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Posts Tagged ‘Treme’

Tom Piazza on Writing for HBO’s “Treme”

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

“New Orleans has a mythology, a personality, a soul, that is large, and that has touched people around the world. It has its own music (many of its own musics), its own cuisine, its own way of talking, its own architecture, its own smell, its own look and feel. . . .

“It may be hard for people who have never been to the Crescent City to understand the passionate love people have for it, to understand why it’s worth fighting for—why it matters. . . . New Orleans is not just a list of attractions or restaurants or ceremonies, no matter how sublime and subtle. New Orleans is the interaction among all those things, and countless more. It gains its character from the spirit that is summoned . . . in the midst of all these elements, and that comes, ultimately, from the people who live there. . . . That spirit . . . is what is in jeopardy right now.” 

from the Introduction to Why New Orleans Matters

 

A few nights ago we went to the Center for Fiction in Manhattan to hear our friend Tom Piazza talk about writing for HBO’s popular show Treme, which most readers of this blog know is set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Piazza is an accomplished and versatile writer of short stories, novels, and books about jazz, blues, and New Orleans—ten books altogether. He has won a Grammy and other awards, and his writing has been praised by Bob Dylan, but until co-creator and executive producer David Simon phoned him in 2009, he had not written a screenplay.

The following is an account of the evening, with some paraphrasing and some direct quoting of Piazza’s remarks, and a bit of background explanation about the show, which we highly recommend. Tom Piazza did not say this, exactly, but one of the qualities of Treme that we have found most appealing, besides its vivid realism and honest evocation of America’s most unique, world-unto-itself city, is that about half of the show’s main characters are African American (Antoine Batiste, LaDonna, Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux), and each is an individual, not a (stereo)type. This is almost unheard of in American television. In fact, all of the characters, of whatever complexion, are treated with respect and psychological subtlety. Music, too, in many varieties, is accorded a place of honor. In many scenes, music is not there merely for atmosphere—it’s part of the action, like the other characters.

A Show Set at the Heart of New Orleans Music

A brief clip of a Season One episode that Tom had written was shown to give the audience a taste of the show, then the Center’s executive director Noreen Tomassi (shown with Tom in photo below) asked him a series of questions about similarities and differences between writing fiction and screenwriting, how the writing work on the show is organized, and so on.

(For those unfamiliar with New Orleans neighborhoods, the Treme, or Faubourg Treme [pronounced “truh-MAY”] is a historically African American “back of town” section of the city behind the French Quarter, across Rampart Street. It is named after a French planter, Claude Tremé, who married a free woman of color. The oldest African American neighborhood in the United States and home to a large population of free blacks since 1812 [thus 2012 will be its bicentennial], Treme includes the site of the legendary Congo Square—now covered by Louis Armstrong Park—where slaves were allowed to gather on Sundays to play drums and sing and dance. Treme has been the birthplace of countless jazz and other musical talents, including Alex Chilton, Louis Prima, and Shannon Powell, as well as Kermit Ruffins and the Rebirth Brass Band, who often appear in the show. What New Orleans is to America’s music, Treme is to New Orleans.)

Of the six writers for Treme, two are residents of New Orleans: Piazza and Lolis Eric Elie, a former columnist for the Times-Picayune who grew up in the Treme. Elie, too, though an accomplished journalist and maker (with Dawn Logsdon) of the documentary film Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, had also never written television screenplays. The other writers are the show’s creators, David Simon and Eric Overmyer (who worked together on HBO’s hit show The Wire), the late David Mills, and George Pelecanos, all veteran screenwriters.

Piazza explained that screenwriting is a combination of collaborative and solo work, some done with the others in the writers’ room and some alone. The six gathered at a room HBO had booked at the Monteleone Hotel. Certain plot and character aims were established early on—for example, by the end of the first season we’ll want this character to have moved physically or psychologically from here to here. After group discussions, sketching out rough outlines, the writers each went off to do solo work, which would then be brought back to the group to be worked over, cut, altered, elaborated, and so on. For one thing, writing for TV definitely requires working well with others, being able to compromise, bite your tongue, and bide your time.

In Treme, he explained, you have eight or ten principal characters who have “point of view”—that is, characters you can be alone with, whom the camera follows through a scene. The trick in making an episode is to “shuffle the deck” of the scenes in such as way that the pace never flags, the tension on the line never goes slack. But if you shift too much or too rapidly, the viewer may become disoriented or the narrative may get scrambled.

At the Crossroads of Fiction and TV

One way in which screenwriting is like fiction is that you’re writing against the tension of not knowing whether the material you’re writing is actually going to be used. You may work long and hard on scenes that you end up deciding not to use after all—fiction writers know about this—and the same thing can happen in the writers’ room.

As for screenwriting’s influence on his fiction, he said, at first he was wary of the schematic element creeping into his work, the necessary focus on plot (more than character and psychology). And yet there were ways in which the differences in the genres have sharpened some of his fictional instincts.

“One thing I’ve thought a lot about since starting with screenwriting for Treme is that in fiction there is always the question of what you dramatize and what you want to explain by way of exposition. In other words, do you show something happening, or do you tell about it as having happened at more of a distance? In film, where everything is dramatized, there is no equivalent to exposition except for the voice-over (such as something like having a narrator say, ‘It was a bleak winter of homes and entire neighborhoods nearly leveled, and determined residents struggling to get by and start over . . .’). This experience of writing for the screen where virtually everything is dramatized sharpened the questions I asked about what to dramatize when I turned back to fiction.”

Piazza said there were some tough questions facing the creators and writers and actors when preparing for the first season, such as, How do you come back after an extreme catastrophe like this? How do you try to get back to the kind of life your city had before? The writers and actors focused on the life of New Orleans as depicted in Why New Orleans Matters, copies of which were distributed to the members of the cast and crew by the production office before filming began. That book, which Tom wrote in five intensive weeks shortly after the storm (publ. Nov. 2005), shows the city’s life and culture as based around food, music, dancing, festivals—all of which are intertwined. While Season One was very much rooted in Why New Orleans Matters, Season Two was more about the nuts and bolts of survival, rebuilding your home and your city, struggling to get back to normal, dealing with the insane bureaucracy and other obstacles.

Doubts Allayed by High-Fidelity Realism

One audience member asked what impact the series has had on the people of New Orleans.

“Dozens of bars and restaurants with HBO host Treme-watching parties on Sunday nights. Even the Charbonnet Funeral Home has HBO. It’s a fantastic thrill to go to a bar or restaurant and all these people watching these lines you wrote are talking back to the character and responding to things they do. And there are all these blogs that have sprung up to discuss the show, such as Back of Town and Watching Treme that have this ongoing midrash of discussion about episodes and characters and verisimilitude, significance, etc.

Before the show started there was a certain amount of caution and skepticism, with people wondering how are outsiders going to tell this story? How do they know what we’ve been through? It was similar to the questions in early 2006 about whether there was going to be a Mardi Gras so soon after the storm. There was some hesitancy about whether it was appropriate, but enough people said, Of course we’ll have Carnival: there’s no way we’re not going to have Mardi Gras.”

When asked which characters he most enjoys writing for, Piazza replied that “you have to love writing about all the characters—and this is true of fiction too—but I especially have fun writing for the character Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), who comes from this Uptown Garden District family, but he’s bohemian, a would-be musician who hangs out with all these musicians and artists. He switches modes of diction very flexibly, depending on the setting he’s in. Also, it’s wonderful writing for actors as good as the ones in the Treme cast, because whatever you write, you know they’re going to get it and be able to play it.”

As for what might be expected in the third season, Piazza was teasingly discreet, and too professional to spoil any surprises. He did venture a supposition, however, that a viewer could reasonably be surprised if the season did not deal in some way with such major events in the city’s recent history as the aftermath of the Danziger bridge shootings or “the savage, cynical, deliberate destruction” of public housing complexes that has made it difficult-to-impossible for lower-income residents of New Orleans to rebuild their deep-rooted lives in New Orleans.

Piazza was asked about the future, about how many years out the character developments can be envisioned. David Simon has said publicly that he sees Treme as a four-season show, though HBO has paid Simon “the compliment” of saying it’s as if in this complex, multilayered series Simon is writing a novel, and we want him to be able to bring that novel to completion.

That comparison strikes us as accurate, and although many works of fiction have been adapted for the screen (especially by HBO lately), Treme is one of the few television dramas we know of that can stand comparison with a serious novel for richness and subtlety. For those who might have missed David Simon’s remarks at Rising Tide 6 last August on the making of Treme and the show’s relationship to the city it represents, see our live-blogging here and a video of the keynote speaker here. See also

Until Season Three airs next spring, and even long after the show has resumed, we highly recommend Tom Piazza’s Why New Orleans Matters, along with his novel City of Refuge (2008) and his latest book, Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America, a collection of articles and essays about musicians, writers, and New Orleans. He has written ten books altogether and is at work on a new novel, so he’ll keep you busy—and will repay the attention you give his writing—for a long time to come.

For More about the Treme and New Orleans . . .

Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, a documentary film by Lolis Eric Elie and Dawn Logsdon

After the Flood: The Creator of ‘The Wire’ in New Orleans” (New Yorker review of Treme by Nancy Franklin)

New Orleans African American Museum: Tremé 200: Bicentennial 1812–2012

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts | Spike Lee’s acclaimed 4-hour documentary (HBO, 2006)

If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise | Spike Lee’s follow-up to When the Levees Broke (HBO, 2010)

Trouble the Water | Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature, 2008. Includes 15 min. of video footage just before and during Hurricane Katrina by Lower 9th Ward residents Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott. Winner of 2008 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize.

Michael E. Crutcher Jr., Treme: Race and Place in a New Orleans Neighborhood (2010)

Ned Sublette, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square (2008)

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“If there is a single factor most responsible for the extraordinary distance New Orleans has traveled in the years since its near-death experience, it is the city’s culture. Not only the city’s music, dance, funeral traditions, cuisine, and architecture—its look and its smell and its feel and its sense of humor—but the interaction among all those factors, their coordination, is what makes the city live, what makes it alive, in its unique way. . . .

“As of this writing, the notion that the written word is doomed, or doomed to irrelevance at least, because of the power and immediacy and omnipresence of electronic media, is so widespread that it has become almost axiomatic. But it is not true. . . . In the private space shared by the writer and the reader, one individual soul encounters nother and a spell is cast, created by both of them. . . .”

—from the Introduction to Devil Sent the Rain

 

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Credits: Top photo of TP (at P.J.’s on Maple Street?) by Sean Gardner, from Williams College alumni magazine; Congo Square illustration (dancing the Bamboula, ca. late 1700s, drawn by E. W. Kemble ca. 1880s) from Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University; The Center for Fiction’s executive director Noreen Tomassi and TP from The Center for Fiction; Treme Season Two poster from HBO.

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Live-Blogging from Rising Tide 6

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

A conference on the future of New Orleans

Xavier University, New Orleans

Tune in to webcast here. Rising Tide 6 main web site here, and RT6 blog here. Photos here, here, and here.

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Usually we worry that Rising Tide might be disrupted by a hurricane—after all, it’s held each year on the anniversary of Katrina. Ironically, this year, while Hurricane Irene is lashing at the East Coast and New York City is evacating some 250,000 people from low-lying areas, the weather in New Orleans is warm (okay, hot), clear, calm. At the conference some of us are scratching our heads and asking of the millions who live along the East Coast, susceptible as it is to hurricanes, Why do they live there? 

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Dedra Johnson of The G-Bitch Spot Blog Wins 2011 Ashley Award 

Congratulations to Dedra Johnson of The G-Bitch Spot—a blog that doesn’t just have a great name, but shines with clear, independent thinking and sharp, sassy writing—in which “a mad black woman rants about New Orleans, insomnia, teaching, education, and ‘education,’ various -isms and anything involving a bitch, a spot or the letter g.”

4:30 Presentation of the Ashley Award 2011

Presented by Mark Moseley of The Lens and Your Right Hand Thief and Leigh Checkman of Liprap’s Lament.

The Ashley Morris award was established in 2008 to honor and remember the late Dr. Ashley Morris, one of the founding members of Rising Tide and still a guiding spirit. The award is given each year to someone who embodies Ashley’s fierce passionate defense of New Orleans, its people and culture. And the winner is . . . Dedra Johnson (see above).

3:05 Panel Discussion: New Orleans Food: Continuity and Change

Chris DeBarr, chef at Green Goddess, longtime N.O. blogger as “excitable chef”; Alex del Castillo, chef and owner of Taceaux Loceaux; Adolfo Garcia, chef and owner of RioMar, LaBoca, etc.; Rene Louapre, food columnist at Offbeat magazine; and Todd Price, freelance writer.

2:00 David Simon, featured speaker

Creator of HBO’s celebrated TV show Treme, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, and of HBO’s The Wire.

An argument against “standing.” Not clear at first what Simon means by “standing.” Sounds like a synonym for legitimacy, credentials.

Began as a reporter in Baltimore, covering police beat in a mainly African-American neighborhood. As a young reporter it struck me how few reporters would not want to ask questions to which they did not already know the answer. But I would ask anyone anything. Tells the story of a former Pulitzer Prize–winning Herald Tribune reporter who asks so many questions that an Esso executive complained to the editor why did you send this idiot to interview me? He didn’t know anything; I had to explain everything to him.

As I approached New Orleanians to make the show Treme with Eric Overmeyer, I decided to hire local people, and determined to be very deferential to the people in this city who had suffered through such a terrible trauma. There are no rules. Standing is the lamest way of judging quality, authenticity. I don’t believe standing matters.

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Disaster Capitalism Will Solve U.S. Budget Deficit?
Ask New Orleans and Wisconsin

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

David in our Berkeley bureau, whose last dispatch was about global warming and extreme weather (May 24), observes that the G.O.P. hard-liners insisting on reducing the deficit only by cutting Medicare and privatizing other “common good” safety net programs are simply employing the same old deadly “disaster capitalism” techniques that were revealed by Naomi Klein in her powerful 2007 book The Shock Doctrine:

Truly, an insane situation, but not without precedent. I’ve been rereading Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, and this is pure simple disaster capitalism following the template: use the bludgeon of national debt to create a crisis, erase progressive history and shred the social safety net, then firebomb the populace with austerity to remake the world for elites and the investor class. It’s quite extraordinary how out in the open this is, but how little it’s talked about. That’s what Obama and the Democrats should be trumpeting about the right wing extremists, who must be taking huge amounts of hidden money from people like the Kochs and FreedomWorks, Rove’s machines, Rupert Murdoch of Fox News, and other sources (and who knows what other hidden promises have been made to them to make even previously reasonable people turn 180 on their own positions). But of course, the Dems wouldn’t utter these words because of their timidity about being called “liberal” or inciting “class war.”

The shock doctrine can be summarized as the deliberate exploitation of the public’s disorientation after a crisis (natural disaster, political upheaval, or economic turmoil) to push through free-market economic shock therapy disguised as “reforms.” The traumatized public is too concerned with basic survival to notice what “the authorities” are doing.

Naomi Klein traced the shock doctrine’s use by U.S. conservative economic advisers and policymakers—always closely linked to profit-ready corporate interests—from the U.S.-supported coup that overthrew Argentina’s Salvador Allende in 1973 to the (Iraq) Coalition Provisional Authority’s efforts to “corporatize and privatize state-owned enterprises” after the U.S. invasion in 2003 to the privatization of formerly public institutions of housing and health care in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (among a dozen or more other grim “success stories”).

The shock doctrine is alive and well in the U.S.A. Paul Krugman pointed out in February that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker was using shock doctrine methods in stripping away labor unions’ collective bargaining rights in the name of fiscal discipline. Now, when Walker took office on Jan. 3, Wisconsin had no budget crisis. But there was a big deficit after his first legislative priority as governor: giving Wisconsin corporations some $140 million in tax breaks.

What’s happening in Wisconsin is . . . a power grab—an attempt to exploit the fiscal crisis to destroy the last major counterweight to the political power of corporations and the wealthy. And the power grab goes beyond union-busting. The bill in question is 144 pages long, and there are some extraordinary things hidden deep inside.

Shock Therapy by Flood, Eviction and Taser

Most odious to us is the shock doctrine’s use after Hurricane Katrina with the demolition of undamaged, structurally sound housing projects in New Orleans and the shifting of the city’s over-stressed, under-funded public school system to a charter schools model, though as usual without adequate funding. The demolition of the New Orleans housing projects, at a time when displaced, returning residents could least afford the rising rents and housing prices, was an acceleration of a scheme long planned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (See “Homeless for the Holidays: Who Would Jesus Evict?”) It has been alleged, quite credibly, that the destruction of the housing projects was part of a deliberate policy to shift the city’s population back toward a whiter complexion. As Naomi Klein wrote in “Shock and Tasers in New Orleans” at the time of the evictions and demolitions:

Readers of my book The Shock Doctrine know that one of the most shameless examples of disaster capitalism has been the attempt to exploit the disastrous flooding of New Orleans to close down that city’s public housing projects, some of the only affordable units in the city. Most of the buildings sustained minimal flood damage, but they happen to occupy valuable land that make for perfect condo developments and hotels.

The final showdown over New Orleans public housing is playing out in dramatic fashion right now. The conflict is a classic example of the ‘triple shock’ formula at the core of the doctrine.

First came the shock of the original disaster: the flood and the traumatic evacuation. Next came the ‘economic shock therapy’: using the window of opportunity opened up by the first shock to push through a rapid-fire attack on the city’s public services and spaces, most notably its homes, schools and hospitals.

Now we see that as residents of New Orleans try to resist these attacks, they are being met with a third shock: the shock of the police baton and the Taser gun, used on the bodies of protestors outside New Orleans City Hall yesterday [12/21/07].

 

 

Perhaps the most notorious and lethal application of disaster capitalism in New Orleans has been the closure of Charity Hospital, which was only superficially damaged by the storm (the basement flooded), so that LSU could build a new Medical Center complex several blocks from the still sturdy mid-1930s building on Tulane Avenue. Charity was long the central trauma unit in the city and the surrounding area. For watchers of HBO’s excellent series Treme, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, disaster capitalism is embodied by the opportunistic characters Nelson Hidalgo, a carpetbagger from Dallas, and C. J. Ligouri, a native New Orleanian who helps guide Hidalgo through the city’s byzantine business and political relationships. See the sharp and spicy comments at the Back of Town blog to which (we’re happy to disclose) quite a few of our friends contribute.

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Live-Blogging from Rising Tide 5 in New Orleans

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

Winner of the 2010 Ashley Morris Award: Clifton Harris of Cliff’s Crib

New Orleans blogger Clifton Harris, right, receives the Ashley Morris Memorial Award from emcee George “Loki” Williams, center, and Mark “Oyster” Moseley. Photo courtesy of M. Styborski. Cliff Harris’s writing also appears in the new book A Howling in the Wires: An Anthology of Writing from Postdiluvian New Orleans (Gallatin & Toulouse, 2010). The motto of Cliff’s Crib is “Embrace Your Potential and Be Productive. Long Live the Lower Ninth Ward.” Warm congratulations to Clifton Harris. Read his blog and buy the book. We have. [The coveted Ashley Award, named in honor of the legendary, larger-than-life Ashley Morris, is presented each year to a blogger who has made outstanding contributions to writing about post-Katrina New Orleans. Ashley Morris, Ph.D., who died in 2008, was one of the founders of the Rising Tide conference and an inspiration for the Treme character Creighton Bernette, played by John Goodman.]

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Liveblogging follows, with earliest panels at bottom. (“Treme” panel not included, sorry. For good coverage of that, see Machelle Allman’s Watching Treme.)

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Why Can’t We Get Some Dam Safety in New Orleans? | Presentation by Tim Ruppert

Presentation by Tim Ruppert, engineer and N.O. blogger (Tim’s Nameless Blog) Denial of killing potential of failed levees results in low standards of expectations for levee strength. Levees are considered to only protect property, not human life. The 100-year flood model is an inadequate standard of measurement that leaves N.O. and other human settlements exposed to unacceptable risk of flooding and death. ASCE advocates a risk-based assessment of levees—in other words, let’s calculate how many people would die if this levee fails (the same way dams’ failure is measured and risk-assessed). “When levees fail, people die.” We’re going to have to push Congress to act as though failed levees are every bit as threatening to human safety as failed dams are. 3:30 About 43 percent of Americans live in areas protected by levees. What it means to public safety when dams and levees are perceived as being different from each other. Begins with Johnstown Flood of 1889. Is there really any difference between a dam failure and a levee failure? National Dam Inspection Act passed in 1972, and WRDA (Water Resource Development Act) both distinguished between dams and levees. Dams are considered a life safety system—they usually hold higher levels of water than levees do. Levees are not considered life safety systems; it is assumed or expected that all people living within a levee-protected area are able to evacuate, though we know this is not actually true.

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Politics Panel: Peter Athas, Jason Berry, Clancy Dubos, Jeff Crouere, Stephanie Grace, Jacques Morial

3:05 What will Jindal do? He is looking beyond the governor’s mansion. Run against Mary Landrieu? Crouere and Dubos agree that Jindal won’t finish out his term. That is why the next lieutenant governor’s race will in effect be the next governor’s race. Dubos says he will cut the budget to the bone and then go around the country to Iowa or Florida and talk about how he cut the budget. He doesn’t care about the people of Louisiana; he cares about how his actions look on his resume. Jindal refuses to sign any revenue increase, so cuts will get worse. Stephanie Grace says that what happens to the state’s universities in the next couple of years will send a message to the rest of the nation of what Jindal stands for. 3:00 Jason Berry says a progressive media is needed to help build Democratic, progressive party, candidates, through spreading progressive ideas. As it is, we’re breeding Republicans. Even here in the most progressive urban city in the state there’s really only one progressive paper [Gambit].

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Rising Tide 5 Is Aug. 28 in New Orleans: Register Today

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

A Conference on the Future of New Orleans

The Rising Tide Conference is an annual gathering for all who wish to learn more and do more to assist New Orleans’ recovery. It’s for everyone who loves New Orleans and is working to bring a better future to all its residents.

Fresh back from one vacation, we’re already booking our next trip: to New Orleans, baby, for Rising Tide V.

That’s right, in late August we’re going to the 5th annual Rising Tide conference on the future of New Orleans on Saturday, Aug. 28, on the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (8/29/05). This will be our third RT (after 2007 and 2008), and they just keep getting better. (Press release here.)

Leveraging the power of bloggers and new media, the conference is a launch pad for organization and action. Our day-long program of speakers and presentations is tailored to inform, entertain, enrage and inspire.

Treme, Environment, Levees, Public Safety, and Politics

RT5’s program keeps improving, too, every time we look at it. Check this out:

Breaking news: The keynote speaker will be Mother Jones human rights reporter (Ms.) Mac McClelland, who has been reporting on the BP Oil Flood in the Gulf. See her “Rights Stuff” dispatches for MoJo here. ]

The conference will feature panel discussions on  HBO’s hit show Treme (set in post-Katrina New Orleans) with Treme co-creator Eric Overmyer and N.O. journalist and documentarist Lolis Eric Elie . . . “Paradise Lost” on environmental issues, including LaCoastPost’s Len Bahr, a coastal science adviser to five Louisiana governors, and environmental law expert Rob Verchick . . .  flood protection discussed by Tim Ruppert, an N.O. engineer and blogger . . . public safety, led by activist and blogger Brian Denzer . . . and Louisiana politics, moderated by Peter Athas and featuring Clancy DuBos of Gambit and other N.O. journalists. And more! The event will be emceed (like last year’s) by the incomparable George “Loki” Williams of Humid City (who personifies—indeed, “lives the dream”—of social networking). And all this fun is jump-started by a pre-conference party on Friday night at the Howlin’ Wolf, starting around 7:00.

The all-day event will be held at The Howlin’ Wolf, 907 South Peters Street near the Convention Center. Pre-registration is only $20, slightly more at the door.

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