Saturday, February 16, 2019

Letters From an Actor (book)

GUILDENSTERNO, there has been much throwing about of brains.
- Hamlet II.ii
William Redfield (left) and Clement Fowler in "Hamlet"
Fifty-five years ago, to celebrate the four hundredth birth anniversary of William Shakespeare, Richard Burton asked John Gielgud to direct him in a production of Hamlet, intended for a Broadway run. This 1964 performance at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre was an iconic mid-century production, the design suggesting a professional rehearsal, with contemporary costumes and the mere suggestions of a set.

Burton here set a record, with over 180 performances of one of the most grueling characters a person can play. For a few evenings the performance was “broadcast” in something they called Electronovision (you know … Electronovision) to movie theaters across the country, reaching some four million additional audience members.

Burton ordered all copies of this recording destroyed, as it was a theatrical performance, and not meant to be a permanent record. However, in 1991 his widow discovered Burton had kept a copy for himself and thankfully she allowed it to be reproduced. It is a remarkable production, and I spent the summer of 1998 watching a VHS copy as a guide for cuts to the text which I would employ in a version of Hamlet that I directed myself the following winter.

Prior to that, there were two unauthorized accounts of the 1964 production from behind the scenes, each with titles remarkably straight-forward; John Giegud Directs Richard Burton In Hamlet by Richard L. Sterne (1967) and Letters From an Actor by William Redfield (1966).

Sterne’s account, subtitled "A Journal of Rehearsals," is the more sinister of the two; a non-speaking player (“Gentleman,”) Sterne secretly brought a tape-recorder into the rehearsal hall and reported the proceedings in detail, a shocking violation of even the most basic tenets of trust and understanding between artists.

Most impressive is sneaking a mid-sixties reel-to-reel recorder into the rehearsal hall unnoticed every day, but the admiration ends there.

Redfield fares only slightly better in the ethics department. William Redfield was a journeyman actor, first appearing on Broadway at the age of nine, he worked consistently on stage, TV and in film. Accepting the thankless role of Guildenstern in Gielgud’s production, he wrote letters to a colleague throughout the rehearsal process and also the run of the production, first in try-outs in Toronto, then Boston and finally New York. It is those letters which constitute his book.

Both memoirs are casually mentioned in Gielgud’s autorized biography by Sheridan Morley, and I had intended to read these books for almost twenty years. The irritation I have felt taking in Redfield’s work has made me lose my stomach for Sterne’s, though that time may come. Unquestionably Redfield’s book is enjoyable, the way dishing on celebrities can be enjoyable; he takes great delight in recounting those several encounters he had with Elizabeth Taylor (who became “Mrs. Richard Burton” during the rehearsal process) in which he flatters her incessantly, and himself by implication.

But his essays about the craft acting of acting in specific and the art of performance in general would not sound unfamiliar to anyone who had to listen to the sophomore-aged me going on about such matters over drinks in the basement of CJ’s, circa 1988.

The book were better titled “Idle Hands” as he drives himself to distraction searching for direction or more specifically attention from his director. For weeks he feels adrift in his role while Gielgud says “you’re fine” (that’s not a quote, Gielgud makes that same comment numerous times, but says it differently and with greater pith every single time) and when his director does finally give him a note, he objects to it. It’s the worst note he’s ever received, and he checks in with absolutely everyone -- his Rosencrantz (Clement Fowler), Burton, even Hume Cronyn, who by the way is legendary as Polonius, YouTube that when you get the chance.

It’s like, dude. You’re Guildenstern. Take the note and move on.

One gets the sense that Matt Weiner could, should he want to, create a backstage miniseries about this production based on this book, re-utilizing all the costumes and props from Mad Men. Not just that these events took place in the mid-sixties, but apparently all the same laws applied to Broadway as to Madison Avenue, as the author slouches through various actors' rooms, always lighting cigarettes, cocktails described and consumed in exacting detail.

He even makes a disturbing allusion to propositioning the actress playing Ophelia, and then dimissing her existence when she objects. Late that same evening he goes for as to suggest there is some other man in her room, casually slut-shaming her in absentia. If Richard Burton is Don Draper in this show, William Redfield is certainly our Pete Campbell. Drinking, smoking, and (not) screwing.

Did I mention that at the time Redfield was married? Married with children? Total Pete Campbell.

Redfield in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"
Okay, look. I neither read this book nor did I begin this blog post just to dump on this one actor. Film buffs might remember him in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which he played the hyper-intellectual and probably closeted patient Harding. It was during the production of this film that he was diagnosed with leukemia, and died soon after at the age of 49. The New York Times called his final film performance here “close to brilliant.”

But reading Letters From an Actor was a constant frustration. Setting aside the enjoyable, gossipy kink factor, this book is useful to your interested actor not as an instructive guide to the performing arts, in spite of the author’s best intentions, but rather the potential pathology of simply being an actor. Especially one with a minor role in a major work, absent his spouse and children, and with far too much time on his hands.

He rants about his flighty, precious director (I was frankly impressed at the near-absence of homophobic comments) and when the time comes for previews to be reviewed in Canada, he takes the almost universal pans as vindication for his own feelings of doubt about the production, and specifically his own place in it. As a member of the company he concludes, early on, that the show is a disaster.

Remember: Burton set a record with this production, there were 137 performances at the Lunt-Fontanne alone. The previous record for modern professional performances of Hamlet was set by John Barrymore at 101.

As you might expect, he spends some time eviscerating the very career of criticism, trotting out the kind of basic dissection you might expect to hear (in the basement of CJ’s, circa 1988) about how theater critics can’t possibly understand or describe what they are not talented enough to execute.

When he personally (finally) receives a positive notice during the Boston previews, he takes them as the notes he felt he never received from his director. A critic for the Harvard Crimson praised his (and Fowler’s) cold-bloodedness, and so he chose to lean into that for several performances.

He took a note from a non-professional, collegiate theater critic.

Gielgud, returning from an absence, noticed the change and politely suggested, “Let’s toddle on back to what we had, shall we?”

"Toddle." How deliciously mortifying.

Richard Burton & John Gielgud
From John Gielgud's "Director's Note" from the program for Hamlet:
This is a HAMLET acted in rehearsal clothes, stripped of all extraneous trappings, unencumbered by a reconstruction of any particular Historical Period. This performance is conceived as a final run-through, as actors call it.
- John Gielgud
Having already proved a success on Broadway, where it was almost universally praised (so much for “Canada-nice”) Redfield should be commended for publishing a book where so many of his fears were proved wrong. But he should have known better in the first place. John Gielgud, classically-trained as he was and already a Shakespearean legend, was trying to do something new and fresh with a text he justifiably felt he owned. He’d performed it himself at Elsinore Castle, for God’s sake, in 1939. Any director needs an actor's trust and this director was beyond deserving of that trust.

This spring I will enter into a rehearsal process which promises to be no less challenging, playing Kent in King Lear in an intimate production at the Beck Center, directed by Eric Schmiedl. I don’t act very often, and -- surprise -- I have never had a role in any Shakespearean performance as prominent as this. Reading Letters From an Actor feels much like a cautionary tale; of what not to do or think as a member of an ensemble.

Letters from an Actor by William Redfield, Viking Press (1966)
John Gielgud, The Authorized Biography by Sheridan Morley, Hodder & Stoughton (2001)
William Redfield Dead at 49; A TV, Stage and Movie Actor by Emanuel Perlmutter, The New York Times (8/18/1976)

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Classics On Tour: Treasure Island

Each year at this time, Great Lakes Theater presents a free touring production for children, the "Classics On Tour" series. And this year, it’s Treasure Island, Cleveland Heights playwright Eric Schmiedl’s playfully original take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic pirate tale.

Last summer I read the book from which this script is based, and under the most pleasant of circumstances -- on the beach!

Stevenson's fascination with the sea fueled his imagination, and his bouts of illness and a desire to please his step-children with exciting narratives kept him writing.

Pirate tropes like the parrot, the treasure map, buried treasure -- these are all original ideas Stevenson created for this book!

Playwright Eric Schmiedl and friend.
This "Classics On Tour" production is perfectly suited for an elementary school aged audience, with bright sea shanties, colorful characters, and a wide variety of puppets, designed by Talespsinner Children’s Theatre (TCT) artistic director Alison Garrigan.

Treasure Island brings together performer from last year’s Huck Finn tour; Chelsea Cannon, Chennelle Bryant-Harris, James Rankin and playwright Eric Schmiedl. The show opens Tuesday night at 7:00 PM at the Reinberger Auditorium (home of TCT) in the Gordon Square district. It’s free and open to the public. Join us!

Great Lakes Theater presents "Treasure Island" at fifteen locations around Northeast Ohio, February 5 - March 9, 2019

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

About A Ghoul: First Reading

Photo: Bryce Evan Lewis
Here we go! Last night we held the first read-through of About A Ghoul at Talespinner Children’s Theatre, which opens March 9.

It was only the other day that I realized that, unlike every other script I have ever written, this is the first one I simply handed off to a theater company before holding at least one informal reading. I had never heard this script read aloud until last night!

If last night was in indication, though, I can be confident in its success. There were many laughs, most of them (I believe) intentional.

This is my fourth script for TCT, and it will kick off their eighth season of original plays for child audiences. Usually I am familiar with most of the performers cast in each of these productions, in this case three out of six are new to me!

Absent from this first read was my collaborator, Abdelghani Kitab. He will join us at the first rehearsal. A Moroccan actor and musician, I first saw Abdelghani in I Call My Brothers at Cleveland Public Theatre. He made a wonderful impression in that show (Cleveland Scene called him “absolutely endearing”) and I was so glad when TCT artistic director Alison Garrigan introduced us for this project.

Much of the plot for About A Ghoul comes from the Moroccan folk tale Haina, which Abdelghani translated for me from the French. And in this production he will perform and conduct the music.

I will drop by rehearsal from time to time. But the script, as is traditional for TCT shows, is not set in stone. As I described it last night, “it is still clay, it is meant to be shaped!” Shepherding this company is my colleagues, and former actor-teacher, Katelyn Cornelius, who previously brought Red Onion, White Garlic to dazzling life.

Listening to the actors read the script, which consists of tales told by a wise man -- tales which turn out to be true -- I was content that the action was clear enough to be comprehended by children.

I am also confident that this company will be able to take a story about a ghoul and keep it light and amusing. It is grotesque in places (it would have to be) but they will manage it with a gentle touch.

But goodness, I am quite the thief. There are laugh lines stolen from Aaron Sorkin’s SportsNight, the movie Risky Business, and even a retelling of Portia’s “Quality of Mercy” speech from The Merchant of Venice.

I am shameless, but unapologetic.

"About A Ghoul" at Talespinner Children's Theatre opens March 9, 2019.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Who Owns the Story? (panel discussion)

From left: Bobgan, Ortiz, Coble & Salter
My friend and colleague Eric Coble sat charmingly tilted to one side between playwrights Milta Ortiz and Nikkole Salter during last Saturday’s panel discussion on appropriation and authenticity, Who Owns the Story?

Presented as part of Cleveland Public Theatre’s Entry Point weekend of new works, and produced in association with the Dramatists Guild and HowlRound, the event was moderated by CPT artistic director Raymond Bobgan.

Ortiz is Outreach Director for Borderlands Theater in Tuscon, AZ, and a playwright whose work-in-progress Water (co-created by Marc David Pinate, a co-production between Borderlands and CPT) was presented in part at Entry Point this year, one of the plays for which I helped facilitate post-show discussion. I have also read her powerful and timely work Más on New Play Exchange.

Salter is an Obie Award-winning writer and Pulitzer finalist (Continuum) who is currently working on a commission from CPT and the National New Play Network titled Breakout Session, a play inspired by the Cleveland Police Department consent decree from the U.S. Justice Center.

The topic was who owns the story. But the real question is who tells the story. Ortiz, a Salvadoran American, and Salter, an African American, told several nuanced, relevant stories about their experiences with appropriation, including those where they themselves were the appropriators; which is to say, where and when they were telling someone else’s story.

I myself have appropriated. I mean, anyone who has a retold a told has appropriated. Right? Like Eric I sat charmingly tilted to one side.

Further, the more important question may be not who owns the story, but who gets to tell it. Today, if a white man tells a story, any story, it is much more likely to get produced -- and to get attention -- than that from a person of color. So if a white person chooses to tell the story of another race, walk, culture, or so on, you must ask not only why they are telling the story, but why isn’t a person from that race, walk, culture the one telling it?

It is, as Salter pointed out, about the power dynamics in our nation. As writers, we must ask ourselves, "why am I writing this?"

Take the recently-announced Academy Award nominations, which include Blank Panther and Green Book. The first is an Afro-Futurist adventure created prominently by Africa-descended artists, the other a story of segregation created by a white director and screenwriters which has been criticized for being a typical “white savior” movie.

More people came out to see Black Panther, but Green Book has already won a best drama award at the Golden Globes.

Does that mean that one is limited to writing only characters from their own ethnic, racial, cultural background? I don’t know. Maybe? Why are you writing that character?

Coble wrote the outrageous satire Fairfield, about the worst Black History Month pageant ever, to examine issues of race in the American middle-class, and by his own account his first draft was criticized by African American readers as being too kind to the black characters, that he needed to be an equal opportunity offender.

This is my basic criticism with Clybourne Park, the acclaimed, unauthorized sequel to A Raisin In the Sun. It is ostensibly about race (for which its white playwright received a Pulitzer Prize) but the script is peopled with terrible white people who talk too much and blameless black people who talk very little.

I would like to write about the world around me, and include all the people in it, be they black, white, Latinx, gay, straight, trans, Muslim, atheist -- everyone. So, how does a playwright like myself know when what we are writing is appropriate or appropriating?

“Are you asking for a rule book?” Bobgan deadpanned, which got a laugh. Because it’s true. We want guidance and permission. We want a rule book. And we can’t have one. Why should we? How is it someone else’s responsibility to train me in sensitivity, to tell me it’s okay, or worse yet, to do the work to fix my play?

It is the white playwright’s responsibility, any playwright’s responsibility, to know their job, to know what they are doing, to be in the world and to be aware of what it is they are writing, and why.

Watch the entire panel discussion here:

Monday, January 21, 2019

Guerrilla Theater Radio Hour (three)

"It's another dreary and miserable day in Cleaverston Heights, and just the perfect weather for a little social unrest."
- The Raghouse, Episode Four
In light of a recent event, one in which a young man in a MAGA hat leered at a Native American Vietnam Vet at the Lincoln Memorial, several took to Twitter to shame those who were outraged, to wit; "Oh, this outrages you?"

They would go on to delineate several, previous examples of human rights violations against native people that presumably have not aroused outrage, not to the extent this viral image has.

This public shaming of those who are selectively outraged -- why? What is the point> The moment itself is outrageous enough, what does calling the reaction to the moment into question do but create confusion?

Like some right-wing website announcing the TRUTH of this HOAX by providing the UNEDITED VIDEO, which no one is actually meant to watch because if they did they would see the same thing, it’s the headline that counts.

But as to this idea of selective outrage -- oh, now you’re outraged? No, I am not outraged now. I’m not some middle-aged white liberal guy who just cuts and pastes sad stories, playing into Big Media’s lazy narrative.

I’ve been outraged for twenty-eight years, twenty-eight years this week, in fact. Ever since I saw the outpouring of glee on behalf of a large and loud segment of the students at my school burst into celebration the evening the Persian Gulf War began, January 17, 2001.

For three nights they took to the streets -- took over the streets! To celebrate a war. I had been on the fence in the past, but that night I became an activist, and even though I do not spend as much energy as others on liberal causes, I have striven to remain educated, aware and vocal.

Revisiting the Guerrilla Theater Radio Hour has been an ear-opening experience. I forgot we talked like that. Sure, we spent plenty of time spent criticizing popular television and complaining about parking tickets, but there were also discussions about rBGH, air pollution and yes, even twenty-five years ago, the use of excessive deadly force against African-American males by the Cleveland Police Department.

The best script I wrote for the program was the fourth episode of The Raghouse (see link, above.) That series was set in and around a coffee house, frequented by an array of then twenty-something Generation X stereotypes. The stories were often just an attempt to cram as many hip, early 90s buzzwords into fifteen minutes as possible.

For this episode, however, I took the focus off the main character, Biggles Malone (just as well, too, as you can tell I had lost my voice when we recorded this episode) and handed it to Satch, who carried the narrative into the realm of social justice and activism. What this episode has to say about what white people choose to get outraged over -- and what they do not -- has unfortunately withstood the test of time.

Not to ring my bell too loud, the episode also included an ugly racial stereotype, a one-off joke that I thought was pretty funny at the time, but am now entirely ashamed to have written and broadcast. It has been edited out of this sound file.

Have a good Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Entry Point (2019)

Writing down the words.
For the third year, Cleveland Public Theatre has produced Entry Point, a kind of weekend fringe festival where you can experience anywhere from one full length to maybe five, fifteen minutes vignettes in the course of a single evening.

These are all new works, or work in development, staged simply but professionally, and an important part of each of the three nights (Thursday through Saturday) are the tightly curated and brief post-performances feedback sessions.

Two years ago I was an actor at Entry Point, in someone else’s piece. Last year I wrote a piece with Chennelle. This year I was invited to facilitate a couple evenings of post-show discussion.

The post-show talkback, for better or worse, has become a modern theatre event, or perhaps I should say add-on, or thing. The pre-show discussion (usually more like a lecture than a chat) is a staple at companies like Cleveland Play House, Great Lakes Theater and Dobama, providing context and knowledge for the show. These are quite popular even though they can turn a three-hour evening into a four-hour one.

The post-show talkback is for the die-hard theatergoer (one who would could to sit some more rather than immediately grab a drink, which is what I usually need to do) to discuss the issues raised in the production, or in the case of a new work, to provide a response which the creator may find useful.

The post-performance discussions I managed on Thursday and Friday evenings were very different experiences. There were fewer folks in general on Thursday night, and the moment I stepped out to begin at least half of the audience got up to dash onto the next thing, which is fine, you can do that, but I was left reaching for a response from a small number of people.

I’m okay with silence. My job is teaching actors how to lead discussions with reluctant or disinterested children. But I was taken aback by the large number of those who did not even choose to remain.

(Full disclosure: I, too, will dash from post-show discussions, especially when the audience is mostly white; confirmation bias is a thing and I don’t need to sit among a bunch of middle-aged Caucasians affirming their own personal goodness. But, I digress.)

Because this is a creative process, and a creative evening, which Raymond, the artistic director, makes very clear at the beginning of the evening with an opening speech in the lounge which has become a delightful tradition. The audience is here to bear witness. It’s why you drove in this weather to get here.

Friday was much different, with full houses, and even at those performances at the end of the evening that had fewer attendants (folks were ready to get that drink on) they stayed and responded with enthusiasm and spirit. There’s a part where the facilitator is to write down words that the piece inspires (see photo, above) and I could barely keep up, they just kept coming at me. The playwrights must have been delighted.

The biggest challenge for me was the taking in of commentary without offering my own viewpoint. In the residency program we engaged the comment, and then play devil's advocate, pressing for alternate viewpoints of challenging assumptions. The job here was to encourage thought, field response, and move on. I deeply hope these post-performance events were helpful to these artists.

Yesterday afternoon Cleveland Public, in association with Howlround and the Dramatists Guild presented a brace of panel discussion in the James Levin Theatre, and it was exciting to see how full the audience was, especially with the impending storm.

Next up: Who Owns The Story?

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Guerrilla Theater Radio Hour (two)

We recorded Sunday mornings.
My last post describes how the Guerrilla Theater Radio Hour came to be. The drama series we produced for the program include: 

The Abnormal Doctor Boomer by Torque 

Dr. Frank Litigious Boomer is a disgusting, drooling, perverted old scientist, and the hero of these tales.

Most of the action involves his sycophantic assistant, Daniel Quick, getting into situations where he can test formulas developed by The Doctor that are meant to cure society of ills such as abortion, homosexuality, political dissent and Spanish.

The Raghouse by Tower

Biggles Malone, a member of “The 13th Generation” is a slacker and a nobody. He and his erstwhile “love interest” Malekha and his best "acquaintance" Satch insult each other and sit around and waste time at The Raghouse, a local coffee emporium.

The Adventure of Annie Gordon by Beemer 

Annie Gordon is a sensitive, young, professional woman, working as a manager at Harlow’s Department Store in Manhattan. Annie serves as a model for the right way to behave as a mature adult, whether dealing with her back-biting co-worker Stacey Petrillo, her gay co-worker Steve, her bigoted boss Mr. Harlow -- or falling in love with DJ Paul Travis.

Digit, Torque, and that amazing door.
There were also these three introductory episodes, produced near the end of our history:

Lucy Bontelle, Private Eye by Gooch, a classic, hard-boiled detective story set in a fictional past where women are aggressively dominant and the men aren’t. Lucy Bontelle is a hard-drinking, fast-loving private dick who falls for Donneyboy, a gangster’s moll.

I expanded on an old comic strip I’d created in college, and produced The Turtleneck, which was going to be a fast-paced and very short piece (ten minutes an episode, tops) about Maxwell Peavey who, through a circumstance (unfortunately similar to the one John Ritter found himself in in Hero At Large) becomes a reluctant costumed avenger.

Finally, Torque wrote The Plight of Mister Martin, an amazing Brechtian homage. In it Mr. Martin stands up to the Corporate Manager and loses his job -- but for entirely selfish reasons. His destitute wife June  leaves him to grovel with the Whore and takes up Martin’s sledgehammer.

With original music by Torque, hand-made sound effects created by Torque and myself during a fun afternoon in the ‘RUW studio, highly-stylized and tightly-written satire, Mr. Martin was inarguably the best piece we ever made. And, regrettably, the last.

Many thanks to Thom Cechowski for loaning me his Kenwood cassette deck to make these recordings possible!

Next up: The Raghouse!