Friday, February 3, 2017

On Bullying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There will be puppets.
To be continued.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Red Onion, White Garlic: First Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rehearsals begin February 16.

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

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Entry Point @ Cleveland Public Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Top Ten Events of 2016

Obligatory "Hamilton" sidewalk selfie.
There are those who have suggested that 2016 is the worst year in recent memory. They are generally referring to the deaths of numerous pop culture figures from the 1980s and the election of Donald J. Trump.

My father died this year. In fact, two of my great friends from my youth, their fathers also died this year. Everything else can go hang, it has been a year of personal mourning, it’s all subjective, ask the children Aleppo how this year has gone. Kind of puts the death of the inventor of the Red Solo Cup in perspective.

Every year sucks. Every year is amazing. Here is my entirely subjective top ten list (in chronological order) of the most amazingly awesome things that happened to me this year, and only a few of the incredible people with whom they happened.

  1. I Hate This (a play without the baby): This one-night-only, 15th anniversary performance, directed by Chennelle Bryant-Harris, was an eye-opening rediscovery of a work I thought I knew, and I got to share it with a wonderful audience.
  2. Cleveland Marathon: Chris Fornadel and I survived the CLE Half Marathon through an absurd, freak mid-May snowstorm. Could not have done that without this hilarious running partner, but that was crazy.
  3. Last Frontier Theater Conference: Playwright Kevin Armento was an inspiring and encouraging lead panelist for my new script. Also glad I got to see a performance of his Good Men Wanted at the conference, his personal philosophy of writing is one I can get behind.
  4. Cavs Victory Parade.
    The Chosen One.
  5. Twelfth Night (As Told By Malvolio): Celebrating the First Folio in Cleveland, I adapted and directed a 45-minute version of Twelfth Night with some of my very favorite young actors, which we toured to Cleveland public libraries around the city.
  6. Saw fucking Hamilton.
  7. Cleveland Playwrights Festival: Playwrights Local presented a script-in-hand workshop of my new work, The Way I Danced With You, directed by Melissa T. Crum, who, with Chennelle, has been instrumental in my development of this script. Response was very positive and the entire weekend of events was an instructive experience.
  8. Tony Kushner & Sarah Vowell: This Think Forum event, ostensibly an open discussion about the life of Abraham Lincoln, the evening was a bleak, hilarious and ultimately reassuring post-election balm.
  9. Reception: My wife and I began holding a salon of arts and ideas at our home late in the year, and we seem to have discovered a wonderful coven of brilliant hopeful minds.
  10. 28th Annual Great Lakes Theater A Christmas Carol Writing Contest: Always a delight and an honor to help shepherd this contest for Cleveland middle school students, this year’s winners all felt particularly poignant, their interpretation by performers from GLT's production A Christmas Carol delightful. Have you listened to the broadcast yet?
He judges my blogging.
This list only mentions a few people and barely scratches the surface of the productions, festivals, parties, personal moments, journeys, concerts, school, neighborhood and campaign events, and all the details which make up a year well-spent.

There was so much pain in 2016, from the very first day (when I have have to admit I was terribly hungover) to this day. Well, not today, actually, today has been pretty calm and relaxing. 

I hope you have also been blessed with good times this past year, walking between the raindrops (as they say) and wish you great and wonderful things in 2017.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Alan Freed

Last summer I caused a bit of a stir when I suggested that the gigantic banner heralding the historic achievements of Garrett Morgan had been unfairly “whitewashed” prior to the Republican National Convention. My suggestion that racism had anything to do with the decision was slammed by numerous parties, I was accused of jumping to conclusions, and creating unnecessary controversy.

After all, Garrett Morgan had not invented the stoplight. The banner was incorrect. He improved on the design, and it is very important that we do not provide credit where it is not due. It had nothing to do with his ethnic background, nor the color of his skin.

My post on the subject was one of my most widely read of the year, and concluded on an upbeat note. A new, smaller banner had been posted more accurately announcing that Garrett Morgan was the creator of a stoplight, not the stoplight.

This new Morgan banner, which for the time being still exists, is among many such banners on Euclid Avenue, including the one which states proudly CLEVELAND DISC JOCKEY ALAN FREED COINED THE TERM “ROCK AND ROLL” IN THE EARLY 1950S.



The term “rocking and rolling” dates back to at least the early 20th century.

The Boswell Sisters recorded a song called Rock and Roll in 1934.

The Rock and Roll Inn music club opened in New Jersey in 1943.

Around 1951, Alan Freed began to “popularize” the term on his Cleveland-based radio broadcasts.

To coin is to invent, to originate. Alan Freed made popular the term -- for a white audience -- and is therefore widely credited with having created it.

As we move into this era, may I suggest once again without argument that African-Americans must validate their legitimacy to an extant that Caucasians do not.

God, am I pissed I didn't catch that last summer ...

Please read my original July 15, 2016 post on the Garrett Morgan banner.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

Burr (book)

Aaron Burr in "Hamilton"
We have spent the week vacationing with my in-laws. There are several ways to reach Athens, Ohio from Cleveland, none of them anything like a straight line. Though it is quicker to take I-71 through Columbus no one hates themselves that much, so we usually take 77 to Marietta and the one of a number of ways to get to 50 West.

A newly completed bridge, part of state road 50, spans the Ohio River, and lately we have taken that route. Connecting Parkersburg and Marietta (yes, you actually go into West Virginia for a few miles) it vaults over the western tip of Blennerhassett Island, site of an historic meeting which would doom the island’s Irish namesake and also the political aspirations of that most mercurial of American icons, Aaron Burr.

Blennerhassett Mansion, where the one-time Vice President and murderer of Alexander Hamilton met Harman Blennerhassett and his wife Margaret to make plans for an expedition down the Mississippi to New Orleans, was located at the opposite end of the island, an historic recreation is there to visit today. Twenty-five years ago I performed in a musical inspired by these events, Eden of the River, which was presented on that site.

Driving or flying, as it were, over that island, as we do most times we visit my in-laws, I am reminded not only of all the time I spent on it, but how little of it I explored. It’s not a very large piece of land, yet the only time I stepped away from the boat landing or the area immediately surrounding the mansion was that one time I and another chorus member escaped to the woods to make out.

We didn’t go far and we did not stay long. You can interpret that as you will.

What was it like in December 1806, two hundred and ten years years ago, when Burr returned to Belle Prairie (today pronounced BELL-pree) to raise men, funds and supplies -- yet no weapons -- for his ill-fated expedition party? There was no bridge to the island, there still isn’t, this one goes over it, as I said, not to it. How dense the forest, how passable the terrain? Were there any native peoples in the vicinity, how isolated were the Blennerhassett from Western civilization?

The characters of Harman and Elizabeth do play an important role in Gore Vidal’s Burr (1973) an historical novel told from the point of view of the young Charles Schuyler (a fictional character and no relation to the Schuylers in themusical Hamilton) and one part of a collection of American histories the author wrote and named Narratives of Empire.

Never read Vidal before, have to admit, I know him as a talking head in The Celluloid Closet, commenting on his own work as one of numerous writers for the screenplay for Ben-Hur (1959) starring Charleton Heston, his personality as an arch literary satirist of the twentieth century has largely come to me via osmosis. My father shelves, which we are currently culling, include several of his works. I am under the impression that any man of my father’s generation with a standard liberal arts education would be wanting without them, though my father was better read than most. Certainly better than I.

The book has taken months for me to read, not because it is not compelling, it is, and a satisfying read. My days have been so long, my responsibilities continuous and varied, and though I would pick it up most nights I would make it through three or so pages before being overwhelmed. I even tried reading a few pages that long, dark night of November 8, when my thirteen year-old daughter was so crestfallen she could not rest and we compelled her to sleep with us. True, this novel's content pertains to history, American history, but removed as it was from current events it provided a mild distraction.

In fact, it is because of current events that the novel itself comes as something of a comfort. Vidal is a member of a bygone era, Vulture called him a “dapper, left-wing bomb thrower” -- not a literal bomb-thrower, but that kind of old-school gadfly who could verbally cut you to the quick and leave you incoherently enraged. But first you have to a) be listening and b) understand that you have been insulted. Today’s right-wing demagogues owe their present success to simply refusing to do either.

Burr, the novel, provides the author the advantage of providing savage commentary on icons of American history from a vantage point twice removed, from either his main subject, once Senator, then Vice President, but always “Colonel” Aaron Burr, or his narrator, Mister Schuyler, a young man who in the course of just a few years rises from a desperate, penniless, inexperienced newspaper writer to a comfortable position in the the Van Buren administration.

Schuyler’s commission is to write a memoir of the ageing Burr (now eighty, some got half as many) and over their time together not only develops great admiration for the Colonel, but also absorbs his worldview, restrained temperament and even to some degree his remarkably subtle wit.

Aaron Burr in "Eden on the River"
It is this wit, however, in recounting Burr’s version of the American Revolution and all that came after, that provides the subject, and in fact the author, to portray George Washington as a colossal failure on the battlefield, exhibiting terrible judgement (and apparent fantastically large buttocks) winning only one battle - Yorktown - and not without foreign assistance.

Later it is Jefferson, not Burr, who appears to hold no moral center, shifting any position necessary to keep the nation a loose confederation of states, denying strong federal power and yet as President freely violating or proposing to violate any of new bill of rights to maintain the status quo (i.e.: slavery) or to destroy his perceived enemies (i.e.: Aaron Burr.)

The legendarily soft-spoken Jefferson, always clearly articulating his position, is rendered a slippery cipher, always scheming, fiddling with his inventions, and in constant opposition to Burr who by his own description of events made the appropriate decisions necessary for Jefferson to become President. For the sake of the nation.

Of course, this is Burr speaking. And he speaks to an impressionable man who develops such admiration for him, delighted by his “exquisite irony” and “serene good humor.” It takes a moment to realize that the true object of such a compliment is Vidal himself.

And this is comforting how? Donald Trump has made a mockery of American history with his arrogant run for President. Assuming he would never win, he was also more successful as a sloppy, right-wing bomb thrower, capitalizing on resentment, anger and outright racism to propel himself to be the loudest and most visible opponent to Barack Obama. His goal was self-aggrandizement, but unfortunately for him and the rest of us, he now needs to lead, something he has never been successful at doing.

It is demoralizing to imagine we are ending an era in which a young Puerto Rican-American with a Broadway musical under his belt could be granted an audience with the President of the United States to rap a song about the largely unregarded first Secretary of the Treasury which caused a YouTube sensation which inspired him and a company of talented artists to create a new musical which sparked a national conversation on what it means to be American, to be America.

Donald J. Trump does not inspire confidence, he can’t make anything great, and the only artwork he has ever inspired in my neighborhood was a great, hideous nude statue someone dumped on Coventry last summer.

"The Emperor Has No Balls"
Ginger (2016)
Vidal wrote Burr in the era of Nixon, his novel reeking of cynicism, every player a player, twisting words and circumstance to his own advantage. His America of the early 19th century is a murky backwater where the rich stuff their faces and drink and smoke and spit and talk and talk and talk.

He chooses a protagonist in Aaron Burr, worshipped by the common people, heralded wherever he goes, once he has been exiled by proper society for the murder of Alexander Hamilton.* In tearing down icons and exalting this scoundrel, Vidal makes you reconsider all you believe you know about the Founding Fathers. Good Lord, the man even suggests Davy Crockett was raped first before being killed at the Alamo.

So, the United States of America has elected to be its Chief Executive a scoundrel, a self-serving villain who do what he can to subvert the Constitution to maintain the status quo and destroy his enemies, again. We got this far, citizens. The Republic will prevail.

Exactly how we will overcome, that is a terrible mystery and one which we carry into the new year. It has been suggested that Vidal’s type of scorched earth criticism of those with whom he disagrees has brought us to our current level of discourse. For when your facts are correct, but you are arrogant about it, why would your opponent even respond with an intellectually supported response? Why not just say,”Fuck you, you’re wrong.” and listen to the multitudes cheer? It certainly worked in 2016.

*About that; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton taunts Burr to mention a “specific grievance” from over “thirty years of disagreements” for which he should apologize, there was one specific, heinous, personal insinuation made by Hamilton in mixed company and behind Burr's back, an insinuation which had absolutely nothing to do with Burr’s political or professional machinations, which might lead one, were they so inclined, to challenge one to a duel.

Monday, December 26, 2016

George Michael

Since learning last night the news of George Michael's demise -- Christmas Night, of all nights -- I have been a little at sea and without knowing what to say.

Gen Xers treating the year 2016 like some kind of mummy's curse of a year due to the loss of so many popular icons need to come to grips with the fact that all their childhood heroes are going to die someday. It's called time.

My own personal feelings of grief were better described when I said it feels as though all the doors of my life are closing behind me.

But there's more to that with George Michael, because he became my personal totem, in spite of or perhaps because he was widely seen as a has-been.

"You're a joke, George!" yelled James Cordon in a very funny scene he and George Michael performed together for Comic Relief five years ago. When George was regarded as a lightweight 80s pop star, I protested without irony that I love him and I love his work as my way of keeping it real.

He has such an incredible voice. At the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in early 1992, artists like Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant and Axl Rose embarrassed themselves trying to sing the songs of Queen. Only George Michael had the range and the soul to match the powerfully angelic Freddie.

Like Freddie Mercury, George Michael's success in America was much shorter than it should have been due to lingering homophobia which, while it hasn't entirely gone away, no longer necessarily dooms one's career in the United States. First, artists simply passed as straight, but in the 1980s as many took risks walking that line of sexual ambiguity, George bravely or foolish stepped over it several times.

Halloween 1988: The year everyone dressed like George Michael.
Finally forced entirely out of the closet in the late 90s due to a charge of cottaging, the American issue of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Best of George Michael was missing an amazing duet with Mary J. Blige of Stevie Wonder's "As" -- again, who on earth could dare out-sing Stevie Wonder? -- which led to rumors at that time that Blige's management did not want her associated with this "controversial" artist. Regardless, as an original single on the collection, it should have been a hit in the United States. It went to number four in Britain,

As my feelings about homosexuality evolved, as they have for so many straight men of my generation (I have written about this) George Michael kept pushing me in the direction of acceptance and understanding.

And there is more to it than even that. The fact is, I started to love both Wham! and then his solo work after the first tremendous blush of his popularity. In 1986, I dated someone who really liked his work, and I am nothing if not an emotional chameleon who immediately conforms to the artistic and cultural interests of the women I find appealing.

So, though I knew all the Make It Big hits that inundated the airwaves and MTV during my junior and senior years, it wasn't until "The Edge of Heaven" that I began listening to George Michael, you know, without prejudice. That one is aggressively sexual, but also suggests a fatalistic view of relationships, identifying sex as the one thing that keeps some of them together (see also, that summer's Peter Gabriel single, "Sledgehammer.") Not exactly the best lesson for a callow fellow about to enter college.

Working backward, the betrayal and deception inherent in hits like "Careless Whisper" and "Last Christmas" and the child-like response to a one-night-stand described in "Nothing Looks The Same In The Light," are a template for poor interpersonal relationships. Lying awake last night, thinking of songs like those and pretty everything on the album Faith, I was struck by how easily dismissed his music, production, performance and appearance was, while his lyrics tapped into this dark and shamefully honest corner of human behavior.

My new work, The Way I Danced With You, the one I took to Alaska and was further developed at Playwrights Local, was originally titled The George Michael Play. Several of his songs get name-checked, but it is really the underlying theme of his songs themselves which provided the inspiration for the script. While I never had any illusion about sharing this script with him, it is another thing altogether to have to accept that I never can.