Monday, October 7, 2019

Tyrant, Shakespeare On Politics (book)

Angela Merkel, on vacation, reading "Tyrant."
Stephen Greenblatt, American author of the acclaimed Will In the World, was apparently so entirely disturbed by the election of Donald J, Trump that he swiftly produced a brief examination of Shakespeare’s villains (189 pages) and how they each compare to the current occupant of the White House.

Tyrant, Shakespeare on Politics, was released on May 8, 2018, and even at that point it was easy to see what kind of President Trump was going to be, as if that were not previously evident. Though he never names the President, his thesis is clear, with every chapter and every would-be emperor described, accurately for the most part, with precisely the same language many have used to describe Trump.

He calls Jack Cade, leader of a populist uprising in Henry VI Part 2, a “loud-mouthed demagogue” possessing an “indifference to the truth, shamelessness, and hyperinflated self-confidence.”

Shakespeare's Richard III “divides the world into winners and losers” and “is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it … because it gets in his way.”

Macbeth has “a compulsive need to prove his manhood, dread of impotence … a fear of failure.” These psychological cues explain his “penchant for bullying, the vicious misogyny” and “explosive violence.”

Surprisingly, Greenblatt spends few words on the character of Julius Caesar, who, of all of Shakespeare’s monarchs, has been the one most often directly compared to Trump, for all of each man's vanity, poor health, and weakness for flattery at the same time ferociously protesting their own god-like inability to be manipulated.

Instead, this author focuses, as the play does, on the character of Brutus, and his desire to preempt disaster and assassinate Caesar before he attains absolute rule. Shakespeare’s lesson, it is clear, is that violent overthrow, no matter how pure the intent, is never pure, and impossible by design; an oxymoron in action.

“Real-world actions grounded on noble ideals,” Greenblatt suggests, “may have unforeseen and ironic consequences.”

Carole Healey as Julius Caesar
Photo: Roger Mastroianni
(Great Lakes Theater, 2019)
Published almost a year before the release of the Mueller Report, Greenblatt also provides a warning; that, though investigation and the possibility of impeachment is not a violent act, subverting the will of the electorate will always be suspect, and probably futile, even if you believe it would be the poorer choice to do nothing at all.
“The attempt to avert a possible Constitutional crisis, were Caesar to decide to assume tyrannical powers, precipitates the collapse of the state. The very act that was meant to save the republic turns out to destroy it. Caesar is dead, but by the end of the play Caesarism is triumphant.”
As it happened, the Mueller investigation came to a close without touching Trump nearer, finding that while a foreign power certainly offered Citizen Trump political assistance during the 2016 election, there was not definitive proof that he accepted it.

It should surprise no one who has been paying attention that we are now mired in a nearly identical circumstance, with definitive proof that President Trump himself has solicited political assistance from (at least) one foreign power for the 2020 election.

Impeachment now increasingly likely, looking into the works of Shakespeare may be a direful predictor of future events.

Great Lakes Theater presents "Julius Caesar" directed by Sara Bruner at the Hanna Theatre through November 3, 2019

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

"I'm Alive You Bastards And I Always Will Be" produced by Nightbloom Theatre Company

Photo: Steve Wagner
Tonight I am going to see the premiere production of a new Cleveland theater company, I’m Alive You Bastards And I Always Will Be, written by Roxie Perkins and presented by Nightbloom Theatre Company. And I’m scared. And I’m thrilled.

The company promises risk-taking work but doesn’t everyone promise risk-taking work? However, this production promises adult themes, strong language, violence, and references to sexual violence.

Most stage violence I have experienced of late is either cartoon gore (your B-movie musicals, for example) or a couple of dickheads punching each other stupid in this month’s toxically masculine, “kick ass” play. None of them inspire anything close to actual fear. Neither, for that matter, does Sleep No More.

The most popular example of shock theatre is the Grand Guignol. Before the advent of splatter films (also, World War II) middle class French audiences got a kick out Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris, where on any given evening they could expect to see half a dozen short plays utilizing grotesque and realistic stage effects to portray short dramas of torture, crime, and madness -- there were comedies, too, primarily on the subject of cuckolding.

It has been a long time since I have experienced anything truly creepy, weird or startling. I witnessed Die Hanswurst Klown present Prick Us And We'll Burst in Chicago almost twenty-five years ago, an evil clown show developed by a troupe of improvisers. The program was designed in such a way as to make you believe this was a real troupe of East German clowns, only the very last sentence of the performer bios suggested who the actor actually was.

From my journal, July 9, 1995:
Unbelievable. Helmut Voelker, with the big forehead, unwavering, glassy-eyed stare and gaped mouth, piercing high laugh, he couldn’t break eggs except on his head, he was so frightening and pitiful, REMEMBER HIM … like a wild animal. He frightened me. And when his hand was hit by a mallet or his penis was cut off, or his gift of a rose was refused, he howled and cried so pitifully, it made me feel terrible ...
Die Hanswurst Klown
Yeah, one of the other clowns severed Helmut’s penis ... while he was having sexual relations with a pumpkin. Blood spurted into the air.
Standing on a ladder, he made a solo, mournful, articulate soliloquy to the moon. This one expression of love was the only time he spoke during the entire show.

And it was in German.
Late during the history of Guerrilla, I had proposed reconfiguring the entire concept. In spite of our “game show” structure of introducing short plays, the whole endeavor still felt (to me) like a Too Much Light knock-off. What if we made an actual set, evoking a demented cabaret, with each of us developing alter-egos which we would maintain week after week, and that it would be these performers presenting the short plays?

From my proposal, June 1993:
“Maison de Foux” ... I picture a dinner theater trying to stay open after the city has been carpet bombed. Charred doorways, curtains askew, a big sign of lights proclaiming the name of the show, with a few bulbs missing or burned out … walls adorned with water damaged posters of rock stars, politicians and movies ...

While the audience is still meant to feel as though they are an integral part of what goes on, they are no longer encouraged to believe they own the place.
Nothing came of that idea, at least not at Guerrilla. The concept was revived in a somewhat different form for Night Kitchen.

Backstage with "The Gaslight Guignol"
Erin Meyers, Mike Schmidt, self
Jenna Weiss, Toni K. Thayer
This Vicious Cabaret was my attempt at an evil clown show, a post-apocalyptic comic nightmare in which a band of roving performers acted danced and sang for their supper (we literally accepted non-perishable food items in lieu of payment). Global warming had led to massive water shortages and the collapse of civilization as we know it.

The evening culminated with an audience member being chosen to join the company, but also having to choose which member of the original company would have to be killed to maintain balance. My character, Serious George, the most horrible of our quintet, was prepared with a knife to slit the throat of whoever was chosen. In case it was me, Mister Alfred (Mike Schmidt) would sneak up behind, grab my knife hand and do the deed.

I had palmed a blood packet, so the knife wound was particularly ghastly, a fine conclusion to a dark evening. Sometimes the packet would “pop” and blood would shoot across the stage.

Tonight, Nightbloom Theatre Co. has promised such effects as extreme, prolonged stage violence, punching, kicking, head trauma, eye gouging and gouts of blood. The play I’m Alive You Bastards is a feminist warning or threat: What will happen when the lid finally blows off of women’s collective efforts to suppress rage and anger? What happens when women transform into their monsters they have held inside?

The wake of the #meToo Movement has brought to the fore a new genre of unapologetically and aggressively feminist plays, like Mathile Dratwa’s A Play about David Mamet Writing a Play about Harvey Weinstein and Sharai Bohannon’s Punching Neil LaBute project. These are exciting creative developments.

So when I say I am scared to attend this show, it’s not really the stage violence I am afraid of. We know that’s fake. A surprise is titillating, that’s why we go to haunted houses. It’s the ideas, and the expression of those ideas which fill me with anticipatory dread.

Nightbloom Theatre Co. presents "I'm Alive You Bastards And I Always Will Be" at Maelstrom Collective Arts through Sunday, October 6, 2019

Happy birthday, Alice Bluegown. We remember.

Source: Crash Course Theatre #35: The Horrors of the Grand Guignol

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Drew Goes to the Browns' Game (1999)

There was a time I wanted to be an actor. During the 1990s I was even attached to a talent agency in town, and did all the requisite things you do when you are represented by an agency. I had a composite photo, I had a voice reel. I spent a lot of money in an effort to promote myself, largely in vain.

There were a couple industrials, and by that I mean two. There was the greeting card shoot, a couple radio spots, and dozens and dozens of auditions.

The auditions were ridiculous, they would call lots of us in to pad out a reel to meet some quota the producer requested. Once I read for the pilot for a sit-com on a network. The part I was asked to read was obviously meant to be Asian American (it was the 90s, you could tell) but the agency had few people of color on their roster, it was a national call, and they needed to pad that reel.

One of the managers told me quite frankly that I probably wouldn’t get any work until my thirties, and by that he meant I was losing my hair. I was very glad, later, to have lost my hair, hair never worked for me, anyway. But the losing of it was troublesome.

In 1995, The Drew Carey Show premiered on ABC. Drew was a stand-up comic from the Old Brooklyn neighborhood of Cleveland, something he was and is always proud to mention. We met a couple times in the early 90s, after he broke big on The Tonight Show in 1991. My college roommate’s sister was friends with him, and brought him to see Guerrilla once. After the show he sat me down and gave me a critique of the performance which I did not appreciate at the time.

His sit-com was about working class Cleveland, but though the exteriors were Cleveland locations (the department store, the bar, his house) the whole thing was shot in L.A. There were two occasions when Drew brought the production to town; the opening credits sequence they filmed all over the city in 1997, and the episode about the gang sneaking into the season opener at the brand new Cleveland Browns Stadium in 1999.

News of the impending shoot spread through the community as press releases announced that there would be a massive call for extras to fill sections of Browns Stadium for the show and to be part of a long line for tickets at the box office outside the stadium. There were also calls for featured, non-speaking extras held through my agency.

Frankly, I was not interested. I had been an extra for a couple motion pictures shot in and around the Cleveland area (My Summer Story, House Arrest) and I did not feel that making seventy-five bucks a day to appear in the background of a crowd scene was a valuable use of my time.

However, I did receive a phone call from a different talent agency, a new talent agency, one that had just started business. They had gotten my name from someone at Playhouse Square. Apparently my agency was only sending reels and resumes of “print talent” (see: beautiful people) and the show was looking for ordinary-looking Clevelanders. Would I be available to audition for them, for this new agency? Sure. It’s always flattering to be asked.

They put me on video for my audition, handing me a small blue page of dialogue. They asked me to read three lines, which I thought was a pretty labor intensive way to cast the hundreds of people they were looking for, but fine. It was perhaps the most disinterested read I’d ever given in my life.

I got a call a couple days later. The guy said, rather enthusiastically, that I may have the part, and to make sure my calendar was clear for shooting. I said, "maybe," which was not the response he was expecting. He said he’d get back to me soon.

The next day I was told I had the part! "Great," I said. I told them I planned to be there. They pressed me, I had to be there, and I said, "Sure." I have it on my calendar. Again, I was as surprised by their enthusiasm as they were surprised by my not having any.

Then they asked if I still had the blue sheet. I said sure, and they reminded me to have those three lines memorized.

Wait. I am going to be speaking these lines? On the show, these are my lines? I have lines? Lines of dialogue?

Ah. Now it all made sense. I had just blithely sleepwalked through the audition process for an under-five role (as they say) on a nationally broadcast network sit-com.

Day of shooting, I arrived early at my trailer. Yes, I had a trailer. I never spent any time in it, as it was located well out of sight behind Browns Stadium (they took advantage of the thousands of people who arrived to join a line that stretched around the stadium in the opening aerial shot) and those of us who were contracted got to spent breaks in the new, air conditioned ground floor bar and grill while everyone else had the stand around in the ninety degree heat.

However, it did provide me a place to store the five outfits I had brought for the costumer to consider. I can’t remember what those were, I was wearing brown Chuck Taylors, late 90s high-waisted jeans, and a T-shirt featuring a smiling boy saying, “Cleveland! It’s fun!”

The costumer said what I had on was great, so that’s what I have on in the show.

My job was to stand in line in front of Drew and his friends. Spoiler alert, I ask to buy one ticket, and he makes fun of me for going to the game alone. So I buy five, which happen to be the last available tickets. Cue “Cleveland Rocks.”

This meant I would be on-camera, next to Drew Carey, for the entire pre-credit sequence. And as we were shooting in sequence, and that it took several hours to get through two minutes of gags, I was able to pay close attention to how to act -- how to speak -- when being filmed for television. Because frankly, I could barely hear them. They were just talking so naturally.

I had a brief, personal, mental list of things I would not be doing. I would not attempt to be chummy with the gang; Drew, Ryan Stiles, Diedrich Bader, Christa Miller -- and Jenica Bergere, who, for the past several episodes, had been playing Drew’s girlfriend, Sharon. I would speak when spoken to, offer no suggestions, do what I was told.

Also, I would not fuck up. I had that little, blue sheet of paper in my pocket. I had my lines cold. There had been no rehearsal, I was obviously expected to just leap in, prepared, and that is what I would do.

In hindsight, maybe I should have been a little chummy. On the best of days I can appear imperious, aloof and distant, but that’s because I am terrified of saying something stupid, or worse, tedious. It would have been nice to introduce myself, but I was afraid of being rejected by the cool kids.

Early in the proceedings they asked a member of the line to get into a sleeping bag, one which we all stepped over. Boy, did I feel sorry for that guy. Not only did he spent the afternoon lying on the pavement in a down sleeping bag in the hot, hot sun, he was no longer able to tell his friends to watch for him. You can only see the top of his head and his arm.

When my turn came, they wired me with a mic (you can see the pack in the small of my back) and told me what marks to hit and when. And we just did it. Hit my mark, said my lines, didn’t fuck up.

While they set up for another take, I was just standing by the ticket window with Drew Carey. I wasn’t sure if small talk was in order. Throughout the day I had noticed how, though the episode had a director, Gerry Cohen, Drew was providing a great deal of the acting notes. After all, this was his show, It had his name on it. We’d just done one take, and no one said anything to me about how it went.

So I asked him, “Did you have any notes for me?”

“You?” he said, and did a little, dismissive headshake. “You’re fine.”

Then he leaned in and added, “Everyone who gets a walk-on role treats it like it’s the most important thing they’ve ever done. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

We did another take. This time I looked over from the box office to see the other stars, Stiles, Bader, Miller, clustered by a large cement column, just watching.

Bader looked at me intently and deadpanned, “That was really good.”

In the moment I couldn’t tell if this was one of those situations where you say, “Really?!” And they respond,” Naaah.” So I just kind of shrugged and smiled.

Three takes, and that was it. Last shot of the day. The next day they would shoot all the scenes inside the stadium. Eleven thousand unpaid extras, or so they say. I went back to my trailer (I had my own trailer) picked up my things and went home.

By the time the episode aired it was late September, and I was excited. That day the Plain Dealer ran an article about the "most prominent of the local extras" to be featured on this most-anticipated episode of The Drew Carey Show … but it wasn’t me.

There’s a big reveal at the conclusion of the episode, in which Drew (and the entire stadium) spy Drew’s girlfriend Sharon on the “jumbotron” making out with another guy. That guy, played by Eric Matuschek was represented by my now-former agency, which had the wherewithal to contact the media about their star client.

Most prominent. He didn’t even have lines. You couldn’t even really see his face.

Ah, well. Since then this episode has been rebroadcast countless times in syndication. Every now and then someone new contacts me to say, “Was that you ..?”

I have performed on stage since I was fourteen, in some fifty productions, where my work has been seen by thousands of people. But millions watched me speak those three lines just on that premiere broadcast night, twenty years ago. Two minutes on national TV is my lasting legacy.

"Thanks, pal!"

“Drew Goes to the Browns’ Game” premiered on ABC, Wednesday, September 29, 1999.

Source: "Carey Show At Stadium On Tonight" by Tom Feran & Mark Dawidziak, The Plain Dealer 9/29/1999

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

One-Page Plays

The theme for this month’s issue of The Dramatist (magazine) is “About the Craft.” Not casting spells, mind you. This is about writing plays.

There’s a Q&A with Adam Rapp. Here’s one:
Q: Do you have a routine? A regular time when you write? 

A: With plays, I don’t have a set routine. I feel like I’m stowing away from the rest of my life when I’m writing a play, so a lot of it is stolen time, early in the morning or late when my mind isn’t focused on other things. A lot of long sessions. Sometimes an entire day just dissolves away. It’s pretty reckless, but I love the feeling like the play is holding me hostage.
And I thought, an entire day? Must be nice. I do not like feeling churlish, but it took long enough to realize how much I desire to just write plays all day long, and at the same time had to accept that that is simply a thing that will never happen for me.

I write in the morning. I wake up at five o’clock so I can write a half hour. Sometimes it’s a play, often it’s like a journal, and I hate that because that’s not what I got up early to do, write about me, but I have to write something and so solipsism it is.

I’ve tried writing prompts, but many of the books my wife has lodged on her bookcase are about emotional free-writing and just lead to more journaling. SO in desperation, last week I just Googled “writing prompts” and found the most most basic, clickbaity site, 365 Creative Writing Prompts which is like, write about food! Write about animals!

Why not. If it’s good enough for David Byrne.

So I have been faithfully following its lead, free-writing on the subject, but also writing a very short script inspired the subject. Every morning.

Last year, I was interviewed by Tyler Whidden for his Don’t Talk To Strangers podcast, for which he expressed interest in Guerrilla Theater Company and the entire concept of one-page* plays. In their manifesto of 1915, Italian Futurists state, “It’s stupid to write one hundred pages where one would do,” that it is unnecessary to play out an entire story of character and plot if your aim is simply to make a point.

Writing for You Have the Right to Remain Silent, I not only had to be constantly creating scripts to feed the beast, but I became attuned to thinking about writing, all day. To coming up with ideas.

While I haven’t returned to that state, just putting down my thoughts as dialogue every morning has been a refreshing break and mentally satisfying. And I have begun to post these at New Play Exchange.*

Read the first of these short plays, Welcome or Friends at New Play Exchange.

*The plays I have been writing are one written page. In script form they take a few pages. Don't give me a hard time.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

On Program Pics

Tonight we saw a PLAY!
As Bertold Brecht might have asked, "What is social media for?"

We use social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on) to share opinions, to make jokes, to seek reassurance or express anger, and quite often we use it to post photographs of our pets, our dinner, and cocktail and our children, special events and even our injuries and accidents.

And we post photos of the programs for plays we are about to see.

This last has, from time to time, aroused snarky criticism, as if we are still insecure high school students mocking the theater dork ("Ooh! Did you see a PLAY?!") even when it's a theater dork doing the mocking.

Some take issue with this flagrant display of money and privilege, though little direct confrontation arises when our friends share pics from destination amusement parks, exotic vacations or ballparks.

Unlike those examples, however, audience members at plays are specifically asked not to take photos of the show itself, and there are reasons for this which are both legal and aesthetic. So taking a picture of your program is the only acceptable way to say, "I am here," which is ultimately what so much of social media is for.

And after all, isn't it a lovely thing to let the world know you are seeing a play?

Cleveland Play House presents "Into the Breeches" by George Brant at the Allen Theatre through October 6, 2019.

Monday, September 2, 2019

"The Witches" at Cleveland Public Theatre's Pandemonium 2019: Alchemy

Bryce Evan Lewis & Adrionna Powell Lawrence
in rehearsal for a scene from "The Witches"
Some years I have offered ten-minute plays to the folks at Cleveland Public Theatre for their annual Pandemonium gala, others scenes from full-length plays in progress. Eight years ago it was a scene from These Are The Times, in 2012 a brief sketch of a scene which would eventually become Adventures In Slumberland.

Currently I am working on a full-length play titled The Witches, a comedy which ties together my love of roadside attractions, American history and the world of non-profit education.

In the back of my mind I have wanted to write a play about the Colonial Witch Panic of 1692, but it’s one thing to want to have written something and another to know what it is that you want to say. Recent events have inspired me, and characters have been populating my mind. The plot has been slowly unfolding and I look forward to where it will all end.

A few weeks ago a colleague messaged me in the middle of the day asking, “We are in Salem. Any tips?” It’s always flattering when someone looks to you for advice as where to go in a certain location, you feel like a world-renown traveler. I quickly rattled off a short list of places appropriate for a family with teenagers and young adult children, places cheesy, stately, and of course a place to eat that would make everyone happy.

For this new script, however, I wanted to create a fictional city. Citizens in villages surrounding Salem, like in Andover, Beverly and Topsfield were also charged. What if we created a small city whose claim to fame was only one accused of witchcraft? And what if a popular YouTuber was on a cross-country road trip and stopped in to fictional Bradbury, Massachusetts to check out the state’s 27th most-popular witch-themed attraction?

The scene we are presenting Saturday evening is a midnight visit to the Bradbury Memorial Cemetery on the first day of spring, directed by Kim Seabright Martin and featuring Bryce Evan Lewis, Adrionna Powell Lawrence, Maggie Stahl and Lisa L. Wiley.

Cleveland Public Theatre presents "Pandemonium 2019: Alchemy" this Saturday, September 7, 2019.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Sherlock Holmes: First Reading

Friday night about a dozen folks gathered on our deck for a first reading of Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street. It was a beautiful late summer evening, Chennelle made buffalo chicken dip and chili, and I found a suitable Victorian era cocktail for those who partake.

Seems that on Charles Dickens’ historic tour of the United States (when he wasn’t becoming increasingly aware of and outraged by the fortune he was losing across the pond by dint of the widespread copyright violation of his written works) he became quite a fan of the mixed drinks he had been tippling. The one I chose the replicate was that one called simply “The Cock-Tail” (yaas) a concoction of rye, sugar, bitters, water and nutmeg.

Readers were present and former actor-teachers, in attendance members of the production company (notably, production director Lisa Ortenzi), playwrights, educators and friends. Perhaps more than any previous script I have written, there are so many elements I am trying to “get right” and for which comment and feedback has been sought and appreciated.

One element of this script which made a universal impression on those present were the “choose your own adventure” moments. These are points in the narrative when a character turns to a member of the audience with a clear choice of two, specific decisions (“should I a. or should I b.?”) which result in the company performing one of two alternate pages.

In each case, the choice leads right back into the main story -- this isn’t like Clue, there aren’t alternate endings. But these adults were excited by the idea of getting to manipulate what happens, and no doubt children will, too. And these short scenes portray how different choices can produce different outcomes.

Having originally chosen to include three of these moments in the play, deeper discussion (as well as their evident popularity) has inspired me to create two more of these moments. I know where they should go, even if I do not yet know what will occur.

Four Pounds Flour: Historic Gastronomy

There was a lot of discussion about our narrator, Vicky. Characters in mysteries can be ciphers, characters who serve a purpose to the plot but do not have much background. And in a short play for children, we can lean on personality and type to carry a character through. However, she is our representative in the story, and while we know a little about her, we do not know yet what inspires her, or what she wants. We know what she’s running from, but what is she running to?

I would say more about character, but I would hate to give up the mystery to anyone who wants to be surprised when they attend a public performance. Suffice to say there was also confusion about the motivation of some of the criminals in the tale, and I will be taking a careful look at those.

Our teachers in attendance were frank about the reaction their students have when presented with programs such as these. “Oh, great, another thing about bullying. Bullying is bad, I get it.” The word hardly has any meaning anymore. “Someone called me a name today, I was bullied.” Were you? Ironically, it is because administrators and teachers are seeking programming to address repeated abusive behavior among students that they seek out shows with the word “bully” in the title. And here we are.

Part of the challenge is in addressing what “bully” even means. Another of our teachers remarked, “bully is not a noun, it is a verb.” It’s about labeling, and what happens to a person when we call them by what they do. A child might thieve something, but does that make them a thief?

The discussion was vibrant, and animated. Some of the comments will make their way into our teacher resource guide. I have a list of edits and changes and new ideas. It was a wonderful, wonderful talkback.

After we made a bowl fire and had s'mores.

To be continued.

Four Pounds Flour: “What Dickens Drank” by Sarah Lohman, 10/29/2010 

Auditions for the Great Lakes Theater "Classics On Tour" production of "Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street" will be Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The first draft of "Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street" is available for download from New Play Exchange.

Many thanks to Adam, Allie, Chelsea, Chennelle, Chris, Eric, Lisa, Luke, Marcie, Sarah, Tim, Toni -- and Kim!