Buying at auction. Just did it: some tips!

By Caitlin Kelly

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I’ve been going to auctions for decades, mostly small regional ones in Nova Scotia, England, New Hampshire and Ontario. I’ve scored some great/lucky deals, both in the room and bidding by phone, buying (gulp!) almost sight unseen, beyond a small thumbnail image on a website.

I’ve even bid in Swedish (!) on a visit to Stockholm and came home with a large antique tray.

On holiday this past summer in Berlin, I stumbled upon an auction house there, Grisebach, and now get their catalogue as well.

My best auction buy ever is a large teal-stained armoire,  possibly Quebec in origin and possibly 18th century — as evidenced by its form, its hardware and its construction, (all of which I’ve studied so I had some idea what I was buying!) I bought it over the phone from a New Hampshire auctioneer I know and trust; even with delivery charges to New York, it cost less than new junk made in China.

This week I went into Manhattan to Swann Galleries, a 66-year-old auction house on East 25th. St., hoping to acquire a print from 1925 by Raoul Dufy or a lithograph from the same year by Maurice Vlaminck.

We’ve sold photos at Swann, so I get their newsletter with upcoming sales and carefully examined everything on-line for this one. So many gorgeous things!

This sale was of 19th and 20th-century prints, including drawings, lithos, etchings, engraving, monoprints, by everyone from Picasso to Thomas Hart Benton to Diego Rivera, whose pencil portrait was something I so wished was in our budget. The estimate was $20,000 to $30,000 — and the price rose quickly from $14,000 to the hammer (final) price of $32,000.

(It’s called the hammer price because, like a courtroom judge, the auctioneer knocks with a small piece of wood on his podium to audibly finish the bidding and announce the piece is sold.)

If you’ve never attended or bid at auction, it can seem terrifying and mysterious, but is neither.

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My paddle and the catalogue; (the cover painting, a watercolor by Feininger, sold for $38,000)

 

You really do have to do some homework, though, to know what it is you hope to buy and whether it’s a limited edition, its rarity, in what condition, and who owned it before, known as  provenance. That can add a huge boost to the perceived value of an item, for example, a Cartier watch that belonged to Jackie Onassis, estimated at Christie’s for $129,000 sold for $379,500.

The auction preview — all of this free — allows everyone to carefully examine and note the condition of the item(s) you might want to bid on; if furniture, it’s quite normal to take a small flashlight or blacklight, (which can show evidence of repair), even a threaded needle to see if “wormholes” are fake.

If you’re looking at furniture, you also need to know that a  “marriage” means someone has added new material to an older piece, reducing its value, even if it looks great.

At Swann, I saw immediately that both prints I liked had some acidic damage to the surrounding paper, something I wouldn’t have known by bidding online and I learned that a conservator could clean it and what that might cost.

You have to set a budget, as there’s almost always a buyer’s premium, in Swann’s case an additional 25 percent, (plus New York City tax) so the final cost was just over 33 percent more than the hammer price.

Several others might be bidding against you, driving up the price very quickly. Decisiveness is key!

You register and are given a paddle, (a sign with a number), to signal your bid. Each time someone bids the price rises, by increments each time of $100, $1,000, $2,000 or more. (At smaller sales, those can be much smaller.)

Others might also be bidding against you on-line, by a left bid, in the room and by telephone, and the auctioneer has to stay on top of all of it; at Swann, there were four people handling phone bids, one handling on-line bids and one with orders, bids left on paper.

Every item also has a pre-sale estimate — i.e. what they think it might sell for, at the lowest price, but it can go for less, (usually not less than half of that) or for much, much more. It just depends how badly someone wants it.

As the final bids came in, the Swann auctioneer gently said: “Fair warning…Are we all through?” When someone won a piece who was in the room, he said: “Thank you. Congratulations.”

After I won both images (!), he smiled and said “You’re cleaning up today!”

The Swann saleroom was empty most of the time I was there except for a few dealers, with all the action happening on-line and by phone. There were several dogfights and one piece, (by Picasso), started at $60,000 and quickly soared to the hammer price of $100,000.

Matisse works went for $8,000, $13,000 and $12,000 — but one also went for only $550. A work by Paul Klee began at $19,000 and sold for $24,000.

Not every auction is this pricey! At smaller regional auctions, I’ve carried home armloads of loot for $20 to $50.

Who attends, and bids at auction? Collectors, dealers, interior designers shopping for clients.

Sometimes ordinary people like me.

Have you attended or bid at auction?

Did you enjoy it or buy anything?

 

A morning filled with orchids

By Caitlin Kelly

Are you as mad for flowers as I am?

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My friend Pam is crazy for orchids, so we made our first-ever journey this week — about a 20-minute drive south of our town — to the New York Botanical Garden, a legendary destination we had never seen.

The show, which filled room after room of the enormous conservatory, was spectacular, complemented by hanging lanterns and tinkling exotic music.

It ends April 9.

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I’ve been fortunate enough to see huge baskets of orchids when I visited Thailand, but typically have only admired them in nurseries and flower shops.

This was an astonishing array — and this year’s show, their 15th focused on orchids, was all about Thailand, which has 1,200 species of orchids.

The displays included several small altars, enormous topiary elephants and a temple.

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An art adventure: NYC to Philadelphia

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s not very far from one city to the other — about 1.5 hours by train.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, its broad steps familiar to anyone who’s seen the film Rocky, is a lovely place with interesting shows, so I took the bold and costly step of traveling from our home in New York to see a show there, paintings from Mexico 1910 to 1950.

It meant taking a train into New York from our suburban home, changing train stations, then another train to Philadelphia, then a brief cab ride to the museum.

But the train ride there proved, as it often does, to be the highlight of the day.

Three African American women got on at one of the New Jersey stops and one sat beside me, swathed in a leopard print cape, and wearing leopard print gloves. She wore a simple black wool hat and beneath it a sheer black scarf printed with images of Jesus.

I’m not sure how we started talking, but we were soon trading stories and recipes for all our favorite foods. She was raised on a North Carolina farm. She bore nine children; her first-born, a daughter, and her mother, were burned to death in a house fire.

One of her grown daughters, a pastor, sat behind us, wearing a large necklace in rhinestones that spelled out the word Queen.

This, to me, is one of the joys of travel — to break my daily bubble and speak with people I’d never meet any other way.

We’re not wealthy, so we don’t fly first class or take costly cruises or stay in luxury hotels, certain to only meet people at a similar income level. That means, de facto, meeting a broad cross-section range of fellow travelers.

My seat-mate was 89, and the best company I’d had in weeks. When I got up to leave, we hugged goodbye.

The museum show was impressive, and exhaustive.

It took me 2.5 hours to see it all, although I’m an outlier now at museums because I actually look at things. It’s become normal — how depressing! — to quickly snap a cellphone photo of the art and/or its wall text and simply move on — without looking at the art itself.

I lived in Cuernavaca when I was 14, and have been to Mexico many times, a country I love and miss. It’s also the birthplace of my husband’s grandfather. So I was very interested to see the art, which included some famous and familiar images by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, including many lesser-known works.

I enjoyed lunch in the museum restaurant, now closed for 15 months for reservations.

On Friday nights, the museum offers live music and serves food and wine on its enormous central staircase. It creates a great welcoming atmosphere, and the stairs filled up quickly with people of all ages.

I needed to call Jose, (of course I’d left my phone back in New York), and a woman lent me hers and we fell into a long conversation; she was a Phd student from Belgrade.

I sat for a while in the Philadelphia train station before heading back to New York. It’s a classic — very high ceilings, tall white glass Deco-style hanging lamps, long polished wooden benches.

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A statue at one end, an angel holding a male body with torn trousers, is a WWII memorial, one of the most powerful and moving I’ve ever seen.

I finally arrived home around midnight, having traveled further in one day than I had in six long months — my head and heart newly filled with ideas and memories, refreshed and recharged.

Charlotte Bronte’s dress!

By Caitlin Kelly

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She was tiny: 4 foot, nine inches, with (when corseted) an 18.5 inch waist.

The dress, white with small blue flowers and a brown velvet collar, stood in a display case with her shoes.

Few items I’ve ever seen in a museum struck me so powerfully as seeing a dress worn by a woman, a fellow author, and a woman who broke every convention of her era — the author of the novel Jane Eyre — and who died at 39 after only nine months of marriage.

The exhibition — which includes her marriage certificate, will and many letters, is on at the Morgan Library, on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, until January 2. If you have a chance, go!

The show fills one room, the walls painted a deep turquoise, with some of her quotations painted on it. It’s small, intimate, deeply personal. Like the best shows of their kind, you come away deeply moved by the artifacts and the life story they tell.

Her determination, in the face of overwhelming odds, resonates with any woman anywhere who feels compelled to write — and to be published — to find a receptive audience for her ideas, no matter how chilly the prospects.

Charlotte and her sisters and brother published their poems and stories under pseudonyms, as no woman of the time could be believed as a legitimate author.

There are tiny, tiny books, the writing illegibly small, she produced as a teenager; the museum, thoughtfully, has magnifying glasses available so you can read them.

(I went to the show with a friend, a fellow woman writer and author. We marveled, gratefully, at the enduring physicality of these precious items, the spidery handwriting, the delicate folds of paper. What, if anything, of the 21st century will survive — a pile of pixels? A stack of printed-out tweets and emails?)

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Her writing desk is modest; she was a clergyman’s daughter living in Yorkshire, not a wealthy woman, not someone with access and power and acres of self-esteem.

Many editions of her work carry a copy of her pastel portrait; shown here for the first time in North America. Also a first, a portrait of Charlotte and her siblings, rough and crude, deeply crackled and bent from being folded and stored for many years before being re-discovered.

Perhaps my favorite item of all is the letter sent from her friend living in New Zealand, exclaiming with delight that Bronte has actually produced a book.

Every writer, everywhere, needs a loving, encouraging friend to cheer loudly and ferociously, when they finally achieve their dream.

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Friday night, West 13th St., New York

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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You know how you sometimes, spontaneously, have a perfect evening?

Last night was one of them.

We ate at a new-to-us restaurant on West 13th. Gradisca, that sits in the basement of a historic brownstone.

The 16-year-old restaurant, named for a character in Fellini’s film Amarcord, has deep red walls, dark wooden tables and the kind of atmosphere that signals you’re going to have a good time — attentive and professional staff, delicious food, reasonable (for Manhattan) prices, funky posters and filament bulbs on the walls.

The kind of place they let you have a taste of your wine and still (reasonable for this city) charged $11 a glass for it; ($15-20/glass is fairly standard now.)

I had vitello tonnato, an item still hard to find in many Italian restaurants, then tiny, perfect tortellini — handmade by a woman standing at a table near the front door, her worktable fronted by a black velvet rope. The tortellini were the size of a fingernail. Amazing!

Outside the restaurant, grips and make-up people and technicians ran up and down the stairs of the brownstone next door — filming an episode of “Younger” a television show (how fitting!) about a 40 year old woman trying to pass as 26 to get and keep a magazine job.

It was so utterly New York!

On many streets here, especially the gorgeous older ones in the West Village which are lined with elegant old houses, tree-shaded and cobblestoned, you’ll very often see the enormous white trucks (grrrr, no free street parking!) for the stars, and director and make-up and wardrobe, lining entire blocks while a film,  TV show or commercial is being made. If you’re nice, maybe you can snag a cookie from the “craft table”, the tented area where the crew finds food and drinks during hours of shooting.

It was a very humid 90-degree evening last night, so it must have been exhausting to work for long hours.

We walked a block east to the Tenri Cultural Institute — 43A — with a doggie day care and spa next door and another Italian restaurant, completely blocked from view by one of the enormous white trailers, in front of it.

I’ve lived in New York since 1989 and keep finding new-to-me things to enjoy.

The Institute, an astonishingly cool, modern white space with 20-foot+ ceilings you’d never suspect was in there, was hosting a concert of contemporary shamisen, shakuhachi and flute music, played by a 2012 MacArthur genius grant-winner, Claire Chase.

It was astounding. The room held about 75 people, an intriguing mix of Asian and Caucasian, an age range from 20s to 60s. Everyone was artistically stylish, many sporting wrinkled cotton mufflers (worn by men and woman alike; mine was silk), lots of little black dresses and a great pair of platform lace-ups on the 60-something-year-old woman sitting in front of me.

The shamisen player was a young man visiting New York on a fellowship, heading back to Japan 2 days later. I’m no expert in the instrument, but he played with terrific attack and speed. The three-stringed instrument sounds mostly, to Western ears, like a banjo, but also adds percussion when the soundbox is hit with a large wooden pick.

My favorite piece was The Universal Flute, written in 1946, by Henry Cowell, an American composer who died in 1965.

I had never heard of him and his biography is extraordinary; the piece is a duet between shakuhachi, a Japanese wooden flute, and a traditional metal flute, the one we know from orchestras worldwide.

As we listened, I kept thinking about Pearl Harbor — 1941 — and how that attack, and the resulting attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, wondered how it might have affected his composition.

The evening was everything I love, at its best, about multi-cultural New York: a great meal, an intriguing and affordable ($20 tickets) concert; discovering a wholly new set of experiences with Jose, my husband; a night in cozy,  historic Greenwich village.

 

 

Alex Wroblewski, NYT photo intern — and talent!

By Caitlin Kelly

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Alex and I have been friends for a few years. We met through the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, a program offered annually to ambitious and talented young journalists. My husband taught him and we stayed in touch, with Alex coming to stay with us in New York.

This summer he’s one of three photo interns at the Times, a coveted opportunity to show his skills once more. He also won the White House News Photographers Association student award for 2016.

I so admire his work, and work ethic, that I asked him to share his ideas and some of his work with Broadside:

Sunday, June 22, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times
Sunday, June 22, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times; Chicago

Tell me a bit of your history…where were you born? Raised? Did you move around a lot as a child or teen?

 I was born and raised in a small town in Wisconsin called West Bend and had a pretty quiet childhood growing up… I started skateboarding in my early teens and my friends and I would shoot photos and videos of each other jumping down stairs and the like, which is how I got into photography originally.

What sort of work do/did your parents do? i.e. where does your creative spirit come from?

My father worked in a factory for 25 plus years and my mother had worked odd jobs before a decade plus career working at Walmart and in other pharmacies as a technician. My dad is still working 50-60 hours a week today but has an office position which I think he enjoys more, and my mom was still working in a pharmacy at a hospital before she passed away from cancer.

She went to work the same day she would do chemotherapy, driving herself to both. She was incredibly hard working, so is my dad, and I think that’s where my work ethic comes from.

My creative spirit early on came from skateboarding and the films and photographs I’d see from the street/skateboarding world. Music eventually became a big influence, I remember getting into The Beatles/Bob Dylan/Jack Kerouac and just the whole scene in the sixties, the photographs had such a unique look, everything from that era.

 

July 25, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times
July 25, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times; Ferguson, Missouri

I remember having this John Coltrane poster on my wall forever, just collecting photos like that. And eventually I got interested in other types of photography, with photojournalism being a big one, and eventually I decided to go to school for it.

Where did you attend college and why?

I went on and off part time at a community college, but was never sure what I wanted to go for but eventually settled on photography with some encouragement from my Mom, who always wanted me to go to school but never pressured me to do so. I had moved to Los Angeles after high school with some friends to go skateboarding.

I worked in a factory for the summer to save for LA and then ended up working at Starbucks in  L.A. to pay the bills, and would shoot video and photos of my friends skateboarding in my free time.

In 2009 I started going full time to Brooks Institute in Ventura, California for visual journalism, where I bought my first serious camera, a Canon 50D. However I would only stay at school for a couple of months, it just became too expensive and there were few scholarships, so it wasn’t long before I moved back to Wisconsin.

I eventually went back to college in 2013 after freelancing at the local paper, the director of photography and a mentor of mine at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel told me that it would be important to have a bachelor’s degree to get a full time job at a news organization, something I have and still inspire to do. If all goes well I will have my degree by the end of spring 2016.

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Mourners in Baghdad, April 11, 2015

 

Did you enjoy it – how has it helped (or hindered) you?

College has opened up the doors to many opportunities, and I’ve been blessed to meet some amazing people, that I would not have had working odd jobs forty hours a week, however it has also been without some serious debt, but again, I could easily have stayed at whatever dead end job with no opportunities… so I am thankful that I had a Mom and Dad that were willing to cosign my student loans so I could go back to school and pursue a career in photojournalism.

And not every school is expensive, I could have gotten a BA for less but the faculty and location was really important in my decision, Chicago has a great journalism scene here, and Columbia had both a strong reporting/writing program, and photo. I went for reporting/writing to learn something different since I had been freelancing as a photographer, and wanted to learn a different skill to fall back on. And at that point of deciding I was really interested in the reporting side as well.

 When and where did you first get interested in the work you do now?

I was interested in photography first and then sort of fell into journalism, I was reading a lot about the Iraq war and then got my hands on Eugene Richards, James Nachtwey, and Annie Liebovitz books at Brooks Institute…

So that was really inspiring from the photography side, but with journalism it was NPR that really made me fall in love with the news. Audio is a really different way to “experience” a story, and something about it just clicked where I developed an appetite for consuming not just NPR but reading whatever newspaper I could get my hands on as well.

 

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Tikrit, Iraq, April 2015

Who, if anyone, encouraged or mentored you the most?

I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors over the past few years who I still keep in touch with, including Jackie Spinner, a professor at Columbia College Chicago who is part of the reason I chose that school… Jose Lopez, who I met at The New York Times Student Journalism Institute who has always been beyond encouraging, and many friends and colleagues whose advice and support have been invaluable.

What lessons did they teach you that have proven most useful?

I think what I learned most from them is how to work in the industry itself, it’s a small world and very competitive. Getting to learn the ropes the past couple of years, I could always reach out to them with whatever question I had. But theirs and others encouragement, I found equally important. Getting positive feedback on your work is always motivating to do more and think of new ideas and push yourself.

You’ve traveled the world…what gives you the confidence to do so?

I have always been interested in traveling, meeting new people, and learning about new cultures, I suppose from a lot of the skateboarding videos and magazines I’d see/read when I was younger. With street skateboarding the pros would travel the world, and many professional skaters were from different countries as well so being exposed to that made me want to travel.

My parents didn’t travel much, but were always encouraging and supportive and I’ve always worked odd jobs to save money to get myself places and when it came to journalism, I have been able to work on spec. [i.e. without a previous assignment] for the most part.

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Near Tikrit, Iraq, 2015

Other people look at a creative life, and a somewhat transient one, as scary and unpredictable. How does it feel for you?

I really love having a creative outlet, but like many careers that are based on creativity it can feel really stressful and unpredictable. I find that being so passionate about photojournalism makes it much easier to spend so much time and effort without a monetary return, to eat sleep and breathe it, and just being obsessive about it is okay with me because its something I really love.

I know I will not become wealthy as a photojournalist, but as long as I’m doing something I enjoy and can live off of, is what’s important.

Where do you find creative inspiration? Do you have any role models or people you especially admire (in or out of your field?) Why them?

I find a lot of inspiration in friends, colleagues, mentors and other photographers I look up to. Seeing their work and whatever new projects they’re working on inspires me to go out and shoot. I feel that you can learn a lot not just taking pictures but looking at other peoples work, it gives you a different outlook or different way of thinking that can sometimes help you get outside of “your box.”

I also find inspiration in the art, music, and film world, anything that gets me thinking in a new way.

July 25, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times
July 25, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times; a woman hit by tear gas has her eyes rinsed; Ferguson, Missouri

What advice would you offer to people who wish they had your life? (i.e. creativity, freedom, travel, etc.)

Don’t give up. Hard work pays off. For me it’s been a long road but has been truly rewarding knowing I’ve been persistent. And spend time or surround yourself with people who are positive and will challenge you. And be sure to spend time with family.

A few more style notes…

By Caitlin Kelly

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We love to have dinner on our balcony, a pleasure we eagerly await all year long

A few more thoughts…

Once a year or so, take inventory — toss/add as your budget allows

It’s easy, when you live with the same objects year after year after year after year, to overlook the point at which:

1) you’re bored to tears with them; 2) your tastes have really changed but your home shows no sign of this; 3) your things are now really stained/torn/worn out/scratched.

Towels and bed linens do wear out; try Zara Home for terrific and stylish new options.

We recently took our glassware, wrapped it carefully and gave it to our town’s thrift store, and finally treated ourselves to new, handsome glassware, both for water/juice and wine.

These are the wine glasses, from West Elm, and the juice/water glasses, also from West Elm.

We love them!

A collection can be three (or more!) of pretty much anything. Group them together for impact

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The large black horse, hand-carved folk art, was found in an antiques shop in Port Hope, Ontario and the little wooden one at auction there. The little metal guy? I can’t remember.

 

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Three of these, the angular ones, we bought in Mexico City, pewter; one is silver plate and one…not sure!

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Years of collecting have given me a decent collection of silver and silver-y objects

 

Think long-term

It’s always tempting to buy cheap stuff because…it’s cheap!

But waiting, saving up and paying a little more for better-quality fabrics, better furniture construction and classic design means you’ll be able to enjoy your things for years, maybe decades.

 

Classic doesn’t have to mean boring!

 

I still love the three antique painted rush-seat chairs I sent home from a country auction in Nova Scotia to my then home in Toronto — using them many years later.

Thrift and consignment shops, especially those located in upscale neighborhoods or towns (i.e. drive if necessary!) can be a treasure trove of amazing quality. Craigslist and Ebay, of  course, also have a wide range of offerings.

If you know what you’re looking at — (is it a real antique or a reproduction? Oak or maple? Wood or laminate? sterling or silverplate? glass or crystal?) — tag and estate sales are another great source.

Invest in the best-quality framing you can

It forces you to be highly selective once you start using a frame shop, as even the smallest piece can cost $150 for a custom-cut frame.

It’s money well spent to preserve your favorite things, whether a letter from a grandparent or treasured photographic prints (make sure the mat is acid-free and the glass UV-resistant.)

I like the wooden frames from Pottery Barn (on sale!) and Anthropologie has some quirky and charming ones as well; Pier One can be a great source for more ethnic/rustic styles.

Study every room — what shapes are in it, and how does each piece relate to others?

Most furniture is inevitably square (tables, chairs) or rectangular (beds, chests, sofas.)

Before you know it, you’ve filled every room with big fat chunks of stuff, now looking crowded and tedious. Sigh!

Think about including a variety of shapes (ovals? circles?) and scale (large, small?)

Does each room also include a variety of height (chairs, chests, armoires, etc) so your eye moves around it easily?

Make sure you have at least 24 inches between every piece or you’ll always feel hemmed in and irritable as you keep bumping into things.

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Mirrors!

Our living room — which faces northwest and gets a lot of light — has two mirrors in it; our sitting room has one, and our bedroom has one as well, all decorative.

The mirror pictured above came out of one of my favorite antique shops, in the town of North Hatley, Quebec; it’s clearly Middle Eastern and was filthy…took an hour of Windex and Q-tips to get most of the dust out of all that fretwork! It cost about $225.

 

A pretty mirror fills a few functions nicely:

 

1) it fills up a dead wall; 2) it reflects light into and around the room; 3) a lovely frame can add color, interest and texture relating to the rest of the room; 4) you can see yourself!

Of the four mirrors we own, only one was bought new (from Anthropologie); this one. It’s very affordable — $128 — for a lovely and intricately hand-carved wooden frame that feels exotic and vaguely Indian or Celtic.

It now sits on an apple-green wall so there’s a nice contrast between the background and the wood.

The rest came from antique stores.

Several favorite sources for stylish new mirrors include the websites Horchow, Wisteria, and Ballard Designs.

Mirrors are also more versatile than highly-colored artworks, and can easily be moved from room to room as your tastes change.

Three thoughts about the theater

By Caitlin Kelly

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The Belasco theater, Broadway, NYC

What a feast!

I’ve seen four plays within a month: “Blackbird” on Broadway with Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, Wild Sky at the Irish Arts Center, Hughie on Broadway with Forrest Whittaker and The School for Scandal at the Lucille Lortel, a 200-seat theater on Christopher Street in the West Village.

Thanks to tdf.org, all four shows (single seats, all excellent seating) cost $147, about the cost of one Broadway ticket.

I’m a movie buff and my first entertainment choice, at home or out, is always to choose a film, whether a documentary, foreign film, drama or comedy. (I don’t watch horror films.)

So this theatrical binge was both unusual and instructive.

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I loved Blackbird; here’s my blog post about it.

I didn’t much enjoy Hughie and found it (written in 1942) very dated. But the set and lighting were gorgeous and the acting excellent.

Wild Sky reminded me what a magic act theater really is: three actors, no scenery, a tiny stage and audience. It was about the 1916 uprising that led to Irish independence.

And The School for Scandal — written in 1777 (!) — was funny, fresh and delightful. The costumes were a hoot, (the men wore tremendous wigs, some lime green or purple), the sets inventive and the acting terrific. When you come home imitating specific lines and quoting them verbatim, that’s a great play and performance.

Theater is, by definition, a high wire act, both for the actors and the audience.

 

Here’s a recent interview with playwright Kenneth Lonergan and Timothy Olyphant and WNYC radio host Leonard Lopate. (28 minutes.)

The pair point out that every night, and every audience, is different, as are their reactions — a laugh line met with hilarity one night can be met with frosty or confused silence the next.

That silence can rattle the best actor, unless they realize what a living, breathing thing every performance is.

They’re both eloquent here on this fundamental point.

An audience member might fall ill or have their cellphone ring. A piece of scenery might break or fall, (one show here was notorious for its many injuries, including broken bones and a concussion). Someone might forget their lines.

We all hold our collective breath and, as the house lights dim, embark on that show’s adventure together.

In a mediated screened world, it’s an intimacy hard to duplicate.

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Great writing speaks to us across centuries

 

Most of us know the works of Shakespeare and some of the classics. It’s rare that we get to see a production from the 18th century — The School for Scandal met its first audience the year after the United States declared independence from Britain, in 1777.

Imagine the world then!

No radio, television, Internet, airplanes, penicillin, women’s emancipation.

No cars or computers or endless Presidential election campaigns.

And yet…and yet…the most human urges: to scheme, to gossip, to backbite, to create false rumors, to swindle, to grab an inheritance, to marry someone twice (or half) your age, all of which are addressed in this excellent play with wit and charm.

There’s slapstick, romance, surprise, betrayal. They all cross the centuries quite nicely.

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Sound familiar?!

 

Success is fleeting, elusive and rarely a permanent condition for playwrights, (or many other creative people.)

 

On my way home, an hour’s drive, I listened to the great CBC radio show q which is also played now by some NPR stations in the U.S.

The Pulitzer winning playwright, Ayad Akhtar, discussed his play Disgraced; here’s the interview (13: 26)

I loved his calm demeanor when asked about his fame and fortune after winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” he replied. “I never internalized my rejections — why would I internalize my success?”

Brilliant.

And, even as we all still watch and savor SFS’s playwright Sheridan’s work — 229 years later — he, of course, died in poverty.

So many of the artists whose work we revere today, which draw audiences and whose paintings now sell to Chinese and Russian billionaires for millions, struggled lifelong to earn an income and support a family and find appreciation for their ideas.

 

A good and powerful reminder, I think.

Broadway, baby! Seeing “Blackbird” and “Hughie”

By Caitlin Kelly

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Living in New York is, too much of the time, really hard and really expensive: rents, transit, gym memberships, groceries.

Unless you’re a 1 percenter, so many of its costly pleasures dangle forever out of reach, but one tremendous luxury within my reach, thanks to the Theater Development Fund, is access to affordable theater and music tickets.

Over the years I’ve lived in New York, it’s allowed me to enjoy excellent seats to popular musicals like Billy Eliot, Carousel and South Pacific and astonishing performances of plays like August: Osage County, Skylight, Awake and Sing! and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, starring Robin Williams, a work that won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.

Seeing favorite actors and actresses live has been  a privilege in itself, faces and names we “know” from film or television, like Lauren Ambrose (of HBO’s Six Feet Under) and Edie Falco.

Theater brings a specific and immediate intimacy impossible to achieve through any screen.

 

This week brought me a $36 ticket, (regular price: $138), to see “Blackbird” at the Belasco with Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels reprising his role from 2007. I scored a fantastic seat, third-row aisle, in the mezzanine (first balcony) with terrific sightlines.

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The Belasco, at 111 West 44th street, opened in 1907 and is exquisite, a jewel box in its own right. The walls are painted in deep-toned murals, the coffered ceiling emblazoned with heraldic symbols and its lamps are stained-glass.

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Buying tickets through TDF, or the other discount options (like the TKTS  booths), means grabbing whatever’s on offer and jumping. You need to have read some reviews or have a good idea when you have only a few minutes to decide which ones are worth your time and hard-earned money.

But Blackbird? Hell, yes!

This play, which runs 90 minutes without intermission, is emotionally exhausting — even the playwright’s name is Harrower. Indeed.

 

It’s been performed worldwide, from Milan to Singapore to South Africa to Tokyo. A new film, starring Rooney Mara, (who starred in “Carol” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), is due out this year.

In it, 27-year-old Una returns to confront now 55-year-old Ray, who had sex with her when she was 12 and he was 40. It sounds weird and sordid but unpacks layer after layer of emotion, fear, damage and desire one might imagine possible.

It’s full-throttle theater, with both actors modulating rage and disgust and fear, the still and silent audience along with them.

You wonder where they summon the stamina to tear through it all, while swept up in the intensity. In one scene, they’re on the floor of a messy conference room, both of them throwing piles of trash into the air.

And eight shows a week? No wonder it’s a limited run of 18 weeks, which is still a really long time to grind it out full-throttle in this work.

I love Michelle Williams’ work and her willingness to tackle tough characters. If you’ve never seen the 2008 film “Wendy and Lucy”, it’s a grim portrait of a young homeless woman and her dog, a far cry from her 2011 portrayal of Marilyn Monroe.

As Daniels told Time Out New York:

This is not a safe choice. The tourists who come in are going to get their ears pinned back. As they should. The arts should do this.

Here’s Daniels — one of my favorites from HBO’s series The Newsroom and much other work — on what it was like to return to this role:

As drama, the fateful meeting of Ray and Una was as compelling now as it was then. Unapologetically raw and full of terrible truths, the play confronts the audience from the first page on, never letting up, never letting go, tearing into those watching it as much as it does those of us on stage trying to survive it. Still, I was hesitant. Most roles are been there, done that. What cinched the decision to return was that Ray still terrified me.

Every actor knows you can’t run from the ones that scare you. It’s not the acting of the character nor is it the dark imagination it takes to put yourself through all of his guilt, regret and shame. To truly become someone else, you have to hear him in your head, thinking, justifying, defending, wanting, needing, desiring. The more I looked back at the first production, the more I saw what I hadn’t done, where I hadn’t gone. I’d pulled up short. Found ways around what was necessary. When it came time to truly become Ray, I’d protected myself. He’d hit bottom. I hadn’t.

From the first day of rehearsals for the new production, it was exactly the same and entirely different. Michelle Williams and I had the script all but memorized ahead of time, which was essential, considering the stop-start, off-the-beat rhythm of Harrower’s dialogue. The key to any play, especially a two-hander, is the ebb and flow, the back and forth between the actors. If ever there were a need for that elusive elixir called chemistry, it was now.

 

I saw “Hughie” two nights later, at the Booth Theater, built in 1913. I think it’s not nearly as beautiful as the Belasco.

The show is an odd little play, another two-hander, and only 60 minutes — of which about 50 are Whittaker’s. He was terrific.

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The set and lighting were spectacular but I found it, written in 1942 and set in 1928, a bit too dated for my taste, with endless references to dolls and saps.

Have you been to a Broadway show?

Did you enjoy it?

 

Why read?

By Caitlin Kelly

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Isn’t this cover gorgeous? I LOVED this book, written by a British Airways 747 pilot

You’re doing it this very second. (Bless you!)

We’re all so time-starved,  between school and work and kids and aging parents and illness, (ours or others’) and income (getting, keeping, investing if lucky). Oh, and TV and movies and other places on the Internet.

Some days I picture libraries and bookstores as a piteous forest, arms reaching out entreatingly — read us!

In an era of CPA, continuous partial attention, (a phrase coined in the Dark Ages, back in 1998), our undivided attention is now a rarity.

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The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 100 stories for them

Each weekend, I plow through the Saturday New York Times, Sunday New York Times and the weekend Financial Times; two of these include magazines also full of content and images.

As my husband asked recently, “How many words do you think that is?”

I read them in print, as much for the pleasure of its tactility as the satisfaction of tossing all the read sections on the floor.

Done! Progress!

I also read in print as an escape from the computer screen, to which I’m attached for so many hours every day — like you, I suspect!

My eyes get tired. I want a different medium.

In addition to these, I read the NYT and FT daily and, for work and pleasure, magazines ranging from Period Home (a British shelter mag) to Wired to Bloomberg Businessweek. (My husband subscribes to photo and golf magazines and Monocle and Foreign Affairs as well.)

I make a little time to consume digital stories, and some of them are terrific, (on Medium, Narratively and others.)

I follow 905 Twitter accounts, about 85 percent of which are news sources and, when read  en masse, can be deeply disorienting and confusing — I’ll see graphic news photos of the latest MidEast terrorist bombing followed immediately by a pastel Dorset living room from a design magazine.

 

And I still make time to read books, the most recent being “Answered Prayers”, a classic by the late Truman Capote, whose desperate indiscretion destroyed his glittering career. I found it odd, bitter, not enjoyable. I’m glad I’ve read it, but what a nasty little creature he was! (This, in case you forgot, is the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, later adapted to a legendary film.)

And another American classic, the 1937 “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. I put it off for ages, then couldn’t put it down: great characters and plot, written in dialect.

I never leave home, (and have done this my whole life), without a book or magazine or newspaper, and often all of these at once.

These bookshelf photos are some shelfies — what’s on our bookshelves at home here in  New York…no, I haven’t (yet!) read all of them.

 

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As author of two well-reviewed works of non-fiction — “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” (2004) and “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (2011) — I also have a vested personal interest in how much readers care about books!

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My second book, published in 2011

Here’s an interesting new effort to actually figure out why people stop reading a book:

Here is how it works: the company gives free e-books to a group of readers, often before publication. Rather than asking readers to write a review, it tells them to click on a link embedded in the e-book that will upload all the information that the device has recorded. The information shows Jellybooks when people read and for how long, how far they get in a book and how quickly they read, among other details. It resembles how Amazon and Apple, by looking at data stored in e-reading devices and apps, can see how often books are opened and how far into a book readers get.

Jellybooks has run tests on nearly 200 books for seven publishers, one major American publisher, three British publishers and three German houses. Most of the publishers did not want to be identified, to avoid alarming their authors. The company typically gathers reading data from groups of 200 to 600 readers.

Mr. Rhomberg recently gave a workshop at Digital Book World, a publishing conference in New York, and some of his findings confirmed the worst fears of publishers and authors.

On average, fewer than half of the books tested were finished by a majority of readers. Most readers typically give up on a book in the early chapters. Women tend to quit after 50 to 100 pages, men after 30 to 50. Only 5 percent of the books Jellybooks tested were completed by more than 75 percent of readers. Sixty percent of books fell into a range where 25 percent to 50 percent of test readers finished them. Business books have surprisingly low completion rates.

Some of the reasons I read:

Style

What words and phrases did the writer choose? Do they work? What emotions are they eliciting in me?

Do I love their choices or am I finding them irritating and distracting? Why?

Do I wish I could write as beautifully? (Read “H is for Hawk” for some exquisite use of language.)

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Information

Forever deeply curious about the world — history, politics, economics, nature, science, belief systems, psychology, business, music, art, antiques. There’s so much I don’t know! So much I want to understand.

Writing that clearly and compellingly teaches me?  Yes, please!

New worlds

Maybe it’s ancient Egypt or Edwardian-era London or Paris in the 16th. century or a rural town populated primarily, in an era of segregation, by African-Americans. I need to visit other worlds, literally and imaginatively.

Great writing takes us there.

Escape

It’s such a joy to escape into a great piece of writing, so that when you stop reading you look up, disoriented and a bit dazed.

Where were you? Where are you now?

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Characters

Love savoring characters so real you want to have lunch with them and miss them terribly when you’re done. I still miss the cast of “The Goldfinch”, a doorstop of a book given to me for my birthday two years ago. I wonder about the residents of the Paris apartment building in “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.”

I also wonder about the ongoing lives of so many of the people I read about in journalism and non-fiction, from soldiers to aid workers to choreographers

Inspiration

As someone who writes for a living, I need to read great work by other writers, whether a book review, an essay, an op-ed, a novel, even a great tweet. I want to see how other writers have chosen to structure a narrative, create suspense, choose and carry a theme, or several, to completion.

It can be non-fiction, journalism, an essay, from the 21st century or the 16th.

Artists in every genre look to the greats for inspiration. I do too.

Beauty

Jose and I have a collection of reference books — of photography, painting, decorative arts, antiques and home design. These include works on Inuit women artists, Gustav Klimt, elephants, jewelry, vintage textiles and a gorgeous two-volume Taschen collection of global interior design.

On a cold wintry afternoon, paging through these glorious images is a lovely break.

 Emotional Connection

Depending on  genre — self-help, memoir, essay, religion, philosophy — what a writer chooses to share about their life and their intimate struggles can help readers facing the same or similar challenges.

 

Are you an avid reader?