The very first time was in 2016, just before the election. It was hot, the door to the store was propped open, and the Indians were still up in the Series, 3 games to 2. Things looked good.
I sat in the window three times that November, writing a good deal of Red Onion, White Garlic. Last year it was About a Ghoul. I write plays every November, on display in the window of Appletree Books, in full view of Cedar Road rush hour traffic.
Usually I have a laptop, this evening I brought a wooden writer's desk and wrote by hand for two hours, and I daresay I accomplished more in this manner, penning three scenes for The Witches, which I will get to hear read next week
I am lost as to what happens next. But that was also true two hours ago.
Appletree Books is located at 12419 Cedar Rd. in the Cedar-Fairmount District of Cleveland Heights.
Tuesday, November 12, 2019
Sunday, November 10, 2019
I was nine years old in late 1977. What I find amazing is that even at that young age, I knew exactly what the song was about: A young, self-conscious woman (we will say she, the lyrics are sung by self-identifying women) making an appeal to an apparently worldly, probably older man (we will call this person he) a man with whom she has made an emotional connection, to please be honest about what is happening between them.
However, the real impact of this song cannot be understood in the shorter, 3:58 version which was the American radio edit, which omits the entire second verse. I had the album, it was the first pop record I ever bought, so I was aware of the difference.
I have already described what it was like growing up, consuming the pop culture of the late 1970s. I had created for myself a somewhat dark image of adult interpersonal relationships. My parents might be square, but my own adulthood would apparently be one of mistrust, and fleeting, furtive coupling.
This song, especially, in its complete 4:51 album version, affirmed and confirmed this theory. The first verse marks her as insecure, and describes her disbelief that anyone would pay her any attention at all.
I was an impossible caseIn its brief, radio-ready incarnation, the song just rises and rises and rises to the chorus, begging the question, what’s the name of the game?
No-one ever could reach me
But I think I can see in your face
There's a lot you can teach me
I have no friends, no-one to seeBecause there is a second verse, the heights of the chorus is abruptly brought back down to Stevie Wonder’s pilfered, down-beat bass line. The lyrics then dive so much deeper into the narrator’s personal insecurities, which become even more pronounced, and her surprise that this beautiful mentor has focused his attention on this neophyte, out of an entire crowd.
And I am never invited
Now I am here, talking to you
No wonder I get excited
You might even say he is grooming her.
Her complete shock at this development leads her to ask, “would you laugh at me, if I said I care for you?” That’s a special kind of fear, and now instead of asking for the ground rules of the game, she now sounds afraid it’s just a game. Is he using her? Can he be serious?
This second verse raises the stakes tremendously.
Again, at the age of nine, I got this. I understood it. And even then I was worried I might one day be treated the way she is.
As a child it never occurred to me that I could be the one who treats someone else that way.
Which is all to say, I am entirely unhappy with the manner in which this song is employed in the musical Mamma Mia! Altering the lyrics somewhat, it becomes a somewhat creepy plea from a young woman asking an older man if he is not, in fact, her biological father. So glad they didn't use it in the movie.
I have said too much.
Sunday, November 3, 2019
|"Balm In Gilead" by Lanford Wilson, directed by Dennis L. Dalen|
(Ohio University School of Theatre, 1989)
Is there no balm in Gilead?Nineteen Eighty-Nine was the greatest year in musical history. This is a point of some debate, but I know it to be true. Psychologists have explained that each individual believes the music released in one’s twenty-first year will generally be regarded as superior to all others.
Is there no physician there?
- Jeremiah 8:22
“‘Disintegration’ is the best album ever!”
- Kyle Broflovski, South Park
But come on, Paul’s Boutique, Three Feet High and Rising, Deep, Pretty Hate Machine, I could go on. Disintegration is indeed the best album ever, and well describes my own psyche at the end of my third year in college, when it was released.
I had gone from second-year golden boy to third-year pariah, and started my fourth-year in perhaps the most mentally correct place I have ever found myself. I learned that I need to get my professional shit together and was ready to just bear down and work until graduation.*
The undergraduate production that fall was Balm In Gilead by Lanford Wilson, a production which opened thirty years ago tonight. An ideal play if you want to cast as many people as possible, Wilson’s work is a hipster fantasia taking place in and around a twenty-hour diner frequented by the addicted, sex workers, and also thieves, hustlers, and criminals.
|Joe (Peter Voinovich) and Darlene (Susan Hobrath)|
We had scheduled a meeting with a therapist at the campus addiction recovery center. I knew absolutely nothing about heroin, save for having watched Sid & Nancy. What I learned became quite valuable, as I will soon point out.
We did not need to study the time period, because director Denny Dalen did not set it in any specific time period, or to be more accurate, we were each from different eras, as though we were walking through some kind of purgatory.
Me, I was the narrator, an addict named Dopey in a mid-80s Deep Purple T-shirt and a high school varsity jacket. My long hair ratted out and my first real beard, I have deeply warm feelings about this costume. Much love to designer Tavia DeFelice.
The script is very challenging to read, as several conversations can be happening at once. You had to say your line in the order it appears on the page, but you might be responding to something someone said three lines back. But the more we did it, the more we heard it, and the more it became like a kind of word jazz.
I remember the week leading up to opening was particularly tough. Denny had something for everyone, and more for some than others. The underclassmen were a pain, as they debated every observation Denny had for them, responding with some explanation for how the way they were doing it made sense.
There's a saying. "Take the note." Don't argue with me. Do it.
One night, before we started in with notes, someone speculated on how long notes were going to go, and how wearying it all was.
|Self as Dopey|
I was a little too quick to respond. “No, I don't. But if I did I’d be sure to pitch a fit about them.”
It got better. Denny was not happy with the penultimate dress, and everyone knew it.
He said, “David is the only person on this stage who knows where he’s coming from and where he’s going to,” or words to that effect.
I don't usually remember compliments, but I remember that. A couple years ago, when posting about Greg Vovos' play, How To Be a Respectable Junkie, I recounted my experience in preparing for this play, and how close study of the text and an understanding of the effects of heroin made it possible for me to pick apart the threads of conversation and develop a clear map of (as the man said) where I was coming from. Where I was headed to.
Check out the post, the playwright makes it all crystal clear.
So yeah, I was proud of myself, for being the professional, for embodying a whole character and being confident about it. It has been a very long time since I have had the opportunity to dive so deeply into a character.
But the whole production was like that, it was practically immersive. Balm was staged in the Form, a deeply thrust stage. The set (Daniel N. Denhart, designer) inspired by Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, the non-present walls of the diner clearly defined by light (James A. Gage, designer) all organey warm inside, and bluishly cold out.
The script is a symphony of despair, one that repeats night after night, as we lounged about the set, crouching in corners, shivering, when we weren’t on. Smoking live cigarettes. Spitting.
DOPEY: (turns to face the audience) Are you getting any of this?And who knows. Maybe I could have been an actor.
"Balm In Gilead" by Lanford Wilson and directed by Dennis L. Dalen, at the Forum Theater at Ohio University, November 3 - 11, 1989.
*Side Note: Fall Quarter 1989 I had roles in three productions, the mainstage and two fourth year studio plays, whereas all other fourth years were in only two. In addition to Dopey I also played the Fire Chief in Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano" and in Tennessee Williams' "The Gnädiges Fräulein," the Cockalooney Bird.
Wednesday, October 30, 2019
|"About a Ghoul"|
(Talespinner Children's Theatre, 2019)
Certainly, I blame the children. The child we lost, and those we have, those bright, living children who engage and surprise us every day.
This weekend we’re seeing Damn Yankees at the high school, and both kids are in the pit orchestra, that’s a first. I performed that show at my own high school, thirty-four years ago. The show was dated then, but today the D.C.team is actually in the World Series. How odd.
The past year has had its professional achievements, including the “world premiere” of The Way I Danced With You, a West Coast production of Rosalynde & The Falcon that was a delightful success, as was the opening of About a Ghoul at Talespinner Children's Theatre, and the publication of Red Onion White Garlic.
Looking to the New Year, however, there are great and challenging plans “afoot” (as the man says) including the new children’s touring play Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street, to be directed by Lisa Ortenzi for Great Lakes Theater, and for which we now have a cast, a tremendous company of artists.
Also, my new play The Witches will have a workshop production in April, part of the Test Flight series at Cleveland Public Theatre. The text is still in pieces-parts, but we’re having a private reading in November and I am very excited to hear what we have aloud.
Finally, and I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but announcing something can make it true, I have applied for graduate school, which I have forestalled for over twenty years.
The truth is, though I have always assumed I would eventually seek a Masters degree, it never fit into whatever lifestyle I was pursuing at the time, but that of producer, director, actor, playwright, and also actor-teacher, education arts administrator, father of two.
And it won’t fit now. It will never fit. Because nothing fits. You just keep shoving more pieces in there.
Thursday, October 24, 2019
|"(It'll Be Fine When You Reach) Cloud Nine"|
From left: Diane Mull, Tracey Field, Nick Koesters, Alison Garrigan, self
“I hear you are considering Cloud 9.”
This was James Mango, Artistic Director of Charenton Theater Company. The other new theater start-up, creating professional work in funky urban spaces.
We were at an event at Fadó, an Irish-themed bistro in the Flats. It was late Spring, 2000. Standing out on the boardwalk, on the banks of the Cuyahoga. The weather was perfect, the city was on the rise. The Millennium had begun (don’t argue with me about numerology) and everything was possible.
James told me Charenton was also considering that title, and proposed a co-production. I was suspicious. Not skeptical, I was suspicious.
He told me that with their management and promotional skills, the show could be a blockbuster. I asked him, what does Bad Epitaph have to offer?
He said, “The best talent in Cleveland.”
|Diane Mull as Edward|
Photo by Anthony Gray
Why? Arrogance, I imagine. I was thirty-two. My company was a hot property. I didn’t want to dilute it. Co-productions were not yet a thing, but they would be and very soon. James was thinking outside the box. I was being territorial. That was my first mistake.
Most of our core company was involved in the production of Cloud 9, and I will say it was the best in Cleveland. Roger Truesdell was tapped to direct. He had helmed Sin the previous fall, presented at Inside Gallery (now the site of the Bourbon Street Barrel Room) a temporary forty-seat space which sold out every performance.
Most of the spaces we had already engaged were either unavailable or defunct for that fall. I can’t tell you how many interesting spaces we had considered for Lysistrata, including the Paris Art Theatre on West 25th Street, an abandoned pornographic film house.
We could have had the Studio Theatre at Cleveland Play House, an intimate thrust space. Just a few years later Dobama would often use the space before they found their present location in Cleveland Heights.
But I got it into my head we must have a proscenium, and we found one. A sweetheart deal with the folks at Tri-C East, in Highland Heights. They had a new, state of the art facility and wanted to draw attention to it. It was a six hundred seat auditorium.
|"Come Gather Sons of England"|
Company from "Cloud 9"
(Bad Epitaph Theater Company, 2000)
Also, we were generating great press! Our new was nominated for a Northern Ohio Live “Award of Achievement” for Lysistrata, and in the awards issue was a feature written by Christopher Johnston, about the company, and me in particular. Surely, Bad Epitaph was ascendant. This production would attract even greater audiences.
From the beginning, however, my best instincts told me that all of our productions should be produced within the city of Cleveland. The original mission clearly stated we would be presenting classics and important contemporary drama in an urban setting. Now, we were moving into a cavernous space, way out at the intersection of Interstates 271 and 480. That was my second mistake.
The acting company included regulars Nick Koesters, Tom Cullinan, Alison Garrigan, Chris Bohan, myself, were joined by actors new to Bad Epitaph, Diane Mull and Tracey Field. A raked set was designed by Don McBride, spectacular light effects were created by Greg Owen-Houk, and our house composer, Dennis Yurich, created original music.
The production was set in both 1880 and 1980, nice round numbers. What had originally been a contemporary second act was now itself a period piece, which began with a news report on a London pop station (Sarah Morton as the DJ) and a brief snatch of the title song as though interpreted by XTC.
Our version of the complete song, sung by the company, was much more wistful. It begins with Gerry (Nick) singing the first verse solo, before being joined by Lin (Alison), then myself and Diane -- the Edwards -- and the song builds and builds until everyone is on stage, singing. During the climax we are all dancing, but we are each dancing by ourselves.
Roger created a beautiful picture postcard, exactly what I hoped the production would be. It closed with a signature Truesdell moment, with glitter and confetti showering onto Betty 1980 (Tracey) and Betty 1880 (Nick) as she has finally found herself.
And the reviews were positive, pointing up the strengths of our production, and also its failings. Tony Brown for the Plain Dealer commented that the “too-large theater ... dilutes the intimacy.” Imagine if we staged this at the Studio, or in another welcoming art gallery. Brown also called our production “a perverse sort of children’s theater for adults.” I’m not sure he meant that as a compliment, but I will take it as one.
The critics agreed that this script had come into focus into the intervening twenty years. Free Times critic James Damico claimed Churchill’s text, “never convincingly coheres or evolves dramatically … held together solely by the consistency of its anti-establishment criticisms." But he also said that time and our “resourceful and energetic production” had considerably “considerably depoliticize[d] and clarif[ied] the play’s properties.”
Which is another way of saying we took the rough edges off. The headline for the PD review was “Strong message is sugared in 'Cloud Nine'.” Indeed.
Now, and I can’t remember why I thought this was a good idea … we had a pre-opening night preview. That is not unique. However, there was no admission, In fact it was promoted as FREE. A free performance, the night before we opened!
|Tracey Field, Nick Koesters|
What the fuck? What was I thinking? Am I some kind of Communist? We had an entire weekend of previews for Lysistrata (I was terrified it would suck and I wanted time to make massive changes, which it turns out I did not have to do) but still we charged admission for them.
There were over fifty people there for the preview, their number dwarfed by a sea of seats. We didn’t even ask for a donation on the way out. This was my third and final mistake.
I loved this play, I wanted to return to a text that had so inspired me as I began my journey as a theater artist. And we did it just right. And audience size varied widely ... between ten and fifteen people.
One night, after another inspiring and poorly-attended performance, I drove to Cleveland Heights to catch the last half of Angst:84, a new play by my wife, Toni K. Thayer, at my old haunt, Dobama’s Night Kitchen.
I snuck into a seat in the back row on the far left side of the house, which was nearly sold out. An audience composed largely of teenagers and young adults, exactly the demographic for which I had created this project five years earlier. But I’d never produced such a popular show for the Night Kitchen.
I was happy for her. I was jealous. I was sad. I missed this. I was an adult, soon to be a father (or so I thought) and I had moved onto adult projects. But I still wanted to be back here, in the basement, in a great neighborhood, making exciting art for a young audience.
And yet, and you will have to take my word on this, over the years several have told me they did see our production of Cloud 9, and how much it meant to them. I get those comments about this show more than anything else Bad Epitaph produced.
Strong Message is sugared in 'Cloud Nine' by Tony Brown, The Plain Dealer, 10/23/2000
Clearing the Clouds; Bad Epitaph works wonders with 'Cloud 9' by James Damico, The Free Times, 11/1-7/2000
Tuesday, October 22, 2019
|"Cloud 9" by Caryl Churchill|
Directed by Deborah Nitzberg
Set Design by Fred Duer
(Ohio University School of Theater, 1986)
Take for example our production of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 in the year 2000. A fine production, from an artistic standpoint; the direction, performers, all elements of design including original music and sound. Exactly the attention to detail we had been striving for in the eighteen months we had been working together as a team.
And audiences stayed away and we lost all the profits we had raked in from our acclaimed production Lysistrata. What happened?
To answer that question, I need to go back to my first semester at college.
For every theater artist there’s that show you saw that changed everything, that made you realize the full potential of what theater could be, and why it is an art form unique from all others. For me, that was Cloud 9.
First produced at the Royal Court in 1979, with a Broadway run in 1981 at the Theatre de Lys, (now the Lucille Lortel) Churchill’s work was part of the 1986-87 Season at the Ohio University School of Theatre. It was produced in repertory with Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.
Now get this: I was a freshman. I had decided to pursue a degree in acting. As a child my parents had taken me to plays and to musicals, which each seemed very different to me. I liked musicals and found a lot of plays to be boring. Not necessarily unenjoyable, just not exiting. And yet I wanted to perform in them.
Today I love watching plays, and do not find performing in them to be enjoyable. We change.
Of course, my knowledge of what a play is was quite limited. So many of the works I had seen at local theaters or performed in at high school were not new. You Can’t Take It With You. Blithe Spirit. The Importance of Being Earnest. The works of Shakespeare. To my mind, that was the majority of work an actor would do, the canon.
|From left: Matthew Glave, Kevin McCarty, Alana Beth Lipp|
Costume Design by William Anderson
We were told to read Cat On a Hot Tin Roof before attending the performance, but not to read Cloud 9. How does reading a play beforehand color your reception of the work? How does coming to the work without expectations?
Like a lot of my classmates, we were disheartened by this production of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. It wasn’t very good. Some performances were downright awful. Was that all right? Could we say that? Al assured us that we could.
I became concernedabout the next four years. Is that what this school has to offer?
Then I saw Cloud 9. And my head burst open.
In brief, this play is a satire on British colonialism and mores and how the past is never past. Churchill plays with form, setting the first act in 1880s in Africa, and the second act in 1979 in London … but to the characters, members of one British family and those in their community, it has only been twenty-five years.
This gap in time is not explained. It just is, and no one questions it.
It begins as some kind of British farce, the gender reversals (mother played by a man, the young son played by a woman) easily dismissed as a kind of funny panto. That is, until the highly-anticipated arrival of a famous explorer breaks the thin veneer of gentility. He attempts to seduce the mother, then the son, and finally gains his satisfaction with the African servant Joshua.
“Shall we go into the barn and fuck?” asks the explorer, and they bound off, hand-in-hand. It was hilarious, and shocking, and a release. And my idea of what theater could be changed forever.
I was stunned by the play’s frank use of language, and how it addresses issues of homosexuality, feminism, domestic abuse, drag, pedophilia, incest. But the play also created in me a deep sense of longing, desire, and disappointment. If the first act was arch comedy, the second act was more troubling, as the now-adult children, freed from Victorian restrictions, struggle to understand who they are.
What did it all mean? I did not have the words, the experience to express the feelings this production aroused in me. It was 1986. I was just eighteen years old.
|From left: Kevin McCarty, Cynthia Collins|
Alana Beth Lipp, Joseph Hulser
The wife lover’s childrenIt was a sexy-sassy rendition, and I was jealous. I wanted to be them. The actors, I mean, I wanted to be performing in a show like that.
And my lover’s wife
Cooking in my kitchen
Confusing my life
And it’s upside down when you reach Cloud Nine.
More troubling to me now are the many difficult turns my personal life was about to take and I wonder if I missed the lesson of the story, that liberation does not necessarily make us happy.
In the New York Times, Frank Rich called Cloud 9 “sentimental agitprop,” and while he didn’t mean that kindly, I wish I had had those words to include in my essay for Dr. Kaufman. As a playwright, I have become a champion of sentimental agitprop. It's what I do.
Moving ahead twelve years, I developed a desire to direct a production of Hamlet with all those artists I had met and grown close to during the previous several years. And maybe someday I will write about that production.
In brief, it was a success. We decided to produce a new play, Sin by Wendy MacLeod, and also the first Cleveland production of The Santaland Diaries, both successes. Finally, in spring 2000 we produced Lysistrata, which was a huge success.
I was happy to skip from production to production under the banner of Bad Epitaph, after Hamlet’s warning not to offend actors; “After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.” It was a moniker which invited abuse and I was all for it.
|From left: Raeleen McMillion, Cynthia Collins|
Kevin McCarty, Alana Beth Lipp
Charenton’s first few offerings were mid-to-mid-late twentieth century classics like Waiting for Godot and American Buffalo. Works that say, “I haven’t read a play since college.”
And what did I do? I chose to kick off Bad Epitaph’s first full season with the most memorable play I had seen in college, Cloud 9.
To be continued.
Photos courtesy of Alana Byington
Source: Sexual Confusion On ‘Cloud 9’ by Frank Rich, The New York Times, 5/20/1981
Monday, October 7, 2019
|Angela Merkel, on vacation, reading "Tyrant."|
Tyrant, Shakespeare on Politics, was released on May 8, 2018, and even at that point it was easy to see what kind of President Trump was going to be, as if that were not previously evident. Though he never names the President, his thesis is clear, with every chapter and every would-be emperor described, accurately for the most part, with precisely the same language many have used to describe Trump.
He calls Jack Cade, leader of a populist uprising in Henry VI Part 2, a “loud-mouthed demagogue” possessing an “indifference to the truth, shamelessness, and hyperinflated self-confidence.”
Shakespeare's Richard III “divides the world into winners and losers” and “is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it … because it gets in his way.”
Macbeth has “a compulsive need to prove his manhood, dread of impotence … a fear of failure.” These psychological cues explain his “penchant for bullying, the vicious misogyny” and “explosive violence.”
Surprisingly, Greenblatt spends few words on the character of Julius Caesar, who, of all of Shakespeare’s monarchs, has been the one most often directly compared to Trump, for all of each man's vanity, poor health, and weakness for flattery at the same time ferociously protesting their own god-like inability to be manipulated.
Instead, this author focuses, as the play does, on the character of Brutus, and his desire to preempt disaster and assassinate Caesar before he attains absolute rule. Shakespeare’s lesson, it is clear, is that violent overthrow, no matter how pure the intent, is never pure, and impossible by design; an oxymoron in action.
“Real-world actions grounded on noble ideals,” Greenblatt suggests, “may have unforeseen and ironic consequences.”
|Carole Healey as Julius Caesar|
Photo: Roger Mastroianni
(Great Lakes Theater, 2019)
“The attempt to avert a possible Constitutional crisis, were Caesar to decide to assume tyrannical powers, precipitates the collapse of the state. The very act that was meant to save the republic turns out to destroy it. Caesar is dead, but by the end of the play Caesarism is triumphant.”As it happened, the Mueller investigation came to a close without touching Trump nearer, finding that while a foreign power certainly offered Citizen Trump political assistance during the 2016 election, there was not definitive proof that he accepted it.
It should surprise no one who has been paying attention that we are now mired in a nearly identical circumstance, with definitive proof that President Trump himself has solicited political assistance from (at least) one foreign power for the 2020 election.
Impeachment now increasingly likely, looking into the works of Shakespeare may be a direful predictor of future events.
Great Lakes Theater presents "Julius Caesar" directed by Sara Bruner at the Hanna Theatre through November 3, 2019