Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Shakespeare In Debt Benefit

I hadn’t planned Bad Epitaph further than one show. I was 30, and I wanted to direct a production of Hamlet with all my friends. That was it.

We held a fund raiser at the Brick Alley Theatre at 4051 St. Clair Avenue, where the show would be presented in April, 1999. The evening was called Shakespeare In Debt, a play on the title of a recent hit movie. The generous goodwill offered by neighborhood restaurateurs as well as funds raised by an electric and interesting silent auction brought in about a grand, which was close to our goal.

We also put on a few silly sketches and a live set by a singer-songwriter Rachel McCartney. The entire evening was a show of heartfelt support from the Cleveland theater community for what we were trying to do.

At the end of the evening we were cleaning up and tallying funds when I noticed a bankers box just sitting out on a table, in front of a large window, right next to the (unlocked) door to St. Clair Ave. “What’s this?” I asked.

It was the door, admission to the event, which had consisted largely of walk-ups, paid in cash. There was another thousand dollars in there.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Sin (1999)

Before digital cameras, and later, phones, made it possible to see the picture you had taken right away (or to just take half a dozen images all at once to appraise later) we'd take one carefully posed photo and wait a few days, hoping it turned out all right.

So, here's an overexposed picture from when playwright Wendy MacLeod was Bad Epitaph Theater Company's guest of honor at a performance of her play SIN in late 1999. From left, director Roger Truesdell, MacLeod, myself and Sarah Morton, who played the central character, Avery Bly.

Discovering long-hidden photographs can take you right back to a place you thought you remembered, but offer so many lost details.

For this production we partnered with INSIDE, a Tremont art gallery at 2393 Professor Street (now the site of Bourbon Street Barrell Room) dividing the space in half with curtains so that half could maintain displays while a temporary performance space was knocked up with other half.

Forty seats. We sold the house every night!

And that's how you do that.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

The Santaland Diaries (Revisited)

Recently I have been going through a lot of junk in my home, and came across photos from days long past that I must have taken and immediately stashed away. Among these were pre- and post-show photos for a few Bad Epitaph Theater Company productions.

This photo was taken from the booth at the (former) Brick Alley space at East 40th and St. Clair, opening night of The SantaLand Diaries by David Sedaris, starring Curtis D. Proctor and directed by Thomas W. Cullinan.

That was twenty-four years ago this weekend, in late 1999. What an adorable cabaret space. So rough, so Cleveland! See the photo at right for the view from the house (and look carefully at this first photo and you might even see where I am seated.)

Since we started having live children, the holidays have been the absolute last time I want to be involved in a production. I was needed at home nights, and that's just where I wanted to be.

And yet, looking at that picture, I am reminded once again how enjoyable to be on the Great Holiday Show Calendar. To be out and among the people, and to be the one providing them their festive and much-desired entertainment. Best wishes and many grateful thanks to my friends and colleagues who are all opening shows tonight.

This production is still currently available on YouTube. The video is a bit shaky, but the audio is surprisingly good.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Marriage of Bette and Boo (1988)

Folks need to stop auditioning with the tuna fish monologue from Christopher Durang’s Laughing Wild (1987). It’s a go-to comedic monologue for people who need a funny and check a list of “ten best comedic monologues for women” or something, I don’t know where they get it. People born in 2001 can’t possibly have ever seen this show. Anyway, the "Child of Prague" monologue is right there and I’ve never seen anyone try that.

When I was a sophomore at the Ohio University’s School of Theater, I played the role of Father Donnally in an undergraduate production of Durang's The Marriage of Bette and Boo. I recently came across my script, upon which I had drawn a faithful self-portrait (see right) as the character Father Donnally.

For the run at the Public Theatre in 1985, the role of Father Donnally was originated by Richard B. Shull who is best-remembered by my generation for performing as the judge in Billy Joel's "Keeping the Faith" music video. The role of Paul was performed by another Ohio University School of Theater grad, J. Bill McCutcheon who played Uncle Wally on Sesame Street fame and also Dropo in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

There was much about this play that I did not understand as a nineteen year-old undergrad. Alcoholism for one, child loss for another. A thinly veiled roman a clef about his own family (the playwright played the protagonist in the original production) Bette is a woman who desperately wants lots of children, but only her first survives. Bette and her husband “Boo” have the Rh factor, which was why my own grandparents’ children all died, in utero or shortly after birth.

Self (Father Donnally) with Katurah Nelson (Bette)
"The Marriage of Bette & Boo"
Ohio University School of Theatre (1988)
We say quite simply that a couple “can’t have children” but what we’re really saying is that they tried, probably several times, with heartbreaking results. After two miscarriages and a stillbirth, my grandparents adopted my father.

Father Donnally is a figure of patriarchal uselessness. He and a doctor are supposed to be played by the same actor, the only character who is not a member of Bette and Boo's family. A different actor played the doctor in this production.  

In the play Bette and Boo, every time another child is expected the doctor arrives with a swaddled bundle, drops it on the floor and announces dispassionately, “It’s dead, the baby’s dead.” In the Forum Theatre at O.U., the doctor dropped the baby from the lighting grid over the stage. On opening night, each announcement got bigger and bigger laughs from the packed house of supportive theater students.

The second weekend of performances was Parents’ Weekend, and that Saturday night there was absolute silence or uncomfortable moans whenever we made a dead baby joke. I asked our director, Dr. Condee, why all our parents didn’t laugh. 

He said quite simply, “Maybe they don’t think stillbirth is funny.”

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Acapulco Gold (book)

Pengo's 2023 Summer Book Club

I have always been in love with marketing. As a kid, I wanted to sell things. I don’t mean I wanted to make money (I’m still no good at that) I wanted to create product for others to acquire from me.

An artist does, too, but an artist is very particular about what they create. I wanted to make and to find an audience for things people wanted. I would design cereal boxes and candy wrappers. I made greeting cards. I wanted to be a graphic designer, I guess. 

I did try taking courses in design, at Ohio University, and at Kent. But I was never very successful. Mom said I should have gotten a job at American Greetings, and she was right.

I embraced my role making posters and other promotional materials for Guerrilla and Dobama. I was happier designing the posters for Bad Epitaph than I was directing the plays.

Long before becoming engrossed in the TV program Mad Men, which is ostensibly about the business of advertising, I had read a book in high school called Acapulco Gold by Edwin Corley. Written in 1972, it’s an in-depth description of one Madison Avenue advertising executive, told with the same kind of hard-drinking, hard-playing bravado of that aforementioned 21st century TV program, though this story focuses on the account of one firm working secretly to get the jump on federal approval for the recreational use of cannabis.

"Mind Your Own Business" poster
Guerrilla Theater Company (1994)
I drew this!
How would a commercial advertising firm promote weed?

The more amusing aspects of this fable set aside (are they amusing? I cannot tell if the casual racism, sexism and homophobia exhibited by the main protagonist is meant to comment on the mores of the time, or the author’s actual sensibilities and does it make any difference) as a teenager I was largely compelled by the occupation itself – how to create a campaign for the product.

Currently, I am writing the adaptation of a book, a different book, a book for children, and it also tells the story of a product (to be sure, an entirely different product) from first idea to development to marketing and national exposure. 

This children's book is tightly focused on the mission to succeed and how, as is often the case, the effect these decisions have on the lives of those around the actors involved can get lost. Capitalism creates many orphans.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Pandemonium 23

Saturday night was my tenth experience at CPT’s Pandemonium. This does not even include the time I sent the actor-teachers to conduct the Where the Wild Things Are residency with a throng of partying adults.

I have written short plays, I have performed in plays written by others. Last year’s experience was good, and I was very happy with not only how James and Sarah performed Here’s To You, Mrs. Robinson but also how well it was received. The next day, however, I developed Covid symptoms and though it didn't time out that I contracted the illness there, it was very likely I shared it, which was upsetting to me. I decided to sit it out this year.

But then Melissa Crum contacted me about participating in a piece she was directing and I said, well, why not? And I am very glad I did.

The Heart in the Wind was conceived by Raymond Bobgan, and while I will refrain from breaking down exactly how it worked (not my tale to tell, and besides, as they say, you had to be there) a team of mechanicals focus on a single party goer, in a private space, and invent a poem specifically for them which is then shared with a larger audience.

Missy asked me to be the person who invited people into the tent, and it was I who interviewed these subjects. I understood why she asked me to play this part, because this is what I do. My experience as an actor-teacher, and in coaching actor-teachers means I have a skill at asking total strangers meaningful questions about themselves.

It was a warm, powerful, and immersive experience. One of our subjects was a self-described mother and caregiver, who was surrounded by her husband and three big, adult sons and the experience brought joyful tears and embraces.

I had my own personal, immersive experience during dress rehearsal (on the night we were too engaged in our own work to engage any other of the offerings) when I read a children’s story to a mermaid. The experience brought me to tears. I haven’t been so moved since the witches’ house at Sleep No More.

My own work has been largely cerebral, and it has been challenging for me to think outside of crafting scripts for actors to learn and speak – though there is power in that, as evidenced by Step Nine at BorderLight last month. But these opportunities, for audiences of one, they can resonate, they last, like a fondly remembered dream, and I wish I could tap into that power. For that I may need to right collaborator, and I think I know who they might be.

Saturday, September 2, 2023

How To Make Toothpaste

The subject is toothpaste. Our son went off to college a couple weeks ago, and I had one piece of fatherly advice, the most important advice I thought I had to give.

No, it’s not that. We talked about that years ago, which is more than my father ever did. But I digress.

I implored him to brush his teeth. At least twice a day, when you get up and before you go to sleep. At least. He said he was good about that, and that he hadn’t ever had any cavities. I told him I thought the same thing when I went off to school, but that after I graduated I had several.

If your teeth hurt, you can’t eat. I mean, you can, but it’s miserable. Keep your teeth clean. Everything else seems to come naturally.

There was a period in which all I used to brush my teeth was baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. I had this dentist who recommended it over store-bought toothpaste.

“What about fluoride?” I asked.

“Fluoride is rat poison,” he told me.

Uh, okay. I mean, it’s true, in large amounts fluoride will kill you, but in small amounts it strengthens the enamel in your teeth. And Americans will always choose bright, white teeth over their general health on any given day.

Anyway, I followed his advice and for a time eschewed store-bought paste for the home mixture, and though I did eventually develop a number of cavities over that period, it may have had as much to do with my less than vigilant use of a solution which tasted like salt and acid.

We brush our teeth to the most disgusting part of our body – the mouth (and by proxy the rest of our systems) – free from harmful bacteria, and to neutralize the acids and sugars which can damage our teeth.

So can you make a more sophisticated toothpaste from items which are readily available in your house? Today, I did just that. There are a lot of recipes available online, and I mashed up a few of those to see what I could accomplish without going to the store.

Fortunately, we happened to have a jar of coconut oil in the larder, because most sites I visited recommended using that. Coconut oil is a natural antibacterial agent and good for preventing cavities. (¼ Cup)

Also, that bicarbonate of soda (see: “bicarb” or “baking soda”) which is alkaline, and therefore neutralizes the acids which can rot your teeth. It’s also mildly abrasive, which helps keep scrape away things that could stain your teeth. Too much, however, can damage your enamel. (2 Tablespoons)

Sea salt is also recommended, as an additional alkaline, though that did make what I eventually came up with quite salty, as you can imagine, though not entirely unpleasant. When you are used to the sweetness of your usual tube of toothpaste, it can taste of disappointment. (1 Teaspoons)

Finally, I added arrowroot. Have you ever used arrowroot? Why do I even have arrowroot in my cupboard? What is arrowroot for? Well, now I know, at least in this case. It is a thickening agent, adding that creamy “paste” factor to my toothpaste, which otherwise might have seemed a bit oily and unpleasant. (1 Teaspoon)

And I tried it, and it was salty and it will be salty and I can deal with that, though I’m not sure I could market it. I just don’t think there would be a demand. You could add an artificial sweetener, though I do try to avoid those as most are inevitably found to be harmful. Instead, I dropped in a bit of vanilla and then almond extract, which provided an “essence” of flavor which I found to be an improvement.

At least one site suggest turmeric, which is also good for your gums and the enamel of your teeth, though I left that out. I may add it to a future batch.

Now I have a pot of homemade toothpaste that didn’t cost a dime, and I’m going to use it, to see how long it lasts before it runs out.

If you have any additional suggestions for a good homemade toothpaste, please leave them in the comments!