Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Pudding Mixes

Ohio University used to break from Thanksgiving to New Year’s leaving those of us without anywhere better to go at home, with or without a job. Home for the holidays my freshman year my girlfriend broke up with me and that was particularly devastating because no one had ever broken up with me before.

She is still the only person who ever has. Yeah, I said it.

Sophomore year, for better or worse, I was much more self-possessed and relaxed into the holidays in a manner I never had before. They were big fun. I was taken by the spirit, the spirit of Christmas, if not of Christ. There were three albums I listened to a lot that season, driving my mother to distraction: George Winston’s December, Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the new compilation to benefit the Special Olympics, A Very Special Christmas.

Since then I have become something of a holiday music nut. I look forward to that time after Thanksgiving when I have permission (in my house) to begin playing holiday music. The house is decorated, I want my mind decorated.

But I don’t like all Christmas music, not just any will do. In the early 90s I made a cassette of my very favorite Christmas songs, C-90 minutes of tunes and that was the soundtrack for me. It was called The Pudding Mix, after the name of the extended version of Wham’s “Last Christmas.”

In 2004 I made a new Pudding Mix CD to share with my colleagues, another in 2007, and again in 2009. But I wasn’t happy with these, because in an effort to fill them out I added songs I didn’t really care about.

I made this fan video of the Firesign Theatre bit "Toad Away" ten years ago.

But anyway, who listens to cassettes or CDs anymore? A few years ago some folks who worked on Bad Epitaph’s production of The Santaland Diaries asked for a playlist of the songs we used, and so I obliged. It is a great collection of songs. And it’s only an hour, perfect length.

When I played "Crumpet the Elf" three years ago I was inspired to make a collection of songs that I think of as holiday records, but really aren’t.

This year I received a passing request for a new "Pudding Mix" (it was from Daniel) and I was torn. Was I just going to throw together more Christmas songs, without a theme? Just to do it? I decided if I had an hour’s worth of music I could listen to more than once, by December 1, then I would share it. And surprise, I did.

I don’t need to explain too deeply just how to make a mixtape or playlist, Nick Horby has already done this much better than I. It’s not just about clustering a bunch of songs together, they need to sound like they belong together. And there are a number that I have been enjoying listening to recently -- and a few surprise covers I want to point up, cover versions of strange holiday favorites I’d never heard before.

The Closing of the Year: First performed by Wendy & Lisa (formerly of The Revolution) for the holiday bomb Toys, starring Robin Williams. Written by producer Trevor Horn, in its original version it is appropriately sentimental late 80s pop, but in the late 1990s he created a totally bonkers orchestral version featuring Plácido Domingo and Sarah Brightman.

Christmastime in Painesville: In the early 90s this novelty song by the band Slack Jaw was a favorite on WENZ. More recently the song’s composer John Koury joined former deadboys bassist Frank Secich to form The Deadbeat Poets, and it’s their version which is available for streaming. It’s more polished than the original, but then, they are older. And aren’t we all?

Even a Miracle Needs a Hand: In 1974 the Rankin Bass factory produced the cartoon (not stopmotion) special Twas the Night Before Christmas, in which an inventor has created a special clock to welcome Santa on Christmas Eve. However, when it is broken (we don’t need to get into this) a family of mice work to repair the damage. That explains this song’s lyrics … but I must tell you, I did not actually expect to find it when I searched on Spotify. Imagine my utter Christmas joy to discover this beautiful, retrofuturistic rendition, recorded only last year by soundcape hipster Sonntag (Zach Johnston).

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Red Hot + Blue (album)

Use your mentality. Wake up to reality.

Thirty years ago, on Saturday, December 1, 1990, the Red Hot + Blue special debuted on ABC. This was an hour-long collection of videos from the Cole Porter tribute album (of the same name) which was a major fundraiser for the Red Hot Organization, dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDS through music, pop culture and art. 
“Cole Porter was one of America’s greatest songwriters, and his music spoke about love and sex and experimentation with intelligence -- and that’s what you want when dealing with an AIDS benefit.” - Leigh Blake, "Red Hot" project co-director
It is difficult to communicate how controversial it was to discuss HIV/AIDS on television. It is shameful to think. This televised special of music videos of Cole Porter songs was aired at 10:00 PM on World AIDS Day, after a particularly disturbing episode of Twin Peaks in which Agent Cooper finally captures the murderer of Laura Palmer (no spoilers.)

The home video recording included the bumpers and intros to each music video that had been originally created for the broadcast, including Richard Gere's suggestion that people use condoms or not share needles, to prevent infection. These bits were cut at the last minute as a result of pressure, and fear, from the network, and replaced with inoffensive tributes to composer Cole Porter.

However, several of the videos that were broadcast were embedded with activist messaging, inlcuding Erasure's ACT UP inspired Too Darn Hot and  k.d. lang's devastating take on So In Love which includes imagery of one caring for her ill partner.

These covers sang to the pseudo-sophisticate in me. Several of them are faithful renditions of Cole Porter classics (Sinead O'Connor's You Do Something To Me, Lisa Stansfield's Down In the Depths, the aforemention k.d. lang track) as they emulate big band or cocktail lounge piano stylings.

The Thompson Twins Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? is an 80s pop throwback, but several tracks look to the future, original hip-hop singles which only use Porter titles for the hook or chorus. The plaintive piano breakdown at 2:27 on Neneh Cherry's I've Got You Under My Skin was a loop I sampled and used on several amateur audio projects as I diddled around with nascent computer sound programs. It even showed up in my design for The Gulf at Dobama's Night Kitchen, ten years later.

We played this album often, and the music reminds me of so much from an intense and fleeting moment in my (very) early adulthood; it was heard in shops in England during a university trip that December, and was part of our soundtrack during the winter run-up to the Persian Gulf War, my final quarter at school. The subject of the album itself was emotionally confusing, mournful and celebratory all at once.

I had one foot out the door, ready to graduate and head I did not know where.

Not many of these songs are avilable on your streaming services, a few were re-issued on the individual artists' greatest hits albums and elsewhere.

And, of course, HIV is still with us. The COVID-19 epidemic has shown us - again - how social inequity, intolerance, and plain ignorance contribute to the human cost of any transmittable human infection. The theme for this year's World AIDS Day is “Global solidarity, shared responsibility."


Saturday, November 28, 2020

Dobama '96 Trading Cards

Twenty-five years ago I was working as the public relations director at Dobama Theatre. This was an accident. That summer I had been tapped to create the Night Kitchen, a series of late night theater programs for “the kids.” It wasn’t a salaried position, so when the recently-hired p.r. director suddenly quit, the artistic director looked to me and asked if I wanted a job.

I have been into marketing my entire life. When I was a kid I made greeting cards, and designed boxes of cereal. During the Guerrilla years I was responsible for contacting the media and read up to learn how to properly create a press release, where to find contact information for the papers and stations, who to call and when and what to say and how to say it.

My first big assignment was the holiday ask. You know how every non-profit contacts you around this time of year to hit you up for the annual fund. It’s a time of giving, it’s all the last month you can get those tax-deductible donations in.

"City of Terror" Trading Cards
Mark Beyer
(Raw #2 1980)
This year, my first in this new position, I had a brilliant idea -- brilliant in that I stole it from Françoise Mouly, Art Spiegeman and the crew at RAW Magazine. An alternative comics anthology from the 1980s, in one edition they included “City of Terror” baseball-type trading cards, complete with bubble gum. Each copy of the magazine included only one card, artist Mark Beyer had only created eight different cards but they were numbered as high as #76 to give the impression there were many more.

I proposed we include Dobama Trading Cards with the annual fund request. I would design a sheet of nine cards (“Collect all 60! Trade with your friends!”) each would feature one production photo from the theater’s history on the front, with data about that production on the back, even including a small note about what was featured on the next card, a card which did not actually exist.

Clever me, I even made one of the cards an ad for our upcoming show in the Night Kitchen, the improvised Realistic World.

This was my first big mailing job, and the most intricate use of Photoshop I had attempted to date (that’s PhotoShop 2.0) Our technology was very basic in those days, we only had PCs in the office, so I was designing this on my Mac at home, then driving to the Kinko’s in University Circle to use their laser printers. When I messed something up I would have to go home to edit it, then drive back out to Kinko’s to see if I had gotten it right. 

These things weren't even in color. It was a nightmare. I had a nervous breakdown. Joyce was extremely supportive. She also had to press me to complete the job on time because it was only the single most important mailing of the year. And we did, we got it out. 

I never proposed anything as irresponsibly clever for the rest of my tenure.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Process XI

What has ever come out of Luxembourg? - from “Synchronicity”

Also, painted that lamppost.
Last weekend I banged out my second "dark fiction" short story. Most of my assignments for the semester are complete, except for the big one. It is good that I can spend the next week largely concentrating only on that. 

Also, we watched a few streaming theater pieces. “Is it theater?” they ask. You know what? Who cares. First, we saw the Baldwin-Wallace Musical Theater Program production of Spring Awakening which was neither live theater nor a movie, and yet, it was entertainment unto itself, even incorporating the pandemic into its concept.

So, too, Irish Repertory Theatre’s On Beckett/In Screen, an adaptation of his solo rumination and interpretation of the works of Samuel Beckett created and performed by legendary clown Bill Irwin, also including a nod to the current moment.

I would not or could not have seen either of these without their having been presented online, and I would have missed out on a larger discussion. The productions were not live. But I, as an audience member. I was live.

Monday my playwriting workshop will read a version of my new script that is slightly different from the one I shared with friends last month. First I need to read the thing again, I don’t know.

"On Beckett/In Screen"
(Irish Repertory Theatre, 2020)
And we decorate. A couple years ago I began putting our artificial tree outside, and getting a real tree to put inside. Setting up the outdoor tree on Tuesday, I thought that must be the earliest I had ever put up a tree. But then I remembered that I put up that tree the Tuesday before Thanksgiving last year because my entire family was in town because mom was not doing well and we thought this might be our last holiday with her.

We had Thanksgiving at her house last year, but everyone came here the night before. This year it was just the four of us. My first Thanksgiving dinner in my own house.

Odd. I told myself that on Thanksgiving I should do nothing that was not related to spending time with the wife and kids. No writing, no running, no additional housework. And yet by the end of a day spent playing trivia games and watching movies, I was entirely run down.

But the big good news is that the wife has completed the manuscript for a novel which is now making the rounds among her colleagues, and that includes me.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Process X

In the room.
This week I ran out of writing prompts.

On a whim last fall I looked up “writing prompts” and found 365 Creative Writing Prompts at They weren’t super involved, many of them focusing on one or two words. “Dancing” or “First Kiss”.

I found these to be much more liberating and inspiring. Many prompt books or online lists are too detailed. “Write about a time you disappointed someone.” Well, that makes it specifically about me, doesn’t it? I mean, it doesn’t have to be, but that’s where the mind first goes.

“Write about your virtual plans for the Thanksgiving holiday.” I mean, that’s a journal entry. I guess it’s aspirational, but not really.

Maybe I should start again from the beginning though I would like to try something new. So many of these prompts resulted in short plays, and many of those were turned into videos last Spring, at the beginning of the pandemic. Looking them over, I think of those. Gotta try something new.

This past week, James and I visited labor and delivery at University Hospitals. Next year is the twentieth anniversary of the events which inspired I Hate This (a play without the baby) and plans are afoot to bring that show to a wider audience.

James has never experienced childbirth, not from the outside, anyway, so this was a wonderful opportunity to know the space and to work with the text.

Okay, this is a big weekend. I have two weeks to finish two big assignments, fortunately there are no assignments for either of those specific classes this holiday week. And my full-length (which is not, I feel, full-length, but) is in good shape to be read the following week.

In fact, there were a few notes my advisor gave me that I was able to incorporate. "Breadcrumbs." Moments to keep the audience on their toes, even as the protagonists go on about 1980s teen movies, life ... everything, really.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Process IX

Here’s a thing: if everything were normal, I would be getting up every morning at 5:30 AM. So there’s that. We're all getting more sleep.

Thursday night Chennelle came over, she’d signed up for a playwriting workshop sponsored by The Playwrights Realm in NYC: Writing Impossible Plays In Impossible Times. To remain socially distant, I lit the fire bowl and we had Christmas ale and made smores and collaborated with some fifty or more other theater artists from my laptop, set on a small table.

This is now. Interacting with artists around the country. Spending more time than usual out of doors. The Zoom phenomenon is wearying, but it has made us do, by necessity, things we may have chosen to do before, but did not.

We used to be so tightly focused on here. Without the pandemic I may not have been offered the opportunity in this manner with writers far and wide. Having been offered the opportunity, I may have passed on it. Would I prefer to be delivering a curtain speech at the Hanna, attending a concert at the high school, going out to dinner and a show with my wife? Of course, no question. But it is worth noting what is here, and what we have, and what we have chosen to do in this situation, with this situation.

Asking Julie to participate in my reading, two weeks ago, was dreamlike. I haven’t seen her perform since 1990. Thirty years. It was like a joyful moment from the past, made real. Like no time had passed. So that is something that would not have happened otherwise.

There was a high school which obtained the rights to perform one of my plays. It’s always fun to see the sets and costumes for high school productions of my plays, so I do a little creeping. It’s a school in the Midwest and so I checked out their website and sure enough, they have by all accounts done little to protect their students. Lots of photos of students in class, at social events, holding parades. I think I saw one mask below a student’s chin, like a neck-warmer.

A notice was posted a week ago suggesting the fall play may or may not be live-streamed. It was supposed to open last night, and there was a new notice that it has been postponed. Cases are spiking there. They are spiking everywhere.

Okay homework. I must facilitate a roundtable discussion on an essay by Ralph Ellison. And I will be mapping out my next horror story. As usual, there is too much I want to say with it. I think the challenge is to compose a brief jump scare. Wish me luck.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Process VIII

Every country has a monster
They're afraid of in their nation.
No, I haven’t done any writing this week. Has anyone?

What I have been doing, what has helped me cope with stress while we all waited for the votes to roll in, was a return to live, interactive arts education. In addition to the asynchronous work we have been creating, the education team conducted multi-day residencies in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet with home school students from the new “Studio 1062”.

This cannot be overstated. I haven’t even been a full-time actor-teacher for over fifteen years, I just train them. But having the opportunity to interact in real time with even a half-dozen students, guiding them through classic works, was a tremendously edifying experience.

For “dark fiction” class I will need to write another short story, and this week I realized what the subject of that story would be. I’d like to try an outright monster story, inspired by the land of my ancestors. Not England, not Norway -- no, we discovered shortly after my father died that his family originated in Luxembourg.

He was adopted as a child, and never expressed much interest in his birth parents. But he did relent and provide DNA for a test shortly before he passed, and so I learned that my history is Luxembourgian. Which is interesting because, well. It’s not. There’s nothing interesting about Luxembourg, a tiny, landlocked country that makes Belgium look positively intimidating.

But they do have a monster, as we learned a few years ago on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 in the "Kaiju Rap (Every Country has a Monster)":
Kropermann is a monster from Luxembourg
Who's actually the size of Luxembourg
He crushed the whole country of Luxembourg
Because he is the size of Luxembourg
Kropermann does not actually crush people, Jonah and the bots are simply making a little joke about the relatively diminutive size of Luxembourg, which is really small. The population of the entire country is a little over half a million people. You can spit across Luxembourg.

See? I am allowed to make fun of Luxembourg. But you can’t.

Kropermann is a pretty scary monster, though. And I have an idea for how to bring it to life.