Friday, November 29, 2013

The Joy of Christmas

Don't smile.

People, all kinds of people, like to kvetch and moan about how much better things were in the past. Some undefined past, could mean twenty years ago, could mean fifty. But things were less troublesome, more gooder, you weren't being inconvenienced by the thought police and gas was cheaper.


Well, I don't know about all that. If you know me, you know I believe society is a continuum where fates and fortunes are rising for some and falling for others. Ask a member of the homosexual community if things are better for them now than they were fifty years ago.

One community, however, which is always being persecuted, because it is part of their charter, is the Christian community. And who can blame them, since Obama took God off our coins, and no one says the Pledge of Allegiance in our public schools anymore.


What I can say is this, The Joy of Christmas would probably not have been produced today. Fall, 1979 the choirs of Bay Presbyterian Church were asked to participate in a holiday Christmas special for WEWS (ABC) hosted by Eyewitness News anchor Ted Henry.

Anchorman 2 opens December 13.

The holiday set, with fake lampposts and artificial snow was set into one corner of a large room in the WEWS studios on Euclid Avenue. This one room also included the set for Eyewitness News in another corner, for Morning Exchange in yet another corner, with the much smaller set for the Ohio Lottery wedged between.

Mother tells me I joined the choir for that one year so I could be part of the broadcast, which I do not remember, but may be true. However, if I was hoping to "shine" on local television, that did not happen. While the producer kept asking us to put on a bright and cheery holiday smile for the camera, our choral director, Ernie Hisey, quietly warned all of us to do no such thing. The result is that I look a little pissed off.


The program was repeated a Christmas season or two, but was soon after shelved no doubt because of its strong religious content. This is a Christian celebration of Christmas, including Bible verses from the host, classical images of the birth of Christ, and a family sitting around to read the Bible to each other.

The most interesting, progressive decision was to include one African-American character as part of the pretend family sitting around the pretend living room. Who is he? Is he the father in an inter-racial family? Some guy who came by to read the Bible to everybody? As he is otherwise the only person of color in the entire program, the decision to cast him must have been the result of some intense pre-production debate around the studio.

The Mystery of Christmas

It is not true, however, that the big bad president has taken God off our money, he hasn't. It is also not true that kids no longer recite the pledge in public schools, they do, all across northeast Ohio for certain, because I see and hear them do it all the time as part of my job. The United States government, which is supposed to be religion-neutral, is not.

But a program like this may never again be created by a commercial television station, and for strictly commercial reasons. They aren't worried about offending anyone. They are worried about not pleasing everyone, which is quite different. They are worried about losing money, that same American money that still says "In God We Trust" on it.

Happy Black Friday.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Indie Theater Now


Now I am a member of Indie Theater Now! I have enjoyed saying that, as in: On the Dark Side of Twilight now available on Indie Theater Now! Now! Now! Now!

Indie Theater Now is the product of Martin Denton, whose work I first came to appreciate through his original online theater endeavor, nytheatre.com. During its 17-year stretch, nytheatre.com reviewed almost 8,000 plays including almost every single play produced at the New York International Fringe Festival. For example:


I have also enjoyed the (former) nytheatrecast podcast, which kept me abreast of the alternative theater scene in New York City. This is extremely important if you want to take yourself seriously as an under-known playwright anywhere in the world.

Now, Denton decided shortly after the close of this year's FringeNYC to cease nytheatre.com, and you can read more about why and what next in this informative HuffPo interview. Long story short, he is concentrating on his other original online resources, including Indie Theater Now -- of which I am (now) a member.

Indie Theater Now is, among other things, a database of new plays. You can access an online version of a complete text for only $1.29. A dollar twenty-nine. Seriously, for less than a cup of coffee. This is a great deal for not only producers and directors, but other playwrights, or anyone who likes to read original work.

Two of my plays are now available there, And Then You Die (How I Ran a Marathon in 26.2 Years) and On the Dark Side of Twilight. You can read reviews and other information about the production (see pictures, access online radio interviews, etc.) for free, and then begin your ITN library by purchasing a copy for your computer or reader.

You should purchase one or both of these scripts. Now.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Little Sammy Sneeze

HE JUST SIMPLY COULDN'T STOP IT
HE NEVER KNEW WHEN IT WAS COMING

http://www.talespinnerchildrenstheatre.org/performances/slumberland.htmWinsor McCay's first successful comic strip for the New York Herald was Little Sammy Sneeze. Like Slumberland's final image of Nemo waking up, the gag here was basically the same. Sammy sneezes, in doing so ruins something, and then he is beaten, kicked or otherwise driven from wherever he has caused his destruction.

Contrary to the subhead -- "he never knew when it was coming" -- he knew when it was coming for a good long while, and so does the reader, it's everyone else who is oblivious for four dialogue-stuffed panels. In one classic strip Sammy sits all alone, and when he sneezes he breaks the panel lines which crash around him. Meta McCay!

There is reference to Little Sammy in Adventures In Slumberland, which opens at Talespinner Children's Theatre this Saturday.

Talespinner Children's Theatre presents Adventures In Slumberland by David Hansen, Nov. 30 - Dec. 22, 2013.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Assessment


A great deal of 2013 has been spent either willfully not-writing, or bemoaning the fact that there is no time available to me for writing, or that the act of realizing the result of previous writing (engaged in rehearsal process, say) was justification for not writing at that time.

Writing that has come, does so in fits and starts. For two years writing meant this blog, researching Cleveland history and reporting on that. Then came the work, carving out time in the afternoon on weekends for the creation of specific projects. Staring into the screen, typing and editing. Facebook and Twittering.

Then, nothing. Not for a while. Like exercise, it takes a will. It's not that I do not like writing, I do. It is not that I do not take great joy in writing, I do. It is just tiresome procrastination, like anything that feels good while you are doing, the default pose of not comes much easier, especially when you feel "justified".

That was a long day or I deserve to veg or here is a nice drink or what are my friends up to on Facebook or I'd rather go running or there's cleaning to be done or look I have children or anything else at all.

I do not like to write at night. I cannot concentrate, I would much rather be washing dishes or folding clothes, listening to podcasts or watching TV. Writing in the morning on any given weekday just seemed pointless. There is no time to actually accomplish anything.

Then I remembered something I used to tell my wife when she was going through an extended period of not writing at all. I said, get up a half hour early, and write for a half-hour every day. She said, that's not enough, and I pointed out it would be a half-hour more than she was currently doing.

For I don't know how long I have been getting up at six. She has a new job teaching, and gets up a four quite often, and would wake me at six. Two months ago, when we moved into our new bedroom, and I got my own bedside table and lamp (this was new, our bed used to be in a corner and I got the wall) I asked her to bring me coffee at 5:30, and I would get my half-hour.

This is fair. I have been bringing her coffee every morning since 1995.

I have a steno pad and pen, and I write, longhand, whatever. It does not matter. Just words on the page. This is very hard for me, but I do it. Even if it's a paragraph or a sentence, I can just shift gears and write something else at any time, it doesn't matter. With my hand. My laptop is not allowed in the bedroom -- today is a rare exception, I was blogging last night, and here I am again.

Blogging is not to be confused with writing.

Lo and behold, I started writing a new script. I have to be sure not to make the morning writing about PRODUCING WORK, because then it would all just stop. But some paragraphs are in verse, about characters, very playful, silly writing. I typed some of it up earlier in the week, and that made me happy.

I wrote for a half-hour this morning before starting this blog post. And if the half-hour is up, and I cannot write, I have a stack of books from the library to read until my time is up. This is my current morning ritual, and it serves me very well.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Slumberland: Before Dress

Dream Master

Adventures In Slumberland opens a week from tomorrow. I had the opportunity to enjoy a run-through on Wednesday evening, the first opportunity they had to conduct one since the previous Sunday. The amount of work they had performed since my last visit, some ten days earlier, was remarkable.

Having the opportunity to share this comic strip, which had made such an impression on me and countless others, in a live stage performance, has been a, uh, well ... a dream of mine, for some time.

There have been other theatrical productions based on Little Nemo. In 2012, composer Daron Hagen and lyricist J.D. McClatchy were commissioned by the Sarasota Youth Opera to create such a work, and devised a two-hour opera, a hero's quest in which Emperor Sol seeks to destroy Slumberland by making it day all the time.

Lyrics include:
We need a world where things are different.
We need a world we can’t control, 
Where nothing is what it seems.
We need a world of dreams.
Even McCay himself produced a lavish stage production, with a cast of hundreds, of the kind only imaginable in the early 20th century opera houses or in university theater departments. My question was how could I write a script:
  • specifically for children
  • intended for a cast of half a dozen or so
  • produceable with a modest budget
  • running less than an hour
And even more important to me:
  • be always dreamlike
  • jump suddenly from place to place
  • feature a lot of characters
  • have no obviously coherent storyline
  • have always had a completely coherent storyline
  • NOT be a hero's journey
So much of what I adore about McCay's strip is that the language is completely bizarre. Maybe that was convention. Bill Watterson himself criticizes the actual writing in the strip, that the dialogue seems an after-thought. But I just find it all relevantly absurd.
NEMO: Santa Claus! What are you going to do? Where are we going? Where are your reindeer?
SANTA: Never mind, don't breathe.
Don't breathe? wtf?

I want to report here about all those items which are working so well in this expansive dream-in-miniature, but I am afraid of giving away anything. I can say this, every performer is filling his or her intended role just as I had hoped when we cast them.

Eight days now. They will be full days. Haven't even seen the costumes on them yet.

This is another dream I had.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Slumberland: Valerie gets a haircut.

 

Twice before have I had the great fortune to engage the charming and talented Valerie C. Kilmer. First, when I directed Henry VIII for Cleveland Shakes (Valerie is an accomplished speaker of verse) and this past winter in the workshop production of my play, These Are The Times at CPT.


Because Talespinner holds auditions at the end of the calendar year for its entire season (auditions for the 2014 season will be December 8 & 9) Valerie had already been cast as Little Nemo for Adventures In Slumberland when we worked together on The Times last March. Before accepting the role we asked if she were willing to cut her very long, red hair for the role and she agreed!


On Friday evening, I brought my daughter with me to rehearsal, and to take these photos. When I told her Valerie was having her hair cut right there at the theater, she thought that was odd until I explain Ali would be acting as barber, and then it made perfect sense. She knows Ali can sing, act, direct my plays, create costumes, masks and dolls, and really great hats. (Emphasis: My daughter's.)


Wow!

Annie Perusek (Princess Camille), Valerie C. Kilmer (Little Nemo) and Tim Pringpuangkeo (Flip).

I am forgetting something. Valerie and I worked together one other time -- with my daughter -- at CPT's Pandemonium in 2012, when I wrote and directed a five-minute version of Slumberland. Valerie played the Imp, and my girl was the Princess.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Slumberland: All Aboard for Dreamland


Adventures In Slumberland is the first script presented to Talespinner Children's Theatre which already included a few songs, chosen by the playwright.

All TCT productions include music and singing -- live music, produced with instruments played by the performers or using their voices. To date these songs have been discovered or created through the rehearsal process. And though I was prepared to yield to whatever fantastic and beautiful design ideas Ali and her crew would create, I wanted Slumberland to be in some way tied to the time-period of the comic strip itself.

Some of the dialogue includes period slang (though there are a few intentional anachronisms) and there is a certain turn of the 20th century "popular" music that I truly love. It's the kind of waltz-y, music box stuff you hear at the carnival, or on the Kimball organ before summer movies at the Palace.

All Aboard For Dreamland
Von Tilzer/Sterling (1904)
Performed by the "Adventures In Slumberland" company

Because this story is a dream, which takes place in a fantastic space, I was delighted to find so many Tin Pan Alley melodies of the early 20th century were themselves about remarkable places, or taking fantastic journeys in modern contraptions.

The first attempt to get Nemo to Slumberland is punctuated by a spirited rendition of All Aboard for Dreamland by Harry Von Tilzer (A Bird In a Gilded Cage) and Albert Sterling. The "Dreamland" of the song was in fact part of Coney Island, an attraction known for its wild animal acts and "freak" shows, a place where cartoonist Winsor McCay would no doubt have felt right at home, as he spent his early professional years creating posters for circuses and side shows.

Like many such travel songs (Come Take a Trip In My Airship is another, and in our performance sung by Santa Claus himself) the lyrics suggest a romantic adventure, replete with kissing and spooning and other indecent performances. I took the liberty of adapting such lines to reflect a more platonic experience, description of these intimate acts replaced with the enjoyment of candy.

Come Take a Trip in My Airship 
Ren Shields (1904)
Performed by the "Adventures In Slumberland" company

Sources
Wikipedia

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Monday, November 4, 2013

Mad Men (TV show)

These things happen.

And now a word about Mad Men. My wife and I are behind, because we must be behind, there isn't time in the day to watch TV on any regular basis (though we did begin watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a family event on Tuesdays and I am beginning to regret that) but when we have a free evening, we will catch and episode or two of what must be the best-written program I have ever enjoyed.

SPOILERS

On several occasions TV networks have tried to capture the 1960s in a bottle, through movies like The 60's (1999) or more recently the series American Dreams (2002 - 2005). From what I understand, these programs failed because the goal of these projects was to once again remind us what an amazing time the 1960s were, that there was never a period of history more important than that one, and that we must once more venture into these heady days, if only to understand, man.

They were, of course, created by Baby Boomers. Like the movie Forrest Gump, another tribute to that era which ironicly puts a moron at the center of great, historic events even though he has no idea how he got there ... like most Boomers who didn't actually do anything but just lived it and feel they earned their place in history. Like George W. Bush.

Mad Men, however, tricked everyone into thinking it was a cheeky period piece. Created by a member of Generation X (Matthew Weiner, b. 1965) he chronicles the events at a fictional advertising agency during a period before he was even born, starting in 1960. And in its way (because I know too much about what is going to happen already) this series stands out in its ability to tell the story of the times and how they were a'changin' better than anyone has for the obvious reason that he started with interesting characters, cast great if largely unknown actors, and have provided them with powerful writing.

Last night we took in the episodes The Fog and Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency back to back.

Let me start by saying my brother tipped me off, maybe a few months ago, that there will be an awful moment involving a lawnmower. And let me say that, in spite of this warning, when someone literally rides a John Deere mower into the office of Sterling Cooper, I was paying such deep attention to all the details of every storyline, that it didn't even occur to me that I was looking at a lawnmower and that something terrible was about to happen.

Back up. So Don's wife Betty (January Jones) is having their third child. Watching childbirth on TV, anything to do with it, always presents an ick factor for me. Because I know what it is to be afraid, every single time. Sometimes they die, these things happen. But not on TV. Even the episode of Six Feet Under, a TV show about death, gave one of the main characters a preeclampsia scare which concluded with a healthy baby and mother. These things happen, except not on TV.

Well, there was that one episode of E.R. I watched, the only episode of E.R. I ever watched, where Doctor Mark Green misses the signs, but even in that one the mother dies, not the baby. Never the baby.

Actor Matt Bushell has a featured role as a prison guard who is expecting his first child and shares the waiting room with Don (John Hamm).  The wife and I were marveling afterwards at what totally amazing scenes they shared together. Bushnell had this incredible, fully-formed character for these few scenes, going emotionally toe-to-toe with John Hamm, it's just another example of what great writing and acting and directing has the potential to be. The guard's anxiety and fear about losing his wife (who is having a very difficult labor, it is a breech birth) and what might happen if he needs to raise a child on his own are palpable and real. His euphoria at the news of the birth of his first child, a son, are beautiful.

After Don's child is born, he visits Betty in the hospital with flowers. He passes the guard pushing his wife down the hall in a wheelchair, Don smiles brightly, the guard looks blank, catches Don's eye, a smile of recognition flickers but then he looks down and away. Cut to Don, who appears confused.

It's such a brief moment. It's never referred to again. These things happen. Who caught that?

Episode reviews:
TIME: Like many of you, I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of the shamed look Dennis [the guard] seemed to give Don when he ran into him in the hallway. But I wonder if it goes back to his pledge that having the baby would make him “a better man,” and realizing now that it was just nerves and the Johnnie Walker talking.

The A.V. Club: And what does the later scene when the two men pass each other in the hall mean? Dennis can’t acknowledge Don. Is he a reminder of a promise already broken?

The Guardian: When Dennis ignores him later on, you almost wonder if their exchange really happened.
Most reviews I found do not even mention this moment. They were all so preoccupied with the guard, with Don, and with Don's issues, no one notices what is so terribly obvious.

The guard, his wife. There is no baby.

As for Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency - one of the most (literally) painful puns in the history of television - I can hardly share the pertinent details. Suffice to say I woke several times in the middle of the night, rubbing my feet together like a neurotic grasshopper.

What is shocking to me is that this program, Mad Men, which received a great deal of attention at the outset because it featured smoking and drinking and wild office parties, and presented this kind of nostalgia for the good old days when men were men and women were women and no one sued you for being an asshole in the workplace, evolved slowly (but not that slowly) into a rumination on the fragility of human existence.

Even in the midst of an ordinary day, you can die. Someone you love might die. A complete stranger can be horribly maimed, right in front of you. You can put your love hope and trust into another person who will hurt you. You can be vaulted from joy to the deepest sorrow, in a moment, just by moving through the ordinary pathways of life.

I have watched in horror as my wife split her brow, my son's skull was fractured, my daughter's forehead gashed, and I have held a dead baby. Ordinary life fucking scares me.

If moments like the lawnmower incident were commonplace in the storyline, the show would be grotesque. Seeming as it so totally random (except, come on people, don't drink and mow) is to me just one more reminder that these things happen, all the time, and we must be careful.

Originally posted on Daddy Runs Fast.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Slumberland: Rehearsal Process

  • en·sem·ble n. 1. A unit or group of complementary parts that contribute to a single effect.
I was once an actor for an amateur Shakespearean repertory company. It wasn't a repertory company, per se -- there were virtually no actors playing in both productions, but the shows were going to be performed in repertory, if you follow me. 

First night of rehearsal both companies came together for pretty much the only time, to meet and greet. The director of our production made his remarks, stating that he wanted this production to be different, that this would be a true "ensemble" of performers, working together to create this momentous work.

The other director began his remarks by announcing that unlike his colleague director's "ensemble" approach, he fully intended his production to consist of a company of insufferable divas.

Funny is funny, but point taken, and I have been careful not to casually throw the word ensemble around ever since. All acting companies can be called an ensemble, but what, as a director, do you mean when you claim some kind of unique intention to create one?

Nemo and Flip

What we create as playwrights for Talespinner is what Ali calls a guide script. I entered into this process with the complete understanding that what I wrote could be used in any manner she saw fit. This was actually very liberating in writing it. A playwright shouldn't worry very much as to the practicality of what they are writing (one of my favorite playwrights included a stage direction stated flatly that a woman pour the color blue out her shoe) but in this case I worried even less. Whatever I wanted to have happen, happens, and let Ali figure it out.

However, the extent to which she allows -- encourages -- her acting company to participate in the decision-making process is ego-shatteringly breathtaking. The first rehearsal following the first read-through, every company member (not just the actors) were expected to give a brief presentation of what they wanted. Everything was on the table, how would they produce this play, what did they want to see? She reserves the right to say no, of course. More often, however, I hear the word yes.


Come take a trip in my airship!

This kind of free-agency on the part of an actor is presumably what most actors want. One or two rehearsal reports have included the news that a line or two has been cut. I have not been asked whether or not this is okay, but I can tell you that it is, because I agreed that it would be.

Check the ADVENTURES IN SLUMBERLAND Facebook invitation.