Friday, December 2, 2016

On Race (three)

Alia Shawkat as Alexander Hamilton (Drunk History)
Here is the billion dollar question about Hamilton, moving forward. What happens when this “wonderful American story,” (to quote the message from the company to the Vice President-elect made two weeks ago) which was created to be performed told by “a diverse group of men [and] women of different colors, creeds, and orientations” (again from last Friday’s speech) is licensed to be produced at colleges and high schools across the nation?

My high school alma mater is part of a community which is not terribly diverse. Largely Caucasian, almost entirely Christian This did not prevent Bay High from producing Fiddler on the Roof a few years ago. No idea how it was received, that’s a good play, great song, I am sure it was fine. No doubt an educational, experience, too. Let’s face it, the cast photo of those teenagers wearing fake beards looks no more or less ridiculous than if it were of a company of teenagers from Beachwood High wearing fake beards.

What happens, however, should my hometown high school chose to produce In The Heights? That’s an important story about an American community, and if the community that tells it does not have significant Latino representation, then that, too, is an educational opportunity, correct? Or is it something else? What is the difference between performing as a person who is Jewish and a person who is Hispanic?

I mean, we're talking about representing a diverse number of Latino characters, it's not like producing Bye Bye Birdie.

Good Lord, I hate Bye, Bye Birdie.

My own personal memories of racist moments in theater are painful to recollect. We presented Anything Goes my senior year and in the final scene my character disguises himself as one of the several Chinese converts who had been shuffling around after a Western missionary, replete with straw hat and uttering brief statements in “pidgin” English.

When my brother was a child actor, I saw him perform once in yellowface and once in blackface. That was wrong. Last week, however, we saw An Octaroon at Dobama Theatre where we saw a black man in whiteface, a white man in redface, and a brown man in blackface. That was satire.

So. where are we in our cross-cultural American experiment? Can a white actor can play a role created for a Latino or Black actor inspired by an historical white person? Can a woman?

As part of the school residency program, our actor-teachers perform scenes from classic literature. They also cast students to perform roles in these scenes with them. We provide scripts and costumes, and we have a few ground rules.

For example, students are asked to use their own voice, and not to put on a false voice. Part of this is honesty. If you are acting fake, you can't come close to the true emotions and decisions. Part of this is to avoid uncomfortable circumstances.

Yes, we present scenes from Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin In The Sun in rural Ohio. Once I was asked if a white student playing Lena Younger could use a Southern accent.  I said, "No, because this is Chicago." That seemed to him to be a satisfactory answer.

Our actors also have what we call our non-specific gender policy, to wit; “Boys can play the girls roles, girls can play the boys roles.”

Recently, however, our people have reported to me the increasing number of self-identified trans and non-binary students they have been encountering, from elementary school on up. The old instruction seems no longer appropriate. It is arcane, even.

After all, this is theater. Theater is play. And anyone can play anything.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Twenty-Seventeen

What will the new year hold, apart from malfeasance and kleptocracy at the highest levels of government? Hard to believe an entire year ago I was already fretting the Presidential election, and what do you know, it actually played out pretty much the way I expected. I can deal with it. I am more concerned about the children.

But this is about playwriting. This time last year I believed I would only be producing two adaptations. I was unaware that I would remount I Hate This, that I would be going to Alaska, that I would be further developing a new work I had started two years earlier, that my father would die.

This spring I have the honor of presenting my third world premiere at Talespinner Children’s Theatre. Red Onion, White Garlic will spin no less than three Indonesian folk tales into one narrative of two grown step-sisters. I am so happy that I have had the opportunity to create three very different stories for this company, from the dreams of a child to a wacky princess adventure to this mature story of familial responsibility.

What else, I cannot say. Received a query about performing the stillbirth play in Turkish, that sounded very interesting but I have not heard back. If the recent past has taught me anything, however, it is that surprises, good and ill, await around every corner.

What’s next?

Monday, November 28, 2016

Wayang (shadow puppetry)

Thanksgiving weekend was a pleasant, familial affair. For several years we have been feasting in the Cleveland area, to be with my folks. As this was the first holiday without father, we decided to return to Athens. I drove my Mom down, my brother flew in from the Twin Cities with his family. It has been relaxing with books and puzzles and games and television and not too much Facebook.

There were so many journeys and events I only got one run in down by the bike path. For a Thanksgiving weekend, that is odd.

Saturday I connected with Dr. Condee, the subject was shadow puppets. Since the early Aughts the good doctor has been collaborating to bring the arts into O.U.’s Southeast Asian Studies program, with an emphasis on wayang or shadow puppetry. He’s traveled extensively in Bali and Malaysia and in our brief interview he had many delightful stories and information.

He also brought a portfolio of puppets!

Traditional wayang focuses on two narratives, Rāmāyaṇa, the love story of Rama and Sita, and the Mahābhārata, and epic tale of good and evil which, according to Condee, makes The Odyssey read like a short story.

Performing the entire Mahābhārata would take ages. Peter Brook produced part of it, and it took over nine hours. Most often artists choose the present part of the tale, which is called a trunk story. However, you can also tell original stories using various characters from the epic, and that would be called a branch story.

Red Onion, White Garlic is a folk tale for children, not part of either of these epics, though we will be incorporating wayang into the performance. Part of my conversation with Condee was to gain further insight into the practice, and how that might affect the way I think about my script, which I am in the process of writing.

We met at Donkey, which is apparently our established hangout. He had brought both plastic puppets, and also two more traditional characters made of hammered leather. The walls of the coffee shop were hung with art so available projection space was cramped, but it did mean there were several bright spot lights which was very helpful in cast these incredible, colorful shadows on the wall.

He described to me several companies, including those which experiment with certain performance traditions, expanding the possibilities of shadow art while maintaining the spirit of the craft.

In the most traditional performance, one player works all of the puppets and provides all the voices from behind a screen roughly four feet high and eight feet wide. Flickering light from an oil candle give the characters the illusion of subtle movement, like a living thing. The closer a puppet is to the screen the greater the detail, the further away they become diffuse - but much larger.

Larry Reed’s company ShadowLight often uses many players, behind but also in front enormous screens employing computer projections and light which keeps puppets in focus no matter how far they are from the screen and close to the light.

Our meeting, though brief, greatly improved my understanding of the practice, and I look forward to further study. Later, I got a plaid, wool sportcoat from Athens Underground.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

On Race (two)

Nicholas Christopher & fans.
The casual irony of my friend's meta Facebook post (see yesterday) is that Christopher Jackson is no longer playing George Washington in the company of Hamilton, having stepped down in October. In fact, Jackson did not perform the night we saw the show in early August.

Immediately following the first anniversary of its premiere on Broadway, it appeared that every original cast member of Hamilton who was still part of the production at that time (Renée Elise Goldsberry, Anthony Ramos, Mr. Jackson) had taken the week off.

No matter, we saw the remarkable Javier Muñoz in the lead role (Google him and you will receive the suggested search string “javier munoz fierce”) and had the unique opportunity to witness the performance of Nicholas Christopher as Washington just as he was joined the production.

Yes, he is strong and majestic, as the role requires, and you will excuse the hyperbole, but his rendition of One Last Time lifted me two inches above my seat.

Christopher was the only performer to come out to sign autographs that night, a Tuesday. No doubt many of performers needed to rest up for their Wednesday double. I was standing in the crowd near the stage door as the kids excitedly waited to hand Christopher their programs while my wife, waiting by the main entrance, watched as Muñoz and others surreptitiously made their way out the front and into waiting cars.

By a strange twist of fate, after the crowd had dispersed and we had crossed the street, discussing whether or not we would eat something or just head for the train, I found myself separated from the rest of the family by several yards, walking up the street to catch them. Who comes walking down the street the other way but Mr. Christopher, who had obviously just signed his last program and crossed the street at the other end, and was now heading back across West 46th Street to anonymously continue with his evening.

Spotting him, walking by himself down the street and then recognizing him, I began blurting like a fanboy. “Oh, it’s you, in the, the [gesturing stupidly over my shoulder at the theater] Thank you so much! That was. You were truly amazing.” He was sincerely gracious and we shook hands and then continued our different ways down the street.

Several of the company members that night were either swings (company members whose only responsibility is to be available to take over for lead performers in case of absence) like Austin Smith as Aaron Burr, or understudies who were now regularly taking roles which were soon to be filled permanently by new actors, like Andrew Chappelle as Lafayette/Jefferson.

One of the most interesting put-ins for the night was Thayne Jasperson in the role of Laurens/Philip. Jasperson had been an ensemble member with the company since its premiere, and can be heard on the original score as Samuel Seabury in The Farmer Refuted. He is a remarkably talented performer, a triple-threat, as they say.

He’s also white. He’s like, really, really white. He’s from Utah white.

During intermission we were discussing how the performance was going and specifics about each actor and when the conversation turned to the guy playing John Laurens, I noted that it was odd. My eleven year-old son asked, "What does that mean, why is it odd?" and I said, "Because you know."

And he said, "No, I don't know."

And I said, "It’s just that he’s. I mean, he’s not uhm. What I mean is.

"Only Tories are white."

Before the boy could ask, what the hell does that mean? I added,"Look. He’s great! Let’s read our programs," before I could say another totally ignorant thing.

It takes constant vigilance not to impress upon your children your own narrow worldview so that they may have the best opportunity to first see the world as it actually is.

To be continued.

Friday, November 25, 2016

On Race (one)

Christopher Jackson & friends.
Yesterday, the family was sitting around watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The Sesame Street float rolled up and who was riding up top, singing the song Try a Little Kindness but Christopher Jackson, he who originated the role of George Washington in the Broadway musical Hamilton.

My friend Grant soon posted on the Facebook, “Kindness? Sesame Street is totally biased and should be canceled. Shameful!” Indeed, even on this day of family unity it is impossible to see every moment as a prism through which to refract this entire American moment.

How to easily unpack this coy bit of FB snark for one entirely unaware? Grant was modeling President-elect Trump’s response to the company of Hamilton having addressed Vice President-elect Pence with a brief speech from the stage of the Richard Rogers Theatre, one week ago tonight.

"The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!" tweeted Donald J. Trump

What was actually said in those prepared comments did not become the controversy. In fact, it was an entirely respectful speech addressing the concerns a large part of the electorate has about the new direction this nation will take under a Trump Administration. It was a plea from the diverse peoples of America to be seen and to be heard.

What many actually heard was the Vice President-elect being booed by a large part of the audience as he entered the hall, and what they saw was an actor of color lecturing him as he exited the hall.

I got into a dust-up with someone on social media who commented, “Pure Bullying! By definition, it was. Plain & simple. He had a microphone, on his ground, with his gang.”

I not only provided this individual the actual definition of bullying but also pointed out that not all black people are in “gangs.”

He responded, “Who said anything about black people?”

Theater humor.
Of course. We have heard the dog-whistles for so long, and I myself am quite learned in the blunt tools of trolling and misdirection, but I walked right into that one. He who used the code-word "gang" went on to accuse me of race-baiting.

But let us ask the question: Was addressing Mike Pence in that manner appropriate? Was it fair? Did an actor have the right to single out an individual like that while attending the theater? Should not performing artists stick to their job of singing and dancing, and leave the speeches to others in a more appropriate venue? Does everything, after all, have to be about politics?

Well, the play in question is Hamilton, which has invited discussion of controversial issues such as race and immigration in America, and its creators have never shied away from their opinions on such matters. Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor currently playing Aaron Burr, was acting on instruction from the producers, and was provided the speech by them. Lin-Manuel Miranda himself (currently across the sea filming a movie for Disney) is said to have helped write it.

For days I was trying to remember a similar situation, as presented in a play, one in which an actor was intending to make a political speech from the stage without the permission and agreement of the company with whom he shared the stage. Yesterday, I finally realized that I was trying to think of a play that I, myself, had written.

In that play, the artistic director of a company, who is also acting in his final performance at that company in late 2005, is thought to be planning to speak out against the Iraq War following his final bows.
ANDREW
I hear tonight, instead, he might make a speech. 
BENJAMIN
A speech about -- 
ANDREW
About Iraq, yeh. 
BENJAMIN
Can’t say I’d support that. 
ANDREW
Nah? 
BENJAMIN
Not his place to do that. We got people from all across the globe coming here, tourists. Everyone knows someone in Iraq. It’d be insulting to them. 
ANDREW
It’s his last night as artistic director, his last performance -- 
BENJAMIN
It’s not right. He runs the place, he doesn’t own it. It’d be totally unprofessional. We’d have to take it up with the union. 
ANDREW
It’s just words.
BENJAMIN
Man steps out, speaks his mind, appears he speaks for all of us, init? Doesn’t matter if he says he doesn’t. I might even agree with him, don’t matter. He didn’t ask. 
David Hansen © 2015
That is from The Great Globe Itselffirst produced was in 2015. Had our production followed the Hamilton-Pence controversy rather than preceded it, our post-show discussions might have seemed a bit more pertinent.

To be continued.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Appletree Books (three)

Hour One

My final afternoon in the window at Appletree Books. Today is cool, in the thirties, but with bright sunshine cast through the window. Lucky for me, I am the only writer here this afternoon, I could choose the one with shade, the other is quite toasty. A solarium.

Remembered to get a cup of decaf, no caffeine after three, or noon if I can help it. No wifi in the window, which is just as well. I should be writing, anything, not checking social media. Nothing there to make me smile, anyway, certainly not inspirational.

I have been knitting together two Indonesian folk tales, and have been pleased with the results, but now I need to conceive of the third act and I am coming up short. I believe I require some nonsense writing. But not right now.

Instead, there is a script I will return to. There are so many scripts I have created in the past eight years to which I have not returned. That is all right, you know. But this one has called to me since the election, or rather the entire Year of Cleveland.

Hour Two

Madness sets in. Early evening drowsiness. Ugh, decaf. Set aside the old play, I was enjoying reading it too much to have an editorial eye. Instead, I returned to the folk tale, and asked questions, questions I turned into statements. Then I thought of my father and asked questions about my father, questions I turned into statements.
WHITE GARLIC
Are you the spirit of our mother?

QUEEN PARAKEET
You may think of me as your mother, if that will comfort you.

WHITE GARLIC
It feels as though our mother has been gone for a long time.

RED ONION
She has only been gone a year.

WHITE GARLIC
Soon she will have been gone many years.

RED ONION
Where do you come from, green bird?

QUEEN PARAKEET
I am the Queen of the Parakeets.

WHITE GARLIC
We are among royalty?

QUEEN PARAKEET
You may think of me as royalty, if that will impress you.
David Hansen © 2016
No idea if any of this is going anywhere.

This is not how I work. I run. I think. Maybe, eventually, I get an idea. Then I write. Staring into the screen or jotting down notes at random when I don't "get" it yet, when I don't have a clue. That is maddening.

Good Lord, I just started drumming my fingers on the table. That is not something I ever do.

At long last, progress has been achieved. Sitting still in an odd space can be exciting, until it is no longer odd. But it is a charming bookstore, listening to conversation between customers and employees was a delightful distraction.

Three weeks ago we were in a different place, but we continue to progress in spite of the difficulty. 

Appletree Books is located at 12419 Cedar Rd. in the Cedar-Fairmount District of Cleveland Heights.

Monday, November 21, 2016

On Memory

DANI: You remember everything.
CHARLES: What’s important.
- from "The Way I Danced With You"
Strange Days (1995)
Last night we saw Doctor Strange, there’s this bit at the beginning when the main character, an unusually talented brain surgeon is conducting a procedure and at the same time playing one of his favorite games where he shows off his “photographic memory” by having a nurse play random pieces of pop music and instantly reciting when it was released.

This is a game I might play, I have played this game. I could pretty much tell you exactly when a song was released until about the turn of the century. I could tell you pretty much when anything happened, until the year 2000.

No idea why, but since then I get dates mixed up the same as anyone else. I assume it has to do with my age, and where I am in my life, and I am not so quick to state without fear of contradiction what I know to be true.

There is also the very definite possibility that though I was generally accurate about pop music, when it came to things not so cleanly definable, such as who said or did what to whom, why and where and when that may or may not have happened. That is where I have truly made many significant errors.

Last year I had a deep dream. My wife discovered an app, one that - if you find the correct chair in which to sit - can allow you to travel backwards in time. There is a Siri-like AI you speak to, providing as many details as you are able, most specifically time and place, and it will transport you there.

We each had our own chairs, I cannot report where she went went, but I was successful at traveling twice. Each time I walked about, search for those I wanted to find but with no success. At first I was self-conscious that I would be recognized and then I realized that was impossible. Seriously, if the present day you walked past your younger self, you wouldn't even notice you.

Though I was confident each time that I had in fact returned to those moments, each over twenty years ago, and was in more or less the right place, I was merely wandering in a melancholy memory, alone in bleak daylight. Returning to a place was no more like peering at a still picture of the location of a party the day after it has ended.

Before Midnight (2013)
I am reminded of when my wife and I finally watched Before Midnight on DVD. We had seen the two previous films in this trilogy and while each of those were passionate, in the moment events (most of the second film happening entirely in real time) to go back to the first after watching the third would color that film with a dense wistfulness for lost youth which was not evident to me upon first viewing.

These three films follow one relationship over the course of almost two decades, dropping in on them at nine year intervals, from when they first meet, first speak to each other, to a time much later when they are married and have their own children.

What it would be like to watch each film for the first time in reverse order? That would be intense. It would be like a mystery, how did this all begin? Because we can never do that with our relationships. None of us were being recorded the day we met our significant other, how could we be? We didn’t know who that person was going to be in our lives.

For my part, I am glad there are no photos from the night I met my wife. First of all, they would probably have my ex-wife in them, too, and part that is always awkward. Also, my personal appearance in late 1989 was fucking embarrassing.

Even stranger, what if someone happened to have a video camera at the party that night, and went around interviewing everyone, and came up to ask us inane questions as we met and stood and drank and smoked cigarettes in the wee hours of the morning on January 1, 1990? What would we have said?

What did we say? What did we think? I know I was attracted to her, but then, I was attracted to a lot of people. What else was I thinking? I am lost in that. I wish I knew. My girlfriend’s punk high school pal who lived in Manhattan. I was impressed and intimidated, but she was open to me and we talked and that’s how these things begin.

In the movie Strange Days, there is a device through which you can record a person’s memory for playback. You can use these recordings to enjoy a memory and it will feel entirely like you are experiencing the moment again.

You can also experience others’ memories, and that is where the trouble comes in. Yes, it would be fun to feel for all the world like you are back at the beach when it’s the middle of winter in Ohio. But of course, that’s not where the money is.

The protagonist is a memory dealer, trafficking in recorded memories of sex and extreme thrills, but it’s an addiction to his own recording of intimate moments with a former lover that makes it impossible for him to get over her. Does the same thing happen to people who have made their own sex tapes? I shudder to think.

Doctor Strange (1978)
It is in the absence of specific details that our memories begin to shift and mutate, perhaps never settling into one final, if inaccurate, narrative.

When you first visit a new city, much of your disorientation comes not from not knowing what is around the next corner, but that you create a picture of what might be around he corner. We are constantly prepared for what we expect to see in a familiar place, and in our mind’s eye we anticipate seeing it. Our mind creates images of what it is about the experience, it’s instinctive.

So, when we are in a new place we instinctively create an expectation, and then confront reality -- but we retain a memory of what we thought we might see, but didn’t.

The same can be true in relationships. You create a picture of what is inside another person, and you believe it is there, and maybe it is, but maybe it changes, or perhaps that was never the picture. Even after you know the new truth, you still retain a memory of what you believed was reality. Reverse engineering your memories can be a traumatic thing to do.