Saturday, March 25, 2023

The Wild Party (book)

Queenie in "The Wild Party" 
(Art Spiegelman)
In February 1995, I traveled to New York City by train to visit my girlfriend.

My wife and I had separated, half of the furniture in the house we had purchased a little over year before was gone with her, and I had recently been diagnosed with a hernia for which I would receive surgery the following month. I was serving pizzas in an Uno’s in Lyndhurst, I had no theatrical prospects at all. I was twenty-six.

The train was comfortable, and warm, unless I leaned close to the window, which was frosted. The northeast was in a cold snap, NYC that week would be the coldest I have ever experienced. Still on the train, I opened my new laptop (with the last of the black and white screens) and began to write a play about vampires.

My girlfriend worked at the Shakespeare & Company at 81st and Broadway, the one featured in When Harry Met Sally (“Someone is staring at you in Personal Growth”) and while she was on I browsed and read and even bought, or walked around the corner to Café Lalo to sit and sip and write.

One book I picked up at that time was a recently released hardcover edition of the poem The Wild Party by Joseph Moncure March, and illustrated by Art Spiegelman (Maus). I’m not sure what caught my eye about it. Maybe it was Spiegelman. Maybe it was the claim that the poem was “lost”. Maybe it was the 20s. Maybe it was my 20s.

At that time I had only a passing interest in the 1920s, though it was piqued that week as we saw the Alan Rudolph film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle at some little theater in the East Fifties which surely doesn’t exist any more. At that time I was into generational theory and turned onto the idea that the Lost Generation and that generation we call “X” had much in common. Aimless, rootless, artistic, unbound, nihilistic, you know … “whatever.”

Mrs. Parker & the Vicious Circle
As Spiegelman points out in his introduction, the Lost Generation “swilled gin” while ours “gulps Prozac.” Of course, the Lost Generation also experienced the horrors of World War One while ours had to, what? Make our own dinner? Learn about adult relationships from The Piña Colada Song?

Mrs. Parker is a biopic, starring the incomparable Jennifer Jason Leigh, and it was easy to overlook her personal disappointments and misery when she and Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott) were writing away at facing typewriters, creating threadbare stage performances, or trading witticisms in the Algonquin. 

We could do all of this, though standing in the smoldering remains of Guerrilla Theater Co. I no longer knew who “we” were. 

The Wild Party is told in rhyming, irregular couplets, March’s meter is what makes the piece sing, the timing of the rhymes is irreverent, in places obscene, always funny, and very funny. And the subject is so sordid! A showgirl named Queenie and a clown with a violent temper named Burrs decide to throw a wild party, and that’s really it.

There is drink, there is dance. There is an orgy. A teenager is assaulted, and the fighting begins. Burrs discovers Queenie having sex with another man, things go tragic. Then the cops arrive, the end.

Spiegelman doesn’t get in the way of the narrative, just promotes it with his graphic imagery. It has a hard-boiled quality, like Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. Handsome guys have square jaws, Burrs is long and narrow like a villain. I do question why there is so much female nudity, but only female nudity.

The Secret Adversary
(A Tommy & Tuppence Adventure)
The 1920s were transgressive, folks were pushing back against their hopelessness with wildness and pleasure. The 90s were hardly hard times for us, but I certainly felt a little lost. 

I began casting about everywhere for inspiration, though it wasn’t until my two Agatha Christie adaptations, nearly twenty years later, that I took the opportunity to focus on the 20s. Tommy and Tuppence, however, are far too sweet and hopeful, especially as compared to the jaded Queenie and Burrs. 

In 1995, I channeled my nihilistic tendencies into the contemporary milieu of a vampire-themed coffee bar.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

The Short Play Project (revisited)

Shelter in place.
The Covid-19 pandemic was real. Many of us were fortunate not to contract this potentially fatal disease until after we had received the vaccine. My own bout of Covid was brief and uncomplicated, and for that I am grateful. People died, in their millions, across the globe.

What I am about the recount is something we did during the lockdown, and is no way meant to diminish the seriousness of that time, which psychological after-effects we will have to cope with the rest of our lives.

The day the shutdown was announced in the United States, three years ago this week, those of us who were not “essential workers” were left with a great deal of time on our hands. And creators of live performance were quick to devise all manner of “virtual” entertainments.

On March 14, 2020 I put out a call for people who would be interested to record themselves performing one of my short play scripts. I’d written over one hundred since the previous fall, I’d write another hundred before that summer.

The earliest submissions really bring back the shocking sensation of the start of quarantine. Outside of a circle of friends, we didn’t know what the insides of other people’s domiciles looked like. Soon we would know the interior of everyone’s home, even Stanley Tucci’s.

Ellen chose the two-person play Packing about preparing for a flight, written just days before all flights were grounded in the United States. They has all their stuff laid out on the floor to pack, and the other voice in the scene is provided by someone over their phone. It’s eerie, to me a chilling reminder of that specific time.

Other early entries were playful, as adults treated that first week like an old fashioned snow day. It reminded me of the Blizzard of 1978 – we didn’t have school, but we couldn’t go anywhere, either. Laura and her partner knocked up a fort out of sheets and blankets in their living room for Worlds. Carrie, Hannah and Sam put on their PJ’s to present a sleepover for Butthole.

Then there were those who, through necessity, playfully used what they had on hand to perform two-person scenes. Amiee created Verses with the assistance of their dog, Buckley. Luke partnered with a pretzel for Advertisement, a now sorely-dated piece inspired by the Peloton/Aviation Gin ads. Do we remember those?

As the weeks and months of 2020 went on, creators got more sophisticated with their short play submissions, including animation, original music, and some truly professional cinematography. But these swiftly created videos from the first few days really put me back in that time, for better or for worse.

You can watch all seventy-five plays in the Short Play Project here.

"Peace" performed by Richard Stimac

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Twelfth Night (As Told By Malvolio) (revisited)

This year marks the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the First Folio, a collection of 36 of Shakespeare’s plays. There are many plays that can only be found in the Folio, and so it cannot be overstated how important it was that those involved decided upon its creation.

It was published seven years after the Bard’s death, and to commemorate that anniversary, in 2016 the Folger Library (holder of the world’s largest collection of the First Folio) sent copies of the Folio to all fifty states for display. To this end they held a competition to see who would get to host the book.

Great Lakes Theater, the company I work for, partnered with the Cleveland Public Library and several other organizations to create the winning proposal: The First Folio was coming to Cleveland! It didn’t hurt that the book would be in residence during the Republican National Convention, ensuring even more visitors.

One of the events proposed was a forty-five minute adaptation of a Shakespeare title, which would tour area libraries. The last time the city held a political convention was in 1936 (two of them, in fact) the same year Cleveland held the Great Lakes Exposition, and it was there that you could view a 30-60 minute adaptation of a variety of Shakespeare’s plays, every hour, on the hour at a scaled-down reproduction of the Globe Theatre. Surely, I could also write such a brief adaptation.

Photo: Carolyn York
However, it had to be portable, and I would be limited in the number of actors we could employ. I do work best with strict parameters. The task I set for myself was to cut an entire play down to only four characters. Not just four actors, playing a number of roles, but only four characters. I wanted our audiences, many of whom might be seeing Shakespeare for the first time, to be able to focus on a simple, streamlined story.

The result was Twelfth Night (As Told By Malvolio). I had the title before I’d written the adaptation. Is it told by Malvolio? Not really. Does it matter? I say that it does not. But we needed to put that proposal together, and I wanted to make it clear this was not going to be a strict interpretation of Twelfth Night.

Recently I have been digitizing a lot of materials at the office; prompt books for outreach tours, going back decades, and that included this one. I hadn't read it in the past seven years, and I really like it.

Part of my affection for the script is my memory of the performers, Chelsea, Chennelle, Luke and Shaun, all actor-teachers at that time, and some of the loveliest people in the world.

But I also really love what I did with the text. I made the story as a 1980s teen romantic comedy. Imagining them as high school students made it easier to streamline the Olivia-Orsino-Viola bizarre love triangle (get it?). 

Photo: Carolyn York
Taking place over the course of a single day in high school, Orsino and Viola (presenting as a boy named Cesario) were given lines from Toby Belch and Feste, making their friendship even more playful as they prank this hipster version of Malvolio.

I only changed one or two of Shakespeare’s words. Orsino says “Awesome!” more than once, and Olivia calls Cesario boyfriend, not husband (Sebastian does not appear.) Let’s say I was reshuffling Shakespeare, not only editing this play, but borrowing from other sources.

We expanded upon Olivia’s grief at the recent death of her brother as well as Viola’s plans to pass as a man using text from As You Like It, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Measure For Measure, Richard III, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Venus & Adonis. I found it all very satisfying.

The reason I shelved it and forgot it, however, was that I never thought of this as my play. I didn’t post it to New Play Exchange, or feature it on my website. Upon review, I have changed my mind about this. It is an adaptation, and it is mine. It would make a great one-act for a small cast, especially for high school aged students.

"Twelfth Night (As Told To Malvolio)" is available at New Play Exchange, or contact me directly.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

The Great Globe Itself (revisited)

"I'll come in again."
Recently I have been digitizing a lot of materials at the office. That includes the prompt books for outreach tours, going back decades, a number of which I have written.

So, yes. I have been lingering over my old scripts, because they're interesting. They include sound cues, stage directions — and edits. Lines that were added, lines that were cut, lines that were changed.

These changes would make their way into the final draft of my script. But one line change caught my eye, from The Great Globe Itself, first produced in 2015. It's a significant edit, because it answers a question, central to the third act, which I had failed to address when we started rehearsal.

"They come to hear the gods, not me."

I checked the version I had posted to New Play Exchange and was surprised to find that I had not included it in the final draft. All the other changes were there, but not that one. It makes a difference, and I'm glad I caught the mistake.

"The Great Globe Itself" is available at New Play Exchange, or contact me directly.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Indie Theater Guy (book)

So I wrote a play. In 1997, The Vampyres was produced at Dobama’s Night Kitchen and I thought I was on my way to becoming a serious playwright. I printed one hundred bound copies of the script, got a copy of the Dramatists Sourcebook, and sent it to every theater in America whose submission policy seemed open to such a work.

And I waited and nothing happened and I didn’t write another play for five years.

It wasn’t until a chance visit to NYC and an invitation to see some shows at the fledgling New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC) that I became aware not only of the vast amount of great (and not-so-great) independent theater, but that there was a movement afoot to share and raise the profile of such work.

Around the same time, a New Jersey accountant named Martin Denton decided it wasn’t enough to experience and enjoy new works by Downtown theater artists, he needed to participate, and he has told his story, and the story of early 21st century “fringe” theater in his new book Indie Theater Guy.

He could have called it Internet Theater Guy, because it was Martin who first chose the fledgling internet as his venue for promoting and celebrating experimental work. Gatekeeping media like the New York Times or Time Out New York may, by necessity as well as design, could or would only review a few shows a week. Martin started which (among other things) was dedicated to reviewing every single show at FringeNYC, every single year.

Think about it. Let’s say you were an out of town act, maybe from Cleveland. You spent time and money and effort to get a show to New York, it may or may not have received any attention. But at the very least, you were guaranteed one New York City review, at least one, and you found it at

Martin Denton
Martin himself came to see And Then You Die
 at the 2009 Fringe, and he viewed it with a critical eye, questioning whether or not I had stuck the landing with my solo performance about marathon running. I was just flattered that, out of two hundred shows to choose from and with a staff scurrying around lower Manhattan to see and report on all of them, Mr. Indie Theater himself chose mine.

Here’s the thing: While Martin’s efforts were concentrated on what was happening exclusively in New York City, the impact of his work in the first two decades of this century had a wide-ranging impact, on me in Cleveland, and for so many others. And he used the internet to make it happen.

When podcasts were first becoming a thing, Martin produced the nytheatrecast which featured independent theater professionals interviewed by empresario Trav S.D. I was a dedicated listener.

Then there was the Indie Theater Now project, an online database of play scripts. For only $1.29 you could buy a script! And playwrights across the country were encouraged to do so. I did. And people read them.

All of these efforts have served their purpose, and they have come and they have gone. But their effects are lasting. Would New Play Exchange be a thing if Martin hadn’t first proved that playwrights were not only willing but eager to get their work out there for people to read in such great quantity? Who knows?

Martin’s organizational work within NYC has also paid great dividends, and you can learn about them in his brief memoir. But this playwright is grateful for the way he used new technologies to greatly expand access to and awareness of modern theater writing for artists far and wide, and diffusing New York as the epicenter of American drama.

Last year I submitted many plays to well over one hundred theaters, without printing a page, sealing an envelope, or spending a dime. And unlike in 1997, my efforts have been successful. Can Martin Denton take credit for that? Yes. Yes, he can.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

2023 NEOMFA Playwrights Festival (Week Two)

Isaiah Betts, Amaya Kiyomi
Photo: Rob Wachala
What if you stage a terrifying and absurd fever dream and no one cares?

Well, that would be awful. And that was my fear: will this, does this, this dream I wrote on paper and which is currently having its first workshop performances at convergence-continuum this weekend, will anyone have anything to say about it … or will they just be confused?

Or worse – bored.

And to my relief the answer was no, they have not been bored, they do care, they may be a little confused, but that part is fine.

Isaiah Betts, James Rankin
Photo: Neil Sudhakaran
Scenes From a Night's Dream a big, colorful fantasia full of movement and beauty and horror, where audience members claimed they weren’t sure when it was or was not appropriate to laugh, but laugh they did, and so did I.

Speaking of a “fantasia” … during intermission Thursday night, Robert Hawkes recounted attending a revival of the Walt Disney classic Fantasia some fifty years ago, and noticing a young man sitting on his own who was obviously high. The guy was giggling almost uncontrollably at the film, and when the hippos in tutus appeared he blurted out, “My God! What will happen next?!” I was pleased with the comparison.

Samantha Cocco
Photo: Neil Sudhakaran
One audience member remarked that all of the adults in the first act were “absolutely unhelpful” while another observed how the subject of the dream eventually becomes an unhelpful adult himself. This is where the conversation was most important, to me, if or how the two acts respond to and reflect each other. And certainly, they do. But people wanted more of it.

Now, there are already a couple déjà vu moments which are played for comedy. The question is whether or not the rich stew of subconscious ego in the first act can inform the second, that what seemed abstract or random can actually be helpful or instructive. After Friday night’s discussion, I had dialogue ready to go which I was aching to feed to the actors, but that would have been inappropriate. Still, I have it and I will incorporate it into the new revision.

A'Rhyan Samford, Isaiah Betts
Photo: Neil Sudhakaran
Also, folks seem to agree with my sentiment that the True Crime Industrial Complex is bad. And that I should lean into that a little more.

Driving home, my seventeen year-old son spent the entire drive picking apart the entire script, I mean that in a good way. He talks about my work like it’s important, that I am a playwright with a style, and with substance. He said, “Your grasp of nonlinear storytelling never ceases to amaze me.”

Which brings us to the ending, the phone call. Is it redemptive? Is it appropriate? It depends on how you feel about the protagonist.

Tim Keo
Photo: Neil Sudhakaran
The boy, a musician, compared the phone call to an imperfect authentic cadence, which is a resolution, though not a conclusive one. He said my plays end where they should end, but that the audience is left feeling as though the characters will continue. This is my son saying these things.

So, that was my Masters Thesis. I have never written so many stage directions into a play, and my greatest concern was that the company would be able to successfully execute them, which they absolutely did, no question. It was fast-paced and dizzying and the audience was able to follow the entire thing. It was all right there on the page, and they made it happen. I am satisfied.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

2023 NEOMFA Playwrights Festival (Week One)

"We Call It Family" by Laura Barbieri
(Convergence-Continuum, 2023)

The 2023 NEOMFA Playwrights Festival at Convergence-Continuum is now open! I joined a sold-out house on Thursday night to see the first two of three shows offered this year.

Interview plays were the thing this past semester. Eric Mansfield and I both composed interview-based plays for workshop (see: After Roe) while our colleague Laura Barbieri penned one for craft and theory. We Call It Family is the result of several in-depth interviews with couples and individuals who have participated in the foster care system.

Laura, Eric and I with our advisor
Mike Geither (far left)
Playwrights in their third year are expected to workshop a full-length play, most years the first and second year students offer a ten-minute play or one act. Because there were just the three of us, they each had the opportunity to offer a one hour work for this first weekend.

At the first read-through for Family, Barbieri told me she was mortified to discover her forty-eight page play read at over two hours! She wasted no time editing the piece, providing a new draft that runs neatly under an hour by the next rehearsal. Considering the subject matter, which can be distressing at times, the piece really moves, thanks to her great work in braiding the dialogue among six performers.

So, anyway, how do you stage an interview play? Director Emileo Fernandez took material which on the page is presentational – direct address to the audience – and made it kinetic. While some told their stories, others often assumed the role of the children who otherwise would not be seen, only spoken about.

Eric’s piece, Home Movie, centers on a quartet of siblings who discover an unhappy secret about their parents while clearing out their childhood home. Eric has carved out a fascinating niche for himself, using his experiences as both a journalist and a member of the armed forces to take ideas from true stories and shape them into drama with a lot of humorous interpersonal relationships.

He says what we saw this weekend was a shorter version of a longer piece, and I am very interested in whether that means it's the same story with more details, or we have only seen the first half of a two act play.

This entire first weekend of performances are sold out, next weekend it’s my play Scenes From a Night’s Dream and that Saturday night performance has already sold out! So that’s good news. For promotion, I asked members of our cast to tell me what they thought the play was about and rock star Con-Con multimedia artist Neil Sudhakaran created this video.
The 2023 NEOMFA Playwrights Festival continues at Convergence-Continuum through Saturday, February 18.