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Measuring the Distance Between Provincetown and Cuttyhunk in Kindness

Jenny Slate and Ben Shattuck in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

by Steve Desroches

Ben Shattuck had just walked to Provincetown and needed a rest. He hadn’t walked downtown from the far East End or even Beach Point. He’d followed one of the walks taken by Henry David Thoreau. The writer and philosopher quite famously walked various long routes through Massachusetts, forever intertwining his writings with nature, making his work some of the earliest forms of environmentalism. In October 1849, Thoreau walked 30 miles from Eastham, marching down a muddy road, which over a century later would become Route 6, landing in Provincetown three days later. Thoreau’s adventures out here would be published in 1865, three years after his death, in the book Cape Cod, considered the quintessential book about the region and inspiring readers like Shattuck to follow in his footsteps, quite literally.

Shattuck plopped himself down in a coffee shop in Provincetown after a particularly arduous day, satisfied with his accomplishment and pleased to be at the end of the road. “A man may stand there and put all America behind him,” wrote Thoreau of the Outer Cape, and Shattuck was doing just that over a cup of coffee, when the woman next to him offered him the New York Times she had just finished reading. The kindness in her voice and face invited conversation, which led to Shattuck developing a friendship with local fashion designer Mary DeAngelis.

Jenny Slate. Photo by Katie McCurdy.

Talk led to discussion of craft, her work here in town, and his as a writer and artist, as well as curator of the Dedee Shattuck Gallery (his mother’s), in Westport, Massachusetts. What a coincidence. DeAngelis’ partner Marian Roth is an artist, too, she explained to Shattuck. I’d love to meet her, he said, and see more of the town. He would definitely be coming back. And he did in the late spring, bringing his then girlfriend and now fiancée actress and comedian Jenny Slate. They took in a few of the offerings presented by Twenty Summers at the Hawthorne Barn and went with Roth and DeAngelis out to the dune shacks. Once again, Provincetown’s friendliness and magical charms have enchanted two more people, as Shattuck and Slate are returning this Tuesday to each read from their respective writing at the Provincetown Public Library at the suggestion of their two townie friends.

“That’s really how it happened,” says Shattuck. “Mary was just so nice to me. Everyone in Provincetown has been so nice. Talking to a stranger led to new friends and to us coming to a town that’s just so beautiful. Right away I thought, ‘Man, it would be so great to come and do something here creatively.’ Mary and Marian made that happen.”

Both Shattuck and Slate are Massachusetts natives, he from Dartmouth and she from Milton, so Provincetown was not completely unknown to them, even if only by reputation. And while their respective work has had them traveling around the country, they’ve recently found themselves in the gravitational pull of home, allowing them the time to come to the Outer Cape this week.

Slate is perhaps best known as a former cast member of Saturday Night Live, her character on the sitcom Parks and Recreation, and her starring role in the 2014 movie Obvious Child, chosen as part of the line up for that year’s Provincetown International Film Festival. She’ll be reading from her new book Little Weirds, slated to come out this November.

“It’s a collection of short fiction pieces that tend to be fairly lyrical,” says Slate. “You can immerse yourself in it or just open to any page and start reading. My editors didn’t know how to describe the book as they aren’t really essays or short stories in it. I just called them ‘little weirds’ that were running through my brain. So that’s where the name came from.”

A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop Shattuck earlier this year won a prestigious Pushcart Prize for his short story “The History of Sound.” As both a painter and a writer his mind works in seasons as his creative impulses shift. But it was his creation on a far-flung island that allows others to explore their own work when he founded the Cuttyhunk Island Writers’ Residency at the tip of the archipelago town of Gosnold formed by the Elizabeth Islands, which drip off the Upper Cape. On Cuttyhunk Island, which as a child Shattuck could see from his home in Dartmouth, students stay at the Avalon Inn, working with established writers and artists, many of whom also teach at the Fine Arts Work Center. Much like Provincetown, Cuttyhunk has its own mystical charms, as its remote location maintains a unique culture and its history a mystique, as some literary historians theorize it’s the island that inspired William Shakespeare to write The Tempest as he was friendly with Bartholomew Gosnold, the English explorer who gave it its current name. To add to the island’s mysticism, Cuttyhunk provided a little kismet for Slate and Shattuck.

Slate made international news when this past June she delivered the commencement address to a class of one when the island’s only eighth grader, Gwen Lynch, graduated from the one-room Cuttyhunk Elementary School built in 1873. The 13-year-old found herself to be a bit of a celebrity on this island with just over 50 year-round residents that swells to several hundred in the summer. The invitation to speak didn’t come from Shattuck, but rather a friend of Slate’s father. The previous year, Lynch’s brother also graduated solo and his commencement speaker was retired astronaut Cady Coleman. The island community wanted to do something special for Gwen, too. So when an islander traveled to Martha’s Vineyard, where Slate’s parents live, he remembered that his friend had a famous daughter.

“It was an early morning text from my Dad that’s more like a telegram, as he writes them like each word costs a nickel or something as he uses so few words,” says Slate. “I’m so glad I did it. I love Cuttyhunk. Now when I go I know most everyone. It’s kind of like with Mary and Marian in Provincetown. They just welcomed me in.”

Ben Shattuck and Jenny Slate will read excerpts of their work at the Provincetown Public Library, 356 Commercial St. on Tuesday, October 22 at 6 p.m. The event is free. For more information call 508.487.7094 or visit provincetownlibrary.org.

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If These Walls Could Talk

27 by Curtis Speer

by Rebecca M. Alvin

It’s hard to think of an uglier subject than the mass extermination of human beings that occurred in the Holocaust. Millions of people rounded up, tortured, stripped of their dignity, and often murdered in the official systematic process to fulfill Hitler’s “Final Solution.” But once it was over, and the concentration camps were liberated in 1945, what became of the buildings, the sites of such horrors? In Alain Resnais’ 1955 documentary Night and Fog, harsh images of life at the camps (footage mostly shot by the Nazis themselves, who were chronic documenters of their own atrocities) is interspersed with then-present-day footage of the silent structures, empty, powerless, and yet imbued with meaning, evidence, and traumatic memories.

All these decades later, many concentration camps still stand as historic sites that visitors come to so they can bear witness to what happened at such places. When photographer Curtis Speer was given the opportunity to go to Prague in 2011, he wanted to visit one particular concentration camp that had a very specific place in the Nazi system: Theresienstadt.

“Theresienstadt was one of the camps that I’ve always kind of been fascinated by… being that I’m a gay guy and a creative guy, because Hitler used this camp as a labor camp, but it was full of creative people,” explains Speer. Although he shot the photographs eight years ago, he is exhibiting them now here in Provincetown at his Cusp Gallery for the month of October.

Two Windows by Curtis Speer

Speer went to the camp on his own and walked the grounds photographing both the interior and exterior using naturally occurring light so as not to “create a production out of my presence there. I wanted to respect the grounds,” as he recalls.

The images Speer created document the architecture of a place of horrors. Originally built in the 1600s as a fort to keep invaders out, Theresienstadt was repurposed by the Nazis in 1941 when Jewish laborers were brought in to prepare it for the prisoners who would come through either as a stop before being sent to Auschwitz or another extermination camp, or because they were considered high-profile and the Nazis didn’t want too many questions asked about their whereabouts. It was also kind of a show camp, one that could be used when, for example, the Red Cross wanted to visit a camp. And due to the deliberate concentration of culturally accomplished inhabitants there, it was also a place where prisoners were able to experience cultural activities other camps did not foster. This was all part of the Nazi propaganda machine, a set up to prove the camps were not so bad, even having a kind of school there for the children.

Speer’s interiors show spaces now empty but which once housed thousands of Holocaust victimes. And yet there is a certain beauty to the quiet of the cracked paint, rusted door bolts no longer locking anyone in, and the play of sunlight on the harsh wooden benches and beds where so many undoubtedly once lay in terror awaiting their fate. In two companion shots called 27 and 28, hung in the first floor of the gallery, Speer shows an open doorway surrounded by orange and cream colored walls with a red stripe through the middle. In 27 the Star of David is carved into the stripe with the word Alvar (perhaps someone’s last name) carved next to it. Scratched and crumbling, discolored and damaged, the image shows a once horrific place that has been rendered harmless and sad from the perspective of today’s eyes, nearly 75 years after the camp was liberated.

The Grounds by Curtis Speer

What stood out to Speer looking at these rooms was “the volume of people that passed through there… A lot of those rooms—and they’re pretty tiny bunkers—they would cram hundreds of people in those. So I photographed each room standing against the opposite wall of the window, just to kind of give you an idea that the rooms aren’t very big. This wasn’t an extermination camp, but thousands and thousands of people passed away there because of sickness.” In fact, it’s estimated that 33,000 people died there and another 88,000 who were there were eventually sent to extermination camps where most of them perished. Of those people, 15,000 were children.

The exterior shots show a once mighty fort being overtaken by the natural environment that is steadily reclaiming the buildings, perhaps for the best. Speer was most impressed with the architecture and really wanted to capture that in these images.

While these were taken some time ago and many have since been added to the permanent collection of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., their power still resonates and Speer recalls vividly what it felt like to be there taking these photographs. “Without getting too woo-woo— you pick up on the energy of the space,” says Speer. “My heart sunk, but then it was like wow this is really beautiful. Of course, you know, I’m teary eyed the whole time… And it holds true. If I were to go back there, I’d probably go through the same gamut of emotions,” he adds.

Curtis Speer’s photographs of Theresienstadt are on exhibition in a show called Inside These Walls at Cusp Gallery, 115 Bradford St., Provincetown, through October 25. For more information call 323. 513.3161 or visit cuspgallery.com.

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Snack & Supply

Photo: Melissa Yeaw

Here in Provincetown we question the established notions of living. We wonder about the meat industry, we think about where our food comes from, we are concerned about nutritional values. Of course, we need a health food store. So now we have one! Snack & Supply is a fab new place on Commercial Street (sister shop to Grab’N Go) that carries everything you’d expect. There’s produce, bulk items, snacks, extensive vegan selections, vitamins, refrigerated items, personal care, cleaners, even cards, to name just a few healthy products.
And this fall, Michelle Jaffe, the owner, is planning to expand her shop. When she opened, she sought community feedback and she is still looking for it. So now is the time to get in there and let hr know what it is you want your own health food store to stock. It’s open through New Year’s.

Snack & Supply
209 Commercial St.
508.487.0080
snack-supply.business.site

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REVIEW: Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins

Molly Ivins in Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins, a Magnolia Pictures release. © Alan Pogue. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

by Steve Desroches

In 1993 the state of Texas enacted legislation outlawing sodomy. When the bill passed, the two male legislators responsible for the bill shook hands to congratulate one another. The great liberal journalist Molly Ivins was there and wrote in her column that upon seeing the handshake “…the Speaker had to send the sergeant-at-arms over to reprimand them both, because under the new law, ‘it’s illegal for a prick to touch an asshole in the state.’” No one could drive home a point or make such colorful observations like Molly Ivins. One of the great tragedies of our times is that she is not here to write about the Trump presidency.

With incredible insight and unmatched wit, Molly Ivins became a giant of journalism and liberal politics over the span of her career, with a wildly popular syndicated column as well as for her reporting in the New York Times, the Minneapolis Tribune as their first female police reporter, and most famously her political reporting for The Texas Observer. Wherever she went she left a big impression. The new documentary film Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins by Janice Engel marvelously preserves and presents this giant of thought and letters at exactly the right time in our culture, in part because much of her writing has proven to be prophetic.

The daughter of a wealthy, elite family, she grew up in the tony River Oaks neighborhood of Houston and then went on to graduate from Smith College and then the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. Despite her country-club pedigree, throughout her life she was every bit a Texas honky tonk woman; hard drinking, cigarette puffing, with a mouth that could make a longshoreman blush and a dog named Shit. She proved that everything is indeed bigger in Texas, and not just because she was six feet tall, but rather because when Ivins spoke, people listened. Some quaked. Others seethed. Most laughed. But above all else she made people think.

Journalists are supposed to report the news, not make it. But Ivins couldn’t help but become a superstar with her larger than life personality and spectacular writing, which put her in the same historical school of words as Will Rogers and Mark Twain. Her ability to use humor, and to eschew the idea that a journalist couldn’t express bias or a point of view, made her a must-read political writer, one of the rare superstars of the genre. Raise Hell shows a complete picture of Ivins, beer-soaked warts and all. Dying of cancer in 2007 at the age of 62, it’s testament to her work that she still registers on the Richter scale of political discourse all these years later. Raise Hell is a thrilling joy ride through Ivins’ wild life and an important tool in preserving this woman’s legacy for generations to come.

Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins screens at Waters Edge Cinema, Whaler’s Wharf, 237 Commercial St., 2nd fl. Thursday, October 17 and Friday, October 18, 1:30 p.m. Tickets ($9) are available at the box office and online at provincetownfilm.org. For more information call 508.487.3456.

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REVIEW: Vita & Virginia

Elizabeth Debicki as Virginia Woolf. Courtesy of IFC Films.

by Rebecca M. Alvin

Top Image: Elizabeth Debicki as Virginia Woolf. Courtesy of IFC Films.
An IFC Films release.

There are all sorts of relationships, affairs, and arrangements two people can have. Even relationships that seem to the outside world to be well defined, such as marriage, can often have complexities that conflict with the seemingly simple label. And in times and places where sexual orientations and preferences are strictly governed by what is socially acceptable, romantic and sexual relationships may be masqueraded as platonic or hidden away. In the world of writers and lovers Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, as portrayed by Elizabeth Debicki and Gemma Arterton, respectively, in Chany Button’s new film Vita & Virginia, the titular characters become involved in an affair that is neither hidden nor entirely accepted.

In the film, when they meet, it is Vita who is most intrigued by Virginia, but as often happens in romantic relationships, the tables turn and Virginia is the one who finds herself utterly distracted by Vita. Some of the best moments in the film feature Virginia describing the longing she feels, especially during intervals when Vita is traveling with her husband. And earlier in the relationship, after the two women have first slept together, Virginia describes to her sister Vanessa (Emerald Fennell) her experience of sex as the most “utterly physical experience” she’s ever had and one that lingers long after in the body as a sensual memory that cannot be shaken. It is not only the beauty and weight of the words spoken (the screenplay is written by Button, adapted from Eileen Atkins’s book and also includes the actual letters of Woolf and Sackville-West), but also Debicki’s delivery that makes these moments stand out.

While Debicki’s portrayal of the brilliant Woolf is stunning, bringing out the author’s brilliance and vulnerability all at once, Arterton’s Sackville-West is less appealing. She is selfish, spoiled, and irritating, and one wonders what it was that Woolf saw in her. Of course, this is often the case in real life, as well. How many times have you come across a couple where one is infinitely more interesting, beautiful, and kind than their mate who strikes you as dull, self-absorbed, and unremarkable?

Vita & Virginia excels in showing not only the relationship between these two women but also their relationships with their husbands and the relationships between other minor characters and their own spouses and lovers. It is a portrait of a specific love affair but it also sheds light on the many varieties of love and sexuality that can and do exist without the labels we so often wish to slap onto them.

Beautifully shot and edited, Vita & Virginia is an intelligent film about two real women that doesn’t fall into the usual pitfalls of biopics. By focusing intently on their relationship and the book Woolf ultimately wrote about Vita, Orlando, we are able to contemplate the nature of love and lust, with all their obsessive and consuming qualities, and also fathom how we live through such intensity and even grow stronger through exposing our vulnerabilities.

Vita & Virginia (NR, 110 mins.)  is screening at Waters Edge Cinema, 237 Commercial St., 2nd Fl., Provincetown, through October 20, Wednesday & Sunday, 7 p.m.; Thursday, 2 & 7 p.m., and Friday & Saturday, 2 p.m. Tickets are available at the door or online at watersedgecinema.org.

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Wright On!

Photo: Matthew Rogers

by Steve Desroches

For a country singer, performing in the Grand Ole Opry is always a special occasion. It’s perhaps the single biggest force in presenting country music to the world. Since the radio show began in 1925 in Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry is now the longest running radio broadcast in American history and has made the Tennessee city a musical force with a global reach.  So when Chely Wright took to the stage this past August, 30 years after making her debut there when she was only 18, it was, as always, like stepping on “hallowed ground.”

She’d performed there many times over her career. However, this time all of who she is was on the stage. This time, when she performed her hit 1999 song “Single White Female,” the one that made her a country music superstar, she adjusted the original lyrics and instead sang “a single white female, looking for a girl like you.” She received a thunderous ovation after her performance.

Nashville is changing.

Wright made big news in 2010 when she came out as a lesbian in her autobiography Like Me, becoming one of the first big country music stars to do so in what is considered to be the very conservative country music industry. Nashville’s music establishment had invited Wright in back in 1988, when she made her first Grand Ole Opry appearance, which was followed by many more over the next 20 years that followed. The Academy of Country Music named her the Top New Female Vocalist of 1995, and two years later she had her first hit with “Shut Up and Drive.” She was a bona fide country star selling millions of albums worldwide.

Photo: Matthew Rogers

Though she achieved happiness and peace of mind by coming out, her career took a hit. Immediately after, her record sales were cut in half. She received hate mail and death threats. Gigs became fewer and farther between. It would be almost 10 years before she would receive another invitation to sing at the Grand Ole Opry. But she is once again on a rising trajectory, both personally and professionally. The call to perform again in Nashville came to her while she was doing dishes in the New York City home that she shares with her wife Lauren Blitzer and their two sons. Performing there is always like the “Super Bowl” or “the World Series.” It’s the very essence of country music. It felt good to be going home. And how lovingly she was embraced that night had her in tears.

“The industry itself is pretty liberal,” says Wright. “It’s all really smart, progressive people. The alternate reality of that is to whom it sells records to. We know how conservative parts of the country can be.  It’s when the marketing people come in and they look at how to frame an artist. That leans conservative. They themselves may not have a problem with LGBTQ people in country music, but without a doubt it cannot match up to the culture they’re trying to sell the music to. But country has changed. There’s been progress. I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Country music is in Wright’s DNA. Her family’s home in tiny Wellsville, Kansas, was full of country music albums: Connie Smith, Buck Owens, Jimmie Rogers, Loretta Lynn. Her mother would play DJ and fill the house with music. Wright’s earliest memories are a house filled with country music. When she heard the steel guitar intro to Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” Wright says her body had a “molecular” response, changing her forever. She knew at age four she wanted to be a country singer.

At that same age she went missing from home, wandering away, frightening her parents, who formed a search party. They found her singing “Frankie and Johnny” at the local nursing home.

Wright had her first paid gig at nine singing in her hometown’s downtown park, earning $30. Her dreams of stardom soon followed. To date she’s released eight studio albums and five EPs, including the recently released Revival. And now she’s kicking off a tour to promote the record starting this Columbus Day weekend in Boston and Northampton, before making her Provincetown debut this Friday at Fishermen Hall. For Wright, it feels so good to be back in the recording studio and on the road, as she is particularly proud of Revival.

“You don’t want to make the same record twice,” says Wright. “My mindset is to always be the least talented person in the room. A rising tide lifts all boats. It pushes you; it pushes everyone, to be their best, to work hard. It breaks muscle memory. It reignites your creativity.”

Coming out introduced Wright’s music, and, at times, country music in general, to legions of new fans, as she acted as an ambassador to many who ignored the genre in part because of the presumed homophobia within the industry. While her career may have initially suffered throughout the past decade, she’s been a vocal LGBT activist, telling her story on The Oprah Winfrey Show, in newspaper and magazines from the New York Times to People, and in the 2011 documentary about her coming out, Wish Me Away, which won multiple awards at film festivals around the country. She also founded the Like Me Organization, which works to prevent LGBT bullying and teen suicide. And since coming out, Wright has been a catalyst for change in Nashville. There are still many country musicians in the closet, says Wright, but hopefully that, too, will change soon. Wright even sees a silver lining in the hate mail she still gets from time to time, saying that in order for them to write something they had to think about LGBT people, which means there is an opportunity for them to think differently one day.

“I’ve heard from a lot of prominent people for a lot of different reasons,” says Wright. “Some didn’t come out and some left the business. When it’s as important as love, when it’s an issue of who we are, well something’s got to give.  At some point you have to say, ‘I’m going to live my life.’ You can’t spend your life hiding and trying to make everyone else happy. Sometimes you need to say, ‘Screw my career. I need to be happy.’”

Chely Wright performs, along with opening act Magen Tracy, at Fishermen Hall, 12 Winslow St., Provincetown, Friday, October 11 at 8 p.m. Tickets ($35-$50) are available online at waydowntownptown.com. For more information call 508.487.8800.

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Sorry, Not Sorry!

Photo: Josh Fee

by Steve Desroches

Everything is more polite in Canada, including their political scandals. Our gentle giant neighbor to the north is embroiled in a tumultuous campaign season as the Canadian federal elections set for October 21 approach. The handsome and charismatic prime minister Justin Trudeau, son of the immensely popular late prime minister Pierre Trudeau, is fighting to stay in office, seeing his popularity slip as many felt he over-promised reforms prior to coming to power in 2015, and then standing accused of trying to influence an ongoing criminal investigation into a Quebec-based construction company, and most recently, there surfaced several photos of Trudeau from the 1990s at costume parties in blackface.

Showing it is a robust democracy with functioning checks and balances, the prime minister’s power is being challenged, and Canadians will decide his fate. The entire campaign and election will wrap up in 40 days total, and the debate, at least by American standards, has been sober, calm, and respectful. Compare that to our system in which presidential campaigns seem to begin the day after the election, millions and millions of dollars in dark money heavily influence the process, vicious lies are spewed over cable networks that more closely resemble propaganda machines, and then, regardless of who most Americans vote for, an antiquated system puts into office a bloated orange madman who calls neo-Nazis “good people,” cozies up to dictators while insulting our closest allies, and asks foreign governments to investigate his political rivals. It makes the whole situation in Canada look downright quaint. For Toronto-based dual citizen comedian Maggie Cassella, straddling the border in these strange days is comedy gold.

“This thing with Trudeau came out two seconds before I went on stage,” says Cassella about a recent gig in the States. “I went out and said, ‘I’ll take our political assholes over your political assholes any day.’”

Photo: Josh Fee

Cassella is certainly no stranger to Provincetown, as she spent 20 summers here performing her show Because I Said So, a concept that she turned into a Canadian talk show. She’s also been a staple of the Women’s Week line up for just as long. A lawyer by training, Cassella’s a crowd favorite for her straight talk and rapid-fire delivery, turning exasperation into big laughs. But these days people are often not in laughing moods on either side of the border, even though the situations pale in comparison.

Cassella returns to tiny Provincetown, an oasis of sanity in a crazy world, which is saying something, considering the town is known for its eccentric ways. Whether waving the maple leaf or the old red, white, and blue, the view across our 5,500-plus-mile border (8,851 kilometers for our friends who use the metric system) has done a complete 180. Canadians used to admire the United States, and Americans largely ignored Canada. Now many Americans say they’ll move north if an election goes sour, and Canadians think the U.S. has completely lost its collective mind.

“It’s a good thing you can’t tell I’m American,” says Cassella. “When people ask me where I’m from I just say, ‘I’m gay.’ If they find out you’re American, they ask, ‘What happened? What the hell is going on there?’ and ask you to explain the Electoral College to them. Who the hell can make sense of that?!”

In fairness, the parliamentary system – with its ridings and snap elections – confused Cassella for a while. But then she just did what she does best; she makes fun of it all, which is easy to do in Toronto, a city long famous for its comedy heritage and scene. Cassella became an important part of that comedic community when in 1996 she founded We’re Funny That Way! an LGBT comedy festival that continues to this day. Conventional wisdom says that to be a successful comedian you need to be in New York or Los Angeles. Not so, says Cassella.

“Sadly, a lot of Canadians think they have to move to the States to make it,” says Cassella. “That’s changing a bit, though. Toronto is a really important comedy city. There are people making things happen here and showing you don’t have to go to America. There is some amazing stuff happening in Toronto.”

Maggie Cassella presents All American Canadian at The Club, 193A Commercial St., Friday, October 11 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, October 12 through Sunday, October 20 (except Tuesday and Wednesday) at 2 p.m. Tickets ($30) are available at the  box office and online at theclubptown.com. For more information call 508.487.1527.

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Why Did The Chicken Cross The Road On 9/11?

The first issue of The Onion after 9/11.

by Steve Desroches

It took a little over two weeks for America to start laughing again after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As Americans stumbled through the haze of trauma, shock, and grief, laughter seemed not just distant, but perhaps also a cultural casualty of that awful day. The following week Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, wrote a premature obituary declaring the death of irony. So, too, did Roger Rosenblatt in Time magazine and many others in the media. Those who observe and comment on our culture didn’t see a clear path toward how comedy would recover and said so almost in panicked tones. At its absolute best comedy can heal, and laughter is a necessary salve soothing the tragedies of life. We need to laugh. But who was going to crack the first joke to a nation still in tears.

The first issue of The Onion after 9/11.

It was on September 29 that two comedy institutions tried to get America laughing again, with very different results. Saturday Night Live began its 27th season with a solemn, cold open featuring members of the New York police and fire departments and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani declaring the city would begin to return to normal. When Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels ask Giuliani, “Can we be funny?” the Mayor quipped “Why start now?” And the audience laughed. But just a few blocks uptown at the Friar’s Club, at a roast of Hugh Hefner, things went differently when comedian Gilbert Gottfried took to the dais and joked, “I have to leave early tonight, I have a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight. They said I have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” The audience hissed and booed, and someone yelled out “Too soon!”

Gilbert Gottfried

Tragedy plus time equals comedy. That old adage rings true, especially considering how jokes about past horrible events roll off the tongue, be it the Lincoln assassination (Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?) or the Hindenburg disaster with people yelling out “Oh the humanity!” for the littlest thing, proving irony is hard to kill. Timing is everything in comedy, in more ways than one. And everybody has their own internal clock as to when a joke is funny, be it a few days or years or never. The bigger the taboo, the bigger both the laughs and the controversy, something journalist Julie Seabaugh sees all the time, as her beat is exclusively comedy. And she explores just how far you can push comedy in an upcoming documentary Too Soon? The Comedy of 9/11, an excerpt of which will be shown at the new End of the Earth Comedy Festival this weekend.

“It was a big moment,” says Seabaugh about those comedic moments after September 11. “It was pretty pivotal, especially for comedians.”

Lewis Black

Based in Los Angeles, Seabaugh writes about comedy in all its formats, but primarily live performance, covering those who make people laugh for a living and turn it into an art form.  Those comics who can successfully ride the edge are masterful to watch, and in particular, those who can make people laugh using something as gut-punchingly tragic as 9/11 are fascinating. It’s why when her filmmaker friend Nick Fituri Scown asked her if she’d like to make a documentary about this most verboten of topics she said yes, coming on as producer. The 20-minute sneak peek screening of the doc focuses on the satirical newspaper The Onion and its first issue after 9/11. The staff of The Onion celebrated their move from Madison, Wisconsin, to New York City with a party on September 10 of that year. That first New York City based issue was their debut to a city deep in mourning with headlines like “U.S. Vows To Defeat Whoever It Is We’re At War With,” “Rest of Country Temporarily Feels Deep Affection For New York,” and “Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves in Hell.” They, too, initially received messages of “too soon,” but followed by many more of gratitude for breaking the sadness and tension smothering New York.

Regardless of the topic, comedy is especially hard in these times of cancel culture and keyboard warriors. A joke can end someone’s career now, or at least derail it, even if the comic themselves is intimately tied to the tragic source material. Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson was seven years old when his father, a New York City firefighter, was killed on 9/11. At a Comedy Central roast of Justin Bieber he made jaws drop when he joked, “I lost my dad on 9/11, and I always regretted growing up without a dad, until I met your dad, Justin. Now, I’m glad mine’s dead.” For that joke, and others, he caught a lot of flack. He responded that he jokes about what’s most painful until it doesn’t hurt anymore. The Internet can frequently have a toxic effect on comedy as it removes all context, intention, and tone, says Seabaugh, as those who comment on a joke often weren’t even at the show. It’s like reviewing a play you never saw. All that’s left can be uninformed sanctimony.

David Cross

“Comedy in part is something you need to experience live in the moment with someone connecting with the audience,” says Seabaugh. “A lot of the people who say a joke is inappropriate the most have never been in a comedy club.”

There is no other journalist in America who documents comedy more than Seabaugh. Author of Ringside at Roast Battle: The First Five Years of L.A.’s Fight Club for Comedians, Seabaugh grew up on a farm in rural Missouri without cable television. As a journalism student at the University of Missouri she first got the idea to be on the ha ha beat when stand up comic Dave Attell came to campus and she and her friends took him to The Heidelberg, a favorite haunt for the journalism students, for Jägermeister shots. The rest of the night went as one might expect it would with Jägermeister as fuel, but both her head and stomach hurt the next day, one from drinking and the other from laughing.

Julie Seabaugh

“I woke up the next morning on my friend Dan’s floor,” says Seabaugh. “And I thought, ‘I like this comedy thing.’ It’s free speech, and all you need for comedy is a microphone and a brain. You can have an audience where people disagree on things, but laughter is unifying. It gives me a certain optimism. In comedy you can talk about anything, often those things that people on an everyday basis find difficult to talk about.”

The End of the Earth Comedy Festival presents an excerpt of the documentary film Too Soon? The Comedy of 9/11 followed by a panel discussion featuring Julie Seabaugh on Saturday, October 12 at 3 p.m. at the Pilgrim House, 336 Commercial St., Provincetown. Tickets ($15) are available at the box office and online at pilgrimhouseptown.com. For more information call 508.487.6424.

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Going Inside

Packard in her studio. Photo: Ron Amato

A New Direction for Anne Packard

by Rebecca M. Alvin

Top Image: Packard in her studio.  Photo: Ron Amato

“I love the paintings I paint in my sleep. They’re masterpieces. They’re everything I want. That sounds crazy, doesn’t it?” asks Provincetown painter Anne Packard, her eyes wide and sparkling with energy. “But it’s in a half-world. It’s not a conscious [thing]… It’s got to be in the half-world.”

Her paintings have most often been plein air depictions of the land and sea, moody portraits of boats in the bay, usually solitary ones. But she is quick to say these are not about loneliness. “I’ve rarely been lonely. And I love my solitude,” she explains thoughtfully. “And I also have loved my boats.

Each boat is like a character for Packard. “Each one is an individual that’s gone through something. And I feel sorry for them when their bottoms aren’t scrubbed out or taken out of the water in time. I have an affinity for them. They’re persons,” she says.

People rarely figure into these paintings, and Packard admits she has few relationships and rarely spends time in the gallery she owns because of the energy it takes to be around people. “I don’t have many relationships… It uses me up,” she says. “I don’t have the energy to take care of them.”

In her new show at her own Packard Gallery, she will feature works that are not typical for her: interiors. Why now? It likely has to do with her having been ill for several months, spending a lot of time inside and no longer having the energy and strength to do plein air painting. But also, it may just be time for a change. “I don’t want to think about horizon lines for a little while,” she confesses. “I mean when you live with it 40 years, it starts to feel like a glass ball that I’m enclosed in. I don’t like that.”

These images are mostly of beds—some real and some imagined. “There’s something about your bed or a bed that is messed up that you want to crawl into,” she says with a smile. “And I love the play of light that a bright sun or any kind of light that comes through the window onto the messed sheets.”

Afternoon Light (11 x 14, oil on board) © Anne Packard

Packard’s history with the town is a long, rich one, and just about everyone here knows the name. But her story is wrapped up in rumor and legend. Packard is, as she puts it “a fighter… a survivor.” And along with that tenacity comes a certain intensely individualistic personality that has always thrived in Provincetown, even if things have since changed. “I can live here in any manner I wish to. And the people who come in here now, they don’t understand it. F**k ‘em,” she says.

She makes this declaration now as we sit in her longtime home on the bay side of Commercial Street in the East End neighborhood where legends like Norman Mailer and Robert Motherwell used to live. A wall of windows showcases what has been Packard’s muse throughout her career (she’s lived in this house over 40 years): the ocean and the tides coming in and out reliably every day, nonstop. But when Packard first came here that freedom to do as she pleased was hard won. She arrived in her early 40s, a woman with five children to raise on her own after her husband, a writer and teacher, ran off to Europe with his 19-year-old girlfriend. Although Packard had been painting for about 10 years by then, she had always put her husband’s work and the needs of her family ahead of her creative impulses and was never able to really get anywhere, professionally, as an artist. Provincetown had been a place she’d come to as a child, and her family already had a legacy here through her grandfather, painter Max Bohm, who lived and died in Provincetown before Anne was born.  Perhaps something of his spirit helped her along in those early days when she began painting on anything she could get her hands on—driftwood, paper, scrap wood—and she began selling her work right in front of this very house. In those days, her paintings fetched prices like $15 or $25. Now, her work sells for thousands.

Sitting on the sofa in paint-stained green corduroys, the 86-year-old artist has a defiant energy to her. She came here with nothing but that energy and raised her family as a bohemian tribe. “We were not like other people, the way we lived,” she recalls. The kids ate on the kitchen floor because the table was full of paints. Packard says there was no resentment on her part. By the time she got serious about painting, her youngest was 12 and so she was able to live the creative life and still take care of them, sometimes barely able to put food on the table, though.

Bedroom View (30 x 40, oil on canvas) © Anne Packard

Her work was so impressive that her neighbor in the 1970s, prominent artist Robert Motherwell bought pieces from her, but stopped short of helping her with his significant contacts and influence in the art world by that time. Packard studied with artist Philip Malicoat, who taught her a lot, but gave her an ultimatum that speaks volumes about the bourgeois idealism of male painters of the time. He told her if she continued to sell her art in front of her house (what he saw as abusing her muse), he would not teach her anymore. When she explained she had six mouths to feed, he told her she should be a waitress and only paint for creative fulfillment and not for money. Packard did not listen.

Packard’s grandfather Max Bohm once advised “Submit to no one and paint what you like.” This seems to be Packard’s ethos. Grateful for the success she has found, she says, “I love being successful and I appreciate all my followers. And they’ve made my life much pleasanter, because we were hand-to-mouth here, literally.”

And even now that Provincetown has changed so much from the wild, free place Packard was first drawn to, it’s still the only place for her. “It’s the only place I have ever felt comfortable.”

Anne Packard’s new work will be shown in the exhibition A Different View, October 11 – 31, at Packard Gallery, 418 Commercial St., Provincetown. There will be an opening reception with Packard in attendance on Friday, October 11, 6 – 8 p.m. For more information call 508.487.4690 or visit packardgallery.com.

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Jobi Pottery

Photo: Melissa Yeaw

Susan Kurtzman is passionate about her pottery! She’s the owner of Jobi Pottery, a cottage industry in Truro that has been operating now for 66 years, the last 16 of which Susan has been at the helm. The pottery was first designed and created by two men, Joe and Bill, hence the name “Jobi,” and Susan learned from none other than Joe himself. She is definitely continuing the tradition, and her excitement and fresh approach are invigorating, interesting, and dynamic.

You can find the old designs, and even a line of vintage Jobi Pottery, but there is so much more in her happy, bright, colorful shop. Local artists’ work grace the walls, there are table runners, jewelry, cards, local honey, locally made furniture, bread boards, oyster clamps, lamps, Ts, and sweats, just to name a few of the items. Be sure to check out the new line, “Retro” by SLK, which is different from the traditional Jobi, but with the same jazzy, colorful, fun feel!


Jobi Pottery
314 Rt. 6 Unit 3,

Truro
508.349.2303
jobipottery.com

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