Archive for April, 2012

The dual phenomena of “spoken-word” and “slam poetry” have infiltrated modern culture like a requisite epidemic. Harkening back splendidly to the days of beatnik nightlife, when throngs would gather in darkened coffeehouses to hear poetry delivered by the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and applaud with finger-snapping, the art form has received a miraculous re-awakening ever since Thaddeus Rutkowski began reviving it at such venues as Jackie 60 in the early 1990s, whenceupon it was taken up by all manner of poets both amateur and professional who began plying their cornucopia of wares throughout New York and the globe. One of the most stellar of the slam poets to emerge in the last ten years is most certainly a gentleman by the unusual name of Taylor Mali. A New York City WASP by birth and a schoolteacher by profession, the last calendar year has seen him emerge as viral on YouTube and other Internet broadcast media because of his poem What Teachers Make,” which has garnered nearly four million hits on one website alone. The one-man show Teacher! Teacher! would soon follow thereafter, and win a major comedy prize. A follow-up, entitled “The The Impotence of Proofreading,” has been equally successful. Since that time, he has published several books, created the New Teacher Project (later renamed Quest for 1,000 Teachers), recorded a number of CDs and also loaned his voice to narrating various projects, and for a time became the president of Poetry Slam, Inc. Though fame and tireless work have taken him throughout the world as both educator and performer, he mercifully found the time to grant an interview to The Andrew Martin Report. And we couldn’t feel more honored or privileged to have been so thusly indulged.

ANDREW MARTIN: Can you describe your upbringing as a New York City WASP? You seem to have a long lineage that goes back several centuries. Conversely, what was your own school experience like as a student? Where did you attend from K-12, and where did you go to college? Even more conversely, was there any one teacher in particular who inspired you to become a teacher and later an advocate for education?

TAYLOR MALI: My WASP upbringing was pretty standard stuff, really. We named our houses, named our cars, and ONLY named our dogs after local bodies of water. Everyone had a trust fund and was told never to talk about it with anyone. I attended The Collegiate School, established by the Dutch in 1628, just about 30 years before my earliest ancestor was born on the island. Another branch of the family that would one day combine to produce me had already been living in the country for almost one hundred years, having landed in Salem sometime in the 1500s. I went to Bowdoin College in Maine. Then Oxford University for a summer of drama school. Then eventually Kansas State University for an MA in English Lit/Creative Writing. It was there that I discovered my passion for teaching. So there was no single teacher that did it. Rather, the love was born of exigency.

AM: How long had you been teaching before you decided to immerse yourself in the spoken-word art form? Did the two automatically go hand in hand?

TM: The spoken word came first by about three years. I performed a poem at Oxford as part of a talent show among the actors, and it went over REALLY well. That was summer 1987, and I credit that with being my first spoken word piece. Three years later, at a poetry reading in San Francisco, I performed another piece (that would go on to become the poem “I Could Be a Poet”), and it solidified my understanding that performing a poem well was just as important as writing it well. That fall I left for Kansas, unaware that the first National Poetry Slam was coming to the SF Bay Area. Had I stayed in the Bay Area, I probably would have discovered the poetry slam a few years earlier than I did, but the craft I learned at KSU might have taken we much longer to develop. But to answer your question more directly, teaching and poetry go hand in hand because they are both about instruction and delight.

AM: Was it ever difficult, or even surreal, to have to balance being a teacher on one hand with being a spoken-word artist on the other?

TM: No, never. I treated one as a kind of performance, and the other as a kind of lesson.

AM Was “What Teachers Make” actually inspired by a real event? If not, what inspired it? Likewise “Proofreading.”

TM: There really was an incident with a lawyer at a New Year’s Eve Party (in 1997) that was the triggering subject of “What Teachers Make.” I’m sure he didn’t phrase his question that way (“Be honest, what do you make?”); that was me using poetic license. But more importantly, even if the lawyer HAD asked the question that way, I am not witty or brave enough to have been able to answer his question in any form similar to what became the poem “What Teachers Make.” The poem is totally what I WISH I had said. “Proofreading” came from repeated attempts by my computer to correct the spelling of my name; I tell people that my spell checker suggested Taylor Mali might have been a botched attempt on my part to spell “Toilet Malice,” but I think I made that up.

AM: Was it ever surprising when “Teachers” began to go so viral so quickly?

TM: Yes. Every bit of attention that my work has received has been surprising to me.

AM: What is the New Teacher Project exactly, and what has it accomplished?

TM: I’ve had to change the name of the project because there already is a great non-profit called “The New Teacher Project,” founded by Michelle Rhee in 1997. Their executive director called me to say their lawyers recommended sending me a cease & desist letter, but she said no way because they are all fans of mine! Anyway, my Quest for 1,000 Teachers was a goal I gave myself in 2000, which started quite informally: I would help convince a thousand people to become teachers through the way I talk about the profession. Gradually, I got more serious about how I kept track of the teachers on my list, and then I promised to cut off twelve inches of my hair when I reached my goal. Everything came together for the publication of  my book “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World,” and early in April I approved that thousandth teacher and cut my hair live onstage.

AM: Did you particularly enjoy the process of writing your books? Was there anything you disliked about the process? I ask the same question about the CDs you’ve recorded.

TM: Only the writing of “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World” felt like writing a book because it’s the only one where I really had to hit the chair every day and turn out pages whether I wanted to or not. My two other books and all of my CDs are collections of poetry, and so were produced/compiled more episodically.

AM: Tell us about Poetry Slam Inc. and your experience of being their president.

TM: I was the first president after Marc Smith, the founder of the poetry slam and PSI’s “president for life.” You could argue that I was the perfect person to succeed Marc, but my tenure was marked by what is considered the WORST National Poetry Slam ever! That was a bad year for me, 2004; my wife died, and I’d just rather forget it all.

AM: We all know that Teacher! Teacher! won a solo prize at the Comedy Arts Festival in ’01. Are there any plans to bring it back?

TM: There should be, shouldn’t there? No. But it’s high time I wrote another solo show.

AM: You’ve also won at least one award for narrating The Great Fire. How does providing voice work for those projects you’ve not personally created differ from work on those you have?

TM: It’s so much easier to just swoop in and be The Voice. But it’s harder in that you have to internalize the syntactical rhythms of the author and make them your own. I like reading aloud (especially to a beautiful woman, curled up on my chest, smiling).

AM: Where do you see yourself five years from now, and what frontiers would you still like to conquer?

TM: I’ll still be doing what I’m doing, traversing the globe teaching poetry. But I’ll be better at it, and I might be based somewhere else. I’d like to teach online poetry classes using some sort of video Skype PAID conference call type service that probably already exists.

Wherever life may take him next, Taylor Mali is sure to go down in performance history as a force of nature made of lightning. Anyone unfamiliar must acquaint themselves with his work. After all, those who can, do. Those who can’t, well…

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If the MAC Awards have become known as the Tonys of cabaret, the Bistro Awards have certainly become its equally-glittering counterpart. Launched in 1985 by the late and legendary cabaret journalist Bob Harrington in his “Bistro Bits” column in Back Stage, then under the editorship of Sherry Eaker, it was initially just a list of winners before evolving into a live awards ceremony in 1990 at the now-defunct Eighty Eight’s. Recipients have included Dionne Warwick, Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert, Dixie Carter, Cleo Laine, Eartha Kitt, Mario Cantone, Joy Behar, the team of Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney, and far too many more to list in appropriate completion. This year’s ceremony, which takes place on the evening on Monday, April 23rd at 6:30 PM at Gotham Comedy Club (208 West 23rd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues), features an equally-impressive roster of cabaretfolk and theaterniks; these include Rita Gardner, Billy Stritch, Terese Genecco, Shaynee Rainbolt, Lauren Fox, Billie Roe and Parker Scott among others. The four most prominent awards of the evening, however, are being bestowed by an impressive lineup; for one, jazz legend Annie Ross will present Warren Vache with Ongoing Excellence as a Jazz Instrumentalist. George Faison gives Dee Dee Bridgewater an award for Ongoing Artistry in Jazz. Marvin Hamlisch bestows Outstanding Contribution to American Popular Song to Melissa Manchester. And the Bob Harrington Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented by legendary columnist Liz Smith to Kaye Ballard.

As is well known, Ballard has managed, in a spectacular career than spans nearly seven decades, to conquer Broadway musicals (The Golden Apple, Carnival! and The Pirates of Penzance among others), film (A House is Not a Home, The Ritz, the original Freaky Friday), television (as a co-star with Eve Arden on The Mothers-in-Law), and every manner of concert and nightclub stage ever since her career began as a touring player with Spike Jones in the late 1940s. More recently, she toured cabarets and clubs throughout the nation in the show Doin’ It For Love, along with Liliane Montevecchi and Lee Roy Reams, and she’ll be coming back to New York in June for a one-woman blockbuster evening at Feinstein’s. One may call the lady who began as Caterina Balotta in Cleveland anything they like, but what they must call her first and foremost is a survivor who has seen it all. And The Andrew Martin Report couldn’t be more honored that she found the time to grant us a brief interview from her home in Palm Springs in preparation of the awards next week.

ANDREW MARTIN: What’s the most exciting/gratifying thing about being the recipient of this award?

KAYE BALLARD: Well, just looking at the people who’ve received it before me. Cleo Laine, Eartha Kitt, people that I know/knew and respected. I’m so flattered. I sometimes look back on my life and all of the unexpected things that have happened, and this just happens to be the latest one. Not bad for eighty-six. But I look pretty good, no? (Laughs).

AM: Had you been familiar with the Bistro Awards before now?

KB: Well, I knew Bob Harrington, and I’d heard about it, but I didn’t really know what it was. I knew of the MAC Awards, but not the Bistros. Although they sounded more prestigious. I also want to thank Gretchen Reinhagen for doing her show, because she really kept my name alive in cabaret. But what do awards really mean? I’m just happy to be alive. It would have been nice to win an Emmy or a Tony, but Gracie Allen never won one either. You know, I come from a time when actors couldn’t even get a hotel room, or had to use the back door.

AM: Are you a particular follower of any of your fellow recipients?

KB: Of course! I LOVE Melissa Manchester. And Dee Dee Bridgewater. She’s really wonderful. But I’ve also seen two acts in the last year that I don’t think anyone can touch; one was the Callaway sisters, Liz and Ann Hampton, and the other was Christine Ebersole. So being part of cabaret now, along with such wonderful people, is gratifying beyond words.

AM: What’s your impression of how cabaret has changed/grown/not grown since your first emergence as a star?

KB: It hasn’t grown. It was so much better when I started. There was the Pierre, the Plaza, the Bon Soir, etc. They had an elegance about them, in a strange way. It was an honor to play those places because they had a built-in elegance. I worked with people ranging from Mae Barnes and Pearl Bailey to the Smothers Brothers. Nowadays, there’s too much vulgarity. I’ve worked with people like Bert Lahr and Jimmy Durante and Shecky Greene, who always had total class. I’m so sick of performers who feel compelled to be vulgar. My mentor was Henny Youngman, who never worked blue. I’m very much opposed to working blue. Jack Benny once said, “Funny is funny.” And I agree. As Fred Ebb, who was my writer, once wrote, “Whatever happened to class?”

AM: Tell us about Doin’ It For Love.

KB: It was such a thrill. Lee Roy Reams is the quintessential song and dance man, and Lilliane Montevecchi is so much of something from the past, just an elegant and sophisticated Frenchwoman from another era. So between them and the combination of what I do, it just worked beautifully.

AM: Is there any chance you’ll come back to New York with a solo show any time soon?

KB: Well, as I say, I’m doing Feinstein’s on the 17th of June. I can’t wait!! It’s really what I did in Doin’ It For Love. I’ve always believed that the best of the past is meant to last. It’s all the stuff I used to do, and I also talk some truisms. I think it’s gonna be a good show. David Geist is playing for me, and he’s just sensational. I found him in Santa Fe. He’s the closest thing I’ve ever found to Arthur Siegel, who was my dear heart, as we all know.

AM: We know you had a strong attachment to Arthur Siegel, both as a singer/instrumentalist and a composer. Those of us who attended Arthur’s memorial will never forget your speech or the wonderful duet you performed with Sandy Stewart. Do you have any particular favorite songwriters now for theater and cabaret? How does the new crop differ from yesterday’s greats?

KB: I LOVE Billy Charlap. He is fantastic. And I just love Marc Shaiman. The problem is, I love melody, and there’s not a lot of melody to be had nowadays. Not what I call melody. This is why I loved Arthur so dearly. He worshiped Jerome Kern, so he always came up with a great melody.

AM: How do you feel about the award being presented by Liz Smith?

KB: Oh, she’s one of my closest friends. She was my road manager at one point when I was doing Top Banana. She’s one of the brightest women I’ve ever known, besides being the kindest columnist ever. I’ve never known her to be remotely vicious. It’s an honor to know that she’s presenting the award to me.

AM: What advice can you give to some young women out there who think, “I want to be the next Kaye Ballard?”

KB (laughs): Does anyone really want to be me? I can’t imagine! But seriously, what I would say is to look at what came before you and then look where you’re going. I’ve always looked where I was going. And you should never think anything is old-fashioned. The great ladies of British comedy, like Bea Lillie, Joyce Grenfell, Hermione Baddeley, these are my heroines and the women I wanted to be. I feel the same about Patricia Routledge. My feeling is, I’d rather be Gone With The Wind than Saturday Night Fever, and I would recommend that anyone who wants to follow in my footsteps do the same. Because the truth is, I got a lot more out of it.

It is a grateful worldwide audience that will continue to get as much out of Kaye Ballard as she has to give. This humble reporter will most certainly be there on the 23rd and looking forward to it!

(Note: All who are reading this can purchase tickets for a five-dollar discount!! That’s $55 for each General Admission ticket, or $90 for Premium (includes pre-show champagne reception and priority seating)!! Just click here, scroll to the bottom of the page, and click “Donate.” Type in how many tickets you want at either $55 or $90, and you can pay with a credit card (PayPal not required; a credit card should do just fine). You can also send them a check if you’d rather; message me privately for the details. And don’t forget, ALL ticketholders are invited to an After Bistros supper buffet and party!! Hope to see you there!!!)

By now, The Andrew Martin Report has become so firmly established with profiling “cyber-lebrities” (those folks who have immersed themselves in self-broadcasting on YouTube and video blogs to viral results) that it seems almost unthinkable that there could be any left for us to explore. But indeed, there is a new and wholeheartedly brilliant and talented one. Identifying himself only as “Matt from Doomsday Diaries,” this cute-as-a-button bundle of energy hails from a town in New Jersey, attended NYU, and now resides in the Los Angeles area in pursuit of his future. He got the idea to begin posting one video per day until December 21st, 2012, when the Mayans predicted the world will come to an end. And his vids quickly received a small-but-strong and very-loyal following. However, it was one video in particular, released on February 26th of this year, that quickly garnered more attention than any of Matt’s previous efforts; it was in fact a tribute to all of the winners of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Here, in full flood, is all of Matt’s energy, talent, charisma and sheer fabulousness combined (not to mention flawless impressions of some of the greatest character actresses of the last eighty years), and its been no surprise why the clip has received nearly forty thousand hits in less than two months, with the numbers continuing to growing by leaps and bounds. Though extremely private about his personal details, Matt was gracious to offer us an interview.
ANDREW MARTIN: Where did this whole “Doomsday Diaries” idea come from? Do you really think the universe is about to call it quits, and if so, why?
MATT: Ya know, I’m not a hundred percent positive that the world will end on December 21st, 2012.  I don’t think anyone is.  For all we know, the Mayan Indians could have completely miscalculated their findings.  Or maybe they wanted to see us future civilians squirm, so they tricked us all into thinking we were done for.  Or maybe their hands just got tired from making all those damn calendars and didn’t feel like making any more.  Who knows?  All I know is that the calendar ends.  So if this does mean that we are all gonna be blown to smithereens in a few months, I figured that people would want to not feel so alone in the final year.  After all, when you know there are only three-hundred-sixty-six days (it’s leap year!) left of your life, you could spend them feeling a little downtrodden, discouraged, and defeated.  I figured that our final years on Earth would be much more pleasant and comforting if we all felt like we were in this together.  When I count down to the end of the world with my viewers, it’s like a big party!  It’s like counting down to New Year’s!  It makes the idea of Doomsday seem much more exciting.
AM: What gave you the idea to begin posting on YouTube, either Doomsday-based or not?
MATT: I knew that YouTube would be the best way to reach a lot of people.  I wanted to appeal to spread the countdown to the masses.  As you can tell, I have a whole lot to say, and I wanted everyone to hear.  After all, since the world is ending, I figured I had nothing to lose.  So, I decided to whip out the big guns and really put myself out there!
AM: Let’s specifically talk about the Best Supporting Actresses video. What attracts you to these women in particular?
MATT: Well, I’ve always loved supporting performances.  I would always watch movies/television shows/plays and be drawn to the “other” characters.  The leading roles were snoozefests.  I liked the crazy people who would come in and steal the show!  Everyone loves someone who can steal the show, especially when it’s a woman who steals the show. Plus, the leading actress roles tend to be a little more beautiful and/or glamorous.  The supporting actress roles tend to be a little more weird and/or cray cray.  I’ll take cray cray over glamorous any day!
AM: Have you always had a gift for doing impressions, female or otherwise? Where did that begin? Have you had any other aspirations for a career in performance?
MATT: Well, my brother did always use to get a kick out of dressing me up as various characters and making me perform for the whole family.  He would decorate me with various things he would find around the house: wigs, boots, dresses, hats, make-up, our mother’s bras, etc.  I was pretty much his very own walking and talking My Size Barbie.  I first learned I was pretty good at impressions when I was a wee little lad with an obsession with the Spice Girls.  I would re-enact their songs, interviews, and brilliant performances in the movie Spice World, and everyone was floored that such a little boy could distinguish between each of the girls’ specific dialects and vocal inflections.  It just came naturally, I guess.  And, now that the world is ending, I figured I might as well show everyone what I got.
AM: What accounts for your fascination with the Oscars?
MATT: Well, I’ve always loved movies and entertainment.  But that’s just a given.  And I’ve always been very entertained by awards shows.  The reason why is gonna sound like a crazy, confusing, obsessive-compulsive quality, so bear with me.  I’ve always loved the idea of categorizing things.  I love thinking things like, “OK, in this year, this happened.  Which makes it different from this other year, in which this happened.”  I love the idea that the “essence” of one year of movies can feel so different from the “essence” of another.  I like seeing how different movies and performances resonate with people differently in different eras of time. Plus, when people win Oscars, you see all of their dreams come true on live television.  It’s fun watching the reactions, especially when they are crazy.  Any piece of live TV where Melissa Leo can drop the F-Bomb and then steal Kirk Douglas’s cane in a moment where she is receiving a highly prestigious and “serious” award is always tops in my book!  I live for those live moments of craziness, and I love me some nice, teary, snotty, messy acceptance speeches.
AM: Provided the earth isn’t going to face Doomsday in 2012 as predicted, where do you see yourself five years from now?
MATT: Hmmm…let’s see. If we are all alive five years from now, I might just be sitting at my computer watching my old videos like they were home movies.  That’ll be hours and hours of footage by that point.  Twenty-five years from now, I’ll be showing them to my kids.  And fifty-five years from now, I’ll be showing them to my grandkids.  It’ll be nice to be able to say “Hey, Kids!  Look at how your grandpop wasted an ENTIRE year of his life!”  I hope YouTube will still be around by then.
AM: What advice could you give to others who’d like to express themselves through self-broadcasting?
MATT: Talk about/do what you LOVE. Don’t change anything so that people will “relate” to it. Just do what you do and someone who naturally relates to it will find it and love it. I had no idea that anyone else in the world cared about Best Supporting Actresses, but, apparently…they do! And try to keep your video/broadcasting short and to the point. People nowadays have short attention spans. I mean, it’s understandable. They have a lot they have to do before the world ends in eight months! Also, poop and/or fart jokes are always funny. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that they aren’t. Throw a few into your video/broadcasting, and you’ll get a like from me.
Well, he gets a like from us, without a doubt. Please feel free to join Matt’s YouTube channel if you like what you see. And considering the sort of future this Bright Young Thing has ahead of himself, it’s your luck to catch him at the ground-floor level. After all, seven months from now we could all be blown to smithereens, so there’s no time like the present.