Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The New Normal

Home tree.
Yesterday morning, I think it was yesterday, I was sitting on the couch in my home, in my bathrobe, in front of the fire. It was five-thirty in the morning, the tree was lit, also the faux-antique bulbs surrounding my wife’s collection of nutcrackers on the mantle.

I was drinking good coffee from a ceramic mug, writing pad in my lap. The children still asleep, not to wake for an hour before rising and getting ready for me to drive them to school. It was a familiar atmosphere, to time I create for myself to sit and think and write.

And it felt like a dream. This was the fantasy, the peace, the comfort, the home-ness of it all. The normalcy. It wasn’t normal.

Because normal, these nights, is lying on an uncomfortable hospital recliner. Mornings are spent in half-darkness, with not-great coffee in a foam cup, writing for a few moments before being interrupted by a nurse, another doctor, or having to go to my mother to get her to stop pedaling her leg in bed, anxiously kneading at the sheets, to encourage her to breathe, relax, and go back to sleep.

Sunday night my wife took the shift for me, affording me a night at home. And so I had a morning to myself. And it felt surreal. And wrong.

As I type, I am seated at a hospital-issue table trying to piece together thoughts as mom dozes in and out of afternoon rest. She may suddenly decide she needs to sit up and go someplace, though not being able to successfully negotiate bipedal locomotion is what got us into this place.

The wife passed off a flask as I checked in last night, I am day drinking bourbon and Cherry Coke Zero. Not my favorite cocktail but I am glad for the comfort and joy.

Atrium tree.
Speaking of the holidays, this afternoon, a table for one at Deagan's. After days of fast food I desperately wanted lettuce and so enjoyed a Caesar Salad ... and a holiday ale and peach cheesecake. I am eating my Christmas. I am drinking my Christmas.

Mom’s frustrated. Confined to an uncomfortable bed, fretting all the tasks which are beyond her present capability, bored with the selection of room service we have already exhausted. And she cannot adequately express what she thinks, and she knows it.

The laughs are further between. There are few reasons for a smile. It gets quieter and quieter.

We await the results of a test. It’s not a pass/fail test. The days are tedious and trying. I am grateful that she has a partner who loves her and joins us and affords me the chance to slip away and take a shower and a nap and return to the room where nothing ever happens.

Tonight will again be restless. Tomorrow evening my wife will return to take a shift. Thursday morning I will rise from my own bed, put on my robe and sit before the fire with my coffee. And it will feel wrong.

The short play "Magic" is available for reading at New Play Exchange.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Lestrade's Lads

Steve Lewis (left) and Henrik Hansen
This photo was staged.
(Chronicle-Telegram)
When my brother was in middle school, he and eight of his colleagues formed a local chapter of the Baker Street Irregulars. Theirs was an officially recognized “scion society” of BSI, an international organization of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts that has in its time included such notable members as Harry Truman, Neil Gaiman and Curtis “Booger” Armstrong.

This youthful Bay Village society called itself Lestrade's Lads, after the Scotland Yard inspector who often took credit for Holmes's achievements.

The BSI celebrates the birthday of “the Master” each January 6 with a gala in New York City. In 1978 the Lads were in eighth grade, and they were content to sit together at our house, listening to vinyl records of 1940s radio adaptations starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, sharing trivia, and hoping Big Chuck and Lil’ John might play one of the films.

One of the more notable things about members of the BSI is their engagement in the game, or the belief that Holmes and Watson were not fictitious and that Arthur Conan Doyle was merely a literary agent for Dr. Watson. The “fun” part of this game is creating a realistic timeline and character biographies from Doyle’s fifty-six short stories and four canonical Holmes novels which can be wildly contradictory.

These mental exercises are beyond my ken, as I have never been a great follower of the character of Sherlock Holmes in any medium, beyond the recent incarnation as performed by Benedict Cumberbatch. Even then I only watched two seasons.

But having been assigned the responsibility of writing a new mystery for the character, I did not wish to stumble blindly into a chronology so richly mined. I hoped to create a pastiche, and not merely fanfic. A possible, brief adventure that could fit into the established narrative, and because I wanted him to have a young female companion, I needed Watson to be absent.

In 1962, William S. Baring-Gould published what has come to be regarded as the definitive “biography” of the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. He writes:
Watson, in the winter of 1900-01 and the following spring, was much too busy writing his narrative of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" to share many cases with Holmes, but his narrative was in the hands of the publishers by May of 1901, and he was able to take part in a case destined to become a classic in the annals of criminology -- that of the Priory School.
And so, the adventure of Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street takes place over the course of a couple of days in early spring, 1901. For good measure, I even sent Watson out of the country for a fortnight on a family matter.

Each of my brothers were in town for Thanksgiving. Henrik, a life-long Anglophile, has been living in England for over a quarter-century. Shortly before he departed this afternoon, we went through the few childhood belongings that remain in the attic of my mother’s home.

These include a massive, two-volume set The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, The Sherlock Holmes Scrapbook, magazines, photographs, paperbacks, and newspaper clippings, and the three-album set of radio dramas Lestrade’s Lads listened to more than forty years ago.


To be continued.

Sources:
Bay’s Baker Street Irregulars: Sherlock Holmes ‘never said all that’ by Cynthia Roberts, The Chronicle Telegram (1/1/1978)
The Baker Street Journal: An Index to an Irregular Quarterly of Sherlockiana (Vol. 20:1 - Vol. 43:4)
Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, A Life of the World’s First Consulting Detective by William S. Baring-Gould (Bramhall House, 1962)

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Assessment


Last Tuesday I sat in the window at Appletree Books, writing new monologues for The Witches. We’d had a reading the night before, of the first fifty-five pages, It went well, people laughed. They cared about what was happening. That was a good sign.

The main characters are three women who work in a roadside attraction, and their ages are relevant to the story. One Millennial, one Gen X, one Boomer. After the reading, one had questions about Morgan, the one in her forties, the overlooked middle child of the trio. She’s overshadowed by the other two, which is, of course, the point.

But we’re not done with the story yet, and so I sat in the window on Cedar Road the next night, writing two monologues for that performer, who plays Morgan and also the enslaved woman from 1692, Ruina. She figures into the opening play-within-the-play in which she accuses Goodwife Miller of being a witch.

It’s an original story culled from so many sources in my head, I am piecing it together carefully. Not too absurd, not too real. I don’t know why I am sharing all of this today, except to wave frantically saying hello, still here. The work is happening.

It’s the kind of inner-monologue I normally would share on my running blog, but since the marathon I haven’t been too interested in running.

This week, this Thanksgiving week, there are many and wonderful things to accomplish and experience. Tomorrow I will be meeting a middle school aged intern at a CMSD school to introduce her to a team of actor-teachers so that she may shadow them for the day before I head off to visit other teams at other Cleveland city schools.

We will discuss your affairs this very
afternoon over a bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!
We’re also having our annual pre-holiday potluck in the office, for which I will once again be providing the Smoking Bishop. As we speak, baked and spiced citrus is soaking in wine and sugar. If I still have my legs tomorrow afternoon, I will be editing prize-winning short stories written by CMSD students for broadcast on the radio in mid-December.

Tuesday is the first of two student matinees of Great Lakes Theater's A Christmas Carol to celebrate the writers of these stories. It’s always a thrill to kick off the holidays in this manner, but it takes a great deal of preparation and occupies my thoughts for most of November.

At the same time, both of my brothers and their families are coming to town for Thanksgiving, which is also a reason for celebration but with it comes all the attendant plotting and planning.

This in addition to all of the holiday planning for my own, nuclear family. We have our personal traditions and as long as the children live in our house we will honor and keep them.

As you can see, much is happening. I wouldn’t have it any other way,

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Top Best Blog Posts of the 2010s

Self (2010)
I do not recall celebrating the end of the first decade of this century, we just kept calm and carried on. Today, however, there are all kinds of folks asking, "How did you spend the past ten years?"

Ye, gods. I shudder to think. That would be called my 40s, and they flew by. What on earth did I do with them? I don’t feel like I’m any different, anywhere different than I was in 2009.

But the end of that year was when I was awarded a Creative Workforce Fellowship, which was an important step in my journey as a professional playwright
My primary goal in having received the fellowship was to write a play inspired by the events of 1936, and to that end I began this blog, Cleveland Centennial. Most of 2010 was spent chronicling my research, then this blog became a general repository for my thoughts and experiences regarding playwriting and theater.

Reviewing over one thousand unique entries, and in chronological order, here are my Ten Best Blog Posts of the 2010s.

My Last Harvey Pekar Story (7/12/2010)
The day my five year-old son taught me how to mourn.

The Hobbit (12/11/2011)
Researching the events of World War One led to reconsideration of a book I thought I knew.

On the Scary (10/4/2012)
A winding discourse on what scares us, and how the worst monsters are real.

Before Sunrise, Before Sunset (9/18/2013)
Experiencing the first two installments of Linklater’s trilogy inspired a new work.

Guardians of the Galaxy (8/10/2014)
Our doomed desire to pass deeply felt emotions onto others through our favorite tunes.

Brian Chandler Cook performs "I Hate This" (9/9/2015)
Witnessing the transference of your story to another.

Theater of War (1/9/2016)
My job, in a nutshell, and the last book I ever loaned my father.

Objectively/Reasonable (3/7/2017)
The Cold Civil War begins, and everyone is forced to choose a side.

Single White Fringe Geek (10/8/2018)
The single most helpful review I ever received was negative.

My Own Private Dramaturge (6/8/2019)
How we carry the wisdom of our fathers, sometimes literally.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Writer in the Window (2019)

Four years running, I have participated in the "Writers In the Window" event at Appletree Books.

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.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Name of the Game (song)

The Name of the Game was released in October, 1977. The first single from the ABBA album ABBA: The Album, it reached number 12 in the United States, and (I was unaware of this until I read the Wikipedia entry) the distinctive bass line was inspired by Stevie Wonder’s I Wish.

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 case
No-one ever could reach me
But I think I can see in your face
There's a lot you can teach me
In 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?

The second verse, however, makes her sound almost pathetic, as though she thinks of herself as some kind of social outcast.
I have no friends, no-one to see
And I am never invited
Now I am here, talking to you
No wonder I get excited
Because 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.

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 (1989)

"Balm In Gilead" by Lanford Wilson, directed by Dennis L. Dalen
(Ohio University School of Theatre, 1989)
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?

- Jeremiah 8:22

“‘Disintegration’ is the best album ever!”
- Kyle Broflovski, South Park
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.

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)
All my best friends, my contemporaries, were in this production (except Jules, who was across the alley, performing in Hurlyburly) and we all underwent a deep, focused investigation of the world of heroine users, expending the kind of time on research that was so plentiful at school, even if we were unaware of it.

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.

Larry was a 70s street hustler, with picked out Afro, Pete a Miami Vice styled wannabe kingpin in a blazer and T-shirt. Ricky in all-white disco attire, Susan a 60s flower-child, Lisa a hard-boiled 1950s waitress with small apron and snood.

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
“Not for David,” said one of the second-years. giving me the side-eye. “He never gets any notes.”

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.