Thursday, April 29, 2010

Lazarus rises to vocal challenge

This weekend Penny Lazarus will perform a selection of art songs in "for the love of singing,” an aptly named program, at Governor's Academy. Which may seem like a strange place for her to be if you only know Lazarus from her other roles — as a piano teacher or opening night arm candy for Port playwright Joshua Faigen or even as "the well-known creative mind," as the Nock School newsletter puts it, behind the transformation of the Nock courtyard. But the May 2 recital with Amesbury singer Louise Cramer actually represents something of a creative plateau in a long process

The Merrimac Street resident has been singing all of her life, but the piano won the musical argument early on because ... well, because as much as Lazarus loved singing, as much native talent as she had, she didn’t have the chops, the combination of clarity and athleticism needed to get over the top — to get beyond good. That didn’t happen until Dr. Gerald Weale, the guy with the baton at the Newburyport Choral Society, got ahold of her at a workshop/coaching session and taught her some tricks of the trade, and then pushed her on to what would become five years, so far, of private studies with one of the area's leading vocal coaches. And, of course, none of that would have happened if her hubby hadn't tipped over the family cart, about a decade ago, taking a job in Massachusetts, presenting the move from Pittsburgh as a fait accompli. He wasn't a playwright then, just a type geek — er, typographer. The whole playwright thing wasn't on anyone's radar until they settled down next door to local theater mucky-mucks Ron Pullins and Leslie Powell.

Lazarus, who grew up in Pittsburgh, “was heartsick” at the idea of leaving her friends and family, her turn-of-the-century Victorian home and garden. The first thing she did (after cooling down, of course) was research what would become her new stomping ground — and found the Newburyport Choral Society. It was, as far as she was concerned, “the only carrot” in the whole deal. Faigen accepted the job in the summer, the family settled into their new home on Merrimac Street, and Lazarus started rehearsing with NCS, and launching the Northeast edition of her piano studio, in September. She credits Weale, professor emeritus at Boston University who, in two decades-plus as NCS conductor, has developed a reputation for shaping the emotional and dramatic content of singers' work, for taking her singing to the next level ("I was hitting two Cs above middle C — and it was easy," she says) and encouraging her to work with a private teacher, which brought Lazarus to Martha Peabody — a singer, educator and lecturer for the past 25 years. Since then Lazarus has found her way to the stage as a singer, playing the Widow Corney in the Anna Smulowitz production of “Oliver” last year and in the last two Theater in the Open productions of “A Christmas Carol.” (The Dickens story mentions music, but productions rarely play up what should be an obvious opportunity to play to the audience. Background carolers had already been incorporated into the TITO production. In last year’s show, Lazarus sang “Lulay” as Christmas Future is dishing out the bad news to old Scroogie, although you might not have known that unless you were paying attention to the program notes: A group of singers is gathered around the grave, all dressed in black.) And just last week she sang an arrangement of Emily Dickinson's “Love Stricken, Why?” during the Your Favorite Poem event at the Firehouse.

But why? Why would someone steeped in the fields of music and education, with decades of experience with the piano, take such a creative left turn as an adult to reinvent herself as a vocalist?

"The piano is a wonderful instrument," she says. "You can let a lot of emotion go with it. I’ve performed and taught the piano for 30 years, but when I sing, I am the instrument — and it’s the most intimate musical experience one can have.”

This weekend, Lazarus's musical journey brings her to the gorgeous, acoustically pristine Moseley Chapel at The Governor's Academy for the recital with Cramer, a soprano. Cramer will tackle the work of modern French composers like Eric Satie and Francis Poulenc, and Lazarus, a mezzo-soprano with a dark, chocolaty voice, will perform the dark, soul-searching Mahler — really emotional, deep stuff there. Everyone should recognize the Copland ("It's a Gift to be Simple," "Hush a Bye"). Lazarus will also perform a comic duet with a Governor's Academy student, Kim Uggerholt — Irving Berlin’s “You're Not Sick, You're Just in Love,” with its still-mysterious reference to a red velvet glove. Barbara Flocco will accompany the singers on piano.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Louise Cramer and Penny Lazarus will present "for the love of singing," a celebration of the human voice, at 4 p.m. May 2 at Moseley Chapel at The Governor’s Academy in Byfield. The concert is free. Donations will be taken for Our Neighbors’ Table. A reception will follow the performance. For more information call 978.462.4720 or visit The photo of Lazarus is courtesy of Rebecca Wish Esche.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ebacher, Air Department back with new CD

Roger Ebacher? Port musician, jazz guy with the crazy flute, right? The melody flute, a glorified penny whistle essentially, an instrument that, in the right hands, is capable of producing a glorious, soaring sound — something that Ebacher has been doing since he stumbled across the instrument in a New York pawn shop more than three decades ago? So, yeah, that’s the guy, but it’s just the shorthand: He’s a jazz guy, right, but jazz has never been about one particular thing and neither has Ebacher. His sound, generally, has a southern perspective — think Cuban, Brazilian — but also incorporates Afro-pop and other world music (talk about imprecise labels) influences. And, yes, he still plays the melody flute, he’s probably still best known for it. Which makes sense, because there are so few people who play the instrument. But it’s not even his primary instrument. He started his career as a vocalist and keyboard player. The melody flute is just one of seven Ebacher axes. The point is that his work, to date, is difficult to summarize or categorize. And it doesn’t get any easier with The Air Department, his latest project, an eight-piece duo that ... huh?

An eight-piece duo: There are two people in the band — Ebacher and Denny Pelletier, a former Amesbury percussionist now living in that vast expanse of wilderness known as western Massachusetts, whose history with Ebacher goes back to the 1970s, when they played together in Timestream, a seven-piece jazz band with a punk attitude — a little ahead of its time, perhaps, with one of those familiar backstories about a group that collapses just before getting to the finish line. But in concert the band has way more voices than personnel: Ebacher is surrounded by instruments on stage: congas, computers, keyboards, flutes and gadgets and instruments — like the so-called digital horn — and he plays them all. Not at the same time, of course. The structure of the songs is hardwired, sequenced. The actual, flesh-and-blood musicians perform live over the top of this pre-recorded structure, largely improvising, playing broadly conceived big-tent, all-inclusive jazz. You can see what it’s all about this weekend, when the Air Department rolls out “Frigid Air,” its new album, at a release party at the Actors Studio.

The project grew out of Ebacher’s work with his Quintet, which released two albums (“Flutation Device” in 1998 and “Backyard Carneval” in 2000). He followed that up with “To Dream, To Dance,” a 2004 collection that began with what he calls orphan tunes — stuff that didn’t fit in with whatever thing he had going at the time, or that needed a little something that did not quite make itself obvious or materialize at the time. After going through the material and selecting the tunes for the album, he found a certain cohesion among many of the remaining songs. He tapped Pelletier, who had played on the his last three albums (in addition to performing with vocalists like Cleo Laine, Peggy Lee, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Rondstat) and the Air Department was born.

“Frigid Air” is the band’s first “proper” album — that is to say old-school, physical release, but third album overall. In 2008, the band put out two very different albums as digital-only releases: The eponymous debut, which has a downtempo, ambient feel, which Ebacher calls “film music looking for a film,” and “Air Dance,” which is more exotic, incorporating a wide set of influences and musical pulses that, he says, “have been percolating for a while.” The new album covers a lot of ground, musically: “Chick Thing,” which opens the album, dips its fingers into fusion. “Traffic Stream Dream” is straight-ahead jazz built over a bossa nova beat. “Autumn Air” slows things down. It’s a sweet little ballad with a beautiful, film-score melody. (“I like pretty and I’m not ashamed to say it,” says Ebacher.) ”Lotus Motion,” which they performed live to choreography by Exit Dance Theater last year, has distinct Arabic rhythms and ethereal flutes. But the tunes refuse to sit still, and take off in sudden, unexpected directions.

“It’s really freeing to let to let the music evolve like that,” he says. “The music is all different. It doesn’t really sound like any one person or style. It sounds like us.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The Air Department will host a record release party for “Frigid Air” at 8 p.m. May 1 at The Actors Studio, Mill #1, Suite 5, the Tannery, 50 Water St. Tickets are $15. Advance tickets are available at Dyno Records, 1 Middle St. For reservations, call 978.465.1229. For more information about the band, check out the band’s MySpace or Ebacher's Rebach site.

Friday, April 23, 2010

'Mutes' has lots to say about Port DIY scene

I’m not sure how to approach this thing, seeing how I’m the star of the film and everything, and ... What’s that? Overstating the case? Well, maybe a little — okay, a lot. But I did survive the editing process. I am in “Mutes in the Steeple: Stories from the Newburyport Music Scene,” a new film by Port native Joshua Pritchard. There I am, I’m sitting by the river, playing myself, an eminence grise, if you’re feeling charitable, or a crusty, grizzled Lester Bangs wannabe talking about the underground music scene back in the day. Which, coincidently, is just about the time that I bought the Plastic People of the Universe t-shirt I’m wearing in the film. I had been roped into the interview by a smooth-talking Dylan Metrano, who, with Gregory Moss, performed with the edgy, confrontational proto-punk band Hamlet Idiot a couple of years after I bought the PPU tee. That would be the dawn of the 1990s.

Although there were important Port bands before Idiot (like Jeff Morris’ Psychotic Youth, the precursor to NPD, the first legit homegrown Port punk outfit, or the Bruisers, an Oi! outfit that managed to break out of the Northeast indie ghetto), in many ways, the local DIY scene grew up around Metrano and Moss, mainly because they forced the issue with the whole Envy concept, or brand, as people would say now: Creating venues when they couldn’t find them, founding a magazine and web bulletin board to create a community and spread the word, even putting together music festivals and founding a record label for like-minded weirdos. I had been writing about the scene for a while for a variety of local rags, and I couldn’t figure a way out of it, so down by the river I faced the questions instead of asking them, a disorienting experience for an ink-stained wretch, as curious tourists on the Boardwalk stopped and watched, wondering if I were someone famous. Half an hour later and it was over; a couple of months after that, it was forgotten.

That was six years ago. And that was the last I heard about it — until this week, when I found out the film was done, that it was available, that that it would make its Big Screen debut May 15 during the first-ever Burst & Bloom festival, a day-long festival in Kittery that will also feature performances by Mary Flynn, Guy Capecelatro, South China, Tiny Fires and Andrey Ryan, who will also read from “The Need To Be Heard,” her book about the whole DIY experience. They mentioned that there would be a red carpet for folks in the film. I think they were joking about that. I hope they were joking about that.

Diary of a community
The film, which takes its name from an Archers of Loaf song, provides a behind-the-scenes look at the city’s DIY music community, now for the most part dispersed, using interviews, still photography and archival concert footage from a half-dozen key artists, including Morris, Metrano and Moss, as well as Jake Trussell from Electro Organic Sound System, Julian Shea from Lost Cause and Sam Buck Rosen. It’s about music, obviously. It’s also about making a scene, both literally and figuratively. But, more than that, it’s about community — a specific community, Newburyport, but, more importantly, a community of friends tied together by their “otherness,” their rejection of mass-produced, mainstream music and the whole culture of conformity. And while it might not seem like much on this side of the millennium, where there are thousands of niches in a fractured cultural marketplace, it was back in the day. As Morris makes clear in the film: If you wore a Dead Kennedys tee to school, you had better be prepared to defend yourself — and not necessarily intellectually. And the Port punks were so completely overwhelmed, numerically, by the mainstream that friendships, community, could be built “on something as small as liking the same band,” says Julian Shea, frontman for the Lost Cause. This is the genesis of the alt-community in Newburyport.

The film is tied together with footage of the actual physical community, much of which was shot from a moving vehicle — a deliberate aesthetic and intellectual choice (“I think it’s an essential part of the experience,” says Pritchard. “So much of the city, of life, is seen from a car when you’re a teenager.”). It also creates a mood that borders on melancholy; it also has a whimsical feel and a sense of movement.

The filmmaker was a part of this community. Pritchard, 29, went to all the Hamlet Idiot shows. Not a whole lot of people did, for whatever reason — one of the reasons Moss calls the band “a failed experiment.” He also played, with twin brother Jay, in Chestnut Blight, a band that took its name from a disease that decimated chestnut trees around Newburyport High School (“Seemed like a perfect name for a band,” he says.) and Knew Mewn, whose lineup included J. R. Gallagher, who would later play with Tiger Saw, a slowcore band that rose from the ashes of Hamlet Idiot. “If they were underground, we were something below that,” says Pritchard, who now plays in Ruin/Renewal, a Boston-based trio that sounds like REM and Sonic Youth covering Nirvana. “They were a big act to me,”he says. “I found what they were doing was really inspiring. They were doing it. They just started booking local shows. They just didn’t take no for an answer.”

Same as it ever was?
In the film, Shea, at this point working with his new band, These Lies, talks about this same sense of community, and suggests that Newburyport “will always have that underground feel,” which, at the time — six years ago — may have seemed right, but, from this side of the divide, feels a little like whistling past the graveyard — or, perhaps more on point, like the dull echo, back in the day, of those insisting that punk is not dead, as it slowly withers in front of them.

Pritchard says “Mutes” is a “a time piece,” he says. “It captures a time and place, and this is important: You can look back.” He also notes a “certain melancholy,” not by design, in the film because a lot of the issues are the same — the city may not be so polarized, but there still are few, if any, places for kids to go out and make some racket. OK? So I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve gotta figure out what I’m gonna wear to the premiere. Think I can lose 15 pounds to get into that party dress of mine?

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Joshua Pritchard’s film “Mutes in the Steeple: Stories from the Newburyport Music Scene” will debut May 15 at the Burst & Bloom Festival. The event will also feature performances by Mara Flynn, South China, Tiny Fires, Western Homes and Andrey Ryan, who will also read from “The Need To Be Heard,” about the DIY music scene. The event starts at 6 p.m. at Buoy Gallery, 2 Government St., Kittery, Maine. All ages. Tickets are $10. The DVD will be available at the festival, but you can also pre-order. More information, about the festival is available on the festival’s Facebook page. Info on Burst & Bloom is here.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Faking Shakespeare: Easier than you think

Fact is we don’t know a whole lot about William Shakespeare. Even the people who know a lot about him don’t really know much about him. And we’re not talking the so-called “authorship controversy,” the endless furor, rejected by most academics, about whether old Billy Boy actually wrote the stuff attributed to him — the tired literary equivalent to the Lone Gunman theory. We’re talking basic biographical facts, his actual dates, for goodness sake, as much as his literary tracks and artifacts. Because once you get past now-accepted tradition, essentially undocumented stories passed down through the generations, there are precious few unassailable facts, leaving plenty of room for frauds and con artists to maneuver long after his death, when the largely forgotten playwright enjoyed an unexpected and to date unparalleled revival, when the “virulent culture of Shakespeare” took hold, as Doug Stewart, left, author of “The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare,” puts it. That would be the late 18th century, when the Bard became the Bard, “widely and rather unthinkingly acclaimed as the quasi-divine embodiment of the nation’s unique genius, a symbol of Englishness beyond criticism and without rival.” He had been dead and buried for close to 200 years, but he was a hot commodity. People were gobbling up anything with even the slightest connection to Shakespeare — and, it seems, with little regard to its bona fides.

But this barely begins to explain the successful two-year run of forgeries, each more fantastic than the last, managed by a less-than-awe-inspiring William-Henry Ireland, a teenage boy without literary training or obvious proclivity for writing, who was not wowing anyone academically and, being a young punk, someone with little in the way of real life experience. But somehow he managed to produce, among other things, love letters Shakespeare supposedly wrote to the missus, an “early draft” of “King Lear” and, in a staggering act of hubris, a “previously undiscovered” full-length play — working on dizzying deadlines, supposedly in the Bard’s own hand — all of which were gobbled up by people who should have known better. When problems started cropping up with the work — and there were plenty of sketchy things about the documents — either the “experts” managed to come up with some sort of explanation, however tenuous, to preserve the fiction, or the kid would “discover” another document that set the matter straight. It’s all so laughable that, were it fiction, the premise would be rejected out of hand. Even the author agrees — sort of. “It’s the most preposterous chain of events you could imagine,” says Stewart, who came to the issue while researching “To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare,” a 2006 piece on the authorship issue for Smithsonian. “On the other hand,” he says, “it was almost inevitable that someone would pull this kind of stunt.”

It was, after all, the Age of Forgery. People had been faking it for centuries, probably since written language became an important medium. Shakespeare himself uses it as a plot device in “Hamlet” and “Twelfth Night.” But in the 1700s, with literacy rates on the rise and the media of the day bringing the news, fit to print or not, to the masses, forgery, fraud and out-and-out bunk exploded — despite the threat of death if you got caught. And why not? It was the Age of Forgery, and there was money to be made. And Shakespeare was relatively virgin territory — and a target that almost begged for bunko: At the dawn of the Romantic era, he was famous, popular and suddenly collectible — a new phenomenon, like a rock star. But, more important, he was a virtual shadow. Most of the facts about his life were debatable. There were almost no examples of his handwriting aside from a couple of signatures on legal documents. There were no letters, no diaries, no contemporary manuscripts (the so-called First Folio came out after the Bard was off-stage, and even that was less than definitive, cobbled together from what actors could remember), let alone early drafts. The value of the literary process or author-as-celebrity was a relatively modern invention. The field for Fakespeare (con)artistry was wide open.

But that wasn’t William-Henry’s game. He wasn’t looking to cash in or make a name for himself — not at first. He wanted something way more intangible and precious: the love of, or, at least, some sort of attention from his wretched, horrible Shakespeare-obsessed father — a short, balding man with an arrogant if not especially deserved sense of self-importance, as Stewart describes him. But Samuel didn’t have much use for the boy, whom he considered a blockhead and an embarrassment. William-Henry knew how much Samuel and the rest of the culty Friends of Bill sought primary source material for the great William, and decided to give Daddy Dearest what he wanted. He started out small: ephemera supposedly from an old trunk stored in the home of a wealthy gentleman. This only whetted Samuel’s appetite. He wanted more, and the desperate, eager-to-please William-Henry obliged. Armed with a working knowledge of Elizabethan grammar, a sense of the rhythm and style of Shakespeare’s plays that came from endless readings by Samuel, and pilfered parchment and watered-down ink, William-Henry grew increasingly bold — and sloppy. The old trunk became the 18th-century equivalent of Felix the Cat’s Bag of Tricks, containing a near-endless supply of documents, including a full-length play that was produced at Drury Lane Theatre just before the whole enterprise collapsed.

Preposterous? Yeah. But, instead of being astonished by — or even a little dubious of — the flood of material conveniently falling into their laps, Shakespeare’s literary groupies shrugged their collective shoulders, saying, essentially, “Hey, it’s about time.” The search for the historical Shakespeare had become an obsession for an enraptured nation. The Shakespeare clique knew the papers had to be somewhere because ... well, because they really wanted them to exist. And there were skeptics, but they held their tongues because they wanted to be absolutely sure: An expert who couldn’t recognize the work of the Master would become a laughing stock. 

Samuel went to the grave broke, his reputation, such as it was, in tatters, but believing the Shakespeare papers were real, that, somehow, his blockhead son had stolen them — even after the boy confessed, even when he admitted to the entire scheme in his memoirs/confession. Which, of course, the old boy did not believe his ne’er-do-well son was clever enough to have written. William-Henry, who had convinced himself, just before the fall that he was a superstar — and why not, people believed, for whatever reason, that the words he wrote were Shakespeare’s — hung on another four decades, churning out a few books of his own, but living at the edges. To quote the immortal one, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Doug Stewart will read from “The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare” at 7 p.m. April 16 at Jabberwocky, at the Tannery, 50 Water St., Newburyport. The event is free. For more information, call 978-465-9359 or log onto the Jabberwocky web. Stewart will also participate in a moderated talk with Marc Clopton, director of the Actors Studio on April 24, as part of the Newburyport Literary Festival. For more information about the lit-fest, log on He will also speak at 7:30 p.m. April 28 at Ipswich Historical Society/Ipswich Museum, The Heard House, 54 South Main St., Ipswich. For more information, call 978.356.2811. The illustration shows interior of the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane.  The 1796 premiere of the forged Shakespeare play, "Vortigern and Rowena," was the newly expanded theater's first sellout. Thousands were turned away on opening night.

Fakespeare: The Clopton connection

When the clueless Samuel Ireland began his quixotic quest to unearth the centuries-old papers of William Shakespeare in the late 1700s, about 180 years after the Bard’s demise, some of Stratford-Upon-Avon’s older citizens told him someone had carted away “a trove of old papers” from New Place, Shakespeare’s last known residence, just before the place was demolished. The documents, whatever they were, ended up on the outskirts of town, at Clopton House. According to Doug Stewart, author of “The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly,” Ireland visited the owner, who, pulling the Shakespeare groupie’s chain in a way that recalls a Monty Python sketch, said that just a couple of weeks before he had burned a bunch of papers to clear an area for some young partridges. Some of the papers, he seemed to recall, had Shakespeare’s name on them. Ireland was horrified: What a terrible, terrible loss for England, for humanity. Just to be sure, the guy shouted to his wife, and you can almost hear the Python-like screeching, if she recalled seeing such documents. “Yes, my dear,” she said, “I do remember it perfectly well, and if you will call to mind my words, I told you not to burn the papers as they might be of consequence.”

A great story, this cruel little send-up, one Stewart speculates probably had been well rehearsed by the couple to torment the rapidly growing cult of Shakespeare’s enthusiasts knocking at their door, but it didn’t ring the same kind of bell for the Ipswich author as it does on this corner of the North Shore: Yup, Newburyporters, we’re talking about one of those Cloptons. Marc Clopton, founder of the Actors Studio and a fixture on the local theater scene for close to two decades, is a direct descendant of Hugh Clopton, who in 1490 was Lord Mayor of London and whose family palled around with Shakespeare, even giving the playwright a place to live during his last days on this stage. That would be the previously mentioned New Place, which, it turns out, was built by old Hugh Clopton. Family lore also has it that the Bard used Lady Anne Clopton — “some sort of great-great-great aunt or cousin or something,” he says — as a model of Ophelia, who goes off the deep end after Hamlet, her beloved, butchers her father. She, like Lady Anne, drowns herself. Why did she do it? “Unrequited love, same old story,” he says.

Clopton will be moderating a discussion with Stewart about “The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare” during this year’s Newburyport Literary Festival. The book looks at the strange-but-true story about how William-Henry Ireland, Samuel’s son, pulled off one of the greatest literary hoaxes in history, forging everything from supposed love letters to Anne Hathaway to supposed first drafts of “Hamlet” and “King Lear” to a new, previously undiscovered play by the Bard himself. 

And, for the record, Clopton’s family eventually moved on to Colonial Virginia in the early 1700s, where they became prosperous slave owners, and Clopton House, a rambling four-story manor with seven chimneys and just as many gables, has been turned into condos.

JUST THE FACTS: Doug Stewart will discuss “The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare” in a moderated discussion with Marc Clopton at 10:30 a.m. April 24 at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 7 Harris St., Newburyport.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Tough take on state of Protestant church

Sure, the book hasn’t been on the shelves long enough to collect dust, and the supporting tour has barely begun, but G. Jeffrey MacDonald has already heard the zinger — that he’s a party-pooper, trying to drag our evolved and comfortable, if not especially challenging, modern-day spirituality back to the bad old days of, if not fire and brimstone, than at least a little sacrifice and challenge, making the whole soul-saving business feel a little like, well, work. Which nobody wants in a service economy. Which, by definition, should be serving us, not making our lives difficult, but which the author, in true party-pooper fashion, says we probably secretly crave. Or should. MacDonald, former pastor of Union Congregational Church in Amesbury and national religion writer, laughs at the characterization and fesses up to the party-pooper charge, sort of. “I can see how some people might say that,” he says.

MacDonald, correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the Religion News Service, is not especially surprised by the reaction. He says he expected there would be some “blowback” from “Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul,” a tough tract that argues that the Protestant church is falling down on the job, that, by caving in to pressure to fill the pews, it is responsible for an easy-going, feel-good orthodoxy — or, as the author would have it, a “warm, welcoming, happy-clappy spirituality” dictated by market forces, not religious theory or necessity.
So what’s all the fuss about, then? Not what you might expect. You’ve got the usual suspects and vices: Sex and drugs and rock and roll. Divorce, cheating, porn are thriving not only among the heathens who desperately need to be saved, but also in the Christian community. A bad thing, but not the focal point of “Thieves.” MacDonald, who will speak this April 9 at Jabberwocky and a couple of weeks later in a moderated discussion during the Newburyport Literary Festival, says the church, in an attempt keep the pews filled, has all but abandoned what is the backbone of the religion; that churches are pandering to the flock, no longer challenging people to be better, that church leaders are no longer beacons of the faith, but companions for the journey, that important church rituals — like baptism and Lent — have been watered down to the point that they are, if not exactly meaningless, then at least not challenging, not edifying — like the old joke about the Unitarians, who usually have enough of a sense of humor to take it, being the “Church of the 10 Suggestions.” The backbone of the church, he writes, the ability to shape people, is being jettisoned as pressures grow to deliver ever “more pleasing religious experiences,” abandoning the “unique authority” it has long enjoyed, an authority that once allowed the church “to push back against the tide, to challenge the conventional wisdom.”

No, he’s not a party-pooper, not advocating a “dour, humorless spirituality,” he says, “but ....” But what? “But if everyone panders,” he asks, “who will elevate?”

Effortless salvation
MacDonald argues that churches, in their competition for souls to save and, to get that job done, are essentially handing out deck chairs and passing out pitchers of pina coladas — if not exactly dumbing down the faith, then doing their best to make spiritual demands seem, well, not so demanding. Problem is that we’ve gotten kind of soft over the past couple of decades of pandering — and that it’s going to take a lot more than rearranging the deck chairs. Worse, buyers rule in the religious marketplace. Make too many demands, they’ll tune you out or, worse, move on. And, increasingly, that’s what they’re doing. The number of people switching religious affiliations is a staggering 44 percent — and they’re apparently shopping around, not just for hot-button religious reasons, like abortion and gay marriage, but because it scratches some other societal itch, for an increasingly self-absorbed laity and church hierarchy desperate for love, and willing to provide a “pleasant religious experience.” And woe to those who do not heed the demands of the busy modern-day religion consumer, because he’ll just pack it up and go elsewhere.

The book focuses on so-called mega-churches with congregations in the thousands, churches that feel like malls, with Starbucks, Subways, cafes, bookstores. more prevalent in the Midwest and South than here, churches that combine old-time religion, old-school hucksterism and modern advertising. But the pretty-as-a picture white churches with picket fences on New England village greens are not exempt.

All this comes at a time when, according to polls, a super-majority of sinners believe the church’s authority is waning and even more say — or tell pollsters, anyhow — they want it to have a bigger role in their lives. So the good news, so to speak, in this is that since religion has taking a pro-consumer stand, all it would take to get the flock back on track is if people demand something better, something more meaningful and fulfilling. Do they mean it, or are people just telling pollsters what they think they’re supposed to say? Are both the spirit and the flesh willing to do what needs to be done? Is the will really there? ”I hope it’s in there, I think it’s there,” he says. “ We need the church to do its job ... If they demand it, they’ll get it.”

The view from here
MacDonald grew up in Marblehead. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Yale University and Bachelor of Arts in American history from Brown University. He’s an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. He landed in Newburyport about a decade ago, just about the same time as he began writing about religion, after taking a post with Union Congregational Church. He continued to do journalism by day and religion on nights and weekends over the next four years. The freelance work kept growing, the demands of his ministry did not lessen, and “something had to give,” he says. He still keeps the collar, filling in for vacationing ministers, officiating at weddings, funerals — even stepping up to the pulpit from time to time. (He’ll be leading services at 10 a.m. April 11 at First Parish Congregational Church in Manchester-by-the-Sea). While at Union Congregational, he received religion journalism’s top award, the Templeton Reporter of the Year prize from the Religion Newswriters Association. He’s also been honored by the American Academy of Religion for in-depth reporting on religion. The journalism/religion career convergence represented “the big picture idea of what I wanted to do,” says MacDonald. “The ministry informs my writing. I’m still balancing the two. I still do both, not at the same time. It’s two sides of the same coin. In both, you’re seeking truth. In journalism, listen carefully and verify what you’ve learned. In religion, the questions are bigger — who we are, why we’re here, who created us. But it’s still about speaking the truth.” He started thinking about writing this book six or seven years ago, as the trends began to emerge in his work as a journalist — 800 to 1,000 words at a time.

His years at Union Congregational are instructive. MacDonald, who served from 2000 to 2004, was, essentially, grabbed up by a former corporate headhunter who was living in the area and used “all of his corporate tricks” to make a big impression, to seduce him, distracting him from the fact that the modest building with the peeling paint, without an office for the minister, would be his home — and that few if any from his congregation ever lived in the happy-shiny glitz of riverfront Amesbury. After taking the job, he discovered that his flock wasn’t especially eager to do the kind of heavy spiritual lifting that MacDonald sought for them. (“There was some resistance there,” he says, “it’s true.”) But, on the other hand, the church did have a feedback committee to let him know what they were looking for: shorter sermons, anecdotes and lots of humor, so folks could get out of there at a decent hour — and, he writes, “leave with the glow that comes from knowing God loves them just the way they are.” The interview was to see if MacDonald was a “fit” with the unique culture of the church. He says he felt like he was trying out for poster boy for the congregation.

A way home
In the end, “the message is still about grace,” he says. “We are saved by the grace of God, not by the work we’ve done along the way.” But there’s so much more that could be done if people could get past the happy-clappy, religiously flavored experience. There’s a real hunger for deeper spirituality, he says. There are tons of books exploring spirituality, and people are eating them up.

Give them a chance, he believes, and people will come around. He points out so-called “green” cars, whether it’s so owners can look down their noses at people who can’t afford to “save the planet,” or because they actually think this will save the planet. It’s one of the fastest-growing niches in business. Same goes for “socially responsible investing,” once thought fringie and a model that was once considered a joke. “In religion, it’s actually a better fit. People always want to lead the good life, they want to live in a way they feel proud of ... it’s right there for the taking,” MacDonald says. But nothing’s going to change until there’s “a bit of a shift” in the current mindset, until someone raises the issues and risks being called a party-pooper.

“People would like to believe things are rosier than they are,” he says. “It’s an important topic, the state of the church today.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: G. Jeffrey MacDonald will read from “Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul,” at 7 p.m. April 9 at Jabberwocky Bookshop, 50 Water St., in the Tannery. The Port author will also discuss the issues raised in the book during a talk, in dialogue format, at 2:30 p.m. April 24 at First Religious Society Unitarian Universalist, 26 Pleasant St., as part of this year’s Newburyport Literary Festival. For more information about the Jabberwocky date, call 978-465-9359. For information about the lit-fest, log onto

Monday, April 5, 2010

New play, old form for Pullins

From time to time I make a bit of noise about getting up on stage instead of just scribbling, complaining about what’s happening on it — you know, giving me a better perspective of what it’s all about and all that? So far, thankfully, nobody has ever called me on it because I’m sure I would faint. Or worse. Ron Pullins, on the other hand, is actually doing it, leaving the cheap seats and, gulp, crashing through the fourth wall. Granted, it will be a hometown crowd — friends, really — and he will have script in hand so, short of passing out, he should be fine. But, still, the Port playwright is actually doing it — treading the boards, making his acting debut in the North Shore Readers Theatre Collaborative production of his play “The Dollartorium.”

He’ll be playing “this guy, Ralph” — the lead, actually — a fellow with the American condition: He’s alive, but still not rich, even though he’s totally nose-to-the-grindstone, and it looks like he’s doomed to a life of class envy forever ... until he meets a television huckster who, for three easy payments of $29, will rock his world, unleashing the secrets of how to take control of his life, how to take control of the fortune he deserves. And, believe you me, the secret has very little to do with work. Because work is for chumps. The rich don’t work, right? They make money — and that’s what Ralph could do ... down at the Dollartorium. It’s a modern play dressed up in some very old theatrical clothes. The style and form comes from “The Clouds,” Aristophanies’ spectacular hatchet job on the Greek intelligentsia at a time, like ours, when sophistry, not philosophy, ruled — taking aim at old Socrates, specifically. “I think it was instrumental in getting him to drink the hemlock,” says Pullins, whose firm, Focus Publishing, specializes in classical Greek and Roman drama as well as textbooks.

The Merrimac Street resident, whose quirky 10-minute play “The Object,” about a strange and fascinating (and never specifically described) thing, was just staged last month at the Fudge Festival in Worcester, says “The Dollartorium” is the wildest thing he’s done since ”The Boss Is Dead,” his 2003 breakout play, which looked at the secret lumpen fantasy of finally settling scores with the big bossman. The play’s subtitle (“For those who have yet to cash on the American dream”) pretty much says it all. The play is “for all of us who are angry at these guys who are making millions of dollars for running companies into the ground,” says Pullins. “It comes out of that frustration and anger.” The play, which came out of the Playwrights Intensive series, will also be staged next month at the Whistler in the Dark play series in Boston.

And he’s leaving the security of his writer’s hideout because ...?

“Because I believe it’s important,” he says, “I think it’s important to know what’s going on besides sitting down and watching in the audience, or writing in some safe spot in your home. It’s easy to write words for people to say. It’s more difficult to be up there and actually say them. It’s a good place to see what the characters are like inside and out. I think it will be interesting to see what I learn.”

Joining Pullins on the Actors Studio stage will be Tracy Bickel, Mary Shapiro, Jennifer Wilson, Brad Ritchie and Kerry Zagarella. Suzanne Hitchcock Bryan directs.

And, no, the acting gig is not a zig in Pullins’ career trajectory.

“It’s one thing to get up on the stage in front of friends,” Pullins says, “Getting up there in front of strangers is something else entirely.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: North Shore Readers Theatre Collaborative will present a staged reading of Ron Pullins’ “The Dollartorium” at 10 a.m. April 10 at the Actors Studio, 50 Water St., the Tannery. Reservations recommended. Suggested donation is $7. For more information, call 978.465.1229 or log onto the website. The play will also be staged at 7:30 p.m. May 5 at Whistler in the Dark, at the Factory Theatre, 791 Tremont Street, Boston. For information, log onto