Category Archives: Heard on Campus

Austin Kleon explains how to “steal like an artist” at the Penn Bookstore

Austin Kleon of newspaper-blackout-poem fame recently stopped by the Penn Bookstore to discuss his new book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. With one of his 20×200 prints hanging on my wall, I couldn’t resist hearing what he had to say.

Calling it a “picture book for adults,” Kleon said Steal Like an Artist began with a speech he gave about the things he wished he’d known when he started out. He ultimately decided to turn that advice into a book for budding artists. Here are some of the main points from his visit to Penn, including a post-talk Q&A:

  • You are a mashup of what you let into your life. In other words, artists are collectors.
  • Your inspiration shouldn’t be limited to living artists. “The great thing about dead or remote masters is they can’t refuse you as an apprentice.”
  • Keep a “swipe file,” either digitally or on paper, of works you see that are “worth stealing.” Then, when you’re in search of inspiration, simply open up your swipe file to find some.
  • “Creativity is subtraction.” Figure out what to leave out of a given work so you can concentrate on what’s most important.
  • Assigning constraints can lead to some of your best work. For instance, Dr. Seuss’s editor bet him that he couldn’t write a book that used only 50 words. The beloved children’s book author wound up creating Green Eggs and Ham.
  • For those whose jobs require creativity, it can be challenging to summon still more creativity at the end of the day for independent artistic pursuits. Become a morning person and use your greatest stores of creativity on your own art before the workday begins.

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Filed under Heard on Campus, Visual Art

An evening with the puzzlemaster

Last week, a diverse group of puzzle lovers gathered in Irvine Auditorium to hear from Will Shortz, the New York Times’ crossword puzzle editor. He’s held that post since 1993, but even if you’re not a crossword fan specifically, you’ve probably encountered Will’s work at some point. He’s been the puzzlemaster on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday since 1987, and he’s the man behind several best-selling Sudoku books. He’s also the only person in the world with a college degree in “enigmatology”—that is, the study of puzzles.

Shortz came to Penn as part of the academic Year of Games. (You can read more about that theme year here, and even print out a few ancient games to try.) As part of his presentation, Shortz discussed the main requirements for a crossword puzzle (symmetrical design; words of three or more letters; lively language), his favorite puzzles, and the psychology behind our attraction to puzzles.

Here, Shortz explains his all-time favorite crossword puzzle: an Election Day edition that appeared November 5, 1996 and offered two possible solutions to the clue “Lead story in tomorrow’s newspaper (!).”

And here, Shortz shares his thoughts on why we’re drawn to puzzles in the first place:

Following his presentation and a brief Q&A, Shortz split the audience into two teams and quizzed volunteer participants, NPR puzzlemaster-style. Wondering how you would have done? Here’s an example of one of the games Shortz led that evening:

Given two words, anagram the letters of one of them to get a slang synonym of the other one (i.e. DRUNK and MOBBED ==> BOMBED — an anagram of MOBBED that is also a slang synonym of DRUNK).
-COOL and CRAZY ==> ?
-DEBUTS and BANKRUPT ==> ?
-GENIUS and NINETIES ==> ?

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Filed under Heard on Campus, Written Word

‘Movie Buff’ Amy Gutmann’s Top 10 List

Hey, fellow Penn alumni (psst, Class of 2011 – that now includes you!): Did you catch President Amy Gutmann’s commencement address yesterday morning?

A self-proclaimed “movie buff,” Gutmann said she was inspired by the anniversary of the first Academy Awards ceremony and the presence of 2011 commencement speaker Denzel Washington to discuss the life lessons she’s drawn from her 10 favorite films. In case you missed it, here is a bullet-point version of Gutmann’s “Top 10 Things You Can Learn from the Favorite Movies of This Penn President” list:

10) The Wizard of Oz: “On life’s journey, brains, heart, and courage come in handy.”

9) Casablanca: “Dedicating ourselves to a higher purpose and deep loyalties are values we should always treasure.”

8 ) The Social Network: “Virtual relationships are no substitute for real ones.”

7) True Grit: “Perseverance pays off.”

6) Avatar: “Respect nature and each other.”

5) Titanic: “No ship or scheme or strategy is unsinkable.”

4) E.T.: “Phone home.”

3) Silence of the Lambs: “Gives a whole new meaning to having an old friend to dinner.”

2) Julie & Julia: “Despite what the doctors here say, everything really is better with butter.”

1) The King’s Speech: “Judge individuals not by their rank, but by their merit. And even more strikingly, it’s not always the case that what you say is more important than how you say it.”

The full video of Gutmann’s speech is below. What movies would you have included on your Top 10 list, and what did you learn from them?

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Filed under Film, Heard on Campus

100-year-old architectural gem still sparkles on Walnut Street

Photo by Molly Petrilla

In 1911, fresh from their success with the New York Public Library, noted architects Carrère and Hastings turned their attention to Philadelphia. Known for their Beaux-Arts creations, the New York-based duo was asked to design a new house of worship for the First Church of Christ Scientist. The result was the Rotunda – a striking building that still stands at 4014 Walnut Street, but now with a very different mission.

After purchasing the building in 1996, the University transformed the Rotunda into the thriving and diverse performance space it is today. Both students and community members perform and attend a variety of arts events there, from concerts and film screenings to dance and theatrical performances.

Gina Renzi, the Rotunda’s director, was kind enough to meet with me to discuss the 100-year-old space’s history, architectural elements, and cultural offerings. Here is the resulting video, chock full of photos and interesting facts:

Also, if you happen to be in Philadelphia this weekend, the Rotunda is presenting three performances of Le Dada Va Gaga dans 2011 — a site-specific dance/video work created for the Rotunda’s rarely seen sanctuary (seen in both the video above and the photo below). You can find all the relevant details on that performance here.

Photo by Molly Petrilla

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Filed under Dance, Film, Heard on Campus, Music, Student Life, Theatre, Visual Art

Puppets at Penn: A discussion with some of the art form’s key players


I have Fraggle Rock DVDs on my shelf, The Muppet Show theme song in my head, and two Avenue Q playbills stashed somewhere in my basement. I tell you that not to impress (or frighten) you, but to make you aware of an important fact about me: I like puppets.

Sadly, as an adult living in 2011, my daily exposure to puppets generally hovers around zero. (Especially since Avenue Q closed.) That said, I’ve been looking forward to a Penn Humanities Forum spring event titled Puppets: The Original Avatars ever since I heard about it several months ago. (The event was also a part of Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA) 2011, which runs through May 1.)

Here’s the description Penn provided:

For thousands of years, puppeteers and their audiences have known what Hollywood still hasn’t quite mastered: how to breathe life into the inanimate to create a consistent reality. Puppets have historically served as the middlemen between humanity and its gods, inviting viewers to reimagine the world long before motion pictures and computers did. As live theater and cinema battle for audience, what role does the puppet play on stage and on screen? While technology races forward, creating new ways of defining experience, one question sums up the issues: was the puppet Yoda in the original Star Wars saga better than his digital representation in the later movies?

Join us for a a romp through the world of puppetry old and new, using video and live performances in this roundtable discussion featuring reflections, anecdotes, and analysis from some of the world’s most notable scholars and practitioners of puppetry.

And so, after several months of anticipation, I found myself inside Houston Hall’s Bodek Lounge last night with about 125 other puppet enthusiasts, waiting to hear from some of the country’s foremost puppet experts and wondering what sort of live performances might lie ahead.

Moderated by English Professor/Penn Humanities Forum Director Jim English, the discussion panel consisted of:

  • Robert Smythe, founder and artistic director of Mum Puppettheatre — the only regional theatre in the country devoted to puppetry. (Sadly, it closed in 2008 after 23 years of puppet performances.)
  • Martin P. Robinson, a professional puppeteer who has worked on Sesame Street since 1981 (he’s performed as Snuffleupagus, Telly Monster and Slimey the Worm) and who designed, built and performed the plant in the original off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors in 1982.
  • Eileen Blumenthal, a professor of theatre arts at Rutgers University and the author of Puppetry: A World History.


It was a dynamic group, and English’s first question — What exactly is a puppet? — led to a lengthy discussion among the panelists. Smythe said a puppet is “an inanimate object manipulated so that the audience believes it thinks,” while Blumenthal defined it as “when an inanimate object is endowed with life and cast into a scenario.” All three panelists agreed that it’s not an easy term to pin down, especially in the age of digital (i.e. CGI) puppets.

Definitions aside, Robinson said he greatly prefers the original Yoda puppet in Star Wars to the more recent computer-animated one. He also noted that the original Yoda was both voiced and puppeteered by only one person–Frank Oz of Muppet Show and Sesame Street fame–creating a complete, single-source acting performance that doesn’t happen with today’s swarms of computer animators. (Robinson also said the Sesame Street group affectionately refers to the original Yoda as “Groda,” because Oz’s voice for him was similar to the Grover character he’d created on Sesame. See what you think here.)

Smythe, who teaches puppetry at Temple University, discussed some of the research that’s taking place around puppets. Asked whether they’re more accurately described as children’s entertainment or high art, he said there is no doubt puppetry appeals to children, but that a cognitive development study he’s been working on has found something more surprising: “Now we actually have hard data that backs up that when people watch puppets, there’s something in the limbic part of the brain that actually fires and gets us excited,” he said. “It happens no matter how old you are…there’s something that’s actually physiologically happening in the human brain that enables an instant connection with puppets.”

Smythe also mentioned another puppet-based study that has found that a four year old can determine whether a puppet is manually or electronically operated based only on a four-second video clip.

He later noted that puppetry “is no more threatened than live theatre is threatened,” and criticized the notion of putting puppets in museums. He said the latter is akin to going to an art museum to stare at the artist’s paintbrush; in both puppetry and painting, the product is the painting or performance, not the tools used to produce it.

Following still more back-and-forth chat about what constitutes a puppet (do cartoons count? dolls? dummies? masks? dog toys?), an audience member asked the panelists what they would have liked to talk about that night, had there not been so much time spent on defining a puppet. Here are their answers:

And finally, in the moment we’d all been waiting for, Robinson introduced several of his puppets, including a retired version of Telly Monster:

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Filed under Film, Heard on Campus, Television, Theatre

Stephanie Harzewski Gr’06 on “Chick Lit and Postfeminism”

While it began as a playful nickname for Princeton University’s Female Literary Tradition course in the 1980s, “chick lit” has since evolved into something much broader. In the 1990s, it referred to an avant-garde movement in women’s fiction; in the early 2000s, it gave us Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sex and the City; and today, it’s best defined as “a humorous work of literature with a female-centered plot…written for women and by women,” according to alumna Stephanie Harzewski Gr’06.

Harzewski’s someone you should trust on the subject, as she has quite literally written the book on chick lit — it’s called Chick Lit and Postfeminism, and it was published by University of Virginia Press just last month.

As part of its Women’s History Month lineup, the Penn Women’s Center co-sponsored Harzewski’s visit to the Penn Bookstore last week. I recorded her talk — in which she discussed the genre’s origins, evolution, and significance — and have included the entire audio file below. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

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Filed under Alumni, Heard on Campus, Written Word

Sam Apple reads from American Parent: My Strange and Surprising Adventures in Modern Babyland

I saw Sam Apple read from his most recent book, American Parent: My Strange and Surprising Adventures in Modern Babyland, at the Writers House back in the fall. It was a great reading, but tragically, I forgot to bring my camera along. I’ve been hoping to see a video posted ever since, and finally spotted one a few weeks ago. Hooray!

Sam’s work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, Parents Magazine, and Slate.com, and his first book, Schlepping Through the Alps, was named a finalist for the PEN America award for a first work of nonfiction. In 2005, he received the annual Faux Faulkner award, and in 2004, he was a finalist for the Koret Award for Young Writers on Jewish Themes. He holds an MFA from Columbia University.

You can also watch a full recording of the event–including an introduction by Sam’s father, Max Apple–here: http://media.sas.upenn.edu/watch/102659.

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