[The New Yorker Festival]

Off-topic, yes; but exciting, nonetheless.

This weekend I attended The New Yorker Festival–or, more precisely, a New Yorker Festival event. I was at my computer several weeks ago when the tickets went on sale. The most sought-after tickets were for Calvin Trillin’s walking tour of Chinatown. How perfect that would be for this website…

But before I could click enter after typing “ticketmaster” into my web browser, that event was all sold out. So I honored my inner-playwright/theater person and bought two tickets for “The Method”—a Saturday event moderated by one of my all-time favorite writers, John Lahr (the New Yorker’s theater critic) featuring Cynthia Nixon, Edward Norton, Stanley Tucci and Stockard Channing.

I arrived at the Director’s Guilt Theater on 57th on Saturday at 3 (the event started at 4):

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My friend Ricky was meeting me but he was running late. I stood in line reading “King Lear” for class. Others read too. (This was a brainy crowd). Across the street, an ambulance arrived. A man was splayed out on the sidewalk. The New Yorker intellectuals gawked intellectually. I think the man was ok.

Once inside, I secured two seats in the last row of the main level. (There was an upper level too.) The crowd looked suspiciously accomplished. Who lurked among us? I thought Tom Shales was sitting across the aisle from me. My only evidence was that someone went up to him and said, “Hi Tom.” Otherwise, I have no idea what Tom Shales looks like.

Ricky arrived. The panel began. Stockard Channing was swapped for Philip Seymour Hoffman. (I love Philip Seymour Hoffman, so I was happy.) Here’s a horrible picture of the panel (click to enlarge):

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The format was pretty great. John Lahr joked, “I’m not going to ask what your favorite curse word is.”

Instead, he had each of the participants bring two clips: one where they think they acted well, one where they think they acted poorly.

Cynthia Nixon showed the clip of her marrying Steve on “Sex and the City” as an example of her bad acting. “When I encounter a scene marked IMPORTANT SCENE, I tense up and I don’t let anything exciting happen,” she explained. For an example of her good acting, she showed a great clip of her in a TV movie with Scott Bakula where she played an Appalachian woman with TB whose husband builds a glass house for her to keep her away from her deaf daughter who she thinks deserves to go off to school. Trust me, this clip alone was worth the price of admission.

Ed Norton didn’t have time to prepare two clips. So he brought a clip of a moment he a considers a profound learning experience—the courtroom scene in “The People vs. Larry Flynt.”

Stanley Tucci (who was the crowd favorite–truly a funny guy) brought a guffaw-inducing clip of his bad acting. I have no idea what the movie was; but he was the villain on a space ship that was about to explode. “I’m awful!” he exclaimed over the audiences laughter. For his good clip he showed a scene from one of my all-time favorite movies, “Big Night.” If you haven’t seen it, run out and rent it.

Finally, Philip Seymour Hoffman showed, for his bad clip, a scene from “Along Came Polly.” Hearing PSH talk about why this is bad acting on his part was a revelation. I’d paraphrase, but I won’t do it justice. It was truly refreshing to hear an actor intelligently slam his own work—as opposed to the group masturbation that occurs on “Inside The Actor’s Studio.” For his good clip, PSH showed a clip from “Happiness.”

Anyway, once outside the theater…

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John Lahr stood near the entrance. I came prepared with a copy of “Prick Up Your Ears” (the book that inspired me to apply to grad school in playwriting) and a magic marker. I asked him if he’d autograph my book. He was truly charming. He graciously listened to me yap about NYU, Joe Orton, Tennessee Williams, and the current state of theater. The inscription mysteriously reads: “To Adam–The words are obscure, but the pictures will keep you from harm. – John Lahr.”

At the end of our exchange, a scruffy-faced man with glasses came over to talk to John. “John,” he said, “I’m George Saunders, just wanted to say hi before I go.”

George Saunders! Hello, I have all his books. If you haven’t read him, you’re truly missing out. Check out “Pastoralia” and “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.” There is no one else in the English language who writes the way he does. He’s a true original.

When he disengaged from John Lahr, I rather bravely went up to him, shook his hand and told him I was a huge fan. “Thanks,” he said sheepishly. Guess it’s not often anyone recognizes George Saunders on the street.

I’m sharing this with you guys because this was a crowning New York moment for me. I spent the last seven years at Dunkin’ Donuts in Atlanta reading New Yorkers fervently, dreaming of the day I would meet these people. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll moderate a New Yorker event on food, theater and law only to have a young Atlanta sap come with a print-out from my former food-blogging days and ask me to autograph it. Maybe I’ll use my power to coerce sex. No matter what, it was a terrific weekend.

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