Thursday, October 29, 2015

I Hate This @ Hartwick College

Last February I received a polite request from a theater arts student about the possibility of acquiring rights to perform my autobiographic monodrama I Hate This (a play without the baby).

From time to time I have received requests from high school teachers for permission to perform selected monologues from this play for dramatic competition. Even though I normally grant permission to do this I have never received word as to whether any student actually chose to use my work, in spite of my requesting to know if the work is ever actually performed. This does not surprise me. When I was in high school, I do not think this play would interest me very much, either.

And so I was intrigued when the college student in question, one Brian Cook from Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, responded when I asked that he was considering this script for his senior thesis after first finding it on Wikipedia, and then doing a bit more online research about the play before asking to read the play.

In other words, he knew what he was getting into before contacting me. Brian knew he was proposing to perform someone else's personal account of losing their first child. He was proposing that to me, he was proposing it to his advisors.

Still, I was curious. The protagonist of this work is 35 year-old man, married and somewhat settled, the story dealing with issues that I personally neither knew nor cared about when I was twenty-two. When I asked him about it, he reflected his own disinterest in most other pieces he found and considered, finding them either "too distant" or "not related" to either himself or his intended audience, or that they were simply "comedic revues."

The pitch that clinched it for me was when he said, "I remember reading that this project came to life through your journaling, right?" He then shared his design concept which involves words and paper, lots of paper. I loved it, it just sounded right.

Brian states in his bio that though he started with an emphasis in acting, through his time at Hartwick he has developed a deep passion for design, and he will be designing, performing in and directing the play.

When I asked him what if anything he has learned since his work on the production began, he used the word hope, and that sits well with me. So many ask those of us who have lost children if we're over it, if we are past our grief, if we have achieved closure. We hate this way of thinking (see: title of play) because no, we aren't. We don't, we haven't. That's not the way it works.

But hope ... hope is about the future. Hope is about moving forward, which is something we must do. Brian himself puts this very well in his director's note for the production:
This play is about a man who lost a son he would never know, but it is so much more. It is about everyone who ever lost someone, who ever wondered who or what they were, everyone who ever thought life just couldn’t get better. This play is here to reassure us all, “Yes, yes it does.”
Hartwick College presents "I Hate This (a play without the baby)" performed, designed and directed by Brian C. Cook, November 5 - 8, 2015

Monday, October 26, 2015

Everything I Never Told You (book)

Brief, solitary air travel lends me the opportunity to consume books with great speed, which can be greatly disorienting as one novel can color an entire journey. As I was preparing to travel to St. Paul for the Twin Cities Marathon, I noticed to my surprise a copy of Celeste Ng's debut novel, Everything I Never Told You sitting on my wife's bookshelf.

I was surprised because I had just been thinking of that book. I was thinking of that book because I had recently heard Celeste interviewed by Dee Perry on Sound of Applause. When I heard her interview on Sound of Applause I wondered why her name was so familiar.

It didn't take long before I remembered she had written an award-winning play for Marilyn Bianchi's Kids' Playwriting Festival, and that I had directed that play.

This is why I wanted to read her book, and between flights and trying to calm my mind before the race at bedtime, completed the entire work over the weekend. It left me shaken and sad, but also gave me a great deal of clarity and focus.

"Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet."

The first two sentences of the book filled me with a morbid, horrible curiosity. I have a niece named Lydia, but I have to be honest and state that didn't have anything to do with it. While I was in St. Paul, I told my wife about the book and that it was worming through my thoughts in advance of the race and that I was even afraid to continue and she suggested I put the book down for a while but I insisted I needed to know how it ends.

This is the thing. Perhaps you have noticed that I do not actually post private information on either this or my running blog. There is personal, and there is private. Arguments happen in my house with great shouting, and if you are standing outside you may hear them, but I won't share the details here.

It is enough to state that I have a daughter - have while she is mine - age twelve going on thirteen and while I cannot impart any intention on mine or my wife's part to impress upon our daughter the need to succeed, speaking only for myself I have presented a model for anxiety and concern for my own efforts in the public arena which may in part explain (other than impending adolescence) an overwhelming preoccupation with achievement coupled with almost absolute inability to enjoy what success she achieves. This last is certainly a fault she has acquired from both of us.

Celeste's book includes layers of difficulty for its family of protagonists with which I and my family do not need to cope, external pressures to succeed in matters personal as well as professional, many of which arise from issues of race ... but also gender, and that does affect us very much.

Details in the family dynamic, between father and son and also between mother and daughter, do not (necessarily) parallel ours, though I can see clearly the judgment between the males and the yearning between the females and that is not unfamiliar. Celeste's parental characters rise above the portrayal of many parents in YA novels, for example, in that we receive a complete back story in which we root for their success before receiving them as the parents who so entirely misunderstand their teenage children. Even in this, we understand them.

My wife and I do not shape our children to be what we wish them to be. We follow their lead, as best we can, with support and encouragement, and try very hard not to judge. And that is hard.

But how much of my daughter's perfection anxiety is based on her understanding that in order to move forward, to go to the places she yearns to go, to be the person she most wants to be, she must accomplish more than we have done.

+ + +

For three years I managed Dobama's Night Kitchen and my final production (as artistic director) was what we called Marilyn's Festival: In The Night Kitchen.

This annual performance of award-winning, children-written plays did not include all of the winning plays, only about half of them to create a two-hour, two-act event. Most of those chosen for performance were the fanciful elementary or middle school plays. with one high school play (often fifteen minutes long) plunked into the middle of the second act, like a brooding, unhappy teenager at a six year old's bouncy house birthday party.

In honor of the 20th festival in 1998, we would produced an hour's worth of high school written plays as a separate production.

In my notes from the selection process I called Shaker High senior Celeste Ng's short play The Fishbowl "very funny and insightful" with a strong message, and gave it my highest rating.

The premise of The Fishbowl is of a man in a psychiatric hospital who insists on using certain familiar words in place of other familiar words. For example, he consistently refers to his room as a fishbowl. Two doctors debate whether he requires either medication or understanding.

In its basic debate between two doctors who have two very different ideas over treatment of a patient who may or may not be delusional it reminds me of the play Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall, only that play debuted in 2000. Celeste wrote The Fishbowl two years earlier.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Assessment

Perhaps this is a bit premature, but I am on an upswing and have no idea how long it will last. In my most recent assessment, I reflected on stagnancy and a general feeling of malaise. Writing was not happening. In fact, it continued not to happen for some time, as I was locked in my head over the Christie piece, unable to freely enjoy anything until that was sorted.

Tiresias Riddles the Fate
However, since that time I have written two brief pieces for performance. Cleveland Public Theatre's annual Pandemonium benefit was held on Saturday, September 12. My fifteen-minute play Tiresias Riddles The Fates was performed twice in one of the outdoor yurts and though it rained all evening crowds made their way across the sodden parking lot to join us.

The theme for the evening was "transform" and so I was inspired to call upon one of the oldest known transgendered characters in literature. And the Fates? Because women. My daughter encouraged me to create something for the event and I thought if I roped her and one of her friends into it I might actually come up with something fun. Two actor-teachers rounded out the cast.

The CPH Centennial Plays
The other short play, On the Beam, was written as part of the centennial celebration to be thrown next weekend in honor of the Cleveland Play House 100th Season. The Playwrights' Unit was asked to write short plays that tell the history of CPH in 60 minutes. Writing a short piece about the first Cleveland production of The Crucible was stepping into warm and familiar territory, and I was very happy to offer my contribution.

Performances of The CPH Centennial Plays will be in the Helen Theatre at Playhouse Square next Saturday, October 24 at 12:15 PM and again at 4:15 PM. Admission is free, though they are asking that people make a reservation. It's going to be a big, day-long party with events happening all around the Play House complex.

Not sure which performance of the Centennial Plays I will make, but I do know I will be performing in White Rabbit Red Rabbit at Cleveland Public Theatre that same night, Oct. 24 at 7:00 PM in the Parish Hall on the CPT campus.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit
I can't tell you anything about WRRR because I do not know anything about WRRR. It is a play an actor can only perform once, because they are expected not to know anything about it.

I will show up that Saturday night, they will hand me the script, and I will walk out on stage (will I be walking onto a stage?) to perform a play I have not read for an audience. As the play opened last weekend, and folks have been encouraged to see it more than once, it is very possible the audience I will be performing for will now much more about the play than I do, which is nothing.

This evening we had an impromptu reading of a work I wrote last Spring and only recently came back to, what I affectionately refer to as The George Michael Play. It is not my custom to hold a play reading in a bar but I did want to thank the people at Parnell's on Playhouse Square for letting us use the upstairs room this evening.

The George Michael Play
It's a dicey piece of work, but I had two splendid readers, and Khaki, as well as a room of actor-teachers to witness. It has been some time since I made up something entirely original, so many recent works have been adaptations or parodies or sequels or prequels, to create something to entirely me, well it has been a while.

There is also a great deal of work to see or things to do these days, we will be attending the Talespinner Halequinade benefit tomorrow evening, King Lear at Great Lakes later this week, the Play House production of The Crucible the week after that.

I Hate This
Most unusual of all, however, is a production of I Hate This the first weekend of November at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. Brian Cook will be designing, directing and performing this very personal play of mine for his senior thesis. How he came to choose this monodrama, from all those available, is a question I must ask him some day soon. For the time being it is enough to say that his thoughts on the script, and his preliminary concepts for design were enough to satisfy and I have otherwise had no input into the project.

The idea that this particular piece, this most personal stories, could have a life separate from my body, from my own mouth, is in a word reassuring. That I was able to put down the words, that the words alone tell the story, and that they may safely be interpreted by another independent from any additional contributions from me.

I ran a marathon a few weeks ago, the Twin Cities Marathon. Yes, I have been writing, but so much time was spent occupied by that intense, physical pursuit. And I did well. Now, on the other side, I am overwhelmed by all this work; home work, work work, and the writing work. I haven't had a run in almost a week, and I do not like to think that I have to choose between writing and running. Perhaps this time I might be able to keep body and mind together.