Monday, November 19, 2018

Calling All Ears (radio drama)

Fall quarter my sophomore year at Ohio University, our acting professor reached out to my buddies and I about a special project. A class in the RTV building was studying radio drama and they had a special guest, David Ossman.

Most recently Ossman was a producer for various programs on NPR, and PBS voice-over work. We knew him, however, as a member of The Firesign Theatre, that satirical radio comedy troupe of the late 60s-early 70s. We were very excited to get to work with him, and even went to the local record store to pick up copies of their work to bone up before meeting him.

Seriously. We went to the local record store and bought vinyl copies of Don’t Crush That Dwarf Hand Me The Pliers, Everything You Know Is Wrong, I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus, Wait For The Electrician (Or Someone Like Him) and How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All. They were all right there, waiting for us, in the store. Athens!

I was a little bummed out because at the moment my voice was almost destroyed. That quarter part of theater practicum was clearing out the attic space in Kantner Hall decades worth of props and smaller set pieces which had been stored there and largely forgotten about. The entire room had a thick layer of dust and I was surprised to learn the deep gray cement floor was, when vacuumed, actually a pristine white.

The end result of having inhaled so much dust, however, was that I could barely speak. However, one of the scripts we worked on in the radio production class featured an elderly gentleman, and I was able to push through a rather convincing impression of the character of the decrepit manservant Catherwood from The Future Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye, originally performed by (yes, indeed) David Ossman.

David Ossman, left
The technicians learned a lot but we actors did, too, about microphone placement, Foley effects, pacing, the use of music, etc., etc. In one all-too-brief session I learned lessons that we would apply through our time at school, creating radio dramas that Guerrilla Theater would broadcast on WRUW, and that we would employ much later creating radio drama for WCPN.

That was the first time I met David Ossman. The second was when he produced Calling All Ears for WCPN 90.3, which broadcast the night before Thanksgiving, November 27, 1991. Produced in collaboration with Cleveland Public Theatre, the event was held at the Metro Campus of Cuyahoga Community College.

An evening of “live radio theater” the show was to include three winners of a writing competition, though apparently one of them was for some forgotten reason unusable (inappropriate? too complicated?) and so the third piece was one from Ossman’s bag of tricks, Max Morgan: Crime Cabbie. As he explained it, by the 1950s radio drama was on the wane, with every conceivable detective show angle played out, and this was a satire of one of those.

It was thrilling and unnerving was when I discovered I was cast as the bartender Fergus, opposite Ossman himself as Max Morgan! Unfortunately, my twenty-three year-old self worked a little too hard to impress, and as a result I spent much of the performance trying to out-dick the dick, playing a smarmy variation on Nick Danger instead of the role I had been cast as, the easily-impressed sounding board for the actual hero of the story.

Most memorable for me was the large acting company, where I met for the first numerous players who would have a profound effect on my life. Freshly out of school and only recently settled into a daily Cleveland existence, this process introduced me to a large Cleveland theater community -- and we were all so young then, too.

Brian Pedaci, Peggy Sullivan, David Thonnings, Jenny Litt, Lee T. Wilson, Shruti Amin; there were all folks I would play with in the following years. I also made the acquaintance of Dave Caban from WRUW, Karen Schaefer from WCPN, and broadcast project director Jordan Davis.

My favorite piece of the evening was penned by the late Cleveland playwright Aubrey Wertheim. Originally titled Make Way for Dyke-lings, the more radio-friendly Along Party Lines is totally early 90s. Imagine if you will, a pair of suburban teenage girls waiting in the food court at Tower City to meet and see a movie with a pair of strange guys one of them met over a “party line.”

A "party line." Look that up, Millennials. I’ll wait.

The whole thing is crammed with Foley and recorded effects, a vast company of colorful characters, and a surprisingly progressive take on young adult relationships. It also includes my favorite tagline for Tremont, one which I find amusing even today.

The early 90s were a difficult time for Cleveland, the city center continue to be hollowed out, Tower City and the Galleria were already going into decline, the entire nation was in economic doldrums, there was no clear end to our woes. But it was a joyful moment, as a young artist, to meet and collaborate with so many exciting people.

Even so, the attendance that evening was all right, perhaps a hundred people were in the audience for this live event, enough to generate an audible audience response but not a very strong one. Getting people to come downtown, to do absolutely anything, was a difficult challenge at that time.

This past weekend I returned, with my family, to that same venue, the auditorium at the Tri-C Metro Campus, to see my daughter perform her first concert with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra, a unique and exceptionally talented ensemble under the direction of Liza Grossman. The place was packed, the room buzzing with excitement. It got me all excited for the holidays.

Get out into the world this season. Enjoy Cleveland. And Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Professor Street Theater

2275 Professor Street (1992)
It was November 4, 1992. We were having rehearsal for our third week of performances of You Have the Right to Remain Silent!

I went up to the office during a break to check the election returns on CNN, where I was stunned to see the projected returns quite solidly suggested that Bill Clinton was going to win.

The idea that twelve years of Republican presidency, and specifically the Reagan-Bush Era, was coming to a close, was beyond my ken.

In 1980 I was twelve. Then I was twenty-four.

I came downstairs and announced the news, which led to a general cheer from the entire company.

Retro, our more libertarian member, sneered, “Man. What the hell are you people gonna write about now?”

The space was the Professor Street Theater. We’d signed the lease in August, $700 a month for two thousand feet of performance space downstairs and four rooms upstairs.

Four could squat for $175 each and we’d never need to generate a penny’s worth of profit for our work. We presented Silent! for eight months, closing in May to take a short break, produced a Shakespeare and then vacated for a different Tremont location.

Retro held onto the lease for a while, creating and presenting the Off-Hollywood Flick Fest there before the owner sold the place and it was a private residence and artists’ studio for nearly twenty-five years before the coffee shop Beviamo relocated there last year.

Professor Street Theater (above) and Beviamo Cafe (below)

Last April, I stepped into the space at 2275 Professor for the first time for the first time in almost a quarter century for a latte, and to get majorly freaked out.

It’s the same room, only so much brighter and different. Our early 90s landlord was adamant about our not changing a thing about the building, he pitched a fit when we painted a sign on the front door without his permission. It was easier to ask forgiveness.

The walls had been paneled all the way to the ceiling, the present occupants stripped away top level revealing fashionable brick, and painted the lower part white, brightening to room. We had papered over the windows for show privacy and to render the room entirely dark if necessary. Now the room is full of natural light.

Then & now.
While there are a few major alterations (the bathroom has been rerouted) what was startling was how the same the room felt. It was disorienting, sitting on a new platform in the window, sipping coffee and looking over the space like a hovering ghost.

Thoughts of a revival were inevitable. What if we staged a fundraiser, reading old scripts, or even writing new ones, right here where it all happened? No, really, maybe we shouldn’t. And besides, no one knows where the scripts are anymore. I don’t have them.

So what did we have to write about, now that "our guy" was going to the White House? We had only for two been weeks criticizing the George H. W Bush administration, would we now be praising and supporting this new president? Waving the flag for the status quo?

We did begin that way, we had to. He repealed the gag rule, that abortion could not be discussed in the military. And we would champion his attempts at health care reform and allowing gays to serve openly in the military … two agendas which failed, and failed badly in short order.

Much of our work turned inward, and by that I mean not only introspective (and also, unfortunately, at each other) but more local.

In the final days of 1992, an African-American man died while in police custody. He had been placed in a choke hold which rendered him unconscious, and was later determined to have been the cause of death. Then, as now, excessive force is an issue which plagues the Cleveland police department. Torque wrote a piece about that.

The choke hold play (title?)
There were audience members who openly objected to the political stuff, especially when it wasn’t funny. We took a stand against being portrayed as a sketch comedy group (or God forbid, improv) and intentionally threw in conceptual pieces for their own sake, with no punchline whatsoever.

The Scene Magazine reviewer, turgidly recounting every minute sexual reference from the performance he witnessed (even creating a few where they didn't existed) claimed the choke hold scene "backfired like a '62 Buick."

He also described Beemer as a "solid gold b----," so I guess that's funny?

After election day we retired a piece written by Jelly Jam, one I was proud to have had a hand in, creating a recorded soundscape of musical and nature sounds, and a weird voice-over (Lee's voice slowed down.)

With the lights dimmed, the entire company of seven crawled the floor, rose to their feet, came together but then fell away as the voice described and ancient ritual which made a people strong, but as more and more failed to participate, the civilization collapsed.

The ritual was called “voting.”

Yes, we were young and determined and optimistic and basic. We were also right.

Vote on November 6th.

Source: "Comedy for the Young at Heart" by Keith Joseph, Cleveland Scene, 2/18/1993

Thanks to Kim Martin for the 2018 photos!

Friday, October 26, 2018

Big Month of Plays

"Everything Is Okay (and Other Helpful Lies)"
by Melissa T. Crum & Caitlin Lewins
Cleveland Public Theatre
Photo by Steve Wagner
The Dark Room

It’s been a huge month for theater, which is usually the case for October as traditional season cycles begin. The difference this year is that I have actually had the opportunity to attend several of them, which is not often the case.

I actually had the chance to begin the month by attending the Dark Room, Cleveland Public Theatre’s monthly playwriting “open mic.” It’s free, it happens every second Tuesday, and there is beer. In addition to several ten minute plays written by about a half dozen writers, I threw in a few odd pages from a new piece I have started. They didn’t go anywhere, but people laughed, and so I am encouraged.

See you there November 13th.

Hello, Dolly!

The KeyBank Broadway Series at Playhouse Square has begun. First up, Hello Dolly! Featuring the incomparable Betty Buckley. She really was delightful and made a warm connection with the audience.

Waiting for the show to begin.
Personally, I loved when she crossed the stage to kneel and pick up a stray prop that rolled across the stage following a big, company dance routine. She didn’t break character or stop her delivery for a moment, just picked it up and set it aside like it was her job, because she a professional and it is.

Everything Is Okay (and Other Helpful Lies)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to witness a preview performance of Everything Is Okay (and Other Helpful Lies) at Cleveland Public Theatre. Written by Melissa T. Crum and Caitlin Lewins and under the powerful direction of Matthew Wright, this Millennial musical is a breathtakingly ambitious and brilliant event.

It has been very inspiring to watch and listen as Missy and Caitlin first presented this piece as a cabaret of songs at the first Entry Point, later performing an uncompleted version of the book at this year’s Entry Point (there was a point in the second act where character was broken and one announced, “Okay, we’re not sure how we’re wrapping this all up yet, but it may go like this ...”) to this fully-realized performance, executed with urgency and style. And may I say the band is fucking incredible?

The show opens to a sold out crowd tonight!

Colin Holter speaking before "Mamma Mia!"
Great Lakes Theater
Mamma Mia!

The company for whom I am employed, Great Lakes Theater, is currently presenting Mamma Mia! and Joseph Hanreddy’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in rotating repertory, and these productions are each a smash. The Jane Austen play is entirely sold out, with Mamma Mia! which runs an additional week, almost to capacity. Tickets are still available, especially on Halloween.

As a member of the education department, I often host GLT’s weekly pre-show event, Playnotes, where we engage an area expert to provide historical background to that afternoon’s performance. Last weekend our guest was Colin Holter, composer, teacher, and writer on music. He described to a packed salon the origins of ABBA’s original success in the mid-1970s, the particular techniques they use in their singing to catch the ear and the heart, and their enduring popularity.

Holter brought a guitar and was able to play and sing a few verse to better illustrate these techniques, and the assembled were rapt and impressed. He will speak again before matinee performances on Saturdays November 3rd and 10th, which currently have a limited number of available seats.

"When the Tiger Sneezed" by Toni  K. Thayer
Talespinner Children's Theatre
When the Lion Sneezed

Every year, in addition to their main stage work at Reinberger Auditorium, Talespinner Children's Theatre produces a shorter program, designed for touring. For 2019 that production is When the Lion Sneezed (Tales of Ancient Assyria and Beyond) written by Toni K. Thayer, a beautiful artist, educator, and my spouse.

It is a tradition that this touring show debuts at the annual Harlequinade gala in the fall and this year was no exception. What was unusual was the storm which blew through and knocked over powerlines across the city last Saturday night. The electricity went out roughly an hour and a half before guests were due to arrive, but thanks to smart thinking and a team of volunteers who just kept working by battery-operated lanterns (we have kinds of crazy things in theaters) they were able to procure a generator which lit up the party room upstairs.

The stage downstairs was still dark, however, but as this play was designed to be produced anywhere, they swiftly adapted it to the party room and we had the opportunity to witness and enjoy Toni’s delightful tale of the origin of cats -- and the diverse ways we feel about them.

"Sweat" by Lynn Nottage
Cleveland Play House
Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Earlier this week, Chennelle and I saw the Cleveland Play House production of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat. If there is a contemporary play that deserves a Pulitzer Prize, it is this play, and this local production, directed by Laura Kepley, is outstanding.

It is also a thrill to see that half of the cast consists of Cleveland actors, namely Bob Ellis, Chris Seibert, Jimmy D. Woody and CPH Associate Artistic Director Robert Barry Fleming.

Sweat is an epic take on the decline of American manufacturing jobs and an even-handed observation of the events which led to the election of Donald J. Trump. Not that Trump is the answer, as it is evident that he is absolutely not, but is a clear-eyed explanation of how we arrived at this present moment.

"MST3K Live 30th Anniversary Tour"
The Agora
MST3K Live!

Last night the boy and I attended the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Live 30th Anniversary Tour at the Agora. My goodness, I have not been to the Agora in years and years and years. The movie being taken apart was Deathstalker II, and during the first few minutes the ‘bots made a GWAR joke, which was striking to me because that may have been the last concert I attended there!

Jokes flew fast and furiously, and there is really nothing like laughing together in a packed house. Robots Tom Servo and Crow were joined by both Joel Hodgson and Jonah Ray.

I’ve been enjoying MST3K since the early 90s, so Joel is my favorite, but the Netflix reboot featuring Jonah is also hilarious and the pop culture references are fresh so my son can enjoy they, too. The old episodes are practically Dada-esque to him, most satire is … which may be why his generation loves nonsense humor. It’s good pushback and it irritates the grown-ups.

iGen humor.
The Way I Danced With You

It’s time. We announced auditions for this weekend a few days ago, and the available slots filled up pretty fast. There is a company in there somewhere and I am very excited to discover who they are.

Cleveland Public Theatre presents "Everything Is Okay (and other Helpful Lies)" in the Levin Theatre through November 10, 2018.

Great Lakes Theatre presents "Mamma Mia!" at the Hanna Theatre through November 11, 2018.

Cleveland Play House presents "Sweat" at the Outcalt Theatre through November 4, 2018.

Sunday, October 21, 2018


"About a Ghoul"
(Talespinner Children's Theatre, 2019)
How do you get that next production? That’s a question. Without a name, without a history, when your work has largely been confined to your own community, without representation, how does one push their own work into the larger world?

In the gig economy, there are plentiful opportunities to attract attention to yourself, but there are thousands of others taking those same opportunities. Yes, there are many examples now of playwrights whose work has been discovered on New Play Exchange. For a moment I thought I was one of those.

In January, a small company in a large city cold-contacted me about one of my previously produced works. They really wanted it! I was interviewed by the artistic director. I was consulted about concept. They requested a contract, which I sent. Then … nothing.

I tried to reach out once, just a big hello? Are we on? No response. They announced their season in the summer, and no surprise, my play was not there. How disappointing. That’s not how you do that.

The entire year has been like that.

Casting spells in the rain.
(Harry Potter World, Orlando)
The year literally began on the tarmac. After a significant delay, we touchdown in Orlando minutes before midnight New Year’s Eve, and rang in 2018 waiting to exit. It was a last-minute decision, to drop everything and scurry off to see Harry Potter and Mickey Mouse. After the horrors of the holidays, the wife just wanted time with her family.

What we got were four wet days in an amusement park, with temps in the mid-forties. But we were adventurous, we dined and played and loved together as a family under a dark cloud, because that’s a metaphor for everything these days.

New writing was under the radar this past year, I spent far more time doing crossword puzzles. It’s just a fact. However, works that have been in development or previously presented found their home, some more than one home.

The Way I Danced With You was presented as part of their Factory Series at Blank Canvas Theatre, and it was a very successful weekend. Funny, I did not think it was particularly well-attended. It’s not a big house, and it felt like there a lot of empty seats. And yet, the feedback was highly positive -- and it keeps coming. Since March numerous people, folks I didn’t even remember attending, have told me what an impression it made how much they are still thinking about it.

"The Way I Danced With You
(Blank Canvas Theatre, 2018)
The script will receive a full run of performances, opening March 21, at Ensemble Theatre. Directed by Tyler J. Whidden, The Way I Danced With You will headline the 2019 Columbi New Plays Festival. Auditions were announced yesterday.

Last year I lamented how I had fallen away from writing, longhand, every morning. Well, it took most of the year, but I now have an established ritual of writing 30 minutes or three pages every single morning, without fail. And it makes a difference. I even pushed through an illness to keep covering the page.

Just last night, Talespinner Children’s Theatre announced their 2019 season, which will include the world premiere of About a Ghoul, my new play inspired by Moroccan folk tales.

On the publication front, I have two exciting developments. In an effort to control my own work, I decided to self-publish I Hate This on Amazon. Ten years ago there was a limited edition of that script released in Britain, with all profits going to a national charity. To my surprise, I have found copies of that script going for as much as $50 on various websites. So I have published a version for $5.95, which means pennies for me, but at least it is available to whoever wants it at a price they can afford. You can get an electronic version for even less.

The second publication is still in the works, and I look forward to announcing that soon.

Forward. Always forward.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Jane Austen's Epitaph

A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.
 - Jane Austen, "Northanger Abbey"
"Pride and Prejudice"
Amy Keum, Kailey Boyle, Laura Welsh Berg
Idaho Shakespeare Festival
Photo: DKM Photography
Tonight is opening night for the Great Lakes Theater production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, directed by Joseph Hanreddy from the play script adapted by Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan. It appears to be a sumptuous production, and I am already a great fan of Hanreddy’s direction. Previously for GLT he has helmed epic, modern interpretations of King Lear (2015) and Richard III (2013).

My own experience with the works of Jane Austen are limited. By that I mean, I have never read any of her work. I have the same working knowledge of many Americans my age and gender. I have seen Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (screenplay by Emma Thompson) and Emma, which may have starred Gwyneth Paltrow but is more notable for introducing American audiences to Alan Cumming, Toni Collette and Ewan McGregor.

Last fall I took an unusual journey to Winchester, England. My niece Lydia was graduating from the university, she who was the inspiration for everyone’s favorite character in I Hate This, who was at that time an inquisitive six year-old.

Though I wanted to attend the ceremony, last fall was particularly difficult as my wife was spending most weekends out of town, assisting her father through the final stages of cancer. Leaving town for even a week seemed to me to be terribly selfish. But my mother, who was eighty-two was certainly going to go, and she could use my assistance and my company. Honestly, I thought, I could also use hers.

Winchester Student Union
We spent a lovely few days in Winchester, this was almost a year ago. October, 2017. It was cold, a little damp, but the company was pleasant and we did make the best of our trek. Lydia gave us a tour of her campus, and it was then I learned the strong connection the place has made with Austen, who spent her final years in the city. It is not often you find a large mural of a nineteenth century author in a university cantina.

Her graduating class was enormous. The ceremony was held in the vast and cavernous Winchester Cathedral, even so there were seven commencements, morning and afternoon, for four days. If she had participated in that afternoon's event the keynote speaker would have been David Suchet (of Poirot fame) receiving an honorary degree.

On our way to our seats I noticed David Suchet also narrates the cathedral's audio tour.

It was until we were filing out that someone indicated that the final resting place of Jane Austen was right over there. Right over there? Yes! Right there, in the cathedral. I shimmied my way between folding chairs to the “North Aisle” where I noticed displays about the author. But where was she? Under my feet.
In Memory of JANE AUSTEN, youngest daughter of the late Revd GEORGE AUSTEN, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County. She departed this Life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian. The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her and the warmest love of her intimate connections. Their grief is in proportion to their affection, they know their loss to be irreparable, but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her REDEEMER.
She was published. She was popular. She was anonymous. Her works attributed to "a lady" the author of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and Emma and Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park and so on, were revealed by her own brother to be Jane Austen. But her original epitaph made clear that her greatest contribution was to have been her father's daughter.

Looking up I saw a newer, golden plaque, set into the stone of the wall.
Jane Austen. Known to many by her writings, endeared to her family by the varied charms of her character and ennobled by her Christian faith and piety was born at Steventon in the County of Hants, December 16 1775 and buried in the Cathedral July 18 1817. "She openeth her mouth with wisdom and in her tongue is the law of kindness".
Next to that, a modern contribution, to more clearly set the record straight. It reads in part:
The grave of Jane Austen … with its inscription which gives no indication that she was one of the greatest English writers.
One of the greatest English writers. Perhaps its greatest author, though fans of Dickens might disagree. (Shakespeare, of course, is not an author. He's a poet and a playwright.) Not the greatest woman author, no qualification necessary. The greatest English author, full stop.

We do not generally grant women the appellations of absolute superiority. Serena Williams is the greatest female athlete. Meryl Streep at greatest female film actor. Jane Austen the greatest female author in the English language.

"Though she be but little, she is fierce."
A Midsummer Night's Dream, III.ii
When we call to strip these gender-based qualifications, inevitably there are those who would question why we need to establish supremacy. When women step to the line and cross it, we simply take the line away.

The wife was in Washington, D.C. today, to protest the advancement of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States of America. We did not believe it would make any difference, but when you have the opportunity to speak up, to make yourself heard, even in the face of disaster, you must seize that opportunity.

And she was heard, indeed, she made a speech and it was broadcast on C-SPAN. She also writes plays.

Pride and Prejudice at Great Lakes Theater is presented in rotating repertory with the musical Mamma Mia! which opened with a bang last weekend. A woman-centered musical paired with the adaptation of a beloved female author.

Dobama Theatre presents a season of work written entirely by female playwrights. The current season at Talespinner Children’s Theatre, also written entirely by local, woman playwrights. Women lead the way. One day the government will follow.

But not today.

Great Lakes Theater presents Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" adapted by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan at the Hanna Theatre through November 4, 2018.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Bread & Puppet Theater presents "Grasshopper Rebellion Circus"

"Grasshopper Rebellion Circus"
Bread & Puppet Theater, 2018
Once We Were Young and Activist

Growing up during the late 1970s in suburbia, the hippie days were long past, as if they ever even were. A subject of mockery and disdain, moving into the Reagan era the very idea of public protest, of activism, just was not cool, man.

My brother, however, was very interested in current events. It was he, not my father, who wanted the national news switched on at 6:30 PM, every single night. Among other artifacts, he had a few Doonesbury anthologies lying around. These I read, and they soon became an obsession for me.

Gary Trudeau's comic strip Doonesbury documented (among other things) the student’s-eye-view of the college scene during the tail end of the Vietnam War. To understand the jokes I needed to understand the time, and so I began to read books and watch films to bring me up to speed, and slowly developed what you might call a bleeding heart liberal’s worldview.

In the year 1980 I was surely the only twelve year-old in Bay Village to have watched the motion picture Woodstock.

Interestingly enough, I still registered as a Republican when I turned eighteen. I thought that I was Republican the same way I understood myself to be Caucasian or Presbyterian. The first time I voted in a Presidential election I noticed I had voted for all the Democratic candidates and soon after officially changed my party affiliation.

"Grasshopper Rebellion Circus"
Bread & Puppet Theater, 2018
But though I leaned left, I was not what you might call radical. At Ohio U., I had an interest in social justice, but I still looked down my nose at those modern, Gen X hippies. The guys from Rocky River who cut the soles off their shoes who have never left Athens. The guys from Athens who eventually moved to Brooklyn. They would stage street protests about … whatever, and I just thought it was embarrassing. Surely there are better ways to get your point across than playing acoustic instruments and wave hand-painted signs and bleating cringe-worthy phrases ad nauseam.

We write letters to the editor. We produce plays for the people who desire to see them. And if we are truly serious about social change, we run for public office. But standing on a street corner screaming is just, well it’s gauche, isn’t it?

The tipping point for me was the Persian Gulf War of 1991. I was still at college and the outrage on campus in Athens, Ohio rivaled anything I’d ever personally experienced. I did feel there were those in the crowd who seemed excited at the possibility of Vietnam redux, complete with old-timey protest songs and tie-dye, sit-ins and peace signs. But I was against the war, too, I was opposed to the proposed New World Order that was being shaped so soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And so I participated in my first outdoor performance protest on January 16, 2001 (see: Desert Scream.)

That was before the 30-day war, before the parades, before Whitney Houston’s "Star Spangled Banner" topped the pop charts. America’s bright, shiny victory left me feeling hollow and dispirited and helpless. That was when I decided that I liked street protest. Because I saw the bravery and strength in shouting at the top of your lungs on a street corner in the face of seeming adversity. Maybe it wouldn’t accomplish anything. But it’s the only thing that could.

"Grasshopper Rebellion Circus"
Bread & Puppet Theater, 2018
Bread and Puppet Theater

Last week the circus came to town, the Grasshopper Rebellion Circus. The show was produced by Bread & Puppet Theater, a world-renown political activist street theater collective, founded fifty-five years ago. They set up camp on Wade Oval in University Circle, and I changed a physical therapy appointment to make the date.

It had rained for several days prior to the event, but this was a perfect early-fall evening, just a little cool. Jacket weather.

They used no electrical anything for their performance, which began at 5:30 pm. Natural light, no amplification. They performed live music, and used large hand-painted signs. Their voices, when they used them, were big, and they carried well. They had trained to speak in odd voices, as to best catch the ear. To be concise, rehearsed and clear.

The event was episodic, ideal for street theater. Our crowd had gathered here to settle in for the performance, we had chairs and blankets, but it could easily have taken place in Public Square or Times Square. If you were walking by you could stop for one or two scenes or plays, then move along.

The company was multi-racial. The musicians were almost all men, the actors predominantly women. There were child performers, too.

The crowd, while diverse in age, was mostly white. There were some old school, east side Baby Boomer liberals seated down in front, putting their wizened fists in the air. The Millennium age companion standing next to me in the back sniffed that he didn’t really like it, which surprised me. At the very least you could appreciate the music, the movement, the puppets. It was rough but entirely professional.

There were a few brief speeches about the current atrocities in Gaza, Yemen, at home, on the Supreme Court. There was plenty to see, laugh about, get angry at, question, delight in.

One scene stuck with me as familiar: A giant puppet of James Madison arrived and handed the citizenry the Second Amendment. With it emerged a multitude of AK-47s and the citizens stalked the stage, bearing their arms, until one by one they were shot and killed.

"The History of Western Civilization"
Guerrilla Theater Company, 1994
Photo: Mike Cantwell
One of Guerrilla Theater Company’s few entirely wordless performances was “The History of Civilization” which included with a struggle over a handgun which concluded with everyone dead and the sole survivor, witnessing the carnage he had created, on the apparent verge of suicide.

We didn’t produce a lot of purely physical pieces in GTC, we didn’t have a live band (we did have a DJ) but I was always proud when we did. I know I found it very challenging to compose something visual without having to conclude with dialogue.

The B&P performance was a touching reminder of the work we did in Guerrilla, the manner in which we, too, made political point. Obvious, broad, uncomfortable political points. And I noticed I missed political theater for its own sake, that this gathering of “Hippies With Dolls” (their words) was a rare treat, in our own yard.

It was also a reminder that you don’t have to be young to do this. You just have to care.

They traditionally conclude the performance by handing out bread and aïoli to any who choose partake, and walking up to receive some with the wife and the boy, I was reminded of last year, when we attended the Neo-Futurists and received some of those small pieces of pizza he was so looking forward to.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Plays of Regret

"Screen Play" at Pandemonium
Brian Pedaci & Toni K. Thayer
re·gret (rəˈɡret)

verb 1. feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over (something that has happened or been done, especially a loss or missed opportunity).

noun 1. a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something that has happened or been done.

Groundhog Day

Why does the movie Groundhog Day work? I mean, the premise is facile, but inspired. One person wakes up on the same day, day after day, seemingly for eternity.

It could easily be a horror film, like an episode of the Twilight Zone, a "No Exit" situation, in which our protagonist is driven to madness. When he is finally released and it is finally February 3rd, he’s a gibbering, quivering mess, or unleashes unspeakable violence on the citizens of Punxsutawney before being carted away in a loony wagon.

Instead it's a somewhat broad romantic comedy that includes one unfortunately dated homophobic gag.

Bill Murray plays the main character, and he's a complete jerk. But he’s not the only jerk, there's a lot of jerks in this movie. I couldn't help but imagine that piano teacher and her decision, every single time, to accept a sizable amount of money to kick her adolescent student out of the house. Man, that girl looks really sad and confused.

Also, Chris Elliott. That’s all, just, Chris Elliott.

Watching the film for only the second time the other night ("don't @ me") I was impressed by the structure. The different phases our man goes through, confused, manic, suicidal, resigned, driven. But I was not only amused by but disturbed by Murray’s performance. I’m not sure he changes as much as people want to believe he has.

He fails when he takes an easy route into into Andie MacDowell’s pants, by discovering and memorizing her favorite things, and then repeating them back to her. But aren’t his long-term efforts at becoming a full-actualized human being the same thing, only more sophisticated? Does he learn languages and philosophy and boogie-woogie piano because he wants to, or because that is what it will take to attain the acceptance of the only person in town he apparently can't bamboozle?

Nailed it.
He accumulates several lifetimes of experience and practice, an autodidact’s liberal education, but he’s still kind of a jerk. He bathes in his own cleverness. I mean, Bill Murray always does. However, I believe that fact is the film’s redeeming quality, that he does not become an entirely different person. He changes, yet he does not. The best that can be said is that he does not seem to hate himself anymore. It's not even about her. Do we not all hope for that kind of radical change?
“How old I will be by the time I learn to really play the piano/act/paint/write a decent play?" The same age you will be if you don’t.
- Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
Groundhog Day was released when I was twenty-five. Half my life ago, with so much in front of me, I wasn’t particularly touched by his dilemma. At the age of fifty, which of us would not -- barring the opportunity to actually go back in time and change things -- take the opportunity afforded from one single day, repeated over and over, to make up for lost time? Reliving, reliving, and recreating. The young man finds it amusing. The older man just sees his own life and thinks, what have I been doing with my many varied days?

Make no mistake, Groundhog Day is ultimately a movie about regret. Because there are no do-overs, we cannot relive a moment to get it right. It is a fantasy of longing for the one who got away.

Plays of Regret

Several of my plays have been inspired by brief, passing encounters, expanded upon and brought to their ultimate, extreme conclusion.

Twenty years ago, in 1998, four playwrights (David Bell, Suzanne Miller, Toni K. Thayer and myself) collaborated to create a new work for Dobama’s Night Kitchen titled Cole Cuts. Set in a trendy, late 90s cocktail bar, each fifteen minute piece was to include a lesser-known song by Cole Porter, performed live by the company, piano by the incomparable Michael Seevers.

"Cole Cuts: The Imaginary Date" directed by Dan Kilbane
Featuring Adam Hoffman, Elaine Feagler, David Thonnings & Alison Garrigan
Piano: Michael Seevers
(Dobama's Night Kitchen, 1998)

In my scene, “The Imaginary Date,” a young man (Simon) is pressed into service, pretending to hit on a friend of his (Missy) to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. By the end of the short scene the gambit has worked -- the ex stomps off in a huff -- but Simon is left wounded by the connection he allowed himself to believe has been made with Missy on their “imaginary” date.

The convention of the complete, one-hour play (set in a bar called The Porterhouse) gave this scene additional impact, as Simon returns to the bar, continues to drink through two other scenes, and sadly staggers out near the end of the final piece.

Emotional role play is also a major plot point in The Way I Danced With You, in which a young couple attempt to rekindle a flagging relationship. This piece, which received a weekend of performances at Blank Canvas last March will have a complete, three-weekend run this season at Ensemble Theatre.

A few weeks ago, my ten-minute piece Screen Play premiered at Pandemonium, Cleveland Public Theatre’s annual gala. Two years ago I tried it out at CPT’s monthly public workshop, The Dark Room with Brian Pedaci reading the male character. This summer he asked if I wouldn’t pitch it for the party. I was surprised he remembered it. I was surprised they chose it. It’s a little kitchen sinky, but between he and my wife, Toni K. Thayer as she, it was taut, compelling, and we got some lovely responses from party goers.

"The Way I Danced With You" at Blank Canvas Theatre
Sarah Blubaugh & Michael Johnson
Unlike those other two pieces, featuring youthful protagonists in the very midst of romantic decision-making, here we have two Gen Xers in their middle years, a quiet evening at home, on their screens. He googles a one-night stand from college, and his attempt at re-connection (an ill-thought impulse) is met with a less-than-positive response. The ensuing conversation with his spouse leads to several uneasy conclusions.

Dan Savage said, “every relationship you are in will fail, until one doesn't.” Is the success of an entire relationship defined by whether or not it ends? How many relationships hinge on a single word? Have you ever felt the regret that comes with doubting the choices you have made, and the possibility that one choice, one moment, one word -- stay -- may have created for you an entirely different life, a different world, a different you?

If you had it to do all over again, would you?

And would you regret that also?

Ensemble Theatre presents "The Way I Danced With You" directed by Tyler J. Whidden, March 21 - April 7, 2019.