NON-FICTION: IT’S NOT ALWAYS A STORY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I was taught how to write at an early age. In grammar school, I was very anxious and would get paralyzed when I had to write anything. My mom sat me down and showed me how to structure any piece of writing. The classic, “Say what you’re going to say, say it and then say what you said.” In other words, introduction, development, and conclusion.

Mom started me out by helping me write outlines for my writing. Once I had the basic ideas organized, I could expand on them on my own, with less anxiety. Mom would then edit my writing with me. That’s how I learned about style and sentence structure. Writing began to come easily to me.

By the time I was fifteen, I was helping Mom edit articles and books that my father, Abram Kardiner, was writing for psychiatric and anthropological publications. My dad was never a clear and concise writer. At this point, he was in his mid-seventies and was even less focused and coherent than before.

Me at about 16

Dad tended to write in a confusing stream of consciousness. Ideas just tumbled out in random order. He often buried the lead sentences explaining his premise, deep in the fourth or fifth paragraphs. He often went off on tangents for pages and pages, losing the thread of his thesis along the way. He had brilliant and innovative ideas. But you had to hunt for them and they weren’t always presented in the best way.

Mom and I would take his material and break it down into a detailed and sequential outline for him. Dad resisted us at every turn. He somehow felt that we were trying to get him to ‘write down’ to a more mass audience when he was aiming his writing at high-level academics in his fields. We argued that all writing has to be comprehensible, regardless of the audience. He would grudgingly go along with us.

Mom and Dad during Dad’s prime writing years

We would go over the outline with him meticulously. He would take it and go off to do a rewrite. He would stick to the outline for a few paragraphs if we were lucky. But then he would end up off on another rambling polemic. We never succeeded in improving his writing and he didn’t publish much after this point.

Many years later, I had another opportunity to help someone hone their writing skills. This time with better results. My first husband, Larry, was a brilliant litigation attorney. Part of his job was producing coherent and above all else, persuasive written arguments on behalf of his clients.

Larry had the same problems organizing his thoughts as my dad had. His arguments meandered, got muddled and lost emphasis and clarity. He was all over the place. This became a serious issue at work. It took him forever to get his writing done and he was never satisfied with the end product.

Larry as a young associate at a NY law firm

One day I was home sick from my own legal job. Larry was struggling with a pro bono criminal brief and was frustrated. I told him to leave his draft with me for the day so I could work on it. This was before computers. I spent the day literally cutting and pasting his brief into a whole new document. I added a few connective sentences here and there, but all the necessary material was already there.

Larry was very impressed with the document that I came up with for him. He was surprised to see how I had created a totally different result simply by rearranging and consolidating his material. A light bulb went off in his head. Unlike my father, he ‘got it’.

Larry and me in his early years practicing law

His writing improved. He was also smart enough to study the writing of two very good legal writers in his law firm. One of them had been a speechwriter for Bobby Kennedy in the 1960’s. The two men had very different styles and Larry forged his own style by adapting what he liked from both men.

Adam Walinsky – former RFK speechwriter and partner at Larry’s law firm

Larry became an excellent writer. One of the best in his law firm. In one major brief he wrote, he started each section with a relevant quote from Shakespeare. Brilliant! The judge in the case, who was a Harvard Law School graduate, was so blown away, he wrote Larry a letter. He told Larry his brief was the best the judge had ever read!

Quite a compliment for Larry, and obliquely for me as his original writing tutor.

So I succeeded in teaching one person how to be a good writer. Or I at least set him on the path to becoming one. I was very proud of Larry and of my accomplishment. It meant a lot to me because of my struggles with my dad’s writing. I guess one out of two isn’t a bad record.

ROAD TRIP! – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Tom and I are members of an audio theater company, VoiceScapes Audio Theater. We write most of the scripts for our live and recorded performances. We usually do our live performances in our area – within an hour or so from New York City, where most of the group members live (Tom and I live in CT).

Voicescapes performing live

But this weekend we did something different and special. A road trip! Or more accurately, an air trip. Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio, invited us to perform a ninety-minute show for them in a beautiful theater that they rented for us.

They would pay all the travel expenses for all eight members of our group. On top of that, they would pay us a fee that was more than we’d ever been paid before. So accepting this gig was a no-brainer!

Members of the group at the airport

The planning of the trip turned out to be mind-boggling. Sande, our President, took care of the logistics. She said that it took 62 emails back and forth between our members, the university and the theater, just to come up with a date for the show! Kudos to Sande for her perseverance and stamina!

We’ve all been very excited about this trip. A week before we left, we had a rehearsal at our home studio of the pieces we would be performing. We felt good about our show. Now we just had to get to Ohio.

Hanging out at the airport

We met at our gate at La Guardia airport for our 5:15 flight on Friday, November 2, 2018. There was lots of schmoozing and chatting before we boarded the plane. The flight itself was quite choppy but otherwise uneventful.

Sunset from the plane

We landed, rented our two vehicles, piled in and headed to the hotel. By the time we met for dinner, it was late. But we were stoked that we had started our thespian adventure. So dinner at the hotel restaurant was loud and lots of fun. And also quite good. I had beef bone stock Vietnamese Pho soup for the first time and loved it. We shared a Banana Custard Pie with a pistachio nut crust for dessert and it was truly delicious. It was close to midnight when we got back to our rooms.

Tom and me (on the right) with others at dinner

We were supposed to get into the theater at 9:00 AM on Saturday so we would have all day to set up and rehearse. At the last minute, there was a scheduling problem and we couldn’t get into the theater until noon.

After that, it took three hours for the technical set-up. That’s because our show involves lots of microphones, wires, sound mixers, computers as well as live and recorded sound effects.

We usually have to do this set-up ourselves, meaning Tom has to do most of it on his own. But in Youngstown, Tom had a union crew of three professionals to help him. Tom was in pig heaven! The guys were nice, accommodating — extremely competent and knowledgeable.

Empty Stage
Tom with part of his crew

I particularly enjoyed watching the sound effects guy, Tony (a friend who drove six hours from Indiana to perform with us) set up his live sound effects table. He is awesome! One of our scripts calls for a gun to cock. So Tony brought several guns to choose from because they all make different sounds.

Tony doing live gun sound effects

We didn’t start to rehearse till 3:30 and kept going until 7:30. We still had time to repeat pieces or parts of pieces that required extra work or choreography.

The choreography comes in when actors have to switch mikes, handoff telephones, or cross behind another actor. We also realized that we had never rehearsed taking bows – which requires coordination and timing.

rehearsal

Dinner Saturday night was at a recommended Barbecue place that looked like a real dive. The front room had two pool tables and old arcade video games.

The back room had a tacky bar, wood tables, and generic chairs. But the barbecue pit master is an award-winner from Austin, Texas. The food, which you bought by the pound, was terrific. So was the beer. I usually don’t like beer, but I ordered my own beer and drank most of it!

Saturday Barbeque dinner

Sunday, the day of the show, we met for breakfast at the hotel and headed over to the theater at noon, the earliest we were allowed in. The performance was at 2:00 so we didn’t have much time. All we could do was a quick run through of the beginnings and ends of the pieces and the transitions to the next piece.

Sunday run through

We had to put carpets down on the stage to minimize feedback. One of the stagehands got out a vacuum cleaner and actually vacuumed the oriental carpet for us. Now that’s service!

Stagehand vacuuming our carpets!

The cast went back to the Green Room (the waiting area for actors backstage) to wait for their cue to go on stage.

We got a wonderful introduction from the Dean of the College of Creative Arts and Communications. And it was SHOWTIME!

We sailed through the show with our usual enthusiasm, skill, and professionalism. The audience laughed at all the right places and seemed to love us. The applause was prolonged and gratifying.

After the show, we had time for a quick toast before we had to head to the airport for our flight home.

Toasting ourselves after the show

Overall, it was a smooth and successful weekend. It was good to spread our wings professionally. We traveled together to a gig for the first time and we performed a ninety minute show for the first time in a while (our shows have generally been one hour). It was also a unique opportunity to hang out and socialize as a group over a two day period. And everyone had lots of fun.

So, here’s to the next Voicescapes road trip!

LET THE CHILDREN PLAY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

The title of an article I read in the Washington Post on September 16, 2018, by Katherine Marsh, sets out its primary argument pretty clearly. “ We’ve so over-scheduled our kids that doctors are now prescribing playtime.” The article is subtitled “We idiotically insist that all of their activities be purposeful and structured.”

micromanaging parent

To give some perspective, an American who lived in Brussels for three years, contrasts her child’s school experience in Belgium and America. In the Brussels school, the kids had 50 minutes of recess every day plus a 20-minute mid-morning break. This time was unstructured, free play with minimal teacher supervision. In the Washington, D.C. school, the kids had just 20 minutes of recess. And some American schools only provide fifteen minutes.

By the time the kids get their coats on and get outside, there is almost no time left for relaxed, creative play.

The American Academy of Pediatricians seem so concerned about over structured kids, they released a report emphasizing the developmental importance of free, unsupervised play for kids. It stresses that growth and discovery are more likely to occur in kids when they are not being micro-managed.

The Academy went so far as to suggest that doctors write ‘prescriptions’ for playtime when they see young children during regular checkups.

American parents seem to think that every moment of a child’s life needs to be purposeful and educational. The reason for this may be that parents feel very competitive about their children because of anxiety over their offspring’s economic prospects when they grow up. American parents will apparently brag about their kindergarten child’s reading prowess but be unconcerned that the same child has no clue how to play with other kids, or by herself.

Of course, everyone wants their children to grow up to be motivated, purposeful, successful adults. But parents seem to have lost sight of the fact that to reach that goal, children need to play and imagine and invent activities on their own. That in itself helps kids grow and develop the skills and traits we want them to have. Not everything a child does has to directly lead to future skills or benefits.

“True play is freedom from purpose,” says Katherine Marsh. And this downtime is an important part of every child’s cognitive, social and emotional development.

NEWS AS ENTERTAINMENT – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Something tragic happened to America’s news media in the early 1980’s. Before then, the news divisions of the major television networks were not expected to make money. They were considered to be a public service designed to give people the information they needed to be well-informed voters and intelligent citizens. At some point in the 1980’s, the news was suddenly expected to make a profit, like the other divisions.

News budgets got cut, investigative journalism, which takes time and personnel, went out the window. The emphasis shifted to what “sells” the news and gets good ratings.

The most trusted man in America during his career

The phrase “infotainment” got coined and the percentage of accurately informed citizens plummeted. The internet became a big source of news for many people, but the standard remained – give people what they think they want, not what they should know to make well-reasoned civic decisions.

Our news reporting tends to be ethnocentric. All forms of American news media report every word the president utters and every tweet he writes. Yet there is very little coverage, if any, of things going on in other countries which can often affect world politics and economics. This is what sells and doesn’t sell in U.S news.

Our news media also tend to focus on violence and sensationalism here at home, again, because this is what sells. Violent crimes in the U.S. are covered ad infinite – murders, assaults, rapes, police shootings, mass shootings, etc. Many of these are valid news stories, but so are the massacres, crimes against women and government sanctioned murders that happen daily elsewhere in the world and get little coverage.

Sports, celebrity and local government scandals are also wildly popular and omnipresent news stories. But I wish they were covered less and more was reported about the massive corruption in our system that allows Big Pharma or Big Food, insurance or oil lobbies, for example, to determine what drugs, food, insurance, oil, etc. we get and at what prices. These stories get some play but not with the frequency, enthusiasm and decibel level of the latest psychopathic murderer or morally questionable politician or media star.

No one has the time today to read or watch everything out there purporting to be news and decide for ourselves what we need to know to understand what is going on in our country and in the world. I wish we could go back to the days when we trusted an impartial media to sift through the world news and honestly decide for us what was important to know.

TRAVEL ANXIETY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I’m getting ready to leave on a weekend trip. I am not a relaxed traveler. I have never been able to throw a few things into a bag at the last minute and head for the door. I’m more of a planner. And a worrier. Starting a week before I leave.

In my defense, I have to make sure that all the clothes my husband and I want to take are clean. I also travel with a mini medicine chest and I have to make sure nothing in there has expired. I haven’t traveled in a long time, so this time, almost everything had expired which required a trip to the pharmacy.

See why I have to plan ahead? Way ahead?

Members of our group performing

This trip is not just an ordinary pleasure trip. This trip requires another level of planning and obsessing. We are traveling with our audio theater group (Voicescapesaudiotheater.com) to perform a 90-minute show on Sunday at Youngstown University in Youngstown, Ohio.

Eight of us are traveling together so the trip will also be a fun social experience for all of us. It’s the first time we’re traveling a long distance to the venue. It will also be the largest audience we’ve ever had. It’s a big deal for us!

Because we are going to perform, my usually laid back, easy going husband is joining me in my packing panic. He has to bring all kinds of equipment for our performance. So he’s packing a whole suitcase full of wires and chargers and connectors, two computers, two telephone handsets for sound effects as well as his own scripts and headphones.

Some of Tom’s equipment

In addition, I had to fit six carpet samples squares and two square pieces of foam into my suitcase. Why? The actors need these to buffer the sound on their music stands when they turn the pages on their scripts. Amazingly, I had just enough room.

Carpet samples in my suitcase

Now we’ve got everything packed except for a few last minute items. We go online to check in and get our boarding passes. Tom gets his boarding pass but for some reason, I can’t get one. The computer says I have to get my boarding pass in person at the airport. That’s annoying. We call Delta and the representative on the phone can’t figure it out either. He gets a message that says that I have to check in tomorrow due to government regulations! No idea what that means. Very strange. I hope this won’t be a hassle at check-in. Another thing to worry about!

Traffic is terrible going from our house in Connecticut to La Guardia airport in Long Island, New York. Especially on a Friday. So we’re leaving extra early so we don’t have to bite our nails if we hit traffic en route. At least that’s the plan. Another way to try to minimize anxiety.

Once we get to the airport on time, I get my boarding pass without incident and we check in our bag, then I can relax and have fun. I can start to enjoy my friends. And look for a Cinnabon or an Aunt Annie’s Pretzels, my guilty treats when I fly!

So, here’s hoping for a routine flight, an eventful, exciting trip, and a successful performance!

THE ” WAR OF THE WORLDS ” MYTH – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I went to a presentation celebrating the 80th anniversary of Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”. The reason this particular broadcast has lived on in history and is still remembered and talked about today is really quite interesting.

Orson Welles broadcasting “The War of the Worlds”

The radio play starts with a typical program playing music from a live band. This fictional program is then interrupted by a realistic sounding “newscaster” reporting an increasingly destructive invasion by Martians. The Martians wipe out New Jersey and proceed to annihilate Manhattan. They are reported to be landing all over the east coast of the United States. The U.S. army is reported to be vanquished and the audience is told that we have no defenses left.

Rehearsal of War of the Worlds

Newspapers the next day, including the New York Times, headlined a nationwide panic that made this incident the most notorious event in broadcast history. The unprecedented mass hysteria was talked about in newspapers, books, articles and radio and TV shows for the past 80 years.

The day after the broadcast

There were reports of thousands of panicked calls to police and radio stations across the country. There were stories of traffic accidents, near riots and hordes of panicked people in the streets and on the roads, fleeing the Martian invasion. There were even reports of suicides and deaths due to the hysteria caused by the broadcast. It was claimed that the stories continued in the newspapers for two weeks, with over 12,500 articles about the panic.

The day after the broadcast

Today, however, this version of history has now been debunked and fallen out of favor. The current belief is that whatever panic occurred, it was small and not widespread. Most listeners understood this was a dramatization. While some may have been scared by the story, few panicked. Evidence shows that at the time of the event, newspaper reports of the story actually stopped after a day or two, not weeks. The story was not the long-lasting, national headline grabber we believed it to be.

In addition, far fewer people heard the original broadcast than most people believed. This fact makes the magnitude of the reported panic much more implausible. A rating service the night of the broadcast reported only 2% of listeners were even tuned in to The “War of the Worlds.” This was true, in part because Welles was scheduled opposite one of the most popular shows on the air – Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

In addition, several important CBS affiliates, including in Boston, didn’t even air Welles’ show. Instead, they aired local commercial programming, which further reduced Welles’ national audience.

History does show, however, that the story grew in magnitude and in detail as time went on. So the 1940 claim that one million people heard the broadcast is grossly exaggerated.

Just as the size of Welles’ audience has been inflated, so have the reports of mass hysteria. There is no documentation of any deaths or even hospital visits, as claimed, due to the shock of the broadcast. In reality, there were almost no contemporaneous news accounts of mobs in the streets or highways jammed with fleeing people. In fact, people later reported walking through the streets of major cities at the time of the broadcast and finding them as empty as usual at that time of night.

There is another piece of evidence used to counter the mass panic scenario. If the terror and chaos had been as bad and as widespread as reported, CBS and Welles would have been severely reprimanded or even punished. But no sanctions were levied and no official rulings or regulations were promulgated by the FCC.

Welles facing the press the day after the broadcast

So why was the mass panic story started and why did it survive for so long?

One credible theory is that newspapers were to blame for the origins of the story. Radio was still a relatively new medium in 1938 – only 18 years old. But already radio was taking advertising dollars and audiences away from the newspaper industry. So the newspapers seized upon this opportunity to trash the radio as an unreliable source of news. A newspaper trade journal at the time wrote: “The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which had yet to prove …that it is competent to perform the news job.”

You can’t trust the radio! Fake news!

People are now debating why this myth has persisted for so long. One answer is a man named Hadley Cantril. He wrote a scholarly book in 1940 that gave academic credence to the panic. He used numbers and statistics that made his story seem plausible, but which have subsequently come into question.

He had no hard facts to back up any of his assertions. And he is the only legitimate academic source that claims there was a sizeable panic. Yet his writing has kept this version of the story in textbooks, as it still is today.

There is a more philosophical explanation of the persistence of the mass hysteria myth. In 2000, Northwestern’s Jeffrey Sconce wrote an article called, “Haunted Media”. In it, he suggests that the “War of the Worlds” myth captures our unease with mass media and the internet’s power over us. We all fear, on some level, the media and the internet “…invading and colonizing our consciousness.” The myth is “…a cautionary tale about the power of the media.”

Jeffrey Sconce

Radio opened up a new means of mass communication and shared experiences. Now the internet is doing the same thing. Sconce states that “…today the internet provides us with both the promise of a dynamic communicative future and dystopian fears of a new form of mind control; lost privacy; and attacks from scary, mysterious forces.”

This is particularly true with today’s epidemic of fake news, foreign intervention, and manipulation of the internet and domestic political dirty tricks. We deal with political misinformation being spread to millions of people every day. A national panic may not have occurred because of a radio broadcast in 1938, but it is more likely to occur today because of the abuse of the internet.

KISMET OR KARMA? – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My husband, Tom and I are part of an audio theater group called “Voicescapes Audio Theater.” This is our main hobby and our passion.

Tom and I write original short scripts (eight to twenty-five minutes) for our group, both comedies, and dramas. Tom also directs, edits, and handles all the technical aspects of our audio productions, such as sound effects, microphones, sound equipment, recording, etc. Tom is also now doing online marketing for us on Facebook and Instagram. He has created and manages our website, https://www.voicescapesaudiotheater.com.

You can go to our website and listen to all of our pieces in the podcast section. You can also watch a video of an eight-minute piece, “Kidnapping 101” to get a sense of what it’s like to watch us perform live. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EckvRFlDOFs

Tom acting in “Kidnapping 101”

As I mentioned above, we also do live performances. This is not a simple operation. We need to pack tons of audio equipment into our SUV. We have to use a ramp to get the heaviest, bulkiest piece into the car. Then we have to unload everything and hook it up at the venue. The set-up takes from two to three hours. After our one to one and a half hour performance, we have to break everything down and reload the car. Then we get to unload again when we get home. It’s quite an undertaking. A true labor of love.

Tom loading our largest piece of equipment into the car

Our shows are a compilation of our short pieces, usually with a mix of comedies and dramas. We get a great response whenever we perform. People love our shows and praise our writing, acting, and overall productions. Our shows are nothing like the overdone, dated radio dramas from the old days of radio. They are more like sophisticated, clever, modern short plays.

We haven’t been able to reach large audiences yet. One problem is that people don’t really understand what audio theater is. It’s really just a form of theater – with actors on a stage performing a dramatic piece. The actors are just standing behind music stands, reading from their scripts as they act. They are accompanied by sound effects and music, which make it a full, dramatic performance.

Three actors performing. The guy in the back is doing sound effects

Our other problem is that we don’t have the money to do adequate marketing, in general, or for individual performances. So, among other venues, we have been performing at libraries in Westchester, NY for two reasons. First, they do their own marketing and get their own audiences (usually 20-40 people). Secondly, they pay us! Not much but it more than covers our costs.

Sande in character

So we performed at a beautiful library in Mt. Kisco, NY a few weeks ago. One of our group members, Sande, invited eight friends to our performance. They arrived and we chatted with them while we waited for the rest of the audience from the library. Five minutes before the show. No one. Five minutes after we were scheduled to perform. No one. There are still only Sande’s eight friends in the audience.

Part of our Mt. Kisco performance

The library person who booked us apologized and admitted that they have trouble getting people to show up to any of their events. Now she tells us! At least their check cleared!

We went ahead with the performance anyway. The show must go on! It was demoralizing to have literally no one from the library or the town show up. But we gave it our all. It turns out that those eight people were an awesome, enthusiastic audience! In one piece, three women were laughing so hard they were crying. That is very gratifying to a performer! So it turned out to be a positive experience for everyone.

Another group of actors performing at Mt/ Kisco

Skip ahead a week. One of the women who was laughing uproariously was so impressed with us she told her friend about us. Her friend works at a New York Community Arts Council. That group has two theaters and has regular shows that draw large audiences.

They were excited to hear about us and immediately booked us for a show for next year in their 60 seat theater. They said they expected to fill the theater with no trouble. In addition, we’re getting paid more than twice what we get from the libraries pay us!

Sande and Tom acting up a storm!

So maybe we were meant to be in Mt. Kisco, despite the lack of audience. Our private show for Sande’s friends produced a wonderful and totally unforeseen result. A big positive for our group rose from the ashes of a less than successful show.

Kismet or Karma? Either way, we’ll take it!