Sunday, April 23, 2023

An Open Letter to My NEOMFA Mentors and Colleagues

When I started my degree, it was August 2020. My classroom was my dining room, or living room, or bedroom. Sometimes even outside, on the porch or the deck. Classes were held via conferencing sites, or asynchronously on Facebook.

I saw your rooms, the art on your walls, but mostly I saw your faces. And we spoke in turn and our thoughts were considerate. Knowing that I would have a certain amount of time when my mic was on to share my thoughts, I took notes and strove for a clarity of expression that I was not used to. There was no cross-talk, no chance to make verbal utterance of agreement, or even to laugh. I had to get used to not knowing whether my asides were landing.

And that was significant. Communication was more important than ever those days, and I looked forward to each class, so much. I had and have so much respect for each of my colleagues and professors, and class was a celebration of togetherness in a period of great isolation.

When my friends learned that I was pursuing a degree I was often met with surprise. I didn’t already have a Masters degree? And why now? Why playwriting, for which it was assumed I was already a professional.

As a young man, I was a terrible student, and I wanted to correct that. I wanted to be a good student. And in spite of a lifetime of reading and writing, I felt my continued studies were limited. Narrow. I want to spend my future days knowing where to look, I wanted an idea of what I was missing.

The courses that were offered, and the courses I chose, helped me appreciate the current moment, where we are and where we are headed, by looking back; to Wheatley, Baldwin, Jackson, Whitman, Lorde, and Strindberg, Churchill, Gray, and the contemporaries, Abdurraqib, Beilin, Walden, also Hunter, George, Harris, Ijames, and so many more, writers all, poets, journalists, and playwrights. All the inspiring words.

What did it mean, to jumpstart my anemic education? I’ve spent over twenty years narrowly focused on Shakespeare and also Christie, not bad company but they did not lift me up, they have not provided context for society in the 21st Century. I feel as though my education has only started, and in the years to come I hope to keep up after falling so far behind.

I am grateful for all of my NEOMFA colleagues, especially Eric M. and Laura B., who have been a constant source of support and inspiration, and Gabby D., with whom I passed electronic notes during class.

I thank and honor my professors, particularly David T. and Michael O. for driving me to create new theatrical works, and especially Hilary P. and Chris B. who agreed to join my thesis committee, for attending Scenes From a Night’s Dream, for laughing in the right places and sharing such kind and supportive thoughts after.

And most significantly, many grateful thanks to Mike G., a mentor and a colleague, someone who I have known and written alongside for many years, but has been instrumental in pushing me and my work in new and meaningful directions through the NEOMFA.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Ohio State Thespian Festival (2023)

Painesville (2023)
Paul Feig tells this great story in his memoir Kick Me about how, as a high school student, he volunteered to announce a home football game. He loved the sport and also thought of himself as witty and a good talker and of course, he was entirely unprepared and the whole evening was a fiasco.

The first time I led a workshop at a Thespian conference (they used to call it a conference) was as a college freshman. I was going to teach improvisation, and this was also a fiasco. I imagined myself as this elder statesman of theater, with plenty of wisdom to provide. But that was, in fact, entirely in my imagination.

Looking out over the gathered and interested Thespians, I saw people my age – I was still only 18, after all – and they were not impressed with my attempts to engage them in acting exercises, because, like Paul Feig, I was entirely unprepared. I had no lesson plan, and as I spoke my voice rang hollow, drifting to the ceiling of the band room in which we were working.

I thought I had something to offer, but hadn’t given a moment’s consideration as to what that might be. That was thirty-six years ago.

Hilliard (1994)
Four members of Guerrilla Theater Company led a workshop at the state Thespian conference in Hilliard in 1994 called “Adjustments: Surviving the Rehearsal Process.”

(Photo: Torque ignites the imagination.)
“Students will work with scripted material written by GTC members… with the GTC members taking the part of directors. The focus of this project is to get the student actor used to the notion hat no part of character is meant to be performed in a specific or “right” way, and that the process of discovering the character requires concentration, imagination, and most importantly, the ability and flexibility to try a lot of different choices before settling on one."
To wit; we were teaching acting. I don’t remember much about the day except it felt like there were more of us in the room than students.

In 2020, the state conference was canceled (of course) and plans were set in motion for how to engage motivated Thespians in creating something "virtual" in place of a conference in 2021. Great Lakes Theater arranged for online workshops, and Chennelle Bryant-Harris as the primary organizer and director for those, while I played a small role as script coordinator.

Virtual (2021)
The All-State show that year was the live-streaming of that video, Time Capsule. My main contribution was the suggestion that the song one student wrote and performed, extolling all the hopes and dreams this teenager had for the year 2020, which was written to open the show, be put at the end. It was a brutal conclusion, and I stand by it.

Because the State Thespian conference is supposed to be one of those transformative events in the life of a young theater artist. Our high school hadn’t attended one until my junior year, and then because it was being held in the next city over, in Rocky River. We all loved it so much, we asked to attend the next year’s, which was held at Fairborn High School, outside Dayton.

It was at that festival that I met at least a half dozen or more high school seniors who would join me as a freshman at the Ohio University School of Theatre that fall. That was where I saw The Crucible for the first time. I took workshops in improvisation and audition, and saw several one-acts and cuttings from full-length plays. It was thrilling. It was intimidating.

This weekend the Ohio Thespian Festival was held at Riverside High School in Painesville, and the offerings have been nothing short of epic. Yes, there were fully staged performances of not only Rent and The Prom, but also (ta-da) the Cardinal High School production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee which was first pulled by the school, and then reinstated after the controversy became national news.

The All-Ohio Show on Friday night was Moon Over Buffalo, and the students also received an hour-long talkback via Zoom with playwright Ken Ludwig and – as if that were not enough – a live presentation and Q&A with composer Andrew Lippa!

Hilliard (1994)
As for me, I offered a playwriting workshop called How to Write a Play a Day, for which I tried not only to describe the techniques I used to write every day, but to address issues like writer's block, and how to develop small ideas as well as big ones.

(Photo: Tower rocks the 90s jeans.)

Pre-pandemic, I once offered a forty-five minute writing workshop at a regional conference, which I wasn’t satisfied with. There was no time for writing, just talking about writing. So I asked for a ninety-minute block, which was a little presumptuous. With so much to see and do, I knew it was asking a lot from the students. But then I also figured, not all kids are actors, dancers, singers, directors or designers. Some of them want to be writers. I was there for them.

And they were there, and we wrote, and read what we wrote, and even then it didn’t seem like we had enough time. But in that good way, you know?

Saturday, April 8, 2023

369 Short Play and Monologue Festival

My wife and I passed through Asheville, North Carolina back in 2000 during a wide-ranging Southern road trip. It’s a lovely town with a well-established reputation for supporting the arts and artists. We had lunch at the Laughing Seed Café, which I am glad to learn is still in business.

This month, the Different Strokes! Performing Arts Collective presents their 369 Short Play and Monologue Festival at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts in Asheville. Part of the mission of Difference Strokes PAC is to “confront issues of social diversity in a provocative way.”

As they were scouting new works to present as part of this festival, they tapped one of my short plays and one of my monologues for inclusion, and I am grateful to have my work selected for such a inspiring endeavor.

“3-6-9” represents three weekends of works, consisting of six short plays and nine monologues.

May 30, 2020
Cleveland, OH
My short play Protest, which opened last night’s performance, was written during the George Floyd Uprising of 2020, representing two sides of an argument (though there are always more than two sides) regarding the value of street protest. 

At several points in my life I have been involved in “civil disobedience” either as a participant or witness, since 2016 this has included our children though by the pandemic they were no longer children.

Protest was written before we attended the May 30 event in Cleveland, which began peacefully before the police attempted to force the crowd to disperse. We had gone shortly before things turned ugly, and I wrote another play, Should, a day later, inspired by a conversation with our kids about our feelings about what happened. You can read both plays at New Play Exchange.

My wife in Asheville (2000)
"Flat Iron" by Reed Todd
The monologue Whiteboard will be familiar to anyone who watched Savory Taṇhā during the lockdown. The 369 Festival will be the first time it has been performed in front of a live audience. 

Whiteboard is about a teacher discovering a hate word - meant for them - written on the board in their classroom at school. The word is never identified, so ideally the monologue could be delivered by anyone. Different Strokes will present this monologue twice, both tonight and again on the closing evening, and by two different actors.

In other news, I successfully defended my thesis yesterday. Next up: Commencement!

Saturday, April 1, 2023


April is the coolest month.

The come-down from a major project can be very difficult for me. All that energy and expectation and yes, anxiety – when it is gone, my body can feel it, like the after effects of an adrenaline rush. That, and all the spare time.

The closing of my thesis production, Scenes From a Night’s Dream, brought to a conclusion my graduate studies. No other classes this semester, just my thesis defense (it’s not really a defense, we’re just going to talk about it) and then I walk. Three years of aggressive reading and heavy writing, complete.

Rather than loaf or mope (see: My American Poetry Summer, 2021) I decided to be proactive and to use the month of March to change some unhealthy habits. Over the course of the pandemic I have added and maintained some twenty to thirty pounds, and also taken to drinking every single day.

Not heavy drinking, mind. But consistent drinking. And some might argue that is a lot. Certainly it must be frowned upon to drink during class, but Zoom made that not only easy but downright encouraged. I hid my beer in a coffee mug, other students just drank their wine from a glass like it was no big thing.

So, for March 2023 I decided not only to attempt to take a run every day, but also to limit the consumption of snacks, and to drink no alcohol whatsoever. The wife called it “March Mildness.”

And it was, I believe, a success. I dropped ten pounds in that month, presumably those excess calories that were constantly cycling through my system in the form of sugar and carbs from cookies and chips, beer and whiskey.

I was more productive, at work, in the home, in my writing, on the road. There was only one day I did not run last month, due to inclement weather. I documented the experience on my running blog, Daddy Runs Fast.

And speaking of productivity, the first of April marks the commencement of End of Play.
End of Play.® is an annual initiative, created by the Dramatists Guild, to incentivize the completion of new plays, scores, or songs over the period of one month.
Last year, I was working on three scripts, two of them for a class. This year, just the one. Last night I attended an online kick-off event which included some excellent writing prompts and a panel of playwrights sharing insight into their own particular process. 

My own plans for the month involve an adaptation, and not even a very long one. If I were to write two to three pages a day, my first draft would be complete well before deadline.

Anybody want a drink?

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