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Kurt Andersen’s new novel “True Believers” revisits 1960s through reformed radical breaking her silence

July 28, 2012 2 comments

Kurt Andersen‘s gift with words and ability to distill complex issues and ideas into engaging narratives has served him well as journalist, essayist, author, radio host and commentator.  His third and latest novel, True Believers, is getting the kind of ciritcal love that writers dream about but rarely ever actually receive.  This is a sneak peak at my story about the book, based on a recent interview I did with Andersen, to appear in a coming issue of The Reader.  His book really is a great read and it manages to do what he set out, which is to take the measure of a tipping point decade through the lens of a character whose life intersected with some of the very movements that made the ’60s so potent.  This blog contains a full-blown profile I did on Andersen some years ago, along with profiles, interviews, and features on many other top writers with Nebraska ties, including Ron Hansen, Richard Dooling, Timothy Schaffert, Rachel Shukert, and Sean Doolittle.

 

 

True Believers

 
Kurt Andersen’s new novel “True Believers” revisits 1960s through reformed radical breaking her silence

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

With his new novel True Believers (Random House) Kurt Andersen takes stock of the roiling 1960s through the eyes of a fictional woman whose coming of age then unfolded in predictable and inexplicable ways.

Through his narrator, attorney and law dean Karen Hollander, he explores the psyche and culture of holding secrets and coming clean in the modern era of relativism. This accomplished older woman is writing a tell-all memoir reviewing her own revolutionary life forged from social awakening and feminism.

Andersen, always the sage observer and commentator, analyzes the social-psychological-cultural imperatives of whatever era he writes about. The dawn of the new millennium in Turn of the Century. The mid-19th century in Heyday. The 1960s this time around. His elegant storytelling rises to his witty critique and thorough research. Its warm reception matches that of his previous two novels.

“One of the things I wanted to do I hadn’t seen done in novels about the ’60s,” he says, “is have the long view, have it not entirely set in the ’60s but also have like, OK, what do we think about it now? And also see it in all of its thrilling, exciting ways, not just the kind of romantic established ways of seeing it. Seeing it in its problematic ways as well.”

Andersen agrees with the general perception of the ’60s as a watershed decade.

“I think it was one of those historical inflection points certainly in the United States and in the West generally. Absolutely it was. As I thought about it and really since I’ve written the book and continued thinking about it, the ways in which it is popularly imagined to have been – as the moment that changed everything – those are true but I think that only tells part of the story. I think we are only now seeing the various impacts and I cant pretend to say them all.

“But certainly in my lifetime there was nothing and probably will be nothing like it.”

It marks the first time he’s used a first-person narrator and female protagonist. He has Hollander grow up a James Bond nut and his author’s conceit uses her adolescent pretend spy romps as primer for a rash act.

A Bond fan himself, Andersen hosts a 7 p.m. Film Streams screening of the first 007 film, Dr. No, on August 17. He’s doing a post-screening Q&A and book signing.

Andersen being Andersen, he views vintage Bond through a considered lens.

“The Bond films were version 1.0 of so many of the blockbusters of today,” he says. “Obviously the Bourne and Mission Impossible films, but all big, hyper-marketed movies with automatic weapons and explosions and ultra-villains, like the new Batman. Before the Bond films, adults didn’t go to comic-book-y movies. And as with Karen Hollander, I think their influence runs deeper and more subtly than their influence on other movies. The way we think about international travel and airports and gadgets and brands and even national security policy.”

His book’s not an espionage tale but he’s winning praise for integrating elements of that genre with others. Animating it is Hollander’s disclosure of the high crime she and her accomplices schemed as radicalized college students caught up in ’60s’ protest fervor. The title proves ironic as she discovers some comrades were not the true believers they appeared. Besides, she and her fellow survivors occupy a far different mental-political space today than four decades before.

Moving back and forth from the near future to the past, the book overlays the reflective nostalgia of her memoir with her angst-ridden investigation into her and her coconspirators’ motives. Their impassioned choices had unforeseen consequences then. As she peels back the onion skin 40-plus years later, new consequences arise. Just as the plot she helped devise was fraught with danger, so is breaking the secret’s silence. Thus, the story sometimes reads like a thriller.

Her decision to confess, Andersen says, is about “ending cowardice rather than achieving courage, if you get that distinction.” It’s part assuaging guilt and part taking responsibility. He’s often asked if her mea culpa is his way of blasting the in vogue social media impulse to put everything out there.

“People are revealing lots of information about themselves but I kind of doubt people are keeping fewer secrets today than they did 50 years ago. I don’t think for all the sense of transparency and self-exposure that has changed so much.”

Memoirs can be something all together different though.

“To the degree this is a tell-all memoir she’s definitely in this era of revealing all, yet on the other hand people like Hilary Clinton who write memoirs don’t really reveal much, you know. So in some ways this is a dream version of a memoir that a real person of Karen’s stature would write and probably never will.”

 

 

Kurt Andersen

 

 

He has Hollander try hard convincing us hers is a reliable voice because “she genuinely considers herself to be reliably truthful and because the novel to come is so much about the inherently fragmentary and incomplete nature of what any of us believe to be true,” adding, “Also because it was fun for me to play from the get-go with the idea that all first-person narrators are inherently unreliable.”

Understandably, he says “trying to channel this woman for the 2 1/2 years I was writing this was interesting,” particularly since he modeled Hollander after real life women he admires. For example, she’s pushing 70 but enjoys an active sex life and still gets off keeping alive intrigue.

“There have been feisty, interesting, vital women of a certain age written about in the past God knows but I think probably there are more of them of her age, of this first generation of Baby Boomers. One of the good things the ’60s did was allow people not to decide at 30 or 40, OK, I’m old now and therefore I live according to certain protocols of how old people are supposed to live. I wanted to convey that.

“One of the reasons I wanted to tell it through a woman is that, yeah, men’s lives have changed in the last 45 years, but not like women’s lives and not like ambitious educated women like her. I mean, it’s changed dramatically. She’s essentially the first generation of women in this new feminist era, and it was really tough.”

Andersen says he’s partly to blame if some read Hilary Clinton into Hollander, though that wasn’t his intent. “Once I finished the book and people asked me what’s the book about they would say, ‘Oh, like Bernadine Dohrn (Weather Underground terrorist).’ and I’d say, ‘No, not at all, not like any of these famous radicals.’ Then I would say, ‘She’s more like Hilary Clinton if Hilary hadn’t married Bill,’ and people got that and that became my shorthand for her.”

At least two women did serve as models though.

“Not to drop her name but I was friends with Nora Ephron and when she died a lot of her friends and I got together talking about her and marveling what she was able to do. She was always a hero of mine and indeed when somebody asked me the other day ,’Who inspired you to write Karen?’, I realized I had thought of her while I was writing. She’s definitely one of the two or three women who inspired me as a figure, as a woman of that generation who’s lived this extraordinary life.

“The other person who’s lived a very different life is the writer Susanna Moore, a woman of that age who has lived this extraordinary life and done these extraordinary things and is no way a conventional old person. She still is as vital and funny and sometimes outrageous as when I first met her 20 years ago.”

Andersen’s satisfied he’s fully made the transition from journalist to novelist.

“With a third (novel) I feel that I can be legitimately identified as a novelist, and a lot of people have liked all three of these books, so that’s good.

“Also there’s that now famous 10,000 hours thing where, you know, when you do something for 10,000 hours you achieve mastery. I don’t know about mastery but it suddenly occurred to me right before this book came out, Yeah I’ve spent more than 10,000 hours writing novels at this point, so I hope, I think I’m better at it.”

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Ron Hansen’s masterful outlaw blues novel about Jesse James and Robert Ford faithfully interpreted on screen

July 27, 2012 4 comments

One of my favorite films of the last decade is long and slow, inexorable and unrelenting, poetic and profound.  It is equally expressive in its visuals and sounds as it is in its verbal narrative storytelling and dramatized actions.  The film is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which is about as literal a screen adaptation as you can find of a great novel, in this case the same titled book by Ron Hansen.  The following story for The Reader is based on interviews I did with Hansen, who worked closely with the film’s writer-director Andrew Dominik.

 

 

 

Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck as the title characters, Jesse James and Robert Ford, respectively

 

 

Ron Hansen’s masterful outlaw blues novel about Jesse James and Robert Ford faithfully interpreted on screen

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader

 

Consider complete the much ballyhooed return of the Western with the new Warner Brothers film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck and a deep supporting cast. Opening everywhere October 5, it comes fast on the heels of 3:10 to Yuma and Shoot ‘Em Up and the multi-Emmy Award-winning TNT mini-series Broken Trail.

Like these other oaters, Assassination is a big-budget, star-laden picture. Unlike them, which slavishly conform to or outlandishly bend genre conventions with action-packed fictional stories that pose as fact, Assassination is a subdued, ruminative tone poem anchored in history. It owes much of its restrained authenticity and power to native Omahan Ron Hansen, the acclaimed author, whose much-admired 1983 novel of the same name the film closely adheres to.

Assassination is more a Western by proxy, its psychologically complex characters and events drawn from thoroughly researched figures and incidents that just happen to be of the Old West. Hansen, a Creighton Prep-Creighton University grad, steeped himself in the history, just as the film’s director, Andrew Dominik, studied Hansen’s book and did his own digging into the Jesse James-Bob Ford canon.

Prior to this project, Hansen, the Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University, had less than satisfactory experiences with adaptations of his work. Atticus was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, Missing Pieces, that he thought missed the point of his novel. He adapted Mariette In Ecstacy for a feature film that ended up re-edited against his and the director’s wishes. It’s never been released. A writer’s adaptation of Isn’t It Romantic? so displeased Hansen he did everything in his power to stop the film being made. He succeeded. Assassination proved a pleasant change.

 

 

 

Ron Hansen

 

 

 

“Andrew Dominik has made a very faithful adaptation,” Hansen said simply. “Virtually every word in the script is mine.”

Unusual for Hollywood, Dominik (Chopper), whom Hansen described as “fairly reclusive,” consulted with the author from the completion of the first draft of his screenplay all the way through a second draft, the actual shoot and the final edit. Not only Dominik, but actors sounded out Hansen for advice. The author twice visited the set, was made an associate producer and even has a walk-on bit — as a reporter remarking to a photographer making a wet plate image of Jesse’s corpse.

“About 60 reporters hover around watching the process, and I’m in the shot at the extreme left, midway up the screen, wearing a fake mustache and a bowler hat, just watching. You only see it for a few seconds, but I nailed the part. Andrew gave me one line, ‘You’re going to make a lot of money from this, Alex,’ but the line didn’t make it into the final cut.”

He’s pleased with how rigorously accurate the film is.

From wooden knobs for hanging clothes to vintage children’s toys, he said, “the attention to detail is very impressive. The sets and the costumes are just tremendous. It’s not going to look like a typical Western because,” contrary to popular depictions of those times the film shows, “people didn’t wear cowboy clothes back then. Jesse James wore kind of a bowler hat, a businessman’s suit, a watch and a fob and all that. They wore boots and they rode horses and they packed guns, but they didn’t look like a lot of the portrayals of Jesse James.”

Hansen and Dominik take a dim view of previous screen renderings of James, feeling the gritty complexity and downright danger of the man and the times was ignored.

“The film’s costume-production designer, Patricia Norris, really knows her stuff, so she didn’t have to consult with me…In fact, she ended up teaching me,” Hansen said. “The last robbery of the James gang was the Blue Cut (Mo.) train robbery and she has this train interior unlike any you’ve seen before. It looks so totally different but obviously based on her own research. It’s just jam-packed with people and in the place where you would normally put luggage people are lying as if on palettes.”

It’s rare a writer gets carte blanche access to the making of a film based on his work, especially when the adaptation’s by someone else, in this case Dominik, a New Zealand-born Aussie.

 

 

 

 

 

Hansen’s involvement began with a phone call in early 2004. It wasn’t the first time someone showed interest in his James novel. But this time was different.

“I got word from my agent somebody was interested in doing this. It turned out to be Warner Brothers. And from the very first Andrew Dominik was going to write the screenplay. Maybe around June my agent said Andrew wanted to see some of my screenplays and earlier books, so I sent those on to him,” he said. “Then around September Andrew showed me his first draft of the screenplay, which I really liked.

“Every once in a while I’d have a quarrel with a word and then realize he’d taken it right out of the book. I talked to Andrew a good bit about that (first draft) and then he did another draft and sent that to me, and we talked about it, too. Then I met him in December at the Ritz Carleton Hotel in Pasadena.

“We had conversations frequently after that and then the next thing I knew it was greenlighted and he was just about to head up to Canada.”

Dominik spent the first half of 2005 scouting locations in Edmonton and Calgary. Before cameras started rolling in late summer, the filmmaker wanted Hansen’s input on some casting decisions.

“He would consult with me about various actors…especially as they were interviewing people for the role of Robert Ford. ‘What do you think of this guy?’ ‘Have you seen anybody you like?’ And I would mention people I’d seen who looked like him. Andrew had two scenes for the auditions for Bob Ford. One was early on, when Bob first contacts Frank James about being his sidekick on this train robbery.

The other’s 10 years later, when Bob Ford’s alone in Creed, Colo. and has his own saloon and is about to hire a dance hall girl and she asks him what Jesse James is like. Some people could do the first, but not the second scene. Some could do the second, but not the first. Finally, Casey Affleck seemed to be the best choice.”

On his visits to the closed set Hansen was given free reign to “wander around” and to “watch scenes” unfold. “I visited the set in Edmonton September 12-15, when they were shooting scenes in Heritage Park of Jesse and the gang at his Kansas City (Mo.) home and of the aftermath of his killing in St. Joseph (Mo.). Then I went up to Calgary October 3-6 for scenes with Jesse and the Ford brothers in the house on ‘Confusion Hill’ in St. Joseph.”

He spoke to many of the principals, including Pitt and Affleck. More than making small talk, these exchanges allowed Hansen to “give them my ideas and maybe change some wording that was difficult for them.” This interaction actually began months earlier, before filming commenced.

Said Hansen, “An actor would call me up and want to know more about his character. Or about why a particular word was used. What did it mean. Would it be OK if they said this and not this. That kind of continued when I was on the set. The actors really liked having me around because they could come ask, ‘Is there something else I can say in this scene?’ Then I could just throw out a line and a minute later I’d be hearing the line said.

“Actors ad-libbed on occasion, otherwise the dialogue and voice over are straight from the book,” he said.

He’s impressed with the work of the two leads. He particularly feels Pitt’s malleable performance captures Jesse’s instability, which gave Dominik many options.

“You would see maybe seven takes of one speech he gives and he would do it in subtly different ways each time,” Hansen said. “He was really prepared for the various shadings of Jesse James’s character and to explore this guy who was really a psychopath, but a charming one who could be scary and funny and admirable within moments. And that’s true of several scenes Brad Pitt plays with Casey Affleck. He (Pitt) gets all the nuances and all the expressions. James kept people off-balance by constantly shifting his mood and Pitt does a great job of presenting that. James was a vital presence and that’s what Pitt brings. He’s constantly surprising you. You can’t anticipate what he’s going to do next.”

As in Hansen’s book, the film considers James in counterpoint to Ford, his antithetical alter ego and killer. Much has been written about each man and their relationship and motivations. Hansen finds both to be fascinating enigmas.

“Ford kind of hitched up along with the James gang because they were famous and because it seemed like easy money. He ingratiated himself with Jesse James,” Hansen said. The legend that grew in the aftermath of the two men’s fatal last meeting branded Ford a coward, but the book and the film “show that Robert Ford really wasn’t a coward, he was an opportunist,” Hansen said. “When he was threatened and felt like he was going to be killed himself, he turned on James, but it wasn’t as though James wasn’t going to turn on him either.”

 

 

 

Andrew Dominik conferring on location with Brad Pitt

 

 

“A lot of people still admire Jesse James,” the author noted, “and I wanted to impress on them he really was a psychopath. I wanted to do a kind of character-in-the-round the way Shakespeare does, where you see both his good and bad sides and get to appreciate what draws people to him. He was a star in a lot of ways, and he used it. If he entered a room all eyes would be on him.”

As for the James-Ford dynamic, Hansen said, “I think they were oil and vinegar in some ways, but at the same time they were feeding off each other. Ford was really intrinsic to the last days of Jesse James. It was almost as if James knew death was necessary and he was looking for the person to kill him, and he decided on Ford.”

Expectations will be challenged by the moody film, he said, which eschews “bullets flying around” and “blood” for “a character study of this dance with death between Jesse James and Bob Ford.”

Hansen, his wife, writer Bo Caldwell (The Distant Land of My Father), and his step-children attended the film’s New York City premiere on September 18 at the Zeigfeld Theater.

“I thought the movie was superb,” Hansen said.

Reviews have been wildly enthusiastic.

All this means new life for Hansen’s 24-year-old novel. Harper Perennial has reissued a mass market paperback edition and a trade paperback version with an added postscript on the writing of the book and the making of the movie.

Meanwhile, Hansen’s other Western novel, Desperados, is under option with filmmakers. His new novel, Exiles, is slated for a May release by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It tells the story of a 19th century shipwreck, the English poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins’ obsession with it and the famous poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, he wrote about it.

‘Last Comic Standing’ King Felipe Esparza Headlines Omaha Show


Comedy is about as subjective as anything I know.  What I find funny you may find boring or stupid or offensive.  And what you find funny may fall flat to my eyes and ears or simply turn me off.  Call it a matter of taste or a certain sensibility, but in my experience comedy preferences, like food preferences, are highly individual.  And not always consistent either.  What does or doesn’t make me laugh one day might change the next week or the next month.  Mood plays a factor. Attitude as well.  But clearly there are humorists, comedians, and standup comics who resonate with the masses, which suggests some comedy has, if not universal, thenbroad appeal and cuts through personal, social, cultural filters to tickle the collective bone.  I must admit that I interviewed standup Felipe Esparza for the following story from a year or so ago without ever having seen or heard him perform.  I still haven’t.  My prep work before speaking to him consisted of reading some press materials.  He was likable enough.  Funny, too.  But eliciting some laughs or smiles in a phone conversation is not the same as it is on stage.  I’ll only know if his brand of humor works for me if I see him perform.  Maybe some day.

 

 

 

 

Last Comic Standing‘ King Felipe Esparza Headlines Omaha Show

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

The Last Comic Standing live tour coming to the Omaha Music Hall on Nov. 20 features the finalists from the seventh season of the NBC comedy competition show, including winner Felipe Esparza.

Even before capturing the televised contest this past summer, Esparza lived the dream of standup stardom he first harbored growing up in the rough Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles.

Now he’s a headliner just like the comedy kings he idolized — Rodney Dangerfield, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Paul Rodriguez. He has a network development deal, comedy albums and two movies to his credit. He counts Rodriguez, his co-star in The Deported and I’m Not Like that No More, as a close friend and mentor. Sharing top billing with someone he admires is a little surreal.

“It’s the best feeling in the world. I’m on Cloud Nine, if there is such a thing. I love it,” Esparza said by phone from a tour stop in Milwaukee. “Paul Rodriguez is a really good guy. He’s cool. He took me on the road with him and I opened for him. He paid me well and took care of me. We became good friends actually.”

Esparza says when some suggested his act was too ethnic Rodriguez advised him to stay true to himself. By doing as Rodriguez urged, Esparza eventually broke through with mainstream audiences.

“Before Last Comic Standing that’s all I was considered (an ethnic comic),” says Esparza. “That’s why I never went on the road, I never got booked, I wasn’t famous enough or my comedy was too ethnic. A lot of Latino comedians I started out with kept telling me, ‘You gotta cross over to white people.’ Then I met Paul Rodriguez, who told me, ‘Thats’ all bull shit, if you’re funny they will cross over to you,’ and that’s what’s happened. Now I’m not just famous with Latinos, I’m famous with everybody.”

Esparza, who writes all his own material, says it’s as simple as “if you write jokes that are funny you don’t have to change nothing.”

But he says if it wasn’t for Last Comic he wouldn’t even be on the same bill “with three white guys and a black guy,” as he is on tour, because he would be the brown man out.

The comic has come far from a youth drug addiction that derailed him for a time. Once he got clean and sober, he went after his dream.

“I had just come out of drug rehab and my head was clear, I had goals and ambitions again. I didn’t know what to do, but the first thing that popped in my head was, I want to be a comedian.”

Breaking into the business meant screwing up his courage to go on stage and taking his lumps to learn the craft.

“My first time on stage I was nervous, I didn’t know what to say out there, so I just made shit up. I got laughs and I got to come back the next week. But I didn’t know what bombing was until I really bombed — oh, my god, horrible feeling, it’s like getting your heartbroken every minute.”

Esparza says he was never really confident he would win Last Comic.

“I had no gut feeling, but the longer I stayed on the show the more fans I was gaining because the show was taped in Glendale, Calif., and I’m from Los Angeles. The people that went to the first taping liked me, so they kept coming back. By the time of the last episode half to three quarters of the crowd was voting for me. They were going, ‘Felipe, Felipe, Felipe.’”

He says while “winning is great,” the exposure gained from the show meant that “win or lose I would have still won.“

Proteges of Model School Diva Nancy Bounds Pay it Forward Building the Omaha Fashion Ecosystem


This is a story I did a couple years ago for Omaha Fashion Week Magazine that I’m only now posting.

As Omaha and fashion become less and less incompatible and mutually exclusive, I find myself continuing to write about aspects of the growing fashion scene here. The piece looks at Omaha’s fashion past through the work being done today by Alyssa Dilts, Robin Jones Gifford, Stephen Hall, and Michael Dar, all proteges of the late modeling school director Nancy Bounds, who was a legend.  Each is paying forward lessons learned under Bounds in terms of developing and showcasing emerging models. They’re some of the professionals Brook Hudson is calling on to assist the model development efforts of Omaha Fashion Week and Fashion Institute Midwest, and all part of what Hudson refers to as growing the Omaha fashion ecosystem.  You can find profiles of Brook Hudson and her hubby Nick Hudson, along with stories about Omaha Fashion Week, on this blog.  You can also find a full-blown profile of Nancy Bounds.  Special thanks to fashion photographer Michael Dar for his wonderful photo of Nancy, who was very careful about her image and reluctant to have her picture taken.  She liked to be the director.  She didn’t like being directed.  Dar said the image (at the bottoom of the post) is from the only time she let him do her hair and makeup.  The photograph was made a year before her death.

Omaha Fashion Week, ©chrismachian.blogspot.com

Proteges of Model School Diva Nancy Bounds Pay it Forward Building the Omaha Fashion Ecosystem

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in Omaha Fashion Magazine

There was a time when aspiring Omaha models took their cues from a pair of divas with their fingers on the pulse of the high fashion world.

J.L. Brandeis & Sons fashion merchandizer Elaine Jabenis drew on her experience as a stage actress and regular attendee at New York and Paris fashion weeks to produce runway extravaganzas.

But for training there was no one like the late modeling-acting-finishing school director Nancy Bounds, a charismatic figure whose theatrical graduation shows were legendary. Her Nancy Bounds Studios developed countless young men and women for careers in fashion.

When Jabenis retired in the late 1990s and Bounds died in 2007 it left a gap. With the growth of Omaha Fashion Week, the launch of modeling schools by Bounds proteges Alyssa Dilts and Robin Jones Gffford and the formation of Fashion Institute Midwest the metro now has the makings of a fashion infrastructure unseen here before.

Nebraska natives Dilts and Gifford are just two of many success stories who came out of the Bounds Studios. Others include former model Renee Jeffus, models-turned-actresses Jaime King and Rebecca Staab, actress January Jones, photographer Michael Dar, Factor Women Model Management women’s division director Stephen Hall and Ford Models Chicago director of scouting Shannon Lang.

“She gave people like us our start in the industry,” Dilts says of Bounds. “We kind of have this little network.”

Dar, who began as a model and stylist before turning fashion shooter, says Bounds gave him and others the “belief anything’s possible. She taught us to be fearless and to step outside the box. It’s amazing the things she instilled. She was such a pygmalion. Quite a force.”

Hall, who also modeled before becoming a scout, says he utilizes daily things Bounds taught him to prepare models.

“Nancy was one of the originals for this whole concept of what a modeling school is,” says Hall. “I realized when I got out in the industry how together and tight Nancy had her program and how prepared her graduates were when they got through there.

“I think she was one of the first people that really understood there’s so much more to being a model than being beautiful and having correct measurements. She somehow had the foresight to understand the direction the business is going in, which is the girl who has the right personality and knows how to handle herself on camera.”

Alyssa Dilts
Alyssa Dilts

A New Wave

Dilts and Gifford represent a new wave of local talent developers with connections to the past. Each brings years of top-flight national experience in the industry. Their classes are inspired by what they learned from Bounds and other industry pros. Just as Bounds did, both women expose students to many different facets of the fashion biz.

Following a brief modeling stint Dilts, an Omaha North graduate, taught for Bounds. After studying at the International Academy of Design in Chicago she headed the runway division for Elite Model Development there. She later worked as the agency’s director of New Faces and Development, traveling the U.S. scouting and developing new models.

A talented newcomer she developed, Maria Bradley, opened Alexander Wang’s 2011 New York Fashion Week show. Dilts accompanied her to Milan for a Versace show and to Paris for a Balenciaga show.

Dilts recently returned to Omaha to launch her own modeling school and placement agency, Development. Its name reflects her passion.

“That’s what I do, that’s what I’m known for, that’s such an integral part of the modeling industry. That’s why I decided to lend my expertise and follow my heart, which is giving young people opportunities.”

To blossom.

Gifford modeled internationally four years then scouted, developed, styled and booked new models for IMG Models in New York City. She worked at Taxi magazine before serving as director of scouting at Elite in the Big Apple, where she got her professional modeling start. She returned to her hometown of Lincoln in 1991, married, raised a family and worked in the nonprofit and corporate worlds before launching her own company, Springboard for Success, in 2007.

“I love using what I know as a model and agent to find and develop young girls,” she says. “Young models have to get development somewhere. If they go to New York and somebody takes them under their wing that’s great but it can be a very expensive venture.”

Like Bounds before them Gifford and Dilts emphasize personal development over strictly modeling instruction.

“Really what we do in our school is teach life skills so they can be successful in anything they do,” says Gifford. “I use all of my background to teach communication, interviewing, etiquette, presentations, making first impressions. Students learn poise, confidence, how to command a room. We really drill that home first and then we teach the modeling on top of it.”

Giving students a solid foundation for how to carry themselves is more important than ever, say Gifford and Dilts, because few young people are taught such things anymore and rising interest in modeling is making an already competitive field harder than ever to break into.

Robin Jones Gifford
Robin Jones Gifford

Modeling 101

“I think back in the day girls wanted to be Miss America and now they strive to be models,” says Dilts.

She says until recently a young person living somewhere far from the fashion capitals had little access to the industry except through magazines. That’s all changed.

“Now our whole industry is pushed forward through the Internet and reality TV shows like America’s Next Top Model.”

That exposure, she says, gives young people the sense “it could be a possibility for them as well.”

Gifford says shows like that also offer a distorted view of the industry, leading many aspirants to mistakenly believe modeling is easy and is only about having a pretty face and slim body.

“They’re not doing their research They don’t understand there are height and measurement requirements. You have to be fit and healthy. We want girls who know their angles, who can sell clothes, who know how to speak with their face. One look with a smile is not enough.

“You have to have the right mentality. You have to be serious about it, you have to be on time. They don’t realize it’s a job, it’s hard, it’s a business. You’re your own brand when you’re a model and if you don’t understand that and you can’t figure out how to create it, then it’s not going to happen for you.”

Hall says, “There’s definitely a method to it and there’s definitely things a model does need to be prepared for.”

Gifford says a must resource for would-be models is the website models.com. “It’s the industry bible.” She also advises anyone serious about it get busy acting since so much of modeling is role-playing.

Mostly, Gifford hammers home the realities of the modeling industry.

“I tell them the truth. I tell them how hard it is. That even most girls who sign with agencies don’t make it because they just cant take it. If someone’s still willing to go through my school after I tell them all that then they’re there for the right reason.”

She gives students a further dose of reality by taking a group to New York City once or twice a year.

“We visit models’ apartments, we visit agencies, we go behind the scenes at magazines and with designers.”

She took six girls to NYC in July. Last year her group did New York Model Camp, where she says top model Coco Rocha personally taught “the girls posing, how to come alive on camera, how to move their body, how to show tension and anger and anything you’d want.”

She says Rocha impressed upon the girls know they don’t need to do lingerie and nude work to succeed. “She’s one of the top-paid model and she hasn’t. She told them, ‘Make the choice for yourself before you get in those situations.'”

Dilts also stresses the standards necessary to break through are high and the pitfalls many. Having a professional coach who’s lived it is an advantage.

“You have to up your game. Schools like mine that really know what the industry is about can give the girls the upper hand,” says Dilts. “If I represent someone with potential I can get her straight to the person making the decision because I have those contacts. They’re contacts you can’t get walking into an open call.

“My agency is very much focused on the highest caliber of talent because I know what the top agencies are looking for.”

“It’s still all about being an individual and finding your passion,” says Dar, who credits Bounds with teaching him “not to do what everyone else is doing.”

In order to make it, he says, “you have to want it,” adding, “It takes that I-want-to-get-out-of-here drive.”

Gifford and Dilts supply models to Omaha Fashion Week. Dilts conducts “boot camps” for participating models. Half-measures don’t cut it on the unforgiving runway. Every facet of a model’s walk and look must be scrutinized and honed.

“If their skill level is not up to par it’s very noticeable,” says Dilts.

Michael Dar
Michael Dar

Platform, Showcase, Resource

OFW gives fashion the kind of stage it hasn’t had here since the big shows Nancy Bounds and Elaine Jabenis organized.

“They really put on quite a show in Omaha, I was really impressed,” says Dar, who attended the spring shows.

Not only has OFW become a destination event, it’s given designers, models, stylists and photographers a high profile platform to display their wares. It’s new nonprofit arm, Fashion Midwest Institute, is a mentoring-training-development resource to help designers take their work to the next level. Because designers and models are joined at the hip and depend on one another to make fashion lines look fabulous, any edge designers get only helps models raise their performance.

“The mission is to support the fashion ecosystem in the Midwest, especially young designers,” says director Brook Hudson. “We have different program pillars: skills development, resource development, business incubation. It’s a great holistic approach to helping designers no matter where they are in their career.”

Hudson says the Institute is collaborative like the industry it supports.

“We’re looking to leverage and partner with others who are doing things that we can bring to bear to help our designers. In March we did two programs during Omaha Fashion Week for designers in the Institute. One was a pattern grading workshop taught by Isabelle Lott from Pattern Works International.

Brook Hudson

“Another was a creativity workshop in partnership with Development. Jerell Scott of Bravo’s Project Runway All-stars spent time working with designers showing in the spring shows.”

More recently, the Institute partnered with Princess Lasertron to deliver apitch workshop to help designers prepare presentations on their collection proposals for the OFW selection panel.

Dilts and Gifford look forward to working with more models to help best show off designers’ creations. They say as OFW, the Institute and their own own schools continue growing there may be more opportunities for Nebraskans to establish careers in fashion.

“I think we’ll see individuals emerging that may not have had a chance to emerge without this support,” Gifford says.

Dilts agrees, adding she’s impressed by what OFW and the Institute have done already. “They really understand the industry and have a handle on what is needed for our city. They understand we can give back to the community by nurturing and showcasing this talent we have here to further their skills.”

Hall, who’s attending his first Omaha Fashion Week in August, sees great value in “encouraging young talent” here because the industry is full of professionals who come out of small markets like Omaha.

photo
Nancy Bounds, ©photo by Michael Dar

In a real sense, Dilts and Gifford are trying to do for young people what Nancy Bounds did for them. Gifford says Bounds could be a taskmaster but her demanding ways “absolutely” helped prepare her for the rigors of modeling and other fashion jobs.

“There’s a reason why there are so many of us that came out of her school who are over the world working in different capacities, as agents, models, actors, you name it,” says Gifford.

And just as Bounds gave graduating models a runway grand finale that drew scouts from leading agencies around the world (it’s how Jaime King was discovered), Dilts and Gifford do the same.

“If you have the connections with those top agencies they’ll fly in to scout those events and see the talent,” says Dilts.

Bounds had the connections. She also had a flair for staging what Dar calls “spectacular shows” that compare with anything he’s seen. Hall agrees, saying the Bounds productions were matchless.

“Everyone knew her name,” says Dilts, “and any scout or agent of a certain age has fond memories of flying into Omaha and finding great girls, and that’s what I want to bring back.”

She looks forward to having one of her own models discovered.

“I can’t wait until I get a girl or a guy with enough potential placed. They’ll forever be ‘mine.’ I think it will be extremely gratifying.”

 

Playwright Carlos Murillo’s work explores personal mythmaking

July 26, 2012 1 comment

When interviewing an artist there’s always the point where you ask the obvious question, Where do your ideas come from? or What influences does your work draw on?  And, of course, the answers are at once right in front of us, because ideas spring from life, and concealed, because ideas also germinate in the imagination and subconscious.  And since every artist’s life is individual there are as many variations to those inspirational sources as there are artists.  Playwright Carlos Murillo is someone I interviewed many months ago in anticipation of one of his plays being performed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  Our conversation veered into some of the touchstone experiences that help shape who he is and what he writes about.

Playwright Carlos Murillo’s work explores personal mythmaking

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Playwright and DePaul University theater professor Carlos Murillo has established a national reputation with such works as Dark Play or Stories for Boys, which UNO Theatre is staging Feb. 23-26 and March 2-5.

The theater world is small. For example, a University of Nebraska at Omaha grad student met Murillo at a Kennedy Center theater festival in Washington, D.C. Aware Murillo’s Dark Play was slated for production by UNO, the student set the wheels in motion for the playwright’s campus visit in January. At UNO Murillo guest taught a class, observed a rehearsal and attended a reading and a discussion of his work.

“It was a really fun experience,” says Murillo, who spoke to El Perico by phone from Chicago.

He enjoys interacting with students and teachers over his work.

“It’s a really cool thing when a group of people you don’t know are engaging with something you’ve created. Making theater is like solving a very complex problem,” he says, adding he likes contributing to the process of unlocking a play’s mysteries. His participation, he says, is “sort of honoring that people are committing to something that’s meaningful to them and that hopefully will have some impact in their training or in their thinking about the world.”

Catching up to productions of his plays “is sort of like visiting your kid after they graduate from college,” he says. “They’re trucking along doing their own thing and you meet up with them every now and then and check in.”

The concepts or issues his work explores become talking points in the classes he teaches. “It keeps the mind in shape and it serves as a great laboratory of ideas,” he says. While he didn’t set out to be an educator, he’s come to embrace the role.

“I do love it.”

There’s also a more practical side to teaching.

“Making a living as a playwright is next to impossible,” he says, “Most of the writers I know either have teaching gigs or write for TV or do other stuff because it’s very difficult to make a living just off of ones playwriting.”

His path has been both traditional and nonconventional.

Born in the U.S to immigrant parents — his mother’s Puerto Rican and his father Colombian — Murillo mostly grew up in Long Island, NY. As a boy he spent three years in South America, where his father was transferred by his employer, Bank of America. Wherever Murillo lived, he was drawn to creative expression.

“As far as writing’s concerned it was something I was always interested in from the time I was a kid. I was always writing poems and short stories and stuff like that. I also had a real passion for theater early on. I acted in a lot of plays in junior high and high school, and those twin passions kind of merged and I became a playwright.”

During a long theater apprenticeship his family encouraged him and still does.

“My parents are remarkably supportive. I’m grateful for that.”

Murillo attended Syracuse University to study acting but dropped out and traveled for a time before returning to New York to work at various theaters. All the while, he continued writing. He learned under several master practitioners, including acclaimed director Robert Woodruff. “He was a huge influence,” says Murillo.

As the Public Theater’s associate literary manager Murillo came into contact with “a parade of extraordinary artists,” adding, “It’s an amazing institution and it was kind of like the best grad school you can imagine.”

A writers group led him to “two hugely influential teachers” — Eduardo Machado and Maria Irene Fornes.

Murillo went from self-produced plays in small Manhattan venues to being invited to developmental residencies and his work being widely read and produced.

A consistent theme in his work, he says, is “the idea of personal mythmaking — the stories we tell ourselves or tell to other people about ourselves and the relationship of those stories to the actual reality of who we are.” Dark Play examines what happens when a character spins fictions that have real life consequences.

As a playwright Murillo straddles different worlds and must be a quick study in each, skills he’s well practiced in because of the way he grew up. “While my parents spoke Spanish and English at home my cultural references were rock music, TV and all the pop culture things most Americans have,” he says. “I had the experience of living in South America as well. It’s like having one foot in two different identities.”

He writes about Latino identity in oblique and direct ways. Never Whistle While You’re Pissing is autobiographical about what it means to be Latino in America. A fictional playwright, Javier C., is a recurring character in his plays.

 

 

 

Project Improve aims to make best of bad situation with illegal immigrant detainees

July 24, 2012 2 comments

No matter how you feel about the issue of illegal immigration in the U.S. you have to sympathize with parents whose only crime is living here without proper documentation who have the misfortune of being arrested and then detained in jail, all while awaiting deportation, and in the meantime finding themselves separated from family, including children.  We’re not talking about identity theives.  We’re talking about people holding down jobs and raising families and abiding by laws except for that murky no-man’s land called a border they breeched.  For years the nation looked the other way at what was essentially an open border but now it’s intent on closing that border and throwing back over it anyone who’s managed to cross it illegally, even those who’ve made productive lives for themselves and their families in America.  It’s cruel and unusual punishment that only adds to social disruption and incurs extra costs without really solving anything.  It’s purely a power play by the haves against the have-nots.  This is a story about a small program through the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha that offers Spanish-speaking detainees some educational support services during their incarceration and that tries to provide a platform for parents to connect with their children.

 

Project Improve aims to make best of bad situation with illegal immigrant detainees

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

With immigration enforcement a national priority, jails are filled with individuals whose only crime is being in the U.S. illegally.

Out of sight, out of mind behind bars these civil offenders risk being lumped in with the habitually criminalized. Advocates say it’s all too easy to forget many detainees have been law-abiding, gainfully-employed residents. Many are parents. Once arrested and jailed they face separation from loved ones and home.

Being severed from family while the legal process drags on poses challenges the criminal justice and penal system are not necessarily well prepared to address without expert intervention.

With no programs serving its growing population of Spanish-speaking detainees, Douglas County Department of Correction officials asked the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for help in early 2009. OLLAS met with staff and detainees as a first step in creating a detainee-centered program.

Claudia Garcia, a UNO assistant professor of foreign languages, says she and university colleagues attended jail orientation and conducted two focus-groups with detainees in spring 2009 in order to assess concerns and needs.

“The situation of women, many terribly depressed because of being separated from their young children, was especially pressing for some jail authorities, who were sympathetic to these detainees’ situation,” says Garcia.

Beginning in the summer of 2009 OLLAS faculty launched Project Improve as a community service initiative at the Douglas County Correctional Center, 710 South 17th Street. The effort is focused on helping detainees discuss their predicament, connect with family and become empowered through education. The intent is to provide clients a non-punitive advocacy and support outlet.

Faculty engage detainees in writing, reading and discussion activities designed to promote introspection and self-expression. Garcia says on average 16 men and 11 women participate per session.

“Personally, what strikes me the most about the Latino detainees, especially the women, is their strength and good attitude, and also their ability to give each other support,” Garcia says. “I think we provide a space that allows them to reflect, process and articulate their personal journeys.”

OLLAS director Lourdes Gouevia says, “The inmates express their stories through various media and record messages and stories for their children.” UNO assistant professor of education Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni  says participants appreciate the opportunity to respectfully own their own experience: “This is a time for them to have an avenue to be themselves. They’ve told us we treat them with dignity, we treat them like human beings, we don’t look at them like they’re incarcerated.”

The experience has made an impression on the academics.

“It’s been a very intense and enriching learning process,” says Garcia, adding that it’s “one thing is to have an intellectual knowledge” of these issues “but it’s very different to talk, interact and become emotionally affected by the individuals going through these hard times. For me, the big eye-opener is the definition of criminal. Many detainees we work with have violated immigration law, but they are certainly not dangerous criminals. Most are just mothers and fathers who have tried their best to give their families a better life, and have been working without proper documentation.

“Most who come to our sessions are really engaged in a process of self-growth, using this time in jail to re-visit their own lives. They appreciate the opportunity to learn and be better people when they get out. It’s really a very moving experience.”

Brignoni says “it saddens us” that most of the detainees are presumably awaiting deportation. “We get a new group all the time because they don’t stay there.”

After a prolonged break, the project is presuming monthly sessions in December,

Garcia is impressed by DCDC’s embrace of Project Improve.

“It’s been a very welcoming institution. DCDC understands the importance of educational and support programs for their detainee population, and are very proud to have a diversity of volunteers go there and share time and knowledge with the detainees. The officers in charge of educational programs are very helpful and very clear.”

Maria Walinski-Peterson: Omaha South High Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award winner follows her heart

July 24, 2012 2 comments

A lot of negative things are said about the state of American public education but most schools and teachers do a fine job within the parameters they’re given.  If you ever find yourself despairing about the situation give this profile of a master teacher a read and you’ll likely feel a bit better about the caliber of people teaching our kids.  Maria Walinski-Peterson may not be average or typical but she’s certainly not an aberration.  The Omaha South High School social studies teacher is a product of the very system (Omaha Public Schools district) and school she teaches in.  Yes, she’s won some major awards and been recognized as a stellar classroom instructor, but she’s one of many thousands of outstanding teachers fighting the good fight who’ve learned under great teachers before them and are influencing great teachers ahead of them.

 

Maria Walinski-Peterson:

Omaha South High Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award winner follows her heart

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

When Omaha South High Magnet School social studies teacher Maria Walinski-Peterson thinks about her 2011 Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award, she’s reminded of master teachers she had as a student there. Teachers like Sally Fellows and Jim Eisenhardt.

“They were models of teachers who knew what they were talking about, who had some energy, some enthusiasm, and who made me want to pay attention. They had a kind of charisma. I wanted to do a good job for them,” says Maria.

“That’s a pretty tall order to get that breadth and depth. The fact that anybody thinks I have even a small piece of that…” she says, her voice trailing off. “When that call came about the Alice Buffett, I thought, Really? I’m not Sally Fellows yet, I’m not Jim Eisenhardt yet, I’ve only been doing this nine years, this is too soon.

“But I learned from the best, and I knew if I’m going to truly follow this vocation I have to give these kids something they’re not going to necessarily get from somebody else.”

The recognition and the $10,000 that come with the award means raised expectations.

“There are people looking at me like, ‘Really, you got a Buffet? What’s so great about you?” The pressure is enormous. Other people are like, ‘Oh, just relax and enjoy it.’” To which her response is, “Are you freaking kidding me?’ If students and colleagues have said you’re one of the best in your profession — guess what? — I have to be one of the best. I don’t get to slack off. People are watching.”

She may feel added pressure, she says, “because I’m relatively young. You don’t usually get a lifetime achievement award until you’ve put in a lifetime.”

There’s pressure, too, teaching where she once attended school, but she couldn’t see herself working anywhere else.

“I lobbied diligently to be here. After I got my teaching certificate and master’s degree at Drake University, I was sending emails and calling people back here saying, ‘Make sure there’s a spot for me — I need to student teach in this building, so that I can teach in this building.’ This place gave me so much. It’s simply payback. It’s a calling and I just knew this is where I had to be.”

If anything, her loyalty has only deepened. She says she recently declined “a cushy gig” at a suburban school to stay at South. In light of what happened last fall, she can’t imagine ever leaving. Days from being married, her best friend and intended maid of honor, fellow South social studies teacher Stacey Klinger, died when a truck struck her as she crossed the street in front of school.

 Omaha South High School

Maria will never forget how students consoled her. “These kids literally and figuratively put their arms around me and said, ‘We’re here for you. What do you need?’ We bonded in a way you can’t bond in any other way. We have that history together. They have seen me at a level of humanity they don’t see too many teachers in.”

As an Academic Decathlon and African-American History Challenge coach she’s bonded with yet more kids. “I just know we’re always going to be like this,” she says, clasping her hands together. “I love those people and they love me back.”

The daughter of a retired Lutheran-Episcopal-Orthodox Christian priest, Maria was born in upper New York state. She likes saying she was at Woodstock, where her mother Joan was pregnant with her in 1969. At age 11 Maria moved with her family here when her father was assigned the pastorship at St. Martin of Tours Episcopal Church across from South.

She was expected to attend private school, but she preferred the more diverse public school experience afforded by South.

“I wanted to be in the real world,” she says.

This teacher of human geography loves the cultural melting pot there.

South Omaha’s always had working class diversity and it’s always been an immigrant landing strip,” she says, “but now those immigrants are coming from other places than just western and eastern Europe. They’re coming from the Sudan. We’ve got a lot of Karen kids from Burma. We’ve obviously got a lot of Central and South American kids.

“South High is the most ethnically diverse high school in Nebraska. In any given class period I’ve got that rainbow looking right back at me. We have a microcosm of the planet right here.”

For her, geography is more than a subject. “It’s the world,” she says.“Geography is life.”

As teachers, she says she and her colleagues are “in the business of building people.” The art and science of reaching today’s kids with their shorter attention spans and passive learning habits can be frustrating.

“There are many days when I’m like, ‘I’m not doing this, this is hard, I’m going to quit,’ and my kids all just laugh and go, ‘You’re a lifer.’ Even my husband Glenn says, ‘If you told even one of those kids you’re going to give up teaching, the look on their face would change your mind like that,” she says, snapping her fingers.

She knows he’s right. Besides, she loves “the creativity” of lesson planning. Then too, she says, “I’m really not good for anything else. This is all I know.. so I guess I better stick it out.”

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