Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Bechdel-Wallace Test

Alison Bechdel (b. 1960) is a MacArthur Grant Awarded cartoonist, creator of the long-running strip Dykes To Watch For and the graphic novels Fun Home and Are You My Mother? As a young theater artist in the 1990s reading Dykes in the Gay People’s Chronicle was a primer helping me to see beyond coarse stereotypes about lesbians when my circle of friends were either largely straight or closeted.

Click on to enlarge.
An edition of Dykes titled "The Rule" featured two friends discussing what movie to see. One explains she has three rules which dictate whether or not she’s interested in seeing a movie:

  1. One, it has to have at least two women in it,
  2. Who, two, talk to each other,
  3. about , three, something besides a man

Now generally referred the Bechdel Test, the cartoonist prefers joint attribution with the person who originally thought up the criteria, an old friend names Liz Wallace -- whose contribution, you will notice, was noted on the original strip. Though "The Rule" is thirty years old, the term has become a meme in the past decade and a starting point for discussion about gender parity across all spectrum of media.

Breaking Point (1989)
What do the results signify? You could deduce from the dearth of roles for women in film that the point is representation. You can also consider what those roles consist of; do the female characters exist merely as romantic foils or objects of sexual desire - do these female characters even have names?

The bigger question, and the question I have been asking myself of late, is what stories are we telling? It’s not about cramming more women into your movie, and it’s not even about employing more women writers - although that would go a very long way to ameliorating the discrepancy. We should be asking ourselves what stories we writers choose to present to the world.

Scripts written for the theater (call them plays) have a handicap when it comes to passing the test, if only because most plays by design will have fewer total characters. But the challenge remains the same, what story do we choose to tell?

The first play I tried writing was the one-act Breaking Point, based on my own college comic strip. One night, as I was conversing with my stage manager and fretting about the one female housemate in an apartment of four. She was as smart and smart-alecky as the rest of them in the strip, but distilling several months of story line into a thirty-minute play, I realized how all the male characters treated her like shit.

“I write terrible female characters,” I sighed.

“Yeah," she said, shaking her head somewhat sympathetically. "You do.”

The Vampyres (1997)
I didn’t have another play produced for the better part of ten years. When I finally started composing The Vampyres in the mid-90s (finally, as in, why wasn’t I writing plays before this?) I had a story I was burning to tell, about a cynical med-student and a couple of poseur vampires which also included a former crush of the protagonists and a teenage barista onto whom he transfers his affection.

No, the two women do not talk to each other. If they did, it would certainly have been about the men. However, by that time I was aware of sexism in my writing, even if I didn’t know exactly what to do about it. I strove to retrofit the character of Mary so that she was a strong women who had her own agenda as an artist, but really, in brief she fell in love with a male vampire because he was irresistible in the way we are all told we just have to accept.

The story belonged to the male characters. It was a struggle between he and the other two hes. And it was represented in a battle over possession of the two shes. Giving the female characters their own personal agendas does not change what was the central conflict of the plot.

More recently, I have been working on a two-hander, the as-yet unproduced The Way I Danced With You. There’s two people in this play, one man and one woman, so the Bechdel Test does not really apply. But is the story equally theirs? Is the pursuit of her goals on an equal footing with her pursuit of her own goals? I believe that it is, and it is important to me that it is -- and not merely to satisfy an agenda. As I reported previously, the reception of this play changed from the Valdez reading in June and the Cleveland reading in November.

My breakthrough in creating feminist plays, however, comes largely thanks to my work in children’s theater. Who knows why this is, perhaps because at a distance I can tell stories to children in which gender has the fluidity that children themselves possess.

White Garlic and Red Onion
Adventures in Slumberland featured a protagonist in the form of a five year-old boy, who could be a girl, and was, in fact, played by a woman, and probably usually should be. His hero’s quest ostensibly is to find the princess (this is eighty years before Donkey Kong) but that’s a McGuffin, it’s really about a child growing to appreciate their own personhood.

Rosalynde & The Falcon turns the princess story on its head, as a young woman is persecuted by her wicked stepfather the king, and escapes to the wood where -- instead of looking after a band of thieves (or dwarfs, what have you) she becomes the leader of the thieves, and eventually the ruler of her nation. There are two named female characters … I guess it’s funny that one of them doesn’t even speak until the very end, but they certainly do not talk about the men, they talk about governance.

Early next month my latest work, Red Onion, White Garlic, opens early next month. I hate to describe a play by what it is not, but I did not set out to create a feminist children’s play. It was not my intention to create a play which passes the Bechdel Test entirely and without qualification.

What I did do was investigate Indonesian folktales, arrive at one which centers upon the relationship of two sisters, and every moment I found myself searching for a new character to add to the narrative, she was always female. I even considered male characters, but they never made sense as part of the story. It is not that men are absent. The tale belongs to women.

Red Onion, White Garlic opens April 8, 2017 at Talespinner Children's Theatre.

Saturday, March 11, 2017


re·cep·tion (n.)
1. the action or process of receiving something sent, given, or inflicted.
2. a formal social occasion held to welcome someone or to celebrate a particular event.
3. the area in a hotel, office, or other establishment where guests and visitors are greeted and dealt with.

During my twenties I was enamored of Alan Rudolph’s Lost Generation duology, The Moderns (1988) and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994). The first is an historical fiction, about American expatriate artists in Paris, the second a bit more fact-based and centering around the character of Dorothy Parker and those of the Algonquin Set.

As one who thought of myself an artist (of what I had not yet come to appreciate) and the member of a generation with much in common with those bright young things of the 1920s (we can have this argument later) the keen wit and desperate romanticism of Rudolph’s characters and the painful longing of Mark Isham’s scores filled this young adult with a deep heart hurt for which I had no actual life experience to deserve. Not yet. Not even close.

When my then-girlfriend Toni moved to Cleveland from New York City, we sat around my house, unbelievably big and comfortable for two people (so it now appears, with two ever-growing teenagers) drinking, smoking, and screwing and having delightful, indulgent fantasies about hosting a salon in our parlor, inviting all our friends who, like those in the Algonquin were not yet but but would someday be famous.

I got shitfaced in the Algonquin the night before I proposed marriage, you know. But that is an entirely other story.

Anyway. It’s like when I directed my first solo performance in 1998 and Chris Johnston said I should write a one-man show for myself to perform and I said, what do I have to talk about on stage by myself for one hour that would interest anyone? Be careful what you ask for.

Regardless, our salon never happened. Then Trump got elected.

Like so many, we wanted to do something, We felt alone, and wanted connection. The intent was not to create a political event, those needs would be satisfied by marches, phone calls and letter writing, and general wokeness. But making sense of the senselessness, to speak but also to listen, to provide a safe space for the free exchange of ideas, to begin and hopefully to continue a conversation.

It was Toni’s idea. I wish I could remember the first names she came up with, they all sounded a bit too clever, like the Be-Sharps -- witty at first, but less funny each time you hear it. I pressed her to come up with something that might last a while, beyond our current emergency, and she soon arrived at the name Reception. A fact, but also clever, but also open to interpretation.

But why this now? Almost two years ago Toni Morrison wrote an article in which she recalled Bush’s reelection in 2004. A friend asked if she was in despair, to which she replied, No! “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.” And so it is today.

Once a week, because once a month would not only be not enough, but would make it all the more likely we would cancel or postpone. Since the first weekend of December we have opened our door every Sunday (Christmas and New Year’s excepted) to share books, stories, articles, rants, scripts, artwork, ideas, poetry, video, song, whatever with whomever arrives.

There are drinks and snacks for pretty much exactly two hours and then we get on with our lives, hopeful in the notion that at least we have been heard.

Thursday, March 9, 2017


Spending the week as the voice of @InTheCLE which is “a citizen voice social media channel that lets Clevelanders share and promote their love for Cleveland via Twitter.” Basically, they pass off the handle to a different person every week, whose responsibility is to tweet early and often about what’s happening in the city.

From March 6 - 12, 2017 that’s me, they even swap your face in and so when I go back through the timeline I am surprised to see my face attached to things I did not actually tweet. Other InTheCLE contributors have a greater interest in sports or civic engagement, mine has a lot to do with promoting area theater.

This is not the first time I have done this, I was on InTheCLE last January, too. It was quite an education in Twitter, which I rarely used. I didn’t know the difference between a "Reply" and a "Quote Retweet" and why you would rather use one than the other. I was also obsessed with creating my own original content, and was unaware you could get away with retweeting interesting local news without having to comment upon it.

Because I have been taking this seriously (a little too seriously) I have been on Twitter A LOT this week and it’s a little disorienting. It’s funny, people will ask InTheCLE for a recommendation for something - say, a good vegan restaurant - and I feel it is my job to find out a million suggestions right away. I even use Facebook to poll my friends there, who are all too happy to offer their opinions, and then report back. Before I know it, I’ve lost a half-hour.

In the late 1990s, someone did an experiment where they holed up in a hotel room for a week or a month or something, and their only communication with the outside world was the internet. No TV, no phone, just the “world wide web.” If this person couldn’t pay for it with a credit card and have it delivered via internet, they couldn’t eat it. Video streaming was nascent - no DSL, so no movies. Watched a lot of porn, apparently.

Okay, so I’m not in that situation. I move freely through the world, but in the interest of providing original CLE-based content (once an hour is a goal) I have spent a lot of time scouring for interesting things to report, even if they don’t necessarily interest me. And, because the point is promote the city, my commentary should be positive, supportive. It’s a challenge.

Some people think the Browns management have made some very good decisions today. Others do not. I avoid politics. I try very hard to avoid politics. Twitter is a political sewer.

But it has also been invigorating, catching all the responses to Mayor Jackson's State of the City address today, if not the address itself. Yesterday, it was all about discovering, acknowledging and promoting woman-owned businesses for International Women's Day. I have also tagged several professional theater productions.

Anyway, the weekend is coming up. If you know of any interesting activities or special events in the Cleveland area coming up, please let me know. Just tag @InTheCLE!

Apply today to be considered as an @InTheCLE Tweeter of the Week.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017


The common wisdom is that in order to present the appearance of fairness and balance you must provide “both sides” of the story.

The Guardian (UK) recently published the article Cleveland's dividing lines over race issues come to light under Trump by Chris McGreal (3/3/2017) an interesting, troubling profile of race relations in our city. The story includes interviews with two men - one white, one black. “Both sides.”

The problem in this article, as is the case everywhere, is that the considered, carefully stated opinions of Police Detective Lynn Hampton, who is black, are drowned out by the bellicose, defensive, defiant and cognitively dissonant opinions of retired steel executive Brian King, who is white.

With the election of Donald Trump, Detective Hampton worries about an escalation of tension between the Cleveland police and the African-American community. “What kind of society does (Trump) want to create? You can’t continue to back people into a corner without anybody eventually getting tired and striking out. That’s the very thing that I’m trying to avoid,” Hampton says.

A Trump supporter, King badmouths all other politicians for pandering. “They’re all snakes and getting rich off us,” he says. King hopes that “Trump puts sane people in charge of this.” But he also admits that Trump is “an asshole,” but that that is why he supports him. “He’s a shyster. He’s a crook. But I want him to be a crook for us.”

Asked for his opinion, King talks not only out of both sides of his mouth, but out of every orifice he has.

Anyone remember this speech?
The white man’s word so totally overwhelms that of the person of color. We saw this on full display at last week’s Oscars, when the embarrassment of white producers, the dithering apology of a white Hollywood legend and the several days of analysis and hand-wringing over dingbat white accountants entirely eclipsed the historic fact that this year the Best Picture was in fact awarded to Moonlight, a film starring, directed and written by people of color.

Last weekend, my wife and I went to see Objectively/Reasonable at Playwright’s Local, a play created by several local playwrights based on numerous interviews on the subject of recent police violence in Cleveland. Watching this performance, we did not hear two sides of the Tamir Rice tragedy and the Brelo case -- we heard the story from dozens of sides. From citizens, police officers, community organizers, city councilmen, journalists and family members.

The fact that each point of view we heard from, every unique opinion, was from the mind and mouth of a person of color does not make this performance piece “unbalanced.” The absence of white voices - the “other side” - meant that we could actually hear it, without the noise of that dominant party, always obfuscating, misrepresenting, and whitesplaining.

I am white. I am not the "other side." And I do not need the hear other white people explain anything to me, at all. Especially white men.

Loganberry Books
Objectively/Reasonable is a breathtaking performance, too, you should see it. The performers are uniformly excellent, the stories deeply affecting, director Terrence Spivey truly outdoes himself with this event. Our city needs to listen to these voices, without the sudden urge to respond. Listen first, and think without prejudice.

On a similar note, the folks at Loganberry Books have staged their own performance-art event in honor of Women’s History Month.

As reported in Cleveland Scene, Loganberry Books Shelves Men's Books Backwards as a 'Metaphor of Silencing the Male Voice' by Laura Morrison (3/3/2017) owner Harriett Logan and her staff reshelved every book written by a man so that their spines face the back of the shelves.

What do you see? Perhaps how few books that have ever been published have been written by women? You can also see more clearly all the books which are written by women. The picture of the shelves is quite striking, when the books are are presented that way.

Unfortunately for Harriett (who is a good friend) when being interviewed, she said that the display is a “metaphor of silencing the male voice.” And as you see, that became the headline.

Well. You can imagine how many men who happened upon this article on the internet took to the idea of being “silenced.” The social media blowback was ugly. They have called for a boycott, probably the same people who called for a boycott of the musical Hamilton.

The very idea, the suggestion of forcing a white man to be silent, to stop talking, to wit; to shut the fuck up ... and not even in reality! As a metaphor, as a display in a second-hand bookstore. Why it’s unconscionable! It’s unbelievable! It’s unfair, it’s discriminatory, it’s sexist! Sexist against men!

Honestly, white man. For the first time in your life, sit down. Take a deep breath.

And shut the fuck up.

Objectively/Reasonable at Playwrights' Local continues at the Creative Space at Waterloo through March 11, 2017.

Loganberry Books is located at 13015 Larchmere Blvd. in Cleveland.

Friday, February 3, 2017

On Bullying

"The Jabberwocky" Company
You know where I stand politically. You are aware of my thoughts, my feelings. I write about them in this blog. I am outspoken on social media, and on the street. Like the vast majority of Americans, I am not happy with the direction our nation has taken.

But I am also a father, and I have a responsibility not to project disappointment or despair onto my children. They are not unaware. They were active during the campaign, and they were as shocked as we by the result. I never lied to them. I never promised them she would win. But like most of us, I never truly imagined that he could.

I mean, he didn't. And yet, he is the President. But that's another story.

The night of the election the only thing keeping me from falling apart was my daughter, who was very upset and could not sleep. I projected stoicism for her. This was not the end, but merely another setback in the slow but inexorable march towards progress. She finally did sleep, between us, like she did when she was a child. I did not sleep.

We keep an eye on the children. Because I believe the children are ... well, they are the future, right? And children will listen, and so on. My generation began their childhood during an era of great cynicism and uncertainty, which left us guarded and jaded, as were our parents. I would prefer my children to be as optimistic and confident as their immediate elders. I can't change the world, but I can shape the way they receive it.

Prior to the election, I had ideas for Red Onion, White Garlic. Talespinner Children's Theatre announced the production in October, but there was no script yet, just ideas, a list of things I would like to see or to have happen, and that's important, too, but you can do that and never accomplish the actual writing. November 8 broke that open for me, and ideas that had previously seemed novel took on actual significance.

Opening doors.
For example, every character in the play is female. That is not to say there are no men in it, although that is entirely true. But I did not omit male characters, the play is not defined by what it does not have. It is about these characters, and you may notice they are all women. I am aware that, in the past, I have written some weak female characters. Here, I took the opportunity to create women who are strong and foolish, wary and conflicted, scheming and malicious, generous and odd. It is all about them, and their story is delightful.

Like the man said, what stories will you choose to tell? Rehearsals for that production begin in two weeks.

At the same time, we have started an exciting new program at Great Lakes Theater. I have blogged for years about the outreach tour, about productions like The Secret Adversary and Double Heart. These were created with teen and adult audiences in mind. The new Classics on Tour program, which will visit twenty-one public sites in northeast Ohio and dozens of area schools, is our first production geared specifically for an elementary school-aged audience.

Rehearsals for The Jabberwocky began this week. This script was originally created by and produced for the Idaho Theatre for Youth, this is its second production. Inspired by Lewis Carroll's poem, here three kids use the power of imagination to not only escape the real world bullying they find in a local library, but also learn how best to deal with their tormentors.

It's an anti-bullying play, which are very popular these days. There are countless professional companies who have at least one in their educational outreach repertoire. And schools respond, they want programming with strong messages about conflict resolution and successful interpersonal communication.

It is disheartening when we live in an era when the most powerful man in the country (elected by millions, if far less than the majority of voters) sets an example of dominance and intimidation, mocking those with physical disabilities, degrading women, and dehumanizing refugees and immigrants. That is the way our children now understand you become President of the United States.

Lisa is directing this one, and we have put together an amazing ensemble of young performers for what promises to be a physically adventurous work. We have always had a short rehearsal period for these one-hour performances, but for this expanded performance schedule we have also contracted them for day long rehearsals. In just the first few days we have facilitated workshops in commedia, combat choreography, and puppetry.

Great Lakes Theater presents The Jabberwocky, tour begins February 21, 2017.

There will be puppets.
To be continued.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Red Onion, White Garlic: First Reading

Red onion, white garlic & cookies.
Last night my new work, Red Onion, White Garlic, was read for the Playwrights’ Unit and several guests. It was a great thrill to hear the words, and a joy to hear the assembled laugh and react to it.

The work is a commission by Talespinner Children’s Theatre, it opens April 8 at Reinberger Auditorium. This is my third work for TCT, though the first two were ideas I brought to the company. For the 2017 season, Ali Garrigan, the artistic director, suggested I look into Indonesian folklore.

As you often discover when researching folktales, no matter where you look you find many of the same stories. The original Red Onion, White Garlic has elements in common with Cinderella. A wicked woman favors her own daughter, Bawang Merah (Malay for shallot), and not her stepchild, Bawang Putih (Malay for garlic), who is made to do all of the household chores. As in the western tale, the put-upon girl receives a magical boon, and when the jealous stepmother and stepsister attempt to capitalize upon her fortune, they are punished.

Now, this was one of many tales I found (there are, in fact, several wound into my play) but the story as is didn’t make me happy. First off, I already did the “evil stepfather” thing in Rosalynde & The Falcon. And secondly, this idea that the stepparent is mean and unfair, while it may be true in specific circumstances (there are mean people everywhere) it is an ugly stereotype and hardly in keeping with modern society.

What if these stepsisters share a mother, and that they love and care for each other, as siblings do? What would that story be like?

After the reading, the attendants discussed theme and found out just what that story would be like. It would be a story of confidence and teamwork, temperance and balance. Accountability and humility, envy and loss. These are certainly important lessons for our time.

Listeners also tuned into how beautifully the sisters get on with each other, in spite of their having been born a generation apart, and having been raised in such different circumstances. One of the most vivid comments came from Megan, a member of the Case MFA Acting program. She observed that just as many rivers flow into the ocean, there are many ways to raise a child.

Rehearsals begin February 16.

Red Onion, White Garlic at Talespinner Children's Theatre opens April 8, 2017.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Entry Point @ Cleveland Public Theatre

Rehearsal for "Set Fire and Start Again"
New play development is a thing. It is as though almost every theater in town has its own playwrights ensemble or presents some new plays festival. Convergence-Continuum has the NEOMFA Playwright Festival, Ensemble Theatre the Columbi New Plays Festival, Dobama Theatre has a playwrights program called Playwrights’ GYM, and the Play House the Playwrights’ Unit, that last of which I am a member.

Reaching back twenty years, I was an actor for Cleveland Public Theatre’s new play festivals. That event included a prize for best play, the Chilcote Award, which would go on to receive a full production the following season. I was in the world premiere production of Lucy Wang’s Junk Bonds in 1995, and performed in both the festival (1997) and premiere (1998) production of Sarah Morton’s Love In Pieces.

In more recent years, when they produced an annual festival of works-in-progress called Big Box, I was afforded the opportunity to develop my own plays, including solo pieces I Hate This (2003) and And Then You Die (2009) among others. Each had life outside Big Box, but the assistance provided by CPT made them happen.

Of course, there are a wide variety of ways to develop a new script. You can invite friends to your house and read it. You can stage your own public reading, or submit it to a celebration of new works like the Playwrights Local Annual Cleveland Playwrights Festival or attach yourself or gain membership to one of our local theaters’ playwright collectives. You can even declare your script completed and submit it for production, here or anywhere, really. The internet has made it much easier to find companies across the country that actively seek new work.

This year, CPT is trying something new, by producing a trio of events designed to progress dramatic works at various stages of completing. The first stage of these, Entry Point, takes place this weekend. Over the course of two and a half hours, audience members can move between over a half-dozen locations on the CPT campus to witness - and comment upon - new works at various stages of development.

In addition, they are featuring panel discussions on Saturday afternoon. A number of my favorite artists and CPT stalwarts are presenting as part of this project, you can even sit in on a brand new work from Eric Coble. Also, there's free beer.

My friend and colleague Carrie Williams is working on a script titled Set Fire and Start Again, since the beginning of the year she has been directing our company of five to create a script-in-hand, twenty-minute performance of what she calls “fragments” of a larger piece that she’s working toward. I have had a wonderful time working with this crew, a lot of positive energy devoted to developing Carrie’s work, giving her what she needs, we hope, to drive this piece forward.

This is the project I was referring to when describing those of us who go into the cold to create. For some reason my sharpest memories of participating in the creation of someone else's work, generally as an actor, with highlit and marked up new pages in my hand, take place in deepest winter. During the rehearsal process I was standing in the wings, and turned to face the black wall of the Levin Theatre. Painted black, and repainted many times over, how many layers of paint dating back how many years. I touched its surface, which has born witness to so much new work.

When I was a youth, when I was in college, even, I was not interested in new work. My ignorance of the classics placed a premium upon them, they had staying power and pedigree, they had been endorsed by time and I assumed therefore those were “real” plays. And I considered myself a writer!

Since that time I have come to an entirely different conclusion. New writing is the lifeblood of civilization, and that working as a collaborator (even as an actor! yes!) in the pursuit of original plays is vital to the progress of culture. The open, creative exchange of ideas in a public venue. You like movies? You like TV? It all begins with the basic, local act of crafting the words to be spoken from one person to another, on a stage, before an audience. That is the basis of understanding.

Entry Point will be presented at Cleveland Public Theatre, January 20-22, 2017.