color PurpleMandelaA Raisin in the SunTo Sleep with AngerGrand CanyonBopha!Freedom SongBuffalo SoldiersBoesman & Lena and Battu.

He said any great work has something to say about the human condition.

”If you’re going be doing the work of Athol Fugard, Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansberry, Bertold Brecht…you’re going to be doing socially conscious work.”

Sensing fewer American films are drawn from the best sources, he reads widely in a never-ending search for top material. He casts his eye all over the world for stories so that he doesn’t limit himself or his vision.

”I think we all try to see ourselves beyond the work that we’re often hired to do,” he said. “You come into this business with some sort of idea of what you want to do and how you want to shape your career. You see films and you say, I want to do those kinds of films. You read stories and you say, I want to tell those kinds of stories. You watch. You read.

”I see films from the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, Asia, India, Europe. Ther’∂s a whole feast of films and ideas around the world. They offer other ways for you to see yourself in the world. This is what informs and fulfills me. I try to see myself as the company sees itself — as part of world cinema. We want to become a part of that. We want to expand the kind of limited space we often occupy when we look at ourselves as solely having a relationship with U.S. cinema.”

Glover, who’s made many films in Africa, where he’s a much revered and popular figure, raised his awareness of that contintent’s issues in the ‘70s, when he first went there. He worked on the African Liberation Support Committee. Later, he was swept up in the anti-apartheid effort. He’s said, “It’s clear the destinies of the people of Africa and those of African descent are incredibly connected. This is what I take as my starting point in my life and, I hope, in my work.”

Danny Glover Turns 65

 

 

He chairs the board of the Trans-Africa Forum and is a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. His public service has won him many honors, including the 2002 Marian Anderson Award and the 2003 NAACP Chairman∂s Award.

His inclusive Louverture venture is devoted to ”the employment and training of cast and crew from the African Diaspora, minorities and/or marginalized communities. That’s a critical part of what we’re doing. We want to establish a way of doing things differently and changing the demographics about who makes films and whose stories are being told and exposing people” whose lives and abilities have been hidden.

After Toussaint, Louverture’s next major project is God’s Bits of Wood, a novel about a 1947 railway strike on the Dakar-Niger line that sparked West Africa’s move towards independence. The film will be written and directed by Ousmane Sembene, whom Glover calls “the father of African film,” from Sembene ’s own novel. ”It∂s a really powerful moment in a people’s evolution and how they come to have a different realization of themselves and their power,” Glover said.

Among Glover’s latest acting gigs is Nujoma: Where Others Wavered, a new film by Charles Burnett (To Sleep with Anger) based on the autobiography of Sam Nujoma, the first president of Namibia and former head of the South West African People’s Organization. Carl Lumbly (Alias) plays the title role and Glover plays a government minister. He’s also completed Manderlay, the second in Lars von Trier’s American trilogy, and Missing in America, a story about an isolated Vietnam vet. The former should be released later this year, while the latter still awaits a distributor.

Meanwhile, Glover speaks out when he sees a need to. On the early failed response to Hurricane Katrina, he said while it’s “elementary to give and to give generously in the aftermath of a catastrophe, the question is, How much do we really understand the underlying systemic and structural problems we’re dealing with?” He said the outpouring of giving and second-guessing “disguises the real problems and don’t allow us to deal with them.”

A degenerate’s work is never done: New film examines mob informant Henry Hill, whose story informed the book “Wiseguy” and the film “Goodfellas”

December 22, 2011 1 comment

 When I read that former mobster Henry Hill, whose life informed the novel Wiseguy and the film Goodfellas, had left the witness protection program and was living an open life under his real name in North Platte. Neb., well let’s just say I was interested.  When I learned a documentary had been made about him by some local filmmakers, it didn’t take me long to get an assignment for a story.   I contacted the filmmakers, I obtained a screener of the film, but I never got to interview Hill.  He had skipped town for the west coast and was purportedly living as a derelict in Venice Beach.  So I was left with the portrait of Hill that the film and the filmmakers offered.  It’s not a pretty picture.  The film and its makers portray Hill as an unreformed degenerate lost in the haze of alcohol and drugs.  That may be true, up to a point.  The confounding thing though is that Hill always seems to come out the other side of whatever mess he gets himself into and he obviously has the wherewithall and presence of mind to surface in all kinds of situations and places, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, ingratiating or buying his way into people’s affections.  And he always sucks in media types for yet another telling of his mob rise and fall and his life in and out of hiding.  He clearly loves the attention.

Hill is, if nothing else, a survivor and an egoist playing off his infamy.  Once a snitch and con, always one.  It just may be he’s every bit the actor that Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci are and he’s just doing what he’s always done – putting it over on The Man or The System or anyone and anything else he can scheme or dodge or manipulate to his advantage.  That said, I would have loved to have met and interviewed the guy.  As it turned out, a couple years later I met someone very much like Hill in the figure of Clyde Waller, whose story I tell in the piece “Omaha’s Own American Gangster” on this blog.

 

 

A degenerate’s work is never done: New film examines mob informant Henry Hill, whose story informed the nook “Wiseguy” and the film “Goodfellas”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When Lincoln, Neb.-based film producer Ron Silver learned mob informant Henry Hill left the U.S, Marshal’s witness protection program to live in North Platte, he went there hoping for the kind of inside mafia stories Hill furnished author Nicholas Pileggi for the book Wiseguy; Martin Scorsese adapted t into the film Goodfellas. Instead, Silver and director Luke Heppner found an unreformed derelict as the portrait for their new documentary Shooting Henry Hill. The film premieres tomorrow at 7 p.m. at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

Facing serious jail time for illicit drug trafficking and organized crime activities, Hill turned state’s evidence on the Lucchese crime family, of which he was an associate. In exchange for testimony that put away major bad guys, he and his family lived in various locales under assumed names. Kicked out of the program for drug-alcohol incidents, some violent, he was always reinstated. His screw ups finally led he and the feds to part ways. He took back his real name. When Kelly, a woman he was involved with, moved from L.A. to be near family in North Platte, he followed in 2004. Divorced from his wife Karen, with whom he has two children, he married Kelly. He soon got in trouble again for possession of cocaine and meth.

The broken man Silver found working as a cook at The Firefly restaurant in 2005 was ready to spill his guts, just not about the mafia. Silver said Hill, 63, agreed to be the subject of the film on one condition — it focus on his addiction, not his gangster past. Ray Liotta’s portrayal of a strung-out druggie gave a glimpse into Hill’s addict lifestyle. Still, Silver wasn’t prepared for the “wreck” of a man he met.

“I was surprised…disappointed…shocked a man his age was still faced with these addictions and was still acting out in this immature, reactionary way,” said Silver, a veteran theater actor-director-producer originally from L.A. “We imagine these guys as tough and fearless and powerful and dapper and he wasn’t those things and I’m not sure he was ever any of those things.”

Ironically, he said, it wasn’t so much the mafia life that hurt Hill and his family as it was his own degenerate behaviors.

The film introduces us to Hill drunk, his usual state of being. As the film progresses, he’s seen more and more sober.

“We made the decision to show Henry Hill in the order of how we experienced him,” said Heppner, an Omaha resident with local music videos and television credits to his name. “He was drunk basically the first few times we taped him. He was at the bottom of the barrel. When we very first see him in the film he’s fragile. As the film goes on you begin to see more of a stronger person. He looks completely different at the end than at the beginning. It’s the story Henry wanted to tell. It shows his life as a struggle. After all these years, this is who he is.”

The Many Faces of Henry Hill

 

 

On the first day of shooting “the star” was wasted, but Silver said when he suggested postponing things so Hill could dry out, Hill “kept saying over and over, ‘This is who I am.’ I think Henry felt by not hiding it, he would help people. And I thought by showing it we were just being honest.”

As filming proceeded last spring Heppner said the small crew got “sucked in” to the chaos and dysfunction of Hill’s life. “While we shot the movie, his wife (Kelly) left him, his friends betrayed him, he was assaulted, he was evicted, he was arrested. All these things happened,” he said. “We talked about how shooting Henry Hill is almost like making a wildlife documentary. We went out filming this (wild) creature going about his business” in a habitat full of intrigue and conflict. Silver said Hill’s wild mood swings, binges and nervous agitation make him difficult to capture.

The further they were drawn into his user ways, the crew found themselves part of the drama. “We went to be observers and ended up getting pulled into the story,” Heppner said. As a result, the filmmakers decided to insert themselves in the film in a fairly obtrusive manner. Silver, his wife Heather and Heppner comment at various points in the film on Hill, the unfolding madness and their reactions to it.

“It was a tough decision,” Silver said. “We realized we had crossed over into the ultimate intimate of his life. We experienced this together with Henry. We had part of the story to tell. We could fill in the blanks. We knew the audience would be reacting as we did. It made us uncomfortable, too. We felt we could let the audience off the hook by letting them know we felt very much as they do.”

A melodramatic framing device at the open and close of the film shows Silver seated on the porch of his house at night, speaking in hushed, weary tones. In these black and white scenes Silver intimates events have dragged he and the crew down. The closing scene, which ends the doc, has Silver holding an absurdly large hand gun as he informs us he’s been threatened by one of Hill’s enemies.

Ray Liotta as Henry Hill

 

 

“Honestly, we were in a very dark place when we wrapped filming. I think the black and white is how we felt. Someone threatened to toss a grenade into my home. It’s one thing to know somebody wants to kill you and it’s another thing to know they can,” said Silver, referring to Dale, a felon now serving a stretch in Leavenworth.

As Silver found, getting involved in Hill’s life means dealing with the detritus that attends him. “It kind of takes over for awhile,” he said. Silver said Hill, released in 2005 from the Lincoln County (Neb.) jail to do an interview for Warner Brothers’ DVD reissue of Goodfellas, somehow gets people to overlook his misdeeds. Some celebs, notably Howard Stern, court him. It’s unclear who’s exploiting whom.

“People tolerate things from Henry they wouldn’t tolerate from their neighbor or a friend. I don’t know why,” he said. “I never felt that way. I never adopted Henry. I wasn’t going to be his baby sitter, and he kind of needs one, and when he doesn’t, he kind of spirals out of control. I would never be that guy. So, when he asked for money, I didn’t give him any. I gave him good advice.”

Silver still keeps in contact with Hill, whose problems persist. Some months back Silver said Hill was arrested in California for chugging booze he didn’t pay for in a grocery store, a crime that due to his priors brought a felony sentence of 10 to 15 years. A judge ordered Hill into rehab, which “he walked out of,” Silver said. Ordered back, Hill no sooner checked in than bailed out. Silver’s tracked him down to Venice Beach, where he said Hill’s in sharp decline.

“He’s in horrible condition. He’s just a fragment of even the guy you see in the film,” Silver said. “Barefoot, bearded, dishelved, sleeping on park benches. Henry’s on edge. I’m afraid he’ll get picked up soon and do his 10 to 15 years. But prison would be a good place for him right now. I think it might save his life. I am going to find him and hopefully he’ll clean up. I won’t abandon him as a friend.”

Silver’s considered the possibility Hill has “a death wish.” Why else would a man the mob wants whacked put himself out there in such a visible way? “I don’t think doing the film was his death wish,” Silver said. “I asked him about it. He said, ‘It (a hit) can still happen. But, look, if I live as Henry Hill and show people I’m not afraid and I become a public person, they wouldn’t dare.’ But he does have a death wish and I really do believe he’s killing himself slowly” with “his self-destructive behavior.”

There’s also a chance this is just an old con’s dodge, as Hill capitalizes on his mob persona via books, TV appearances and product lines. “I thought about that,” Silver said. “He is a con man…they function on…manipulation. But he’s not faking being a drunk and he’s not faking the pain he feels about his life. It’s a sad story. What’s hard for Henry is he has a conscience. He’s haunted.”

While he doesn’t feel it excuses Hill’s criminal past, Silver regards him “a hero” for ratting out the mob. “Henry always wanted out. Yeah, he did it to save his skin, but I believe people are alive today because of what Henry did,” he said. Besides, Silver said, the only thing Hill gained as a snitch, other than fame, was “a life in hiding.” One good thing, Silver said, is he did protect his family. His relationship with Karen is strained, but he’s on good terms with his grown kids, Gregg and Gina Hill, whose book about growing up underground, On the Run, Silver calls a “great read.”

Shooting Henry Hill will screen at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival in September. Now weighing distribution offers, Silver’s at work on an Omaha screening.

From the Archives: About Payne – Alexander Payne on “About Schmidt,” Jack Nicholson and the comedy of deep focus

December 20, 2011 9 comments

 

 

From the Archives:

About Payne – Alexander Payne on “About Schmidt,” Jack Nicholson and the comedy of deep focus 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Bolstered by rousing receptions at prestigious film festivals, critical kudos from leading reviewers, widespread predictions of Oscar nods and loads of studio marketing behind it, the momentum attending About Schmidt surpasses anything Alexander Payne saw for his previous features’ openings.

Where Citizen Ruth and Election were accorded the kind of lukewarm studio backing (from Miramax and Paramount/MTV Films, respectively) that idiosyncratic movies get when “the suits” don’t fully endorse or understand them, Schmidt is getting the type of red carpet treatment from New Line Cinema execs that signals they see a potential winner, read — moneymaker, here. And why not?

The film, making its Nebraska premiere December 10 at the new Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center (formerly the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater) in downtown Lincoln, appears to have everything going for it heading into Hollywood’s big ticket winter season, when prestige pictures are positioned at the cineplex for box-office leverage and Academy consideration.

The timing of Schmidt’s release seems right. There’s the snob appeal that comes from boffo Cannes and New York Film Festival screenings of the film this past spring and summer. There’s the raves it received from Stephen Holden in the New York Times, Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times and a slew of other name critics for major media outlets. There’s also serious Oscar talk for Jack Nicholson’s celebrated turn as dour Omaha Everyman Warren Schmidt and for Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor’s sardonic take on middle American mores.

Then there’s the priceless mojo Nicholson’s mystique brings to the Nebraska-made project.

Of course, none of this guarantees Schmidt will do any business, especially in light of the fact Payne’s films have so far fared better in home-market release, where they have time to be discovered and appreciated, than in theaters. That his films appeal to a discriminating audience is logical given his wry, sagacious work, which is really in the realm of social commentary.

Film critic David Denby called Payne and Taylor “perhaps the only true social satirists now working in American movies.” But satire can be a hard pill for filmgoers to swallow. They may feel the sting hits too close to home or they may prefer something lighter to go with their concessions.

According to Dan Ladely, director of the Ross Media Arts Center, Schmidt is “a little bit of a departure from Alexander’s two previous films, which were known for their kind of biting satire. This film is a little bit more nostalgic.” While perhaps gentler, it is, like the others, a painfully honest and ironic examination of how good people lose their way and court despair even amidst the so-called Good Life.

In today’s spoon-fed movie culture, bleak is a hard sell unless accompanied by big action set pieces, and the only thing passing for action in Schmidt is Nicholson’s comic struggle atop a water bed. That scene closes a sequence in which the tight-assed, buttoned-down Schmidt is disgusted by the outrageous new family he  inherits via his daughter’s impending wedding.

The son-in-law’s mother, Roberta, is, as deliciously played by Kathy Bates, a brazen woman whom, Payne said, “is the type of person that will say anything to anyone.” At one point she tries seducing Schmidt in a hot tub by “telling him about how sexual she is and how she had her first orgasm in ballet class at age six,” said Payne, delighted with offending every propriety Schmidt holds dear. “Oh, it’s so fun to torture your characters.”

In this scene, as in much of the film, Nicholson’s performance rests more on his facial-physical reactions than words. Indeed, instead of explosions, verbal or otherwise, moviegoers get the implosion that Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt, a retired and widowed Woodmen of the World Life Insurance actuarial, undergoes.

Severed from the twin tethers of job and wife that defined him and held his orderly life together, he begins questioning everything about his existence, including the choices he made. He lets himself go.

The state of his disillusion is captured in the film’s ad campaign in which Schmidt appears as a shell-shocked, disheveled man shadowed by a dark cloud overhead in an otherwise clear blue sky.

In the throes of this mid-life crisis, he sets off, in a huge, unwieldy motor home that is an apt expression of his desperate inadequacy, on an existential road trip across Nebraska. His destination is Denver, where he heads ostensibly to heal his wounded relationship with his daughter and to save her, as he sees it, from the mistake she is about to make in marrying a frivolous man. Along the way, he conveys his troubles to an odd assortment of people he turns to or rails against in a kind of unfolding nervous breakdown. Unable to express his real feelings to those closest to him, he instead pours out his soul, in writing (and in voice-over), to an African orphan he sponsors, Ndugu, who can’t possibly understand his dilemma.

Regarding Nicholson’s portrayal of a man in crisis, Dan Ladely calls it “probably one of the most subdued performances he’s ever given and maybe one of his best. I’d be really surprised if he doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar. It’s a role where he really stretched himself, and I think probably a lot of the credit for that could be given to Alexander, because Alexander is a director who works well with actors.  He gets a lot out of them.”

Directing Nicholson allowed Payne to work with an actor he greatly admires and solidified his own status as a sought-after filmmaker. He found Nicholson to be a consummate professional and supreme artist.

“Nicholson does a lot of work on his character before shooting. Now, a lot of actors do that, but he REALLY does it. To the point where, as he describes it, he’s so in character and so relaxed that if he’s in the middle of a take and one of the movie lights falls or a train goes through or anything, he’ll react to it in character. He won’t break.” Payne said Nicholson doesn’t like a lot of rehearsal “because he believes in cinema as the meeting of the spontaneous and the moment. His attitude is, ‘What if something good happens and the camera wasn’t on?’”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

Kathy Bates in About Schmidt

Jack Nicholson as Warren Schmidt

Alexander Payne

UNO Afghanistan Teacher Education Project trains women educators from the embattled nation

December 20, 2011 2 comments

The role the U.S. has played in Afghanistan and with visiting Afghans in this country is fraught with controversy.  The same holds true for what the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Afghanistan Studies has done and continues doing in terms of training and immersion opportunities offered to Afghan students and professionals who come here to participate in various programs. The controversy stems from the complex problems facing Afghanistan, economically, politically, culturally, and the strategic motivations by Americans to aid, occupy, and control that country. Whether you see controversy or not depends on your point of view.  Leaving politics and motivations aside, UNO’s programs have provided a link or bridge unlike few others in giving Afghans some of the tools they need to rebuild and restore their embattled and ravaged nation. This story from several years ago profiles a project that saw scores of Afghan women educators come here to further their professional development.  The story appeared in truncated form in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and here I’m able to present it in its entirety.  This blog contains other stories I’ve written about UNO’s deep ties to Afghanistan.

UNO Afghanistan Teacher Education Project trains women educators from the embattled nation 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The latest cadre of teachers in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Afghanistan Teacher Education Project return home this weekend after a month of training and cultural exchange Nebraska. This is the third group from Afghanistan to come here in the last year-and-a-half. A new group is scheduled to arrive in the fall. The program, supported by a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs, is part of the UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies’ longtime efforts at repairing the war-ravaged Asian nation’s fractured education system.

Participants, all women, attend computer and intensive English language classes on the UNO campus and observe master teachers at two Omaha elementary schools. The women also visit schools and various attractions statewide, including the program’s satellite communities-schools in Oakland and Scottsbluff, Neb.

Once back in their homeland, the teachers share the skills and methodologies they acquired in the program with their peers. Each graduate is charged with training 10 colleagues from their school. That means the 37 graduates to date will soon have impacted some 370 teachers. Even more are reached via workshops and seminars the graduates present in conjunction with Ministry of Education officials. The women who completed the most training here were prepped for their American trip by their predecessors in the program. This trickle-down approach broadens the program’s reach, thus making a dent in the nation’s extreme teacher shortage.

The first group to come, in 2002, was an older, more tradition-bound bunch. The second, in 2003, were younger and more Westernized as would be expected from ESL teachers. This last cohort — all elementary school teachers — was further yet removed from the Taliban’s reach. Women are the focus of the program because their education was interrupted by prolonged fighting and then banned outright by the now deposed-Taliban. The radical fundamentalists made it a crime, punishable by beatings or reprisals, for females to teach and attend school. Some visiting teachers defied the ban and taught secretly under the repressive regime.

Aabidah, a teacher at Nazo Anaa Middle School in Kabul, is one of 12 women who attended the UNO program in April and May. She risked everything to practice her profession against Taliban edicts. “Yes, it was dangerous. I had six girls in my home. Daughters of friends and neighbors. It was done very secretly,” she said. Under the guise of teaching sewing, she instructed girls in Dari, Pashto and other subjects.

The teachers, ranging in age, experience and sophistication, have made an enduring impression on everyone they’ve met, including their host families and instructors. Robin Martens, who along with her husband, Gene, hosted Aabidah and another Afghan teacher, Lailumaa Popal, at their northwest Omaha home, is impressed with Aabidah’s fearlessness. “She seems to be a brave person. She has a strong personality and she kind of forges ahead even when she’s not sure about things. I like that about her,” Martens said. Regarding the quieter Lailumaa, a teacher at Lycee Zarghoonah in Qandahar, Martens observed, “She’s very caring and I think she must be a very good teacher because whenever I mispronounce a word in Dari, I laugh it off, but she insists I say it correctly.”

Barbara Davis, an Omaha Public Schools reading specialist, has hosted Afghan women in her Benson home. For Davis, they define what it is to be “courageous” under crisis. “If I were in the same situation I don’t know if I could have taught school in my home with the threat of my life. I really don’t know.”

In the capital city of Kabul, where most early training participants came from, women enjoy relative freedom to work and teach and go out on the streets sans chadri (or burqa), the traditional full-body veil. But even Kabul was a harsh place in the grip of the Taliban. “The Taliban was very bad. Very dangerous,” Aabidah said. “When they were in Kabul we don’t have jobs. We stay at home. We wear chadri. No, I don’t like chadri. It was very hot. I like the freedom. Now, we are free and happy. I like all of this in my country.” Things haven’t changed much in more provincial areas, where many recent participants reside and work. Women there must proceed with greater caution. “In Kabul, it’s OK. Outside Kabul, it’s bad,” Aabidah said referring to the current climate for women in Afghanistan.

Afghan teachers training at UNO met with First Lady Laura Bush

 

 

Lailumaa fled with members of her family to Pakistan during the struggle for power in Afghanistan that erupted in civil war in the 1990s. Coming from a family of educators that regards teaching as a higher calling, Lailumaa said she greatly missed her students and her craft. After combined U.S.-Afghan forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, she returned to her homeland to resume teaching.

In the wake of the Taliban’s fall, Lailumaa, Aabidah and other women educators teach openly again. It’s the one thing they can do to restore their country. Aabidah said she teaches because “I love my children, my students, my people. I want a good future for them.” Baiza, a 2002 program grad who taught geography-history in a Mazar Sharif school, said then, “Students are part of my life.”

Sandra Squires, a UNO professor of speech-language-communication disorders, feels a kinship with her Afghan counterparts: “I realize that except for all the trappings, we’re all teachers,” she said. “We’re all very much alike. We love kids and we want to be doing something that can better the world, and that’s universal.” Aabidah feels the same. “Yes, I feel the teachers here are like my sisters,” she said.

In 2002, Baiza described the responsibility she and her fellow teachers feel to transform education at home with the “new concepts and skills” they learn here.

The Afghans have been motivated to be change agents, according to Anne Ludwig, assistant director of the ILUNA, the intensive language program at UNO. “What I see is women who are prepared, enthusiastic and eager to go home and make a difference in their lives and in the lives of other women,” Ludwig said. “I think they learn what they come to learn. One of them said what she would take back more than anything else was the idea that in the American classroom we want the students to feel good and positive, whereas back home the teacher is the autocrat and students are made to feel inferior. She liked the idea of opening up the classroom to where students feel safe, free to communicate and achieve.”

Practicums presented by Howard Faber, an Omaha Dodge Elementary 6th grade teacher fluent in Farsi, demonstrate good teaching practices the Afghans can implement in their own classrooms. He introduced the most recent group to Teacher Expectation Student Achievement or TESA, a set of methods promoting fairness and equality in learning, an issue of great import in Afghanistan, where ethnic-religious differences run deep. As former refugees resettle the country, he said, classrooms are filling with students of widely varying backgrounds and ages.

Faber feels the women symbolize their country’s hoped-for healing. “They’re from different places and different ethnic groups, and I think it’s very positive you have these people of varied cultural backgrounds working together on this common project. I think it bodes well for what might happen in Afghanistan, which now is a little bit like the United States was after the Civil War. You have deep feelings that are going to die slowly. Part of the healing there has to be that these cultural groups that fought so long work together.”

He said TESA alerts teachers to biases they harbor and offers strategies for giving “all children an equal opportunity to participate and to learn and to feel valued and welcomed. I show them what I do in my own classroom. They’re very practical things you don’t need a computer to do.” Later, he and the women discuss what transpired. “They ask me things…they really immerse themselves in the classroom. They even teach children a bit of their language. The kids are especially curious about them writing from right to left. It’s connected well with our studies.”

For Afghan teachers, seeing the bounty of American schools is both disheartening and inspiring. Baiza said, “Everywhere we went we saw the facilities, the machines, the technology, and I felt a kind of dismay that we are deprived of them. But I know these things are not dropped from the sky. There’s a lot of research, thinking and hard work that have gone into it…and this gave me a kind of hope that if our people work as hard, someday they will have these things, too.” Recent teacher participants were struck, too, by the disparity. “I’m very sad for the people of Afghanistan because our country’s very poor,” said Lailumaa. “I am upset we don’t have computers, books, notebooks, tables, chairs. We have blackboard and chalk,” said Aabidah. “We want computers. We need schools. That’s our hope.” Her students are “happy to learn” and “very intelligent,” but lack so much.

UNO’s Sandra Squires said the women’s devotion to teaching in the absence of basics makes her feel “very humbled. They’re doing things with absolutely nothing. I mean, they have to solve problems in ways I never had to dream about.” For their return trip, UNO gives each visiting teacher a laptop computer and a backpack filled with school supplies. But as UNO professor of education Carol Lloyd noted, “It still is barely a ripple in this ocean of need.”

Education is a mixed bag in Afghanistan. When schools reopened to great fanfare in 2002, far more students than expected flooded classrooms, which then, like now, were makeshift spaces amid rubble or cramped quarters. That surge has never let up as more refugees return home from camps in Iran and Pakistan. Overcrowded conditions and high student-teacher ratios continue to be a problem. Damaged schools are being rebuilt and new ones going up, but demand for classrooms far exceeds supply. For example, Aabidah’s school has 16 classrooms for its 3,000-plus students. Already scarce resources are siphoned off or entangled in red-tape.

“The schools are running by the enthusiasm of the parents and the commitment of the teachers, but there isn’t much government or international support for education,” said Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies. “Schools don’t get enough funds and when they do get funds, a project that is started then stops because the funds dry up or are misused.”

Tom Gouttierre, director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies, said education is hindered by the “piecemeal application” the U.S. is taking to that nation’s recovery. “We’re trying to do Afghanistan on the cheap, because we’re focusing so many of our dollars on Iraq. So, we wind up bringing in a lot of other participants in a kind of donor conference approach to reconstruction and development. It leaves Kabul overrun by all kinds of different aid organizations, but with no coordination and no real firm Marshall Plan approach. It’s very hard for the Ministry of Education to coordinate it into one central educational plan for the country. It’s frustrating.”

Of all the gaps and shortages, the most acute is women teachers in such outlying provinces as Herat, where the reach of president Hamid Karzai is weak and the pull of old, oppressive cultural norms is strong. Despite the suppression of the Taliban regime and the al-Qaida terror base, the ethnically and religiously diverse nation is still seething with tensions, not the least of which is the place of women in Afghan society. Tribal rulers enforce restrictive measures.

“There is a great need for women teachers in the provinces and the women want to go, but they cannot. First, their families will not let them go and, second, the families themselves will not go because warlords and local commandos control the areas. People are scared. Also, parents are hesitant to let their girls go to school because the extremism and fanaticism in these regions is threatening,” Yaseer said.

Such fears are part of larger safety issues that find land mines littering roads and fields and Taliban loyalists and rebels waging violence. “There are some obstacles on the way to progress and security is number one,” Yaseer said. Aabidah agrees, saying that even above resources, “We want security. That’s our big problem.”

The challenge, too, is training enough teachers to educate a rising student enrollment. “The paradox is there hasn’t been any real formal education for teacher trainers for a long time and yet there are more kids in school now than ever before, and so that means the gap between the training needed and the numbers of students in classes is great,” Gouttierre said. “Among Afghans there’s a realization of something having been lost for generations and a determination not to let it get away from them again.”

Gouttierre said the fact this most recent crop of visiting Afghan teachers came from underrepresented areas, reflects UNO’s attempts to extend teacher training “in places where we haven’t been.” Part of that training is being undertaken by past graduates of UNO’s Afghan Teacher Training Project in concert with the center’s on-site master teacher trainers. The project is just the most visible branch of a much larger UNO effort. For years, its center has been: holding workshops and conferences for Afghan professionals and leaders involved in its various reconstruction efforts; training more than 3,000 Afghan teachers in workshops staffed by teacher trainers in Kabul and Peshawar, Pakistan; and writing textbooks and printing and distributing them by the millions.

These far away efforts are personified by the visiting Afghan teachers, who represent the face and future of education in their country. The diverse women all share a passion for their people and for teaching. Although their stays here are relatively brief, their impact is great. After hosting two older Afghan women who called her “our daughter,” Charity Stahl said, “I will never be the same.” Stahl, assistant director of the Afghan Teacher Education Project, later visited the women in their homeland while volunteering for an NGO. Of their emotional reunion, she said, “I still can’t believe it.”

For Barbara Davis, hosting is a cultural awakening in which her guests call her “mother,” teach her to make Afghan meals or get her to perform native folk dances. Despite a language barrier, she felt the women revealed their true selves behind the veil. “We really got to know each other,” she said. “We talked just like sisters. These are some of the warmest, dearest women I’ve ever met.”

The experience is equally meaningful to the Afghans. Aabidah called the training program “very interesting and very good” and described America as “not like in the movies. The people are very kind and hospitable. When I go back to Afghanistan, I’ll miss our dear host family and our American friends. They’re like my family in Afghanistan.” Coming to America, she said, “is like a dream for me.”

Her hosts, the Martens, will cherish many things. The pleasure Aabidah and Lailumaa took in cooking native dishes for them or in wiling away nights sitting around and talking, Or, what sharp bargain shoppers the women proved to be. Or, how thrilled they were to drive, for the first time, as the couple watched nervously on. “They’re people just like us. They want the same things we do. For themselves. For their families. We have so much to share with each other,” said Gene Martens.

Young Latina’s unbridled energy making a difference in her community

December 20, 2011 Leave a comment

When I profiled Anadelia Lamas seven years ago I admit I was smitten with her.  Hard not to be.  She’s engaging, self-effacing, talented, and attractive without trying to be.  The profile appeared not too long into her tenure as South Omaha Weed and Seed Coordinator.  She’s since married, hence her name now being Anadelia Lamas Morgan, and she’s moved to a new job – as development director and outreach coordinator at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.  She’s all about family and community and for a still young woman she’s made and continues making a tremendous difference in the South Omaha Latino barrio that is her life.  She’s one of those human dynamos who’s seemingly always in motion, involved here, there, everywhere, getting things done and making things happen.

 

Young Latina’s unbridled energy making a difference in her community

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Unbridled energy. That’s what South Omaha Weed and Seed Coordinator Anadelia Lamas, a stunning, vivacious, bilingual Latina with an avowed goal of being “a key player” in the poor, mostly Spanish-speaking community she serves, radiates. From the salsa lilt in her voice to the dramatic ways she screws up her face to the animated gestures she uses to make a point, she practically pulsates with a palpable enthusiasm and vitality. She’s a blur of emotion, movement, expression.

For Lamas, realizing her federal program’s mandate of making at-risk urban neighborhoods like hers safer and stronger means attending to “the simple things.” That finds her turning on the charm at neighborhood association gatherings and Cinco De Mayo festivities in her mission to get residents on board with Weed and Seed enrichment initiatives. Those initiatives include organizing clean-up efforts and neighborhood watch groups, getting people to access health-human service agencies, delivering intervention-prevention messages and working with police and residents to weed-out chronic problems like gang graffiti and vehicular speeding.
She’s working with the police’s gang unit and with neighborhood associations to start-up a graffiti task-force.

More beat patrols have come to the barrio to improve police-community relations. Using her fluency in Spanish and her immersion in Latino culture, she tries building rapport and trust with newcomers leery of anything smacking of government.

“It’s just really important to have a common ground and familiarity with people. It makes them feel comfortable that I not only speak Spanish, but share a love for the culture. I love the music. I love the colors. I love the people. I don’t really like to send out mailers. I’d rather walk around and talk to people at events or in their own homes. Besides, people are kind of familiar with my face,” she says, referring to her singing as a member of the now disbanded Las Palomas mariachi band and as an actress with the Teatro Mestizo community theater troupe. Over the summer, she’s been laying down tracks on her first solo CD. “I get a lot of ‘Aren’t you that girl?” ‘Yeah,’ I tell them, ‘but I’m not doing that right now,’” she says, laughing freely, her lush hair tumbling fetchingly over her brow.

 

 

 

Named to her Weed and Seed post in February 2003, Lamas, 25, feels she’s landed in the right spot. “I wanted this position because it just seemed to fit me…I’m a nurturing person. I love to help people and I love to make a difference. Sometimes, a little too much. I get a little too involved with other people’s problems. I’m a very interactive, social person and I just feed from that energy. When I have an idea and it goes through, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ I was afraid at first, but it’s all about facing the challenges and being somewhat fearless,” she says, looking determined.

Not one to back away from challenges, Lamas, who, minus any preparation, completed the 2002 Chicago Marathon in 4 1/2 hours, understands Weed and Seed cannot work overnight miracles. “It’s a slow process. It’s focusing on endurance. I feel like I already have made a difference in making sure people know about the program.” She organized a July 31 Night Light event — an annual block party dedicated to uniting the community against violence — that drew some 600 people, many of whom she’d handed fliers during her outreach canvassing. “It’s more impactful when you personally invite people,” she says. What will make or break the program, she adds, is how much people buy into its neighborhood restoration concept. “They’re the key to having a greater community. It’s getting them to care and want to make a difference.” Towards that end, she’s planning events for youths and adults that emphasize community and that celebrate the area’s cultural diversity, including a growing Sudanese population.

When Lamas got the job, eyebrows were raised about her relative youth. “I don’t find it’s hindered me. People have been very open to me in any type of situation. I think maybe an advantage I have is people don’t find me intimidating. I’m a down-to-earth person. And I do have a lot of energy and ideas.” Then there’s her caring, which transcends age. She’s still haunted by a voice mail plea for help from a woman in marital strife. “She said, ‘I heard you solve problems,’ but she didn’t leave a number or a name. I panicked because I couldn’t do anything about it. I left that message there for about a month. It’s hard for me to see somebody in trouble and not do something about it. Little by little, I’m making the connections so that if I don’t know how to help you, I’m going to find somebody that can,” vows Lamas, seemingly poised to run after her next reclamation project. Catch her if you can.

 

Her energy today is focused on Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Omaha
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