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    Jeremy O. Harris's Grad School Reunion

    Standing, from left: SOHINA SIDHU, actress, 29; JULIAN SANCHEZ, actor, 25; JONATHAN HIGGINBOTHAM, actor, 33; MAIA MIHANOVICH, actress, 24; AMAUTA M. FIRMINO, screenwriter, 29; HUDSON OZ, actor, 30; JEREMY O. HARRIS, playwright, writer, producer and performer, 31; and SYDNEY LEMMON, actress, 30. Seated, from left: PATRICK FOLEY, actor and playwright, 30; EDMUND DONOVAN, actor, 30; […] More

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    ‘Only Child’ Review: A Magnetic Performer Without a Story to Match

    The autobiographical solo show from Daniel J. Watts shows off his skill with spoken word and dance, but doesn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts.What’s your name? What’s your story?In classrooms and job interviews, on dating profiles and first dates, we’re often asked to craft an abridged narrative of our lives, to single out the events and characteristics that best define us. It’s a lot of pressure, and an impossible task, so we settle for formulaic prompts and cheesy icebreakers.The chasm between the raw material of a life and the manipulation of facts into a coherent narrative is wide enough that a writer too shaky on his feet may very well fall right in.That’s where we find Daniel J. Watts, the magnetic creator and star of “The Jam: Only Child,” a filmed rendition of his one-person show, presented for streaming by the Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia. (The show also had a brief run at the Public Theater in 2020, as part of the Under the Radar festival.)Watts, who earned a well-deserved Tony Award nomination for his performance as Ike Turner in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” has the irrepressible energy and timing of a stand-up comic, and his bouncy jabber-jawed delivery connects even through the screen.And while the production, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, is sleek, stylish and technically sound, the script finds Watts unable to transcend platitudes, relying instead on our current conversations about race and gender to shape his story and give it pertinence.“Only Child” opens with Watts emanating such ease that you can’t help but want to be seduced by the beats and bops of the performance. In denim overalls, a matching jacket and red cap, he cruises out on what looks like the concert platform of the flyest club in town. There’s a mysterious depth to the intimate room, thanks to Adam Honoré’s lighting design, with DJ Duggz behind turntables in the back center, there to accompany the monologue with sounds as varied as Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” and perky, easy listening.With the lackadaisical swagger of the cool kid in school, Watts greets DJ Duggz with a choreographed handshake, then somersaults into a spoken word rhythm, the hybrid of theater and rap that recalls the master of the form, Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Watts gets the connection, declaring himself “somewhere between Sammy Davis, Dave Chappelle, Leguizamo and Lin-Manuel.”)He begins with his 1980s childhood in North Carolina, eating Gushers and Zebra Cakes, watching “ThunderCats” and discovering the fun of lighting things on fire in the bathroom while his single mother isn’t around. He grows up awkward around girls, perennially friend-zoned, and has a breakdown in college that has him question his relationship to masculinity and sexuality. All the while the shadowy absence of his father looms in the background.The show finds Watts describing his North Carolina childhood and struggling with his identity as a Black man.via the Signature TheaterAs a writer, Watts is enamored with metaphor, but his analogies get muddled. Within the first few minutes, he has already described the process of putting together this theatrical memoir, from scraps of poetry and raps and recollections, as unearthing skeletons in the closet, unpacking boxes in an attic and grabbing jars of jam from the pantry shelves.And where is he headed? Despite its title, the show never effectively captures how being an only child affected his development. He describes his admiration for his mother, but she isn’t presented as a fully developed figure. And he glosses over his relationship with his father, until, more than halfway in, he drops the briefest mention of abusive behavior, and refers to the rage he holds onto, before moving along.In casting about for shape to his story, Watts reaches for politics. He uses his college sexual experiences to talk about consent, but his attempt to hold himself accountable for a questionable drunken hookup — plus his regret at the loss of an idol in Bill Cosby after the comedian’s sexual assault allegations — come across as tone-deaf.Similarly, a section in which he shares his anger as a Black man in America, name-dropping many of the unjustly killed Black people in recent years, reads like a grasp for political relevance more than a personal tie-in. Because Watts fails to unpack — or even really mention — his relationship to race until this roll call of victims, it feels incidental, despite how poignantly these tragedies may ring true for him in real life.Late in the 90-minute show, Watts dons tap shoes to dance out a drunken spiral, a physical representation of his tumble down to rock bottom. He trips across the stage with his upper body slumped over, arms carelessly flailing in a pantomime of a man stumbling after one too many beers.It’s a cleverly conceived performance, shifting from spoken word to tap, another medium in which Watts tells us he found comfort. But Watts struggles to transition back to his story, making the routine feel more like a musical interlude set to the sounds of Bob Marley.So what’s the upshot of a show electrically performed yet sloppily composed? Watts seems to fumble for the answer himself, ending on a handful of clichés and bumper-sticker affirmations about living one’s truth and saying yes to life.“Only Child” is a reminder that translating a life into art can take time and distance. Watts has talent to spare, and as for the story — well, doesn’t the saying go that all writing is rewriting?Daniel J. Watts’ The Jam: Only ChildThrough May 7; sigtheatre.org. More

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    Williamstown Festival Will Take the Shows Outside

    After a lost live 2020, the theater will stage a musical at a museum’s reflecting pool and an immersive show, all over town, based on real events.The Williamstown Theater Festival, which was forced by the pandemic to convert its 2020 season into a series of audio plays, will present live performances again this summer, though not in its indoor venues.Instead, the festival announced on Wednesday three shows that will be staged outdoors throughout the festival’s college-town home. Alongside new plans for scaled-down seasons at Tanglewood and at the Jacob’s Pillow dance festival, it marks a tentative step toward business as usual for the culture-rich region of Massachusetts.The Williamstown season will open on July 6 with “Outside on Main: Nine Solo Plays by Black Playwrights,” to be staged on the front lawn of its main venue. The series, curated by the writer and director Robert O’Hara (“Slave Play”), includes short works by the writers Ngozi Anyanwu, Charly Evon Simpson, Ike Holter and Zora Howard, among others.The world premiere of the musical “Row,” with songs by Dawn Landes and a book by Daniel Goldstein, will be staged at the reflecting pool of the nearby Clark Art Institute starting July 13. The show, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, is about a woman who intends to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean.Initially slated to be produced last summer, “Row” was recorded as part of the festival’s deal with Audible, and will be released April 8 on that platform.The third show, “Alien/Nation,” is a world premiere immersive production that asks audiences to journey through Williamstown by foot or car and “plunge themselves into the center of stories inspired by real events that took place in Western Massachusetts in 1969,” according to a news release.Scheduled to run from July 20 to Aug. 8, it is the brainchild of the Tony Award-nominated director Michael Arden and a company called the Forest of Arden, who devised it along with the playwrights Jen Silverman and Eric Berryman. Early last summer, Arden and some of his collaborators created a similar, experimental piece called “American Dream Study” in New York’s Hudson Valley.The festival typically presents seven shows per summer; according to a publicist, digital-only productions are still to be announced.The Berkshires ended up a national center of attention last summer when Berkshire Theater Festival’s “Godspell,” staged outdoors in a tent next to its main venue, became the first musical production in the country to get approval by the leading actors’ union since the theater shutdown.This summer Berkshire Theater Festival has announced outdoor productions of “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Nina Simone: Four Women,” while Shakespeare & Company will open its season with Christopher Lloyd in the title role of “King Lear.”Barrington Stage Company, another notable theater in the region, promises a seven-show season that features a Gershwin revue and the comedy “Boca” outdoors and four shows indoors, including two world premieres and a solo play about Eleanor Roosevelt. More

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    Poems! Songs! Demands! It’s Not Theater, but It’s … Something

    Performing-arts protesters locked out by the pandemic have occupied playhouses across France, but drama is not allowed. Cue the “agoras.”Dozens of French theater workers walk into a room and occupy it. What happens next? A month later, not nearly as many performances as you might expect.Since early March, the performing arts sector has been in the grip of protests across France, where cultural institutions have been closed since October because of the coronavirus. After trade union representatives in Paris entered the shuttered Odéon Theater, a movement to occupy playhouses spread rapidly. Even as the country has entered a third lockdown, the occupations have shown no sign of diminishing: The number of venues taken over by artists, workers and students has remained around 100.Choreography on the balcony of the Odéon Theater in Paris on Sunday. The sign reads, “Odéon gagged.”Elliott Verdier for The New York TimesYet with the infection rate rising, the movement finds itself facing difficult options. Protesters can’t be seen to flout restrictions or draw large crowds, so there have been no impromptu plays or theatrical tableaux. The messaging has also been carefully adjusted: Instead of demanding the immediate reopening of cultural venues, the movement is calling for more government support and the withdrawal of changes to unemployment benefits.Yet public actions are needed to rally support. As a result, the occupiers have walked a fine, often awkward line amid art, safety and their political demands.The main point of contact between the protesters and the public has been “agoras,” a form of outdoor assembly halfway between a political rally and an open-mic session. The Odéon has staged daily agoras since early March, and some have drawn hundreds of bystanders; elsewhere, they are weekly or biweekly. Anyone wearing a mask is welcome.What happens at an agora depends on the luck of the draw. Prepared political statements read from smartphones are a recurring feature, with protesters from other economic sectors joining in to detail their own demands. The floor is generally open to anyone who wishes to put two cents in. Poems, songs and the odd flash mob or group improvisation bring a little motion to the proceedings.An art-therapy session at La Colline. Protesters and visitors were directed to draw on a large white canvas on the floor in front of the theater. Elliott Verdier for The New York TimesOn Sunday at La Colline, one of the first Paris theaters to be occupied, a three-hour agora started with an art-therapy session. Protesters and visitors were directed to draw on a large white canvas on the ground in front of the theater. Later, during the open-mic portion, three students recited a poem they had written, starting with the question “What do we live for?” Another participant read a text that employed swans as a metaphor for the current situation, asking the powers that be to “let us fly.”After attending half a dozen agoras, I can say with some confidence that the rewards are slim from an audience perspective. The format is barely even agitprop, as occupiers are trying hard not to do anything overtly theatrical — a necessary compromise, perhaps, yet one that makes for arguably limited visibility.If agoras start to look like actual performances, they are at risk of falling foul of the rules, which preclude all cultural events. Only demonstrations are allowed, and organizers must apply for permission. Some local authorities have been more amenable than others. Last Saturday, the Odéon’s daily agora was forbidden by the Paris prefecture, which declared it a “concealed cultural event.” Agoras were able to resume the next day, but without live music. (In the end, musicians were granted permission to return beginning last Monday.)Then there is the fear of public disapproval. On March 21, an unauthorized street carnival that drew thousands in Marseille prompted widespread condemnation, with some participants now facing legal action. Carla Audebaud, one of the drama students occupying the Théâtre National de Strasbourg, in eastern France, said in a phone interview that practicing their craft wasn’t the goal. “We’re trying not to make it look like a show,” she said.Drama students occupied the Théâtre National de Strasbourg, in eastern France week. The writing on their backs means “This country forgets, neglects.”Loïse BeauseigneurWhile most theater directors initially welcomed the occupations, the cohabitation has also grown tense during the third lockdown. In a statement over Easter, a coalition of protesters denounced their “self-proclaimed supporters,” saying, “We’re not fooled by some of your maneuvers aiming to make occupiers leave.”At La Colline, students pushed back against plans by the theater to reduce the number of authorized occupiers to six from 30 and limit access to showers and cooking facilities. The playhouse’s director, Wajdi Mouawad, discreetly attended their weekly agora Sunday and denied in an interview that the goal was to quash the occupation. “We’ve had positive tests among the theater’s team, and we decided to stop all rehearsals. We’re going to reduce the technical staff, and we’ve asked them to reduce their numbers, too,” he said, referring to the students.Mouawad added that he was sympathetic to the protesters. “They don’t have to obey us,” he said.Some protesters now wonder whether the focus on occupying physical venues was misguided. There have been attempts at guerrilla theater instead, with unannounced performances in symbolic public spaces. Last Saturday, dozens of topless students, with political slogans painted in black across their chests, popped up in front of the Ministry of Culture in Paris, chanting: “It’s not onstage that we’re going to die.”As with many agoras, the action was streamed live over Instagram, one avenue for protest that is certain not to create viral clusters. Still, the sprawling nature of the occupations around the country has made them difficult to follow even online. On Instagram, there are nearly as many accounts as there are venues, with the biggest drawing only a few thousand subscribers.Drama students at the T2G theater in Gennevilliers, a suburb of Paris, last month. The movement there has focused on building local relationships.Chloé DestuynderIn that sense, the occupations are both everywhere and nowhere. They have energized a profession even as they have drawn tepid responses from the public and the government. Talks are underway between the Ministry of Culture and theater students, but no demands have been met.The effects are likely to be felt over the long term instead, as the movement has been an opportunity to learn and self-organize. At the Quai theater, in the western city of Angers, young actors have devised their own curriculum by inviting professionals to come and share their knowledge.Others have focused on building relationships at the local level. In Gennevilliers, a suburb of Paris, the students occupying the T2G playhouse have taken to visiting the market weekly to meet inhabitants who have never been to the theater. Some of them now visit the agoras.The group has also asked locals to share their thoughts on camera as a way to collect material that may be used in future creations. “A lot is happening that we’re not seeing right now because we’re right in the middle of it,” Léna Bokobza-Brunet, one of the students, said. “When we’re no longer in this situation, maybe we’ll realize what ties it all together.” In all likelihood, the best pandemic-era political theater is yet to come. More

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    Erika Dickerson-Despenza Wins Blackburn Prize for ‘cullud wattah’

    The play is about the effect of the Flint, Mich., water crisis on three generations of women.Erika Dickerson-Despenza quit her last non-theater job in 2019, ready to pursue a full-time career as a playwright in New York. And that career was looking good: she was wrapping up a fellowship at the Lark, starting a residency at the Public Theater, and working on a play inspired by the Flint water crisis.The Public scheduled a staging of that play — her first professional production — for the summer of 2020.You can imagine what happened next.The coronavirus pandemic shuttered theaters across America, and with it, scuttled her debut. But now the play, “cullud wattah,” is being recognized with the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, a respected annual award honoring work by women and nonbinary playwrights. The prize is a distinctive one — $25,000 for the winner, plus a Willem de Kooning print — and many of its recipients have gone on to great acclaim (among them, the Pulitzer winners Annie Baker, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Marsha Norman, Lynn Nottage, Wendy Wasserstein and Paula Vogel).Dickerson-Despenza, a 29-year-old Chicago native, is thrilled. “It’s a really affirming moment,” she said, “not only for me as an emerging playwright, but also for the way that I am doing my work as a queer Black woman who has intentionally decided to write about Black women and girls.”Her career, like so many others, has been upended by the pandemic. “cullud wattah” is on hold, but a spokeswoman for the Public said the theater still hopes to produce it once it resumes presenting in-person productions.In the meantime, she has been working on a 10-play cycle about the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. The second play in the cycle, “[hieroglyph],” was staged (without a live audience), filmed and streamed earlier this year by San Francisco Playhouse and Lorraine Hansberry Theater. And next week the Public Theater will introduce an audio production of “shadow/land,” the first installment of her Katrina cycle.“I am interested in what we learn, and do not learn, and what history has to teach us,” she said.She said she had been following the news out of Flint for some time before deciding to write “cullud wattah”; for a while, she said, she just made notes about the crisis and posted them on her wall. The play imagines the effect of the water crisis on three generations of women.“I had a wall full of Flint, and I didn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “The play is not so much about Flint, as it is about how an apocalypse makes everything else bubble to the surface.” More

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    A Theater Photographer Senses a Broadway Bloom

    For Sara Krulwich, who has shot productions for The New York Times for more than two decades, a series of recent assignments hinted at an industry revival.Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.On the first evening in April, Sara Krulwich, a New York Times photographer, visited the Kraine Theater in the East Village, where Mike Daisey, an actor and monologuist, was rehearsing a show for which the seating capacity would be limited to 22. The restriction, Mr. Daisey said, reminded him of his earliest days as a performer, when he was thrilled if even a handful of people were in the audience.For about 20 minutes, Ms. Krulwich photographed Mr. Daisey, adjusting her shutter, she later said, to ensure that “the theater lights and my camera were going to talk to each other in a kindly way.”The next day, Ms. Krulwich photographed part of a performance at the Daryl Roth Theater at Union Square. And on Saturday, she shot a 36-minute performance at the historic St. James Theater in Midtown. Those assignments added up to her busiest stretch of theater work in more than a year.Theatrical productions, dormant since last spring, are resuming in New York City, the first tentative steps toward what actors, directors and others hope will be a strong comeback by the fall. And many in the theater world may see Ms. Krulwich’s presence as a reassuring sign.For more than two decades, she has been a Broadway and Off Broadway fixture, photographing about 100 shows a year, a body of work that led to her receiving a Tony Honor in 2018.After a yearlong absence, Ms. Krulwich began photographing performances and rehearsals, feeling her way back into familiar tasks and reflecting on early traces of a theatrical revival, which, she said, mirrored the stirrings of spring.“The blooms are beginning,” she said by phone. “Even if we’re not seeing the full flowering just yet.”Ms. Krulwich joined The Times as a staff photographer in 1979, working for the Metro, National and Sports desks before becoming the paper’s first culture photographer in 1994.At that time, she said, it was common for news organizations to run theater photographs handed out by producers that tended to present reality in the light most favorable to them. Ms. Krulwich, however, wanted to cover theater with the same journalistic approach that the paper employed while reporting on other events.Ms. Krulwich said that her approach was direct, telling producers that theater was looked upon as news inside The Times and should be documented that way. Eventually, she obtained access to almost every production in the city.Over the years, Ms. Krulwich has captured moments that have become a part of theater lore. She photographed developmental work on the Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s masterwork, “Angels in America.” In 1996, she took what is believed to be the last picture of Jonathan Larson, the writer and composer of “Rent,” hours before his death the night before the show’s first Off Broadway preview.Her Tony, in 2018, made her the first journalist recognized for excellence in the theater, an honor given to people, organizations and institutions that have contributed to the industry but are not eligible to win in other Tony categories.Returning to work inside venues she’s accustomed to, Ms. Krulwich said she took delight in seeing people she has known for many years and looked forward to a time when everyone connected to productions will, once again, be able to make a living.“It’s a small group of people,” she said. “Almost an extended family.”The day after photographing Mr. Daisey, Ms. Krulwich wore an N-95 mask and climbed a ladder at the Daryl Roth while shooting about 20 minutes of a performance of “Blindness,” an audio adaptation of the dystopian novel of the same name by the Portuguese writer José Saramago.And then, the following day, at the St. James, she photographed the dancer Savion Glover and the actor Nathan Lane at the 36-minute event they performed in front of a masked audience of 150.It was, noted Michael Paulson, a Times theater reporter, the first time in 387 days that there was activity inside a Broadway house.Ms. Krulwich said the performance was not the same as one that would have taken place before the coronavirus pandemic, but she added that she felt at home back inside the St. James and appreciated the hints of what is to come.“I must say, it felt familiar to me,” she said. “It’s just a little bit. It’s a tiptoe. It’s the doors opening a crack.” More

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    Covid Closed Theaters. But It Also Made Them Accessible.

    Before 2020, theater often felt inaccessible to me, a luxury for those who were more able-bodied or lived in certain cities. Now I’m obsessed.I have never lived in either London or New York, and thus have next to no experience with the hotbeds of English-speaking theater. Though I frequently travel to those cities, and social media posts of friends with their Broadway Playbills tantalize me, I live with an illness that makes it difficult to remain upright. That makes theater a tough experience: The first time I saw “Hamilton,” after I left the Richard Rodgers Theater I was too sick to remember most of what had happened. It was only through luck that I was well enough to see the musical a second time while on book tour, as well as Andrew Scott’s award-winning London performance in “Present Laughter.” Each was exhilarating, but I was always painfully aware of my body. On other occasions, a sudden flare of symptoms could force me to leave or to forfeit a pricey ticket on the week of a performance. When the pandemic forced the theater world into survival mode last spring, theaters had to figure out how to produce shows for homebound audiences. The Old Vic, where I saw “Present Laughter” the year before, featured Covid-friendly plays in which one actor, or two socially distanced actors, performed for the cameras. I watched “Three Kings” and “Lungs” while in bed — a disability-friendly arrangement — and was able to view the stage from different perspectives thanks to those cameras. Though “Three Kings” and “Present Laughter” each star Andrew Scott, the cameras’ close-ups showed off his face in a way that I was unable to witness from the cheap seats. I saw the dangerous curl of his smirk as he transformed from an innocent child to his drunken, miserable father, without adjusting his makeup or costume. I was able to admire that all the more in spotting the details that streaming theater illuminated.Spurred on by the Playbill newsletter, I became obsessed with watching as much theater as possible under these new, more accessible conditions. I saw plays and readings in which the actors recorded themselves at home, using Zoom and Skype, technology that has often been associated with remote work and learning. Many people have become allergic to Zoom as a result of overuse, but as a tool, Zoom and its ilk are able to control what the viewer sees in a way different from typical stagecraft. When streaming Will Arbery’s play about conservative Catholicism, “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” a Pulitzer finalist, I am allowed an intimacy with the characters that even able-bodied, front-row ticket holders would not ordinarily be able to witness, as the performers come in and out of darkened Zoom squares from their apartments. When Justin says, “I just think proximity to L.G.B.T. is a threat to Christian children and families,” his face is lit in part by a dangerous light that isn’t simply the glow of my laptop screen. Every microexpression and ounce of fidgety wariness that his friend Kevin expresses in turn (“But why can’t we meet it, engage with it — ”) is up close as well. They aren’t in each other’s spaces, but over Zoom, they are in mine. Each square’s unique lighting conceals their apartments, emphasizing the actors; I might as well be with them in the wooded darkness.Zoom and its ilk are able to control what the viewer sees in a way different from typical stagecraft.Acting “at” a screen exposes the idiosyncrasies involved in at-home performance: Oscar Isaac and Marisa Tomei arguing while readjusting their AirPods in “Beirut”; Jesse Eisenberg drinking from a glass of green juice, his character aggravating everyone around him in “The Spoils,” which he wrote. These moments remind me that the actors involved, who can otherwise feel Hollywood-larger-than-life, aren’t exempt from muddling through our international tragedy. Some of my favorite moments from these performances were immediately before and after the actual readings, when the actors were so clearly themselves. Eisenberg gave a self-effacing description of the play at the start — making it all the more exhilarating to see him enter its first scene shouting bombastic profanity.Not all streaming theater has been over Zoom or Skype. London’s National Theater made use of its archival recordings to create National Theater at Home, where, for a fee, viewers can stream “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Cherry Orchard” and other renowned plays on demand. I became captivated by the professionally shot recording of “Angels in America,” which I’ve repeatedly rewatched — a story of a plague, viewed during another plague. “Proshot recordings,” which are filmed during a play’s standard run, mimic the typical theatergoing experience. While I am grateful for the chance to watch full-fledged performances, with sets and all, plays seen this way feel less immediate than the readings that have, by necessity, seized upon a new medium.Before 2020, I had never before thought to explore theater beyond one or two plays, considering it a luxury for those more able-bodied or in certain cities. Watching plays on a computer screen isn’t a traditional experience, but it gives access to a type of storytelling for thousands who may never be able to enjoy it otherwise. Our theater houses will open again, and I’ve vowed to take advantage of opportunities to visit them when the time comes. I admit, though, that I will miss the versions that I’ve been able to see at home — versions that will very likely be lost when the world reopens and the desire to be shoulder to shoulder sends theatergoers back to Broadway again.Esmé Weijun Wang is a novelist and an essayist whose books include the New York Times best-selling essay collection “The Collected Schizophrenias.” More