Friday, January 17, 2020

Music Hall!

Music Director Eric Schmiedl
Music Hall is a form of entertainment which was extremely popular in England during the Victorian Era, featuring comedy performances and rousing, boisterous songs.

Subject matter for music hall songs could be thought unsuitable for “respectable” audiences, focusing on and making light, as they often did, on subjects such as poverty, crime and inappropriate social behavior.

Each of the songs that I selected for inclusion in the play script for Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street were written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though some of the lyrics have been adapted to suit the plot of the play, and the age of its intended audience.

For example, we use the song “Oh my! How the Money Rolls In!” which uses the traditional Scottish melody for “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” which allows Miss Barnaby to describe the illegal activities committed by her young charges:
Young Annie steals fruit from the corner
Which Sylvia sells in the square
Then brings all the pennies she’s made up
I’ll give her back one as her share!

Young Darla she sneaks into houses
Takes all of the silver and plate
Her talents have grown exponentially
And the darling sweet robin’s just eight
Those are my original lyrics, suitable for an elementary school audience. The original song (titled “My God! How the Money Rolls In!”) is much more lascivious. Over the years a variety performers created increasingly obscene lyrics describing how each member of the family turns tricks; it was “The Aristocrats” of its day. For example:
My mother's a bawdy house keeper
Every night when the evening grows dim
She hangs a red light in the window
My God, how the money rolls in!

My grandma makes cheap prophylactics
She pierces the end with a pin
And grandpa does quickie abortions
My God, how the money rolls in!
"The Mystery of Edwin Drood"
(Great Lakes Theater, 2009)
Ten years ago, Great Lakes Theater produced The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s final, unfinished novel of the same name, with music, book and lyrics by Rupert Holmes (no relation) the creator of "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)".

Utilizing the fast-paced and ribald style of the music hall, Holmes was able to tell Dickens’s sordid tale of opium, prostitution and murder with humor and audience interaction. The murderer, in fact, is chosen each performance by the audience!

Now, any casual consumer of Holmesian mythos (and here I am referring to the detective, and not the composer of "Him") knows that Sherlock plays the violin. Yet as I plunged into writing the plot for the Bully of Baker Street, I knew it would be more sprightly and fun for the company to sing their stories to our proposed child audience rather than subject them to a recital. And so we return to the Music Hall.

Note: I love violin recitals. Here is a really good one.

Rehearsals began this week, and our musical director is none other than the masterful Eric Schmiedl. Eric penned the last two "Classics On Tour" productions for Great Lakes (Huck Finn and Treasure Island) in which he was also a performer, and the arranger and lead musical performer. Including period music has now become a trademark of these touring performances for children, and I didn’t see why a Sherlock Holmes mystery should be any different.

The songs include "The Artist" by A.J. Mills and B. Scott, in which a painter describes her bohemian pose, and "Broken Down" by Harry Clifton, a woeful tale of loss of status. Eric has arranged the former to be in the style of Gilbert & Sullivan, the latter as bluesy yet ironically upbeat. Each is a showcase for one of the characters, with supporting vocals provided by the rest of the company.

To be continued.

Great Lakes Theater presents "Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street" at fifteen locations around Northeast Ohio, February 4 - March 8, 2020 

Source: Traditional Music Library

Friday, January 10, 2020

My mother's hands.

These hands are not more like.- HAM I.ii
I have my mother’s hands. Long, thin fingers, veins close to the surface, standing out like bluish vines beneath the skin.

When I was a child, I was fascinated by these veins, standing out like inverted rivers on a relief map. I would poke at them to see how would divert beneath my touch. “Stop that,” she would say. My own children have done the same to my hands, and I say, "Stop that.”

Her final days, her hands could not be more different from each other. Her right hands, which had stopped obeying commands from her brain a month ago, lay still, devoid of muscular connection or attention. It was a soft and flat. skin rounded and smooth, like glass. Useless.

Her left still lived, wiry, boney. Her face had gone slack, emaciated, her left hand our best indicator of how she felt. She would raise her left arm, hand outstretched, to say, “I’m here. You’re here. We are together.” She would reach, grasp for attention. To hold hands. To say hello.

Or so we thought. Perhaps she was visioning, greeting those she thought she was seeing. We cannot know.

She would also clench her left fist, her arm in a stiff left angle. We took this to mean she was in pain, and we would provide medication. I like to think we were easing her suffering, and not merely depriving her of communication. She spoke with her left hand.

My mother died last night. She was washed and dressed, her cold hands placed across each other. They were alike again, and just like mine.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

A few bits of wisdom.

There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character.

- HAM, I.iii
From: Harrol W. Baker, Lakewood, OH
To: Miss Virginia Baker, Middlebury, VT

Sunday, Nov. 11 - 1956

Dear Tertia:

We were happy to have you call last night because you are always foremost on our minds and in our hearts. It is not always possible for me to collect my thoughts quickly. I wanted to call you back about 9 P.M. but Mom said you would be out with Sylvia viewing pictures of classic art.

I want to impart a few bits of wisdom which I have accumulated but not always used as I should.

Gather all the facts you can, then set a time limit and make a positive decision. The decision may even by proved unwise but even so a wrong decision is better than indecision. Great leaders make mistakes but they do not make the same mistake twice and they do not suffer from indecision. Men who never make mistakes are working for those who do.

There is no one who at one time or another is not afraid of something. The first way to meet fear is to keep yourself well and strong. Then prepare yourself to meet the situation you fear. Do what you fear to do or say and fear will vanish. With good health as a basis, people progress and succeed because they have a positive attitude and determination, not because they are born with some special aptitude. A great artist practices his skill more than an amateur.

Plan ahead but not too far ahead. Time is frightening to most people. Know your limits. Can you think or plan in terms of three years, one year, one month or one day. Bit by bit, day by day, we get better and better in our personality and skills. There is no short cut because we are all born ignorant.

In your decision whether to take the business course or the nursing course, plan in terms of one year only, then decide which you would rather do or could do most effectively. You might end up doing three years but don’t scare yourself with the thought of time in making the decision.

Mental Depression.
We all have our happy moments and our sad or blue moments. Others have similar feelings and experiences. So if we have a bad day and feel blue we must rationalize and say mentally, ‘This is only temporary and will soon pass to a happy & pleasant mood.’ When and if you are blue, ‘count your blessings.’ Get out and take a walk with a friend. Talk to people. Be positive and pull yourself out of a sad mood to a happy one.

In time of mental stress or anxiety, stop a few minutes for meditation and ask for God’s help & guidance. To do this effectively, take five minutes daily for deep meditation and religious reading. You must keep in practice to make use of this all powerful strength outside and beyond your own will. Through this process you will develop a quality known as ‘homeostasis,’ the ability to rebound from difficulties or adversity and make a new approach with a fresh attitude and renewed vigor. Give thanks for your happiness & Success.

You are now at an age when your emotions are very sensitive. You are beginning to realize or I should say anticipate the responsibilities of an adult. Thus any decision you make may have a lifelong effect and the whole future appears overwhelming. As you look back on this period in later life you will see it in a different light!

I mean to tell you this -- you are now at an age when you should learn various skills, have various experiences, all leading to a full and useful life. If you chose to take the business course it does not mean you will spend a lifetime in business. For one thing you would get practical experience in good judgement and how to make decisions. (I would like to take the course with you.)

If you decide on nursing school you will learn useful knowledge and skills even though it does not turn out to be your life work. Much growth comes just by daily contact with those with wise teachers and ambitious classmates.

What does all of this lead up to? It just means that you are preparing yourself to lead a useful and satisfying life. You are not preparing now to be an expert in any field of endeavor. To be an expert requires 10 years or more, often a lifetime. Opportunities now unknown will come to you and when they do you will be prepared.

So, throw off worry about the future. Have a positive attitude, like people, make friends, be happy day by day.

Mom & I love you dearly.

Write soon,

Sunday, January 5, 2020

On Revision

VICKY: I think “bully” is a thing that you do. It’s not a thing that you are.
Joshua McElroy as Sherlock Holmes
(Great Lakes Theater)
The first play I wrote for production was Breaking Point, a one-act adaptation of my daily comic strip for the college newspaper. The fact that I was also directing the script was an early lesson and made me hesitant to ever direct my own work ever again.

The problem is, I don’t know whether I should be a playwright who should have an eye to revising the as-yet un-produced work, or a director whose responsibility is to the text as it exists.

Breaking Point was problematic, and thank goodness it was and that I saw that. I recall that the ending was entirely unsatisfying, especially to the women in the company. I can’t even remember what happened, but I do know the argument was quite simply, “this doesn’t make sense, no one behaves like that.”

I knew in my heart of hearts that people do behave like that, because the moment in question was something that actually happened to me. Did it, though? And does it matter? We were producing a play, not a documentary, and if everyone says it doesn’t make sense, you have to at least entertain the idea that it really doesn’t make sense.

Breaking Point (1989)
I revised. My first revision. The ending was much more satisfying (especially to the women in the company) and in fact got the biggest reaction from the audience. Lesson learned. Revision is good.

But it’s hard. You have established a reality for yourself, it was hard fought, and now you have to change your reality. The Vampyres featured two major monologues by the protagonist, John Polidori, at the beginning and the end. The first monologue was not working, not at all. The director asked me question after question after question about it, trying to make it work. I changed a word here or there, but I was deeply unhappy with the criticism.

Over Christmas 1996, I just rewrote the entire thing. It was better. Our actor could make it work.

When we revived the show in 2005, I cut both monologues. They were both tedious, maudlin, unsympathetic, and unnecessary. Why did I ever think we needed them?

(Side note: I believe it is a testament to my fascination with Brian Pedaci, who originated the role of Polidori in 1997, that I believed they were worth including. I could listen to him recite a dictionary. Looking back, I would rather listen to him recite a dictionary.)

We held a reading of the second draft of Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street on Monday, September 30, for the Great Lakes Theater Education Committee. Obvious plotting errors from the first reading had been cleared up. Comments about character had been taken to heart, and I had found ways to make Vicky was a stronger protagonist. She wanted specific things and stood up for herself in a manner which was appropriate -- learning to stand up for herself is, of course, an important theme of the story.

The Vampyres (1997)
One major point of contention, however, was the character of Barney and her relationship with Vicky. Barney is headmistress of the orphanage, and the titular bully of the play, or so it is assumed. It is this relationship, in which the abuse runs from adult to child which made people justifiably concerned. We are creating a play about bullying, not domestic abuse. Yes, the two are associated, but you can understand how that might take the conversation where we do not want it to go.

When it was recommended that the bullying be peer-to-peer I was a bit distressed. I had already plotted the mystery, created the characters, and written the play. To suddenly introduce other characters, other girls in the neighborhood, perhaps, to antagonize our narrator … it would be like starting all over again. Comments were offered in good faith, and I spent the past few months going over it in my head. I didn’t know what to do, and I was running out of time.

Then, over Christmas, because Christmas is when I have all of my best ideas, I had an idea. What if Barney isn’t middle-aged? What if she’s the same age as Vicky? What if they were once like sisters, but now Barney has been appointed to manage the asylum while the headmaster is away on a holiday? It’s the Victorian Era, such things could certainly happen.

Chennelle Bryant- Harris as Vicky
(Great Lakes Theater)
Making Barney an aggressive boastful nineteen year-old was easier than I first thought it might be. But questions remain and they should be answered to provide more context to the mission of the production. We have incorporated tactics for coping with bullying behavior, with some of them even put into practice. Can we also address possible causes for this behavior?

Potential causes include:
  • Problems at home 
  • Bullied themselves 
  • Struggle with personal issues
Perhaps Barney doesn’t even like the name Barney. Her last name is Barnaby, Barney is a nickname. Calling someone a name, if they don’t like it, is a form of abuse. Sherlock himself is guilty of it as he insists on calling Vicky “Watson” even when she asks him not to.

Rehearsals begin in one week!

To be continued.

Read the third draft of "Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street" at New Play Exchange.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Twentieth Century Revival Party

“It's something you learn after your second theme party: It's All Been Done Before.” - Prior Walter, Angels In America
We used to have parties, lots of parties. Post-show parties, theme parties. My first 1980s Revival Party was in 1989. Once upon a time that would have seemed cutting-edge, but seriously. We’re talking about parties.

I had a premonition of dread regarding NYE 2000, which had as much to do with my personal brain chemistry as it did with politics, culture, and the residual fear that Christ was returning and that we were all totally fucked.

We saw the Canadian art-house film Last Night at the Cedar-Lee in December 1999, an apocalyptic comedy with a mean streak of melancholy (speaking of which, Lars Von Trier entirely cribbed the premise for this movie for his Melancholia only eliminating any trace of humor) which left me feeling refreshed, and positive. The world might end, but it’s going to do that, anyway. At least we have had love.

The USO Hall
I looked forward into the 21st Century with a renewed sense of hope. And we all know how well that’s worked out.

To celebrate the end of the Millennium, on December 31, 1999 (numerologists be damned) we invited our friends to decorate our house for a Twentieth Century Revival Party, assigning a different decade to each room.

A salute to Spiritualism was featured in my office, a Roaring 20s speakeasy in the bathroom. There was a Depression-era soup kitchen in the dining room, in the living room a WWII USO party. Cold War martinis and Hawaiian appetizers in the kitchen, the basement was a psychedelic Sixties happening with brownies, both leaded and unleaded.

The password is "swordfish."
In the hallway upstairs I erected a stack of television screens which played a six-hour curated VHS video of 80s MTV clips. Remember when MTV played music videos? Of course you don’t, no one does.

And the wife’s office included computers featuring newfangled "webcams" of New Year’s Eves in New Orleans, New York and elsewhere, and guests recorded messages for a time capsule we will open on our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.

We gathered in the USO Hall for the countdown to the new century (numerologists, shut up) and the best prank which did not happen was when Brian thought of going into the basement and killing the power exactly at midnight, only he didn’t and just told me about it later.

Video Killed the Radio Star
Practically everyone I knew at the time was there. Certainly, almost everyone engaged in our work with Bad Epitaph and Dobama's Night Kitchen. New Year's Eve is fun, but I don't think anyone wanted to be caught without something special to do that night and I am glad so many chose to come to our party, to be with us.

But that was it. Whether an effect of growing up, losing a child, or having living children, we stopped throwing parties at our house. We looked inward. Certainly, my wife and I continued to be social animals, but turning our home into the site of such loud, animated festivities became a thing of the past.

But who knows. We have teenagers now, and they may come up with their own ideas. After all, we are on the threshold of the "New Roaring Twenties."

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 30, 2019

Ten Most Visited Posts of the Decade

The Great Lakes Exposition of 1936
This blog began as an investigation into the year 1936, the Cleveland Centennial. Since then I have written posts both professional and personal, all in the service of my own work as a playwright.

I am not a wildly popular blogger. Some things do go viral, but in general any given post averages somewhere between fifty and one hundred aggregate views. I could look back to the year 2010 and find most posts have, in the past ten years, received a total of thirty, forty, fifty views.

The most viewed posts run the gamut, from dry, investigative work, to personal or opinionated essays on my work in theater.

It stands to reason that those which were written eight years ago have more views than those written two years ago. But Eliot Ness stands out as a person of great interest, garnering almost twice that of Chef Boyardee, which ranks second.
  1. The Death of Eliot Ness (2011)
    detailing the death of a one-time Cleveland Safety Director
  2. Chef Boyardee (2011)
    the true story of an icon you thought was fictional
  3. Ohio Criminal Syndicalism Act (2010)
    a forgotten anti-First Amendment law targeting organized protest
  4. Tony Brown (2011)
    a local theater critic ghosts and how history will pay the price
  5. Funky Winkerbean (2012)
    what happened to you, man?
  6. Styles Court, Styles St. Mary, Essex (2012)
    photos of location shots for David Suchet's "Poirot"
  7. Single White Fringe Geek (2018)
    how a negative review was a blessing
  8. Randall Park Mall (2012)
    a 1976 editorial from the Plain Dealer about northeast Ohio's glorious future
  9. The Famous History of Troilus and Cressida (2018)
    my concept for an outdoor production of "Troilus and Cressida"
  10. The "Santaland Diaries" Diaries (2017)
    notes on one six performance week of the David Sedaris classic
For the record, this is my 1,305th post for this blog since January 1, 2010. The Eliot Ness post has been visited almost 10,000 times, the "Santaland" post nearly eight hundred.

What will the next ten years yield? Will we still be blogging then, or may I deliver my messages directly into your brain?

Read my own list of Ten Best Blog Posts of the 2010s!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Top Ten Moments of 2019

At the devastating conclusion of 2016, I pointed up ten moments from the year which made it worth living, because there needs to be something. The past few months have been spent coping with great anxiety over my mother’s health, and there is yet much to remember and to celebrate about 2019.

1. "Spamilton"

The girl and I went to the Hanna the day after New Year’s to enjoy Gerard Alessandrini’s parody of Hamilton, which was delightful in its low-budget aesthetic, fast pace and cheap jokes. If you aim at a king you must kill him, and it was the versatile comic abilities of the performers which kept us in stitches.

Though my daughter got all the Hamilton references, I did have to help her out a little with the more obscure musical theater references. And by obscure I mean Liza. The kids don’t know Liza.

2. "Witness for the Prosecution"

There are a few non-speaking roles in Agatha Christie’s courtroom drama Witness for the Prosecution and I was asked by Great Lakes Theater to appear as a barrister for a small number of student matinee performances, the very first of which was for an audience of mostly middle school students.

They sat surprisingly silent throughout this sixty-six year-old drama, and we were all shocked and delighted when the place erupted during the final five minutes as Christie revealed first the first verdict, then one twist upon another. It was a unique experience you can only get from live theater.

3. “Awareness” (short film)

This spring I had the privilege of mentoring a New East Tech High School student in creating a public health play script. Actually, it was originally slated to be a live performance, then the screenplay for a short film. The student is a poet, with a great sense of style and humor, and mostly I shared with her what I saw, what I felt was missing, which moments were better reported and which dramatized.

Checking in every other week, she wrote very fast (and on her phone, no less) arranged table readings with her classmate and oversaw the production of the final video product.

4. Melissa & Patrick’s Wedding

My wife and I attended a stunning destination wedding in New Orleans, which was delightful and romantic in so many ways. We once visited the Crescent City together, over twenty years ago, and there is no one I would rather travel with, she is my soulmate in tourism. Also, it was a delight to participate in a richly fantastic Millennial nuptial composed of so many of my theater and actor-teacher colleagues.

5. Women’s World Cup

For feminists (and those who love them) it has been the best of times, the worst of times. But the best moments can be spectacular, like Megan Rapinoe and the utter dominance of Team USA in the Women’s World Cup. You could catch us most matches at a huge, full table at Heights Grill, people by members of the high school team, their coaches and families.

And you would know us by my wife’s mauve do.

6. College Visits

Twice this summer I joined the girl in investigating colleges and universities, first in NYC and then in Providence. It was a joy, stealing this opportunity to spend one-on-one time with my daughter in new places, trying new restaurants, watching her take extensive notes on what she’s discovered.

7. School of Rock presents "American Idiot"

My son was introduced to Green Day early and they are the bedrock of his rock and roll education. I took him to see the Broadway tour of American Idiot at the Palace Theatre when he was nine, and the Beck Center production a year later (Beck’s was better) and when he was cast in the American Idiot show at his chapter of School of Rock I may have been more excited than he was.

8. Crossing the City

I have run from my house to my parents house a few times, at least once each time I have trained for a marathon. This year I did it twice, the second time with my son. He was riding, I was running. It was a hot day, the last ten miles were grueling (much like the race itself) but having the opportunity to share the experience, the city, my training, four hours together making our way from Cleveland Heights to Lakewood, we had an adventure.

9. Mike Doughty plays "Ruby Vroom"

I’m not actually the kind of father who pushes his artistic interests onto his children. No, really. But we have also exposed them to an awful lot of what we like, which is nearly everything. So I believe they have come to their tastes organically.

Making her mark at the Smiling Skull Saloon.
Having said that, the boy has also been a huge Soul Coughing fan and when Mike Doughty announced he was touring the twenty-fifth anniversary of their first album Ruby Vroom I thought that was a father-son experience not to be missed.

Falling as it did this fall in the midst of great emotional turmoil, listening to Doughty and his band conduct a faithful recreation of the album live was surprisingly affecting to me, a stark reminder of my young adulthood. I may have cried (I didn’t actually cry.)

10. Christmas in Athens

It’s been hard. It continues to be hard. But I am so grateful to my brother Henrik for returning from England -- for the second time in two months -- so that one of mother’s boys were home for the holiday, affording me this opportunity to be with Toni’s family in Athens, if only for a couple days.

Merry Christmas to you and yours, best wishes for the New Roaring Twenties.