Tuesday, July 10, 2018

This American Life (radio)

Radio: An Illustrated Guide
(I own this comic book.)
Recently we had occasion to dig out our old copy of Trivial Pursuit: 90s Time Capsule Edition. The tagline is, “from the most trivial of decades.” Even today, that seems a most accurate description. You can get in trouble painting an entire decade (or an entire generation) with so broad a brush. But historically speaking, we were complacent.

In 1995, when I was creating theater pieces about Gen X nostalgia and long-form improv-inspired by nascent reality TV, NPR reporter and producer Ira Glass introduced This American Life.

Its mission, ostensibly, was to report on life in these United States. Not the famous, or the necessarily newsworthy, but life as it is lived in the corners and in the fringes. I loved it almost immediately, if only because these brief radio diaries were about things I was interested in. Conventions, summer camp, 24-hour diners, Canadians, and terrible sex.

Glass quickly developed a stable of reliable writers he would turn to with some regularity, whose work I greatly enjoyed; David Rakoff, Scott Carrier, Tobias Wolff, Dan Savage, Sarah Vowell, and David Sedaris. You notice that even in this sampling, which I thought up off the top of my head, almost all are men. All were white.

By the late 1990s I was consuming episodes voraciously, even using primitive methods of “downloading.” Due to issues of copyright, TAL came to the podcast game rather late, but early on you could stream the program with players like RealAudio, and I hooked a cassette machine to my computer to record episodes in real time for playback anywhere in house or car at my convenience.

The most compelling to me were the truly moving ones, most notably Last Words, an extended rumination on death. This episode sends chills down my spine through the music alone, prompting me to buy CDs from Bill Frisell, Philip Glass, and to put Brian Eno’s Music For Airports back into personal rotation. It was here I first heard the quote attributed to Yahuda HaLevi, “It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.”

A moving sentiment, it has what the kids today refer to as “all the feels.” I did not yet comprehend what that phrase means, though. These weekly journeys into dark corners America were, shall we say, an in vitro experience. I was thirty. I was a slacker. I didn't know much.

On one episode in the mid-2000s, Ira related the moment he was watching The O.C. when two of the characters name-check his show. They’re on the phone and one says he’s listening to This American Life, and the other says, “Is that that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are? Ecch. God.”

However, by that point, things had already begun to evolve for the program. The events of 9/11 was a challenge the team met with surprising speed, depth, and clarity. The last program in August, 2001 was about basketball tricks and professional gambling. By September 14, they had assembled a collection of stories they already had in the can on personal loss; co-writing your father’s obituary with your not-yet-deceased father, and David Sedaris writing about his mother’s death.

By the following week they were able to break open tales of how communities experience and cope with (or do not) monumental tragedy and grief with the brilliant episode Before and After. David Rakoff recounts the historic destruction of the steamship General Slocum, which devastated nearly every family in an entire New York neighborhood, and Haruki Murakami reporting first-person accounts of the 1995 poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

In telling smaller stories around a subject, and not necessarily about the big story at hand, the producers of This American Life have been able to effectively, and in recent years with more urgency, comment upon recent events. The war years (which have not actually ended) pushed the program out of its comfort zone, and TAL’s definition of what constituted a story about “American life” broadened considerably. We were taken to Afghanistan and Iraq and Kuwait and Guantanamo Bay.

Your host.
I mentioned the prominence of male writers and voices on the program, though even from the beginning there were women producers, writers and reporters like Nancy Updike, Alix Spiegel, Julie Snyder, and later Sarah Koenig (of Serial fame, a TAL spin-off) have played a prominent role. But if you tried to articulate any bias, or particular point of view for the program, it would be that squishy, liberal, can’t-we-all-get-along vibe. Homosexuality was always presented as matter-of-fact (though predominantly male-centric homosexuality) and racism, for example, is presumed to be a bad thing.

For example, in Be Careful Who You Pretend To Be we hear the story of Ron Copeland, who plays a “slave owner” as part of an interactive, historical reenactment. He thinks of himself as a good person, certainly not racist, and it begins to tear at his soul when he has to behave as one for the purposes of education and entertainment. It is an affecting piece. You feel bad for him, the white guy.

In light of recent national events, however, the show has started to lean with greater strength into uncomfortable modern issues … and Ira Glass, the omnipotent, white, cis-male narrator has noticeably begun to lean back. Two remarkable episodes from the past twelve months illustrate issues in American society which have deep roots, but have been brought into sharp relief during the time of the Trump Administration. And in each case, Glass has taken the once rare and now more frequent opportunity to hand over responsibility to another, one more familiar with and a true representative of the subject matter.

Last summer We Are in the Future, hosted by TAL producer Neil Drumming, who is African-American, delved into the subject of Afrofuturism. For the uninitiated, one of the most powerful recent examples of Afrofuturism is the movie Black Panther, and particularly the fictional nation of Wakanda. What would the present be like if white colonials had not ravaged the continent of Africa in the past? But that is merely one way to describe the aesthetic.

FTL, Y'all!:
Tales From the Age of the $200 Warp Drive

Cover art by Paul Davey
One of the stories reflects that episode from almost twenty years ago, about the white historical reenactor who played a slave-owner. In this case, however, it is comedian and actor Azie Dungey recounting her time playing the part of an enslaved person at Mount Vernon. Playing the part of one of those whom our first President claimed to own as property, she was exposed to the mental and emotional abuse of white visitors and co-workers who unintentionally or not saw her as what she was performing -- a servant, an object, an other -- which begs the question; is that not already what happens every day in America?

This past spring, the episode Five Women, hosted by producer Chana Joffe-Walt (a female-American) told a story about one empowered man -- a so-called progressive, liberal man, by the way -- and the manipulative effect he had on five women he worked with, was romantically involved with, or in several of these cases, both. The President of the United States is an unapologetic serial harasser, who only this week mocked the #MeToo movement, but the outrageousness of his sins have served to created not merely a conversation, but a revolution is the way we consider inappropriate and/or inexcusable behavior across the society.

The past year and a half we have seen historically marginalized people’s rights and liberties threatened, at the same time witnessed as they have used their voices in new, exciting, insightful, and powerful ways. And while This American Life was never meant to be at the forefront of fierce social debate, I am glad that this program, which originally focused on stories most trivial, has evolved to reflect the current moment in a manner most relevant.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

One From the Heart (album)

“I should go out and honk the horn,
It’s Independence Day.
Instead I just pour myself a drink.”
- This One’s From the Heart, Tom Waits & Crystal Gayle
Twenty-five years ago and shortly after I got married (the first time) I craft myself a mixtape. I do not need to explain what a mixtape is, Nick Hornby did so most eloquently in High Fidelity. Needless to say, there are the tapes you made for yourself, and those you made for others. This one was for me.

Mixtapes took time in a way playlists do not, because they needed to be edited in real time. You had to play the song all the way through to get it on tape. You had to listen to it that way, too. There was also a mystery to the duration of the side, and how many songs you could get on it … unless your new bride was a programmer and made you a special time calculator, which she was and she had.

My urge for this particular mixtape was to create a melancholy mix of every song that hurt. If it was not a song which in the playing humiliated me, and deeply, then it had no place on the cassette. The cover art is made of lines of handwriting, photocopied from some of the most painful letters I had ever received from lovers or friends. The tape was titled, “pathetic.

I made this tape for myself in January 1993. I had been married for less than two months.
“I can’t tell, is that a siren or a saxophone?”
- This One’s From the Heart, Tom Waits & Crystal Gayle
July 4, 1981. Not yet thirteen, crazy about girls since I was at least ten, at the annual Independence Day carnival celebration in my hometown I made a connection with the one who would soon become my first true girlfriend. Soon, but not yet.

Emboldened by my first kiss, I spent the summer flirting with other girls, too. I decided I wasn’t exactly the creep I always thought I was, and it was a new world, writing letters, straining to express desire and interest without knowing the words.

I had my own soundtrack then, too. A cassette of singles I had purchased over the months from Kmart. They were the songs of the corporate radio machine, so even though my memory of the summer of ‘81 includes masculine pop classics like Hall & Oates “You Make My Dreams” and “Jessie’s Girl” the tunes on my playlist were prefab nonsense like “Hooked On Classics” and “Stars on 45.”

As with so many things, I was never very good at knowing exactly what good taste in music was. This was always something I relied on girls to teach me.
"Don't sit home and cry
On the Fourth of July."
- Little Boy Blue, Tom Waits
One woman I knew had a term for when you tell a story so many times you put yourself into the story and believe that you had actually been there; she called it an “in vitro experience.” And so it is with the music that means so much to the people that I get close to, and my love for them imprints this music on my heart so deeply that even when they are gone, and my connection between them and the music in question has faded deeply into the background, my own affection for the music remains as though I had discovered it myself.

First she played me “Nothing Looks the Same in the Light.” Later, she taught me what it means.

He played the soundtrack to The Moderns so often, I had created an entire screenplay in my head years before I had ever seen it. My version was darker.

Then there was the one with whom I often shred a bed, but no kisses. At bedtime, they would often play One From the Heart, a collection of songs by Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle written for a film by Francis Ford Coppola. It was in joining them in this practice (more than once) that this entire record became one I still need to listen to all the way through, that it doesn’t even exist to me as individual songs, only endless night whispers and thwarted fumbling.

Never seen the movie. Most people haven't.

Sometimes I feel as though I have absolutely no personality of my own, that I am merely a hollow vessel, devoid of spirit, emotion, or understanding, filled to overflowing with the memories, thoughts, ideas and passions of others. My great hope is that my interpretation and redirection of all of these compelling and competing narratives has somehow held within them any spark of originality.

Happy Independence Day.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Troilus & Cressida (performance)

Cressida (Hannah Woodside)
Alex Belisle Photography

From Facebook, 6/23/2018
A five year-old child, the daughter of local high school teacher, saw the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival production of Troilus & Cressida at the Grove Amphitheater in Mayfield Village, and observed that the Greeks were the dominant force, that they are the oppressors. Or as she calls them, “bullies” (see right). Indeed, the Greeks are the invading force, having attacked Troy for the return of the legendary Helen … though that is not evident in our production.

There is in this production no apparent reason for the war. No Helen, no Menelaus. Paris is present, but as an older, career military officer (Leonard Goff) lending gravitas and history to the proceedings. The Greeks, costumed here to resemble Americans, are the apparent dominant force, seeking to occupy Troy.

After years of conflict, however, the battle has drawn to a stalemate. Ulysses (Minor Cline) perceives a lethargy which has settled into the Grecian troops. They observe, “Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.” It is a common American lament.

But what makes them bullies? The young audience member was no doubt affected by the manner in which Cressida (Hannah Woodside) resembling in her garments a non-Western woman, is passed around by the soldiers when she arrives in the Greek camp, having been traded for a Trojan soldier at the request of her father, the Trojan traitor Calchas (Calchas does not appear) who works with the Greeks.

"I'll have my kiss."
Patroclus (Shaun Dillon) & Cressida (Hannah Woodside)
Alex Belisle Photography
Other productions attack this scene quite aggressively. It’s practically a rape scene. The CSF performs in public parks, and while I knew that presenting Troilus & Cressida might not be the most family-friendly of stories, we didn’t want to horrify those who brought young children to see some free, outdoor Shakespeare. Children are also not the only people who can become distressed by the sight of sexual violence. If only more people were, perhaps this world would be a better place.

And besides, the very suggestion of an unwanted advance is something more people these days find uncomfortable to witness.

Yet, it was not my intention to make the Greeks "bad guys." Ironically, Cressida herself is supposed to be the bad guy. Shakespeare’s audience were as familiar with Chaucer’s version of Troilus and Criseyde as we are with Shakespeare’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Troilus is a model of fealty, and Cressida of fecklessness, almost immediately partnering with the Greek warrior Diomedes (Michael Johnson).

However, in spite of how she has been played for the past four hundred years, I was struck by her private laments. It’s not that she doubts her own ability to be faithful, it’s that she doubts the very idea of faithfulness. She blames it in part on the female condition, but then women have traditionally been judged more harshly for their behavior than men.

At the very beginning of our process, I held private character meetings with each member of the company, and I was surprised by an idea that both Michael (Diomedes) and Hannah (Cressida) suggested, which was that they had had a prior relationship.

Diomedes (Michael Johnson)
Alex Belisle Photography
This was certainly not Shakespeare’s idea, nor is there any basis for it in antiquity. But in the world I had proposed and that we were working together to create, could it not be possible? Why is Cressida there, in a theater of war? We decided she was a translator, it would give this apparent civilian a certain fluidity between camps. Perhaps they had had a moment, nothing too serious. And nothing known.

It is Diomedes, after all, who removes Cressida from her mistreatment by the other soldiers.

It went a long way to explain the scene in which Troilus (Brinden Harvey) asks Ulysses where Cressida is staying, and they over hear an intimate conversation, surprisingly intimate. Why would Cressida attach herself to Diomedes to swiftly? It makes no emotional sense to Troilus. Ulysses has already dismissed her as a whore.

But after her assault by the soldiers in Ulysses’s company, why would she not seek protection from one with whom she was already familiar? I wonder how apparent this is to the audience. All I know is a young girl likes Cressida best, and that is all right with me.

The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival "Troilus & Cressida" continues through July 1, 2018.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

M*A*S*H (Revisted)

"Heal Thyself"
Summer is here. Theater camp has concluded, my show has opened, and it is time for a little vacation with the family. A two-day drive, with four teenagers in the car, and guess what? We still all love each other.

Hotel life can -- if you can tear yourself away from your computer or phone -- provide the opportunity to take in some old fashioned television. We watched two episodes of M*A*S*H, back-to-back, just like I could on any single weekday during my childhood from seven to eight on Channel 43.

The vast majority of episodes from eleven seasons feature a cast of characters who were created for the television series, and not taken from any of Hooker's novels -- Potter, Winchester, Hunnicutt -- and the characters of Hawkeye and Houlihan grew to bear little resemblance to those from the books or from Altman’s 1970 film version, upon which the TV series is based.

Last night we saw the one where Edward Herrmann plays a relief surgeon who cracks under the pressure of “meatball surgery” (S08E17 "Heal Thyself") followed by the one where Col. Potter receives word that he’s the last survivor of his World War One buddies (S08E18 "Old Soldiers").

I have avoided re-watching the show for my entire adult life. When I was a kid I must have seen every episode several times over. I have probably watched M*A*S*H more than any other television program ever made. But whenever I happened upon a broadcast, revisiting just a few moments, I was appalled at the stupid jokes, the laugh track, and the general “niceness” that all the aforementioned characters fell into once they had jettisoned the difficult Trapper John and the impossible to make sympathetic Frank Burns.

Watching an episode play out in real time, from beginning to end, I was reminded of what made the show truly good. Yes, it was sanctimonious, I knew that as an adolescent. But take for example the way they took their time to play out the young surgeon’s disconnection from reality under pressure was truly affecting. I was surprised to learn they even borrowed from Shakespeare. I didn't read Macbeth until eighth grade. Herrmann’s doctor bemoans his inability to get imaginary (but also very real) blood off his hands.
The blood won't come off.
No matter what I do, it just stays there.
Just take it easy.
See what I mean? Look at that.
Never gonna go away.
No matter how hard I scrub or -- how much I wash it's gonna stay there.
Where do they come from? What do they -- What do they expect me to do? I can't.
I can't.
Well-written and well-played. When we moved into the next episode, and Col. Potter announced a sudden visit to Tokyo General, I knew exactly which episode this was. From somewhere in my head I heard the words tontine and pledge and the phrase, “give that man a cheroot.”

I may have been the only eleven year-old who knew what a cheroot was.

"Old Soldiers"
There were so any elements of the episode that I had no life experience to comprehend. The team of characters do not at first understand the colonel’s behavior, and one suggests he may have received a dire diagnosis himself in Tokyo. They never use the word cancer, not once, but when the gang is summoned to Potter’s tent, they have already braced themselves for the worst. “You have our total support,” says one, before learning the truth about the colonel’s recently deceased comrade.

You have our support? That struck my eleven year-old ear as odd, what kind of support do you provide someone who is ill? “I support you,” like he was being persecuted. Didn’t make sense. Now it makes sense.

Also, Colonel Potter’s entire war record was something I was unable to fathom. What I didn’t know about World War One was a lot. The final act of the episode features Henry Morgan speaking, taking his time, without interruption, describing the provenance of the bottle he has just received, the night in question, the fate of his comrades, an extended toast to lost youth … it is remarkably affecting.

The motion picture M*A*S*H is something I have also not watched in a long time. I saw it very young, and it had a poor effect on the way I saw the world. Indeed, it gave me an education in the madness of combat, and the joys of bucking the system. But it is cynical in the extreme, far too passive in its criticism of institutional racism, and downright condemnable in its treatment of women, especially women in positions of authority.

It is easy to tear down corrupt institutions, easier still to merely ridicule them from a distance. It is far more challenging to build up institutions based on basic human decency and understanding.

See also: Cleveland Centennial, M*A*S*H (TV show), January 20, 2012

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Troilus & Cressida (costume design)

The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival has to perform in a wide variety of spaces, from plain, grass fields to brick plazas, with audiences seated all on the same level as the company, or looking up at a stage. There are two large tents, situated stage left and right, that act as a backstage area for the performers.

It is because of these variances and limitations that I prefer to have absolutely no set. I will be honest, whenever I have seen CSF use a set, I have found it an unpleasing distraction from whatever the unique backdrop of wherever the show is being presented, whether that be a college building, a bandshell or chain link fence.

For Henry VIII we used one piece of furniture; a blue, plastic waiting room chair, for exactly one scene.

Timon of Athens did have a marvelous set piece, a large refreshment tray, covered with snacks and drinks and festooned with a large fraternity logo. It remained onstage for half the show, when Timon was in town and throwing parties, and wheeled off for the second half when he had abandoned civilization for the woods.

Henry VIII
(Cleveland Shakespeare Festival, 2012)
Instead, I always want to costumes to be the set. The costumes are vitally important to instantly communicate character, and to transport the audience to a specific time or place.

The costume designer for Troilus & Cressida, Jenniver Sparano, has heard this before. She joked with that “no ever ever says they don’t want costumes, that they want the set to tell the whole story.” So be it! When I heard Jenniver was going to be working on this production, I was so delighted. I am happy to have been dressed by her in the past, she’s an outstanding designer with great attention to detail.

Of course, I have been very happy with each of the costume designers I have worked with through CSF. I appreciate how challenging it can be to create or procure costumes for a large company on a modest budget. For Henry VIII I asked designer Heather Brown for modern suits for men and women that communicated wealth and power, and that is exactly when she provided.

Brinden as Troilus
Meg Parish created a perfect year 1970 college campus look for the company of Timon of Athens, which was complimented by a team of actors willing to let their hair grow out for part of the summer.

Troilus & Cressida, a tale of the Trojan War, has been updated to take place ten years ago, during the waning months of a conflict which will be visually familiar to our audience. Jenniver has gone so far as to create stitched name tags for each of the Greek officers. The company looks outstanding, and they have been inspired by their costumes.

Cleveland Shakespeare Festival presents "Troilus & Cressida" opening June 15, 2018.

Friday, June 1, 2018

New Improv Games!

Hey! We're working on a book of new theater games for students. Check these out and let us know what you think!

Terror Cell
All students sit in a large circle and are told to close their eyes. Instructor taps one on the shoulder. They have to get up, and silently hit another student over the head with their fist, then sit back down. Assaulted student must point at the one who struck them. Two others perform a scene in which they are in a foreign location and use gibberish to portray the emotions involved.

Screaming
Students balance the space. When instructor says GO all students must scream as loud and charge as fast as they can without running into any other students or falling down. When the instructor blows the whistle, all students collapse where they are, as hard as they can. They must then trace dream imagery on the floor with their fingers. Repeat.

Failure
Instructor chooses the least talented students, they are placed in the center of a circle and coached into performing an improvised monologue. Prior the beginning of class, instructor has already told all other students to yawn or express appropriate boredom whenever the chosen monologist begins to make a sound. Exercise continues until the chosen student either quits or cries.

Party Quirks
Choose one student to throw a party; all others plays guests who have a specific characteristic which will most likely be ableist. Everyone loves Party Quirks!

Michael
Two students begin a scene based on a prompt. Another student joins the scene as "Michael the Good Angel" and begins to change their motivation and subdue conflict until the scene has lost all relevance or interest.

Hammers
Divide the group evenly into hammers and nails. Go!

UPDATE: NEW New Games!

Rock, Paper, Scissors
Three students must create a battle royal scene where each student holds a different weapon (rock, paper, or scissors) and battle to the death. The winning student is rewarded by moving on with life.
- Lauren S.


Fear
Hold the class in a pitch-dark room. Have the light on, for now. Instructor tells students to be quiet, closes eyes, then points at the first student who makes a noise. The appointed student must then remain still in the middle of the room, while other students scatter around the walls. Instructor turns off the light. Other students breathes heavily, slowly, and audibly, without making any other sound. Instructor turns the light back on, after one minute.
- Alex H.

(DISCLAIMER: These games are theoretical in nature, and must never be played by anyone under any conditions. This is true of the games on this page and of all improv games anywhere.)

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Troilus & Cressida (fight choreography)

The fist of Hector.
(Cleveland Shakespeare Festival, 2018)
Directing Shakespeare, it is often necessary to include stage fighting. Part of the challenge in directing Hamlet is that you must end with a sword fight. If you decide to set your production in the present, that can present obvious challenges because that’s not how we do things any more.

For the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival I have been fortunate to direct Henry VIII and Timon of Athens, plays in which people just talk the whole time. Talk or sing, or do some freaky dancing.

The first time I directed Shakespeare it was Romeo & Juliet for Guerrilla Theater. I was twenty-six and come up with this brilliant concept that we weren’t going to celebrate or sensationalize violence, and so decided that just as Tybalt and Mercutio came at each other the lights would black out, and when they came back up Mercutio would be mortally wounded. Ditto when Romeo and fights Tybalt; blackout, lights up, Tybalt dead on the floor.

No combat choreography. I am a genius.

"There lies Tybalt slain."
(Guerrilla Theater Co., 1994)
That was the concept, anyway. I knew that combat choreography takes time, a lot of time. Rehearsal time to learn the steps and then time every rehearsal to rehearse those steps. I was directing my first Shakespeare and though I could not spare that kind of time. Also, at that point in my life I knew actually zero fight choreographers in Cleveland. Zero was also our budget.

Since then I have met several fight choreographers, and have commissioned a few fights. When we produced a modern Hamlet on a stage the size of a postage stamp, we did a stylized knife fight, Hamlet and Laertes each holding onto the end of a strap. Yes, it was compared the rumble in the music video for "Beat It." For Sarah Morton’s Hamlet at Beck Center, which was period appropriate, she and choreographer Joshua D. Brown fought with rapier and dagger, like it says in the script.

The first and really only time I had been introduced to the play Troilus and Cressida was when we took a college trip to Stratford in 1990 to attend master classes with the RSC. Company members Ciarán Hinds (as Achilles) and David Troughton (Hector) performed for us a fight to the death. Their choreographer, inspired by Nestor’s description of Hector cutting down his opponents (“there the strawy Greeks … fall down before him, like the mower's swath") provided them with whirling, twin short blades. They made quite a clang.


Ciarán Hinds (Achilles) and David Troughton (Hector)
35mm camera, sound out of sync.

A big question for the director choosing a modern interpretation of a classic drama (e.g., one set during the Trojan War) is what to do about the fighting. People like to see fighting, it adds excitement and emotional impact. But we no longer fight with swords, we fight with machine guns. On the battlefield, we often drop bombs from pilotless drones and create improvised explosives. These are neither easily staged nor dramatically compelling. What to do?

"The American Revolution"
(Bad Epitaph Theater Co., 2004)
For The American Revolution, Kirk Wood Bromley's modern verse play about the War for Independence, we presented battles in the background as they were described by messengers in the foreground, actor charging with colonial-age rifles with bayonets, and also waving the many colored battle flags of the period, and that made up for the difficulty in presenting gunfire onstage, because it's static and potentially under-dramatic.

There are a few key moments in our production of Troilus & Cressida which have been staged by Josh and his partner Kelly Elliott, including a fist fight between Hector and Ajax, some clever work with handguns, sexual assault, a brutal death by knife, and a bullet to the head. Scored briefly with the recorded sound of explosive devices, we hopefully will evoke a moment of chaos, confusion, and insurgency.

Cleveland Shakespeare Festival presents "Troilus & Cressida" opening June 15, 2018.