Tuesday, July 10, 2018

This American Life (radio)

Radio: An Illustrated Guide
(I own this comic book.)
Recently we had occasion to dig out our old copy of Trivial Pursuit: 90s Time Capsule Edition. The tagline is, “from the most trivial of decades.” Even today, that seems a most accurate description. You can get in trouble painting an entire decade (or an entire generation) with so broad a brush. But historically speaking, we were complacent.

In 1995, when I was creating theater pieces about Gen X nostalgia and long-form improv-inspired by nascent reality TV, NPR reporter and producer Ira Glass introduced This American Life.

Its mission, ostensibly, was to report on life in these United States. Not the famous, or the necessarily newsworthy, but life as it is lived in the corners and in the fringes. I loved it almost immediately, if only because these brief radio diaries were about things I was interested in. Conventions, summer camp, 24-hour diners, Canadians, and terrible sex.

Glass quickly developed a stable of reliable writers he would turn to with some regularity, whose work I greatly enjoyed; David Rakoff, Scott Carrier, Tobias Wolff, Dan Savage, Sarah Vowell, and David Sedaris. You notice that even in this sampling, which I thought up off the top of my head, almost all are men. All were white.

By the late 1990s I was consuming episodes voraciously, even using primitive methods of “downloading.” Due to issues of copyright, TAL came to the podcast game rather late, but early on you could stream the program with players like RealAudio, and I hooked a cassette machine to my computer to record episodes in real time for playback anywhere in house or car at my convenience.

The most compelling to me were the truly moving ones, most notably Last Words, an extended rumination on death. This episode sends chills down my spine through the music alone, prompting me to buy CDs from Bill Frisell, Philip Glass, and to put Brian Eno’s Music For Airports back into personal rotation. It was here I first heard the quote attributed to Yahuda HaLevi, “It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.”

A moving sentiment, it has what the kids today refer to as “all the feels.” I did not yet comprehend what that phrase means, though. These weekly journeys into dark corners America were, shall we say, an in vitro experience. I was thirty. I was a slacker. I didn't know much.

On one episode in the mid-2000s, Ira related the moment he was watching The O.C. when two of the characters name-check his show. They’re on the phone and one says he’s listening to This American Life, and the other says, “Is that that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are? Ecch. God.”

However, by that point, things had already begun to evolve for the program. The events of 9/11 was a challenge the team met with surprising speed, depth, and clarity. The last program in August, 2001 was about basketball tricks and professional gambling. By September 14, they had assembled a collection of stories they already had in the can on personal loss; co-writing your father’s obituary with your not-yet-deceased father, and David Sedaris writing about his mother’s death.

By the following week they were able to break open tales of how communities experience and cope with (or do not) monumental tragedy and grief with the brilliant episode Before and After. David Rakoff recounts the historic destruction of the steamship General Slocum, which devastated nearly every family in an entire New York neighborhood, and Haruki Murakami reporting first-person accounts of the 1995 poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

In telling smaller stories around a subject, and not necessarily about the big story at hand, the producers of This American Life have been able to effectively, and in recent years with more urgency, comment upon recent events. The war years (which have not actually ended) pushed the program out of its comfort zone, and TAL’s definition of what constituted a story about “American life” broadened considerably. We were taken to Afghanistan and Iraq and Kuwait and Guantanamo Bay.

Your host.
I mentioned the prominence of male writers and voices on the program, though even from the beginning there were women producers, writers and reporters like Nancy Updike, Alix Spiegel, Julie Snyder, and later Sarah Koenig (of Serial fame, a TAL spin-off) have played a prominent role. But if you tried to articulate any bias, or particular point of view for the program, it would be that squishy, liberal, can’t-we-all-get-along vibe. Homosexuality was always presented as matter-of-fact (though predominantly male-centric homosexuality) and racism, for example, is presumed to be a bad thing.

For example, in Be Careful Who You Pretend To Be we hear the story of Ron Copeland, who plays a “slave owner” as part of an interactive, historical reenactment. He thinks of himself as a good person, certainly not racist, and it begins to tear at his soul when he has to behave as one for the purposes of education and entertainment. It is an affecting piece. You feel bad for him, the white guy.

In light of recent national events, however, the show has started to lean with greater strength into uncomfortable modern issues … and Ira Glass, the omnipotent, white, cis-male narrator has noticeably begun to lean back. Two remarkable episodes from the past twelve months illustrate issues in American society which have deep roots, but have been brought into sharp relief during the time of the Trump Administration. And in each case, Glass has taken the once rare and now more frequent opportunity to hand over responsibility to another, one more familiar with and a true representative of the subject matter.

Last summer We Are in the Future, hosted by TAL producer Neil Drumming, who is African-American, delved into the subject of Afrofuturism. For the uninitiated, one of the most powerful recent examples of Afrofuturism is the movie Black Panther, and particularly the fictional nation of Wakanda. What would the present be like if white colonials had not ravaged the continent of Africa in the past? But that is merely one way to describe the aesthetic.

FTL, Y'all!:
Tales From the Age of the $200 Warp Drive

Cover art by Paul Davey
One of the stories reflects that episode from almost twenty years ago, about the white historical reenactor who played a slave-owner. In this case, however, it is comedian and actor Azie Dungey recounting her time playing the part of an enslaved person at Mount Vernon. Playing the part of one of those whom our first President claimed to own as property, she was exposed to the mental and emotional abuse of white visitors and co-workers who unintentionally or not saw her as what she was performing -- a servant, an object, an other -- which begs the question; is that not already what happens every day in America?

This past spring, the episode Five Women, hosted by producer Chana Joffe-Walt (a female-American) told a story about one empowered man -- a so-called progressive, liberal man, by the way -- and the manipulative effect he had on five women he worked with, was romantically involved with, or in several of these cases, both. The President of the United States is an unapologetic serial harasser, who only this week mocked the #MeToo movement, but the outrageousness of his sins have served to created not merely a conversation, but a revolution is the way we consider inappropriate and/or inexcusable behavior across the society.

The past year and a half we have seen historically marginalized people’s rights and liberties threatened, at the same time witnessed as they have used their voices in new, exciting, insightful, and powerful ways. And while This American Life was never meant to be at the forefront of fierce social debate, I am glad that this program, which originally focused on stories most trivial, has evolved to reflect the current moment in a manner most relevant.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

One From the Heart (album)

“I should go out and honk the horn,
It’s Independence Day.
Instead I just pour myself a drink.”
- This One’s From the Heart, Tom Waits & Crystal Gayle
Twenty-five years ago and shortly after I got married (the first time) I craft myself a mixtape. I do not need to explain what a mixtape is, Nick Hornby did so most eloquently in High Fidelity. Needless to say, there are the tapes you made for yourself, and those you made for others. This one was for me.

Mixtapes took time in a way playlists do not, because they needed to be edited in real time. You had to play the song all the way through to get it on tape. You had to listen to it that way, too. There was also a mystery to the duration of the side, and how many songs you could get on it … unless your new bride was a programmer and made you a special time calculator, which she was and she had.

My urge for this particular mixtape was to create a melancholy mix of every song that hurt. If it was not a song which in the playing humiliated me, and deeply, then it had no place on the cassette. The cover art is made of lines of handwriting, photocopied from some of the most painful letters I had ever received from lovers or friends. The tape was titled, “pathetic.

I made this tape for myself in January 1993. I had been married for less than two months.
“I can’t tell, is that a siren or a saxophone?”
- This One’s From the Heart, Tom Waits & Crystal Gayle
July 4, 1981. Not yet thirteen, crazy about girls since I was at least ten, at the annual Independence Day carnival celebration in my hometown I made a connection with the one who would soon become my first true girlfriend. Soon, but not yet.

Emboldened by my first kiss, I spent the summer flirting with other girls, too. I decided I wasn’t exactly the creep I always thought I was, and it was a new world, writing letters, straining to express desire and interest without knowing the words.

I had my own soundtrack then, too. A cassette of singles I had purchased over the months from Kmart. They were the songs of the corporate radio machine, so even though my memory of the summer of ‘81 includes masculine pop classics like Hall & Oates “You Make My Dreams” and “Jessie’s Girl” the tunes on my playlist were prefab nonsense like “Hooked On Classics” and “Stars on 45.”

As with so many things, I was never very good at knowing exactly what good taste in music was. This was always something I relied on girls to teach me.
"Don't sit home and cry
On the Fourth of July."
- Little Boy Blue, Tom Waits
One woman I knew had a term for when you tell a story so many times you put yourself into the story and believe that you had actually been there; she called it an “in vitro experience.” And so it is with the music that means so much to the people that I get close to, and my love for them imprints this music on my heart so deeply that even when they are gone, and my connection between them and the music in question has faded deeply into the background, my own affection for the music remains as though I had discovered it myself.

First she played me “Nothing Looks the Same in the Light.” Later, she taught me what it means.

He played the soundtrack to The Moderns so often, I had created an entire screenplay in my head years before I had ever seen it. My version was darker.

Then there was the one with whom I often shred a bed, but no kisses. At bedtime, they would often play One From the Heart, a collection of songs by Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle written for a film by Francis Ford Coppola. It was in joining them in this practice (more than once) that this entire record became one I still need to listen to all the way through, that it doesn’t even exist to me as individual songs, only endless night whispers and thwarted fumbling.

Never seen the movie. Most people haven't.

Sometimes I feel as though I have absolutely no personality of my own, that I am merely a hollow vessel, devoid of spirit, emotion, or understanding, filled to overflowing with the memories, thoughts, ideas and passions of others. My great hope is that my interpretation and redirection of all of these compelling and competing narratives has somehow held within them any spark of originality.

Happy Independence Day.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Troilus & Cressida (performance)

Cressida (Hannah Woodside)
Alex Belisle Photography

From Facebook, 6/23/2018
A five year-old child, the daughter of local high school teacher, saw the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival production of Troilus & Cressida at the Grove Amphitheater in Mayfield Village, and observed that the Greeks were the dominant force, that they are the oppressors. Or as she calls them, “bullies” (see right). Indeed, the Greeks are the invading force, having attacked Troy for the return of the legendary Helen … though that is not evident in our production.

There is in this production no apparent reason for the war. No Helen, no Menelaus. Paris is present, but as an older, career military officer (Leonard Goff) lending gravitas and history to the proceedings. The Greeks, costumed here to resemble Americans, are the apparent dominant force, seeking to occupy Troy.

After years of conflict, however, the battle has drawn to a stalemate. Ulysses (Minor Cline) perceives a lethargy which has settled into the Grecian troops. They observe, “Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.” It is a common American lament.

But what makes them bullies? The young audience member was no doubt affected by the manner in which Cressida (Hannah Woodside) resembling in her garments a non-Western woman, is passed around by the soldiers when she arrives in the Greek camp, having been traded for a Trojan soldier at the request of her father, the Trojan traitor Calchas (Calchas does not appear) who works with the Greeks.

"I'll have my kiss."
Patroclus (Shaun Dillon) & Cressida (Hannah Woodside)
Alex Belisle Photography
Other productions attack this scene quite aggressively. It’s practically a rape scene. The CSF performs in public parks, and while I knew that presenting Troilus & Cressida might not be the most family-friendly of stories, we didn’t want to horrify those who brought young children to see some free, outdoor Shakespeare. Children are also not the only people who can become distressed by the sight of sexual violence. If only more people were, perhaps this world would be a better place.

And besides, the very suggestion of an unwanted advance is something more people these days find uncomfortable to witness.

Yet, it was not my intention to make the Greeks "bad guys." Ironically, Cressida herself is supposed to be the bad guy. Shakespeare’s audience were as familiar with Chaucer’s version of Troilus and Criseyde as we are with Shakespeare’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Troilus is a model of fealty, and Cressida of fecklessness, almost immediately partnering with the Greek warrior Diomedes (Michael Johnson).

However, in spite of how she has been played for the past four hundred years, I was struck by her private laments. It’s not that she doubts her own ability to be faithful, it’s that she doubts the very idea of faithfulness. She blames it in part on the female condition, but then women have traditionally been judged more harshly for their behavior than men.

At the very beginning of our process, I held private character meetings with each member of the company, and I was surprised by an idea that both Michael (Diomedes) and Hannah (Cressida) suggested, which was that they had had a prior relationship.

Diomedes (Michael Johnson)
Alex Belisle Photography
This was certainly not Shakespeare’s idea, nor is there any basis for it in antiquity. But in the world I had proposed and that we were working together to create, could it not be possible? Why is Cressida there, in a theater of war? We decided she was a translator, it would give this apparent civilian a certain fluidity between camps. Perhaps they had had a moment, nothing too serious. And nothing known.

It is Diomedes, after all, who removes Cressida from her mistreatment by the other soldiers.

It went a long way to explain the scene in which Troilus (Brinden Harvey) asks Ulysses where Cressida is staying, and they over hear an intimate conversation, surprisingly intimate. Why would Cressida attach herself to Diomedes to swiftly? It makes no emotional sense to Troilus. Ulysses has already dismissed her as a whore.

But after her assault by the soldiers in Ulysses’s company, why would she not seek protection from one with whom she was already familiar? I wonder how apparent this is to the audience. All I know is a young girl likes Cressida best, and that is all right with me.

The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival "Troilus & Cressida" continues through July 1, 2018.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

M*A*S*H (Revisted)

"Heal Thyself"
Summer is here. Theater camp has concluded, my show has opened, and it is time for a little vacation with the family. A two-day drive, with four teenagers in the car, and guess what? We still all love each other.

Hotel life can -- if you can tear yourself away from your computer or phone -- provide the opportunity to take in some old fashioned television. We watched two episodes of M*A*S*H, back-to-back, just like I could on any single weekday during my childhood from seven to eight on Channel 43.

The vast majority of episodes from eleven seasons feature a cast of characters who were created for the television series, and not taken from any of Hooker's novels -- Potter, Winchester, Hunnicutt -- and the characters of Hawkeye and Houlihan grew to bear little resemblance to those from the books or from Altman’s 1970 film version, upon which the TV series is based.

Last night we saw the one where Edward Herrmann plays a relief surgeon who cracks under the pressure of “meatball surgery” (S08E17 "Heal Thyself") followed by the one where Col. Potter receives word that he’s the last survivor of his World War One buddies (S08E18 "Old Soldiers").

I have avoided re-watching the show for my entire adult life. When I was a kid I must have seen every episode several times over. I have probably watched M*A*S*H more than any other television program ever made. But whenever I happened upon a broadcast, revisiting just a few moments, I was appalled at the stupid jokes, the laugh track, and the general “niceness” that all the aforementioned characters fell into once they had jettisoned the difficult Trapper John and the impossible to make sympathetic Frank Burns.

Watching an episode play out in real time, from beginning to end, I was reminded of what made the show truly good. Yes, it was sanctimonious, I knew that as an adolescent. But take for example the way they took their time to play out the young surgeon’s disconnection from reality under pressure was truly affecting. I was surprised to learn they even borrowed from Shakespeare. I didn't read Macbeth until eighth grade. Herrmann’s doctor bemoans his inability to get imaginary (but also very real) blood off his hands.
The blood won't come off.
No matter what I do, it just stays there.
Just take it easy.
See what I mean? Look at that.
Never gonna go away.
No matter how hard I scrub or -- how much I wash it's gonna stay there.
Where do they come from? What do they -- What do they expect me to do? I can't.
I can't.
Well-written and well-played. When we moved into the next episode, and Col. Potter announced a sudden visit to Tokyo General, I knew exactly which episode this was. From somewhere in my head I heard the words tontine and pledge and the phrase, “give that man a cheroot.”

I may have been the only eleven year-old who knew what a cheroot was.

"Old Soldiers"
There were so any elements of the episode that I had no life experience to comprehend. The team of characters do not at first understand the colonel’s behavior, and one suggests he may have received a dire diagnosis himself in Tokyo. They never use the word cancer, not once, but when the gang is summoned to Potter’s tent, they have already braced themselves for the worst. “You have our total support,” says one, before learning the truth about the colonel’s recently deceased comrade.

You have our support? That struck my eleven year-old ear as odd, what kind of support do you provide someone who is ill? “I support you,” like he was being persecuted. Didn’t make sense. Now it makes sense.

Also, Colonel Potter’s entire war record was something I was unable to fathom. What I didn’t know about World War One was a lot. The final act of the episode features Henry Morgan speaking, taking his time, without interruption, describing the provenance of the bottle he has just received, the night in question, the fate of his comrades, an extended toast to lost youth … it is remarkably affecting.

The motion picture M*A*S*H is something I have also not watched in a long time. I saw it very young, and it had a poor effect on the way I saw the world. Indeed, it gave me an education in the madness of combat, and the joys of bucking the system. But it is cynical in the extreme, far too passive in its criticism of institutional racism, and downright condemnable in its treatment of women, especially women in positions of authority.

It is easy to tear down corrupt institutions, easier still to merely ridicule them from a distance. It is far more challenging to build up institutions based on basic human decency and understanding.

See also: Cleveland Centennial, M*A*S*H (TV show), January 20, 2012

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Troilus & Cressida (costume design)

The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival has to perform in a wide variety of spaces, from plain, grass fields to brick plazas, with audiences seated all on the same level as the company, or looking up at a stage. There are two large tents, situated stage left and right, that act as a backstage area for the performers.

It is because of these variances and limitations that I prefer to have absolutely no set. I will be honest, whenever I have seen CSF use a set, I have found it an unpleasing distraction from whatever the unique backdrop of wherever the show is being presented, whether that be a college building, a bandshell or chain link fence.

For Henry VIII we used one piece of furniture; a blue, plastic waiting room chair, for exactly one scene.

Timon of Athens did have a marvelous set piece, a large refreshment tray, covered with snacks and drinks and festooned with a large fraternity logo. It remained onstage for half the show, when Timon was in town and throwing parties, and wheeled off for the second half when he had abandoned civilization for the woods.

Henry VIII
(Cleveland Shakespeare Festival, 2012)
Instead, I always want to costumes to be the set. The costumes are vitally important to instantly communicate character, and to transport the audience to a specific time or place.

The costume designer for Troilus & Cressida, Jenniver Sparano, has heard this before. She joked with that “no ever ever says they don’t want costumes, that they want the set to tell the whole story.” So be it! When I heard Jenniver was going to be working on this production, I was so delighted. I am happy to have been dressed by her in the past, she’s an outstanding designer with great attention to detail.

Of course, I have been very happy with each of the costume designers I have worked with through CSF. I appreciate how challenging it can be to create or procure costumes for a large company on a modest budget. For Henry VIII I asked designer Heather Brown for modern suits for men and women that communicated wealth and power, and that is exactly when she provided.

Brinden as Troilus
Meg Parish created a perfect year 1970 college campus look for the company of Timon of Athens, which was complimented by a team of actors willing to let their hair grow out for part of the summer.

Troilus & Cressida, a tale of the Trojan War, has been updated to take place ten years ago, during the waning months of a conflict which will be visually familiar to our audience. Jenniver has gone so far as to create stitched name tags for each of the Greek officers. The company looks outstanding, and they have been inspired by their costumes.

Cleveland Shakespeare Festival presents "Troilus & Cressida" opening June 15, 2018.

Friday, June 1, 2018

New Improv Games!

Hey! We're working on a book of new theater games for students. Check these out and let us know what you think!

Terror Cell
All students sit in a large circle and are told to close their eyes. Instructor taps one on the shoulder. They have to get up, and silently hit another student over the head with their fist, then sit back down. Assaulted student must point at the one who struck them. Two others perform a scene in which they are in a foreign location and use gibberish to portray the emotions involved.

Screaming
Students balance the space. When instructor says GO all students must scream as loud and charge as fast as they can without running into any other students or falling down. When the instructor blows the whistle, all students collapse where they are, as hard as they can. They must then trace dream imagery on the floor with their fingers. Repeat.

Failure
Instructor chooses the least talented students, they are placed in the center of a circle and coached into performing an improvised monologue. Prior the beginning of class, instructor has already told all other students to yawn or express appropriate boredom whenever the chosen monologist begins to make a sound. Exercise continues until the chosen student either quits or cries.

Party Quirks
Choose one student to throw a party; all others plays guests who have a specific characteristic which will most likely be ableist. Everyone loves Party Quirks!

Michael
Two students begin a scene based on a prompt. Another student joins the scene as "Michael the Good Angel" and begins to change their motivation and subdue conflict until the scene has lost all relevance or interest.

Hammers
Divide the group evenly into hammers and nails. Go!

UPDATE: NEW New Games!

Rock, Paper, Scissors
Three students must create a battle royal scene where each student holds a different weapon (rock, paper, or scissors) and battle to the death. The winning student is rewarded by moving on with life.
- Lauren S.


Fear
Hold the class in a pitch-dark room. Have the light on, for now. Instructor tells students to be quiet, closes eyes, then points at the first student who makes a noise. The appointed student must then remain still in the middle of the room, while other students scatter around the walls. Instructor turns off the light. Other students breathes heavily, slowly, and audibly, without making any other sound. Instructor turns the light back on, after one minute.
- Alex H.

(DISCLAIMER: These games are theoretical in nature, and must never be played by anyone under any conditions. This is true of the games on this page and of all improv games anywhere.)

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Troilus & Cressida (fight choreography)

The fist of Hector.
(Cleveland Shakespeare Festival, 2018)
Directing Shakespeare, it is often necessary to include stage fighting. Part of the challenge in directing Hamlet is that you must end with a sword fight. If you decide to set your production in the present, that can present obvious challenges because that’s not how we do things any more.

For the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival I have been fortunate to direct Henry VIII and Timon of Athens, plays in which people just talk the whole time. Talk or sing, or do some freaky dancing.

The first time I directed Shakespeare it was Romeo & Juliet for Guerrilla Theater. I was twenty-six and come up with this brilliant concept that we weren’t going to celebrate or sensationalize violence, and so decided that just as Tybalt and Mercutio came at each other the lights would black out, and when they came back up Mercutio would be mortally wounded. Ditto when Romeo and fights Tybalt; blackout, lights up, Tybalt dead on the floor.

No combat choreography. I am a genius.

"There lies Tybalt slain."
(Guerrilla Theater Co., 1994)
That was the concept, anyway. I knew that combat choreography takes time, a lot of time. Rehearsal time to learn the steps and then time every rehearsal to rehearse those steps. I was directing my first Shakespeare and though I could not spare that kind of time. Also, at that point in my life I knew actually zero fight choreographers in Cleveland. Zero was also our budget.

Since then I have met several fight choreographers, and have commissioned a few fights. When we produced a modern Hamlet on a stage the size of a postage stamp, we did a stylized knife fight, Hamlet and Laertes each holding onto the end of a strap. Yes, it was compared the rumble in the music video for "Beat It." For Sarah Morton’s Hamlet at Beck Center, which was period appropriate, she and choreographer Joshua D. Brown fought with rapier and dagger, like it says in the script.

The first and really only time I had been introduced to the play Troilus and Cressida was when we took a college trip to Stratford in 1990 to attend master classes with the RSC. Company members Ciarán Hinds (as Achilles) and David Troughton (Hector) performed for us a fight to the death. Their choreographer, inspired by Nestor’s description of Hector cutting down his opponents (“there the strawy Greeks … fall down before him, like the mower's swath") provided them with whirling, twin short blades. They made quite a clang.


Ciarán Hinds (Achilles) and David Troughton (Hector)
35mm camera, sound out of sync.

A big question for the director choosing a modern interpretation of a classic drama (e.g., one set during the Trojan War) is what to do about the fighting. People like to see fighting, it adds excitement and emotional impact. But we no longer fight with swords, we fight with machine guns. On the battlefield, we often drop bombs from pilotless drones and create improvised explosives. These are neither easily staged nor dramatically compelling. What to do?

"The American Revolution"
(Bad Epitaph Theater Co., 2004)
For The American Revolution, Kirk Wood Bromley's modern verse play about the War for Independence, we presented battles in the background as they were described by messengers in the foreground, actor charging with colonial-age rifles with bayonets, and also waving the many colored battle flags of the period, and that made up for the difficulty in presenting gunfire onstage, because it's static and potentially under-dramatic.

There are a few key moments in our production of Troilus & Cressida which have been staged by Josh and his partner Kelly Elliott, including a fist fight between Hector and Ajax, some clever work with handguns, sexual assault, a brutal death by knife, and a bullet to the head. Scored briefly with the recorded sound of explosive devices, we hopefully will evoke a moment of chaos, confusion, and insurgency.

Cleveland Shakespeare Festival presents "Troilus & Cressida" opening June 15, 2018.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels In America (book)

Theater artist Isaac Butler and journalist Dan Kois have contributed an historically important book with The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels In America.

A comprehensive oral history, this exciting and easy-to-enjoy record traces the creative path of Angels In America by Tony Kushner, arguably the greatest play of the late twentieth century; from the script’s prehistory in the revolution for gay rights and the origins of the AIDS crisis, through the heady development process on both coasts of America and in England, its resounding though by no means guaranteed acclaim and lauds (and a surprisingly successful adaptation to film) and significant re-mounts, up to and including its recent revival on Broadway.

It even includes a chapter on the ill-fated 1996 Charlotte Repertory Theatre production, which was almost closed due to threats that the cast would be arrested for indecent exposure. The controversy began when the theater critic for the Charlotte Observer took the opportunity of a rare front page byline to announce to the community that this production would feature homosexual acts performed live on stage and full-frontal male nudity.

That those are two different scenes, and the fact that the character Prior Walter removing his clothes was for a medical examination, exposing to the audience his weakened state and many visible skin cancers, was not in the Observer's lede. The alarm was sounded, and it took a Superior Court Judge to allow the play to proceed without fear of legal action.

The controversy continued, a slate of arch conservatives were elected to the Board of Commissioners, and arts funding was -- briefly -- eliminated in the county of Mecklenburg. Shortly after the Charlotte Repertory Theatre would cease operations.

Pro-Angels protest.
(Charlotte Observer, 1996)
A few short years later that theater critic, Tony Brown, who so titillated the readership of Charlotte, would move to Cleveland and begin an eleven-year tenure as chief theater critic for the Plain Dealer. He was either not asked, or declined invitation to be interviewed for this book.

One of the more startling images from Mike Nichols’ HBO miniseries adaptation is a scene between the doomed couple Harper and Joe, on the rooftop of their apartment in Brooklyn. The Twin Towers are clearly visible across the river. A trick of editing, this record of the play, created in 2003, was one of the early reminders that Angels is a period piece. I mean, it always was; it was and will always be 1985. But what we have gained and what we have lost in the years since, and as the years continue, will continue to mount and shape our perception of Kushner’s work.

And therein lies a question; does this play continue to be relevant? Almost every year a play receives a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for not only great writing but also social relevance. Many go onto long histories of production, but do they maintain their relevance, do they speak to a modern audience? Plays so familiar that their titles can be reduced to one word -- Streetcar, Salesman, Picnic -- they may be emotionally compelling, but are they urgent?

Jason Isaacs & Daniel Craig
as Louis Ironson and Joe Pitt
(National Theatre, 1992)
When the HBO series debuted it, too, won numerous awards. It was well-done. But the dire warnings of the text were not as sharp. HIV/AIDS -- in America at least, for those who could afford it -- was under control. Eight years of Bill Clinton gave the illusion that the Reagan revolution of the 1980s and the Gingrich-led uprising of 1994 were just part of the natural cycle of politics, and that the Supreme Court the character Martin Heller predicted, one that by the 1990s would be “block-solid Republican appointees” had not come to pass and would never do so.

And yet. Here we are.

The question of whether a piece of writing transcends its own time, that its meaning can be interpreted to reflect the crises present in those whose paths are different from those represented in the original narrative, that is the test which determines whether a play is truly classic.

Arthur Miller directed Salesman in Beijing in the early 1980s, just as China was only beginning to enact minor Capitalist reforms. In doing so he found a wide, new audience for a decades old work which affected his audiences as though it were written for them.

Two years ago the Play House produced his Crucible with a multi-racial cast, and I had the opportunity to get into a polite debate about whether doing so changed the intended message of the play. He argued the play is about religious persecution, not racial persecution. I argued it was intended to be about the Red Scare, and about persecution in general, and the kind of heartbreak and death that attends the creation and subsequent destruction of perceived enemies.

"Part Two: Perestroika"
(Ensemble Theatre, 2018)
The first production of Angels in Cleveland was at Dobama Theatre in 1998, a brisk, delirious event, with tiny sets flying in and out with breakneck speed and an indelible lead performance by Scott Plate as Prior Walter. It was a time when the word “Millennium” was très en vogue, the expectation of great or cataclysmic events just on the horizon. We were living in End Times that never ended.

As we limp further into the murky depths of the twenty-first century, Angels In America, with its deeply flawed but searching characters and lyrical wonderfulness, which provided rich humanity to a cohort of humans previously denied their rights or even their right to exist, has already shown itself to be open to vital reinterpretation. The great work begins. It is always beginning.

Source: 5 Things To Know About Charlotte's 1996 'Angels In America' Controversy by Tim Funk, Charlotte Observer (5/16/2017) 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Troilus & Cressida (dance choreography)

Rehearsal, "Troilus & Cressida"

Every full-length Shakespeare production I have ever directed begins with a tableau, in which the participants all cross the stage and in some fashion introduce their characters.

Going all the way back to Romeo & Juliet at Guerrilla Theater Co., I had created a “reverse curtain call” in which Romeo stalks across the stage before dawn, followed by all other characters beginning the day, greeting each other (or giving a side eye) before two servants begin the street fight, all the the tune of “Come Out and Play” by the Offspring.

The tradition continued with Hamlet, as the Players enter, stopping to try on the various costumes they will eventually wear over the course of the evening, playing all of the supporting characters (see below.)


However, I also tried to choreograph the dumb show the Players present for the court, as a preface to The Murder of Gonzago. For those who are not familiar, in Shakespeare's time a "dumb show" was a silent, pantomimed abridgment of the full-length play that is about to follow. When Hamlet presents a play for the King and Queen, the text describes this particular dumb show. Most modern productions of Hamlet cut the pantomime, I had my reasons to keep it in though I cannot remember what they were.

In any event, I was doing horribly, trying to create it. It all looked stagy and pointless. Brian, who was playing Claudius, suggested I ask Pandora, who was (among other characters) the Player King, if she might ask her husband to come in and help us out.

I had only just met Pandora. I did not know who her husband was and said so. Brian told me she was married to David Shimotakahara. Then I said I didn’t know who that was.

Okay. Okay? I know little about dance. David Shimotakahara was at that time already a world famous dancer and performer. He had also recently established GroundWorks, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year.

So, anyway, David choreographed my dumb show. From that moment on, I have never again attempted to choreograph anything, not dance nor fighting, without an expert. If I could, I would ask someone to come in and do the directing for me.


Henry VIII for CleveShakes also started with a reverse curtain call, and included a dance sequence, choreographed by Sarah Clare, to represent the dying Queen Katherine’s hallucination of the king’s future wives (see above.) Timon of Athens also included dancing for the curtain call, staged by company member Amanda Trompak, because I couldn’t find an appropriate place for dancing anywhere else in that play.

This year we’re trying something new. For the opening of Troilus & Cressida, Catherine Anderson and Leilani Barrett have created a reverse curtain call which is an actual dumb show! If you pay close attention -- or even better, attend more than once -- you will notice that all the major events of the story to follow are represented in the choreography on this three-minute piece!

The centerpiece of the play, however, is a romantic tango between the titular lovers, all created by Anderson and Barrett, and featuring Brinden Harvey (Troilus) and Hannah Woodside (Cressida).


Cleveland Shakespeare Festival presents "Troilus & Cressida" opening June 15, 2018.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Seagull (2001)

Natalie Portman & Philip Seymour Hoffman
(The Public Theatre)
August, 2001. We were in New York City. My wife’s play Angst:84, following a rousing premiere at Dobama’s Night Kitchen, was being presented at the fifth annual New York International Fringe Festival.

Angst:84 is a satirical adaptation of Orwell’s classic 1984, reimagined to take place in an oppressive suburban high school in the actual year 1984. Requiring a company of fourteen, most of the cast were actual teenagers, or in their early 20s. A skeleton crew of techies (myself included, running sound) brought the entire team to around twenty.

Remounting and presenting the show (which included a bank of actual lockers, schlepped all the way from Ohio) was a labor-intensive event. Just raising funds before we left and rehearsing the show in the Dobama space took up a great deal of time during the summer, which was a welcome distraction for my wife and I, who were only just beginning to recover from losing our first child that March.

Once the production was under way in the Present Company space on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side (since demolished, now high-end apartments) we had time to unwind, and roam the city. I passed on an invitation to see the Twin Towers, a decision I have come to regret.

The "Angst:84" company in front of the Present Company.
Some hit TKTS for Broadway shows. I saw sixteen different fringe performances, sometimes entirely on my own. My wife and I wanted to try and get seats for The Seagull, produced by the Public Theatre in Central Park. We had exactly and only two days, back-to-back in which we had no performances, and we would need them in order to see this show.

Normally, as we had that June when we had seen Billy Crudup and Joe Morton in Measure for Measure at the Delacorte, you might need to show up before breakfast to wait in line for the free tickets they handed out around lunch.

But the line for The Seagull started the afternoon before, as soon as that day’s tickets were gone. Because every single artist in the production was a headliner. It didn’t just star Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, though that would have been enough. It was directed by Mike Nichols, working with a new translation by Tom Stoppard, and also featured Christopher Walken, John Goodman, Natalie Portman, Marcia Gay Harden, Stephen Spinella, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Konstantin. This was to be a legendary production. And the tickets were free.

Reading in line.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Konstantin. Philip Seymour Hoffman was Konstantin.

The wife and I put out the call that we intended to wait in line, all night, for these tickets. We thought perhaps a few would join us, but seriously, that might sound a little ominous, spending the night in Central Park. Or possibly tedious. But these were teenagers, young adults. The entire company showed up, around 4 PM on a Wednesday, to wait for tickets to see a show on Thursday night.

There were already about a hundred people in line at 4 PM. We’d brought blankets, pillows, folding chairs, and picnic dinners. There were more than twenty of us, as several had New York area friends join in.

Central Park after dark.
We took turns, sitting and wandering the park. Sun began to set as that evening’s performance began. A group of us walked by Belvedere Castle and the lower reservoir which provides the backdrop for the performance, behind the stage for the Delacorte, and watched the performance from there. We walked the Ramble, and visited Strawberry Fields after dusk.

We exited the park, picked up a small bag of groceries, and reentered the park around West 81st Street. The play had ended, crowds were streaming out. As we approached the theater, a gaunt, six-foot man with a beard, sixtyish, wearing a tight black T-shirt and jeans strode past us with great purpose (and a briefcase.) Just as he passed, I realized it was Christopher Walken.

In the gutter on CPW.
It was a perfect summer evening. In the past they used to hand out the tickets a couple hours before curtain, instead of at noon, and in 1990 some of us waited to see Denzel Washington in Richard III. It was a hot day, bright with sun, but between five and eight the clouds rolled in and the show was rained out. This night was balmy and warm -- it was a hot fringe festival that year -- cooling off only slightly as the sun went down.

Once upon a time, waiting in line all night would have been uneventful. But Rudy Giuliani was mayor, and park hours were strictly enforced. We knew this going in, but weren’t sure exactly how that would work. As we understood it, the entire line would be made to relocate to Central Park West for the hours of 1 AM to 6 AM, when the park was closed to the public.

For better or for worse, there was a team of line enforcers, NYC theater patrons who were particularly enthusiastic about catching and shaming line-jumpers. A few hours before midnight, they went down the line creating a list of everyone on line. They were fierce, announcing that though they had no association with the park, the theater or the city, once the line returned to the park they would use this list to check for line-jumpers.

This also happened.
Whatever. Sure enough at 1 AM the NYPD politely (yes) told the line we had to leave the park. We did our best to maintain our relative place in line, those of us who had actually fallen asleep groggily staggering out to the cobblestones of CPW. I actually did try to fall asleep there, for a few moments, lying on the sidewalk, around West 82nd Street, the streetlights creating something like sun. But mostly we sat up and talked and played card games. Some even played guitar.

Settling back into the park after dawn, the line patrol came through with their list. There were a few altercations but nothing serious, not where we were sitting. The wait from then until noon may have been the most tedious, excitable teenagers (and me) finally succumbing to exhaustion and getting a few winks in, beneath the trees. There were also bagels. We finally got our tickets and went our separate ways for the afternoon, many of us to get some real sleep.

What can I say about the performance? There are indelible moments, pictures in my mind which I will never forget. There was a second or two, deep into the first act … Kevin Kline (as the famous author Trigorin) had been on stage for perhaps twenty minutes, and I was momentarily, mentally pulled out of the performance, thinking how I had seen this man in numerous movies, but that I had never before seen him exist in real space and time, not without close-ups or edits. He was just there.

Breakfast en plein air.
That moment Trigorin (Kline) and the actress Arkadina (Meryl Streep) share a passionate kiss on the floor, which he deftly breaks, fluidly rolling over, pulling a notebook and pencil from his vest to make a note. The then-twenty year-old Natalie Portman as the aspiring actress Nina, upon securing a promise from the famous, older writer, executing a neat, bubbly pirouette, like a bird-hop, unable to contain her excitement. Meryl Streep did a cartwheel.

And Hoffman as Konstantin, a man doomed as a writer and a lover, who in this production controversially shot himself on-stage (rather than, as indicated by the Chekhov’s stage directions, off) facing upstage, toward the reservoir, seated in a high-backed chair, the stain bleeding through during the play’s final moments.

That ending, so startling and disorienting, it was hard to believe the play was over. The applause was grand but strange.

Playwright in sunglasses (center).
And so, our adventure concluded, we exited the house. Some wanted to try and catch some stars -- the very location of the theater makes it impossible for actors to jump in a car and speed away, like Walken the night before, they had to leave on foot. Or, in the case of Marcia Gay Harden, wearing a bicycle helmet. She was very generous with her time, talking to several admirers. My wife and I held back from our crowd; I try to leave people I don’t actually know alone unless I really have something I want to ask or tell them.

A small number of us were decided where we would go next, to decompress, hopefully with dessert. John Goodman (who is, in fact, very large) walked past, and one of our team, Brian (he said I can tell this story) was overcome with excitement and took off down the path to have words with the famous actor.

We watched from a distance as our colleague said a few enthusiastic words to Goodman. Goodman gave our friend a strange smirk before turning away abruptly and walking into the dark. Brian returned, shaking his head. “That was weird,” our friend said. “I told him how great the show was and he just kind of blew me off.”

Meryl Streep & Kevin Kline
(The Public Theatre)
Oh, well, we said. Actors. Half a dozen or so of us decided to head a few blocks west to Cafe Lalo. I hadn’t been there in over five years, I had fond memories of hanging out there for hours, writing, while my wife (we had only just started dating in the mid-90s) worked her shift at Shakespeare & Co. Two sites for two Meg Ryan movies. Weird.

Anyway, pastry and coffee and conversation when all of a sudden Brian, he who accosted John Goodman, shook his head, dazed and gasped, “Oh, my GOD!

“I said to John Goodman, ‘I just saw the show -- tell Kevin Kline he was amazing!’”

"Angst:84" by Toni K. Thayer is available from Heartland Plays, Inc.

"The Seagull" a new film adaptation starring Annette Bening and Saoirse Ronan, directed by Michael Mayer, with a screenplay by Stephen Karam, opens June 15, 2018.

Many thanks to Heather Stout Nebeker for the Central Park photos!

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Troilus & Cressida (rehearsal)

Cressida & Troilus
(Hannah Woodside & Brinden Harvey)
Tonight we ran through the first seven scenes of the play. There are eighteen scenes in this production, but even that’s arbitrary, the final four scenes all run into each other, battle scenes, scenes of chaos and death.

These first seven scenes constitute the first half, setting up the conflict which will end tragically in the second. I’d call it a farce, except for all of the sorrow, unhappiness and death. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, however, which is front-ended with dancing and fighting, followed by two hours of self-pitying wailing, this show holds the best violence for the second half, and at the end, and there’s dance all over the place. There will also be singing.

So, to the point. Here we are, a month from opening, and we have roughly staged the first half! I hope to have the entire thing blocked by Memorial Day.

I love this process, and we have a great team. It’s challenging to co-parent and direct in the evening, that’s really why I don’t do it that often. It is the end of the school year, which means concert and other special, end-of-year events. On those evenings, Cat and Leilani choreograph dance, or Kelly and Josh the fighting.

Troilus & Cressida takes place during the Trojan War. Through necessity and for creative reasons, this adaptation will be contemporary, or nearly so. Dressing everyone in armor, providing all swords, staging grand, one-on-one battle scenes. These things are prohibitive.

Also, we have an opportunity, devising a ninety-minute abridgment of what could easily be a four-hour play, to draw focus to the universal realities of conflict and war, to literally display how yesterday is not that different from today.

Meeting with our costume designer Jenniver, we have selected a palate of uniform and other pieces which reflect the American conflicts of the past decade. Just tonight I met with Lisa, our sound designer, to discuss brief sound and music possibilities, also culled from the early 2000s (see: Spotify playlist, right.)

As I had described earlier, much of the mythology has been stripped from the next. We are focusing on the men and women who are caught up in the fight, and how decisions made affect the lives and relationships of those people.

That also makes for some pacing issues; eliminated scenes make for certain characters exiting then entering again, almost immediately. This was apparently in editing the script, last night I got to see this in action. Or inaction. We’ll fix it.

We have a month!

Join us for PLAY ON! a benefit for the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival in the Speakeasy at Bier Markt in Ohio City, May 20, 2018.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Family Theater Day (2018)

Lula Del Ray
Yesterday, Google celebrated the work of Georges Méliès with a 360° video, highlighting examples of his films. The craftsmanship that went into those movies is absolutely remarkable. Today’s video animations (like the aforementioned “Google Doodle”) stand atop the shoulders of those giants who relied upon wood and nails and paper and glue, and most important of all -- light.

This weekend at Playhouse Square they are presenting Family Theater Day (formerly the International Children’s Theatre Festival) where Cleveland audiences will have the opportunity to see some amazing professional productions intended for all-ages by companies from around the world.

Lula Del Ray, presented by Manual Cinema (Chicago, IL) is a phenomenal accomplishment, an exquisite animated picture postcard, rich in nostalgia and longing and executed with precision and wonder. I sat with an audience of children from schools across the region at the Connor Palace, and after a few moments of requisite shushing, they sat in absolute silence, enrapt not only by the story but the artistry which was present to the eye.

Using three old school overhead projectors, countless transparencies, a guitar and string trio plus one computer keyboard player, and a couple actors, the company told an a largely wordless saga, projected as shadows onto a large screen.

A teenager, stuck in the desert where he mother manages a satellite array, yearns to visit the big city to see the country duo, The Baden Brothers. Their haunting rendition of the traditional ballad, Lord, Blow The Moon Out, as performed live by these musicians, would have made my teenage heart long to be a part of something bigger.

The Secret Life of Suitcases
The other day I also had the chance to see The Secret Life of Suitcases, created by Ailie Cohen and Lewis Heatherington (Scotland) which is staged like an elaborate gift box or pop-up book; a fairly mundane and muted exterior opens and expands to reveal color and adventure and joy.

Larry is serious about his work and never joins the rest of the office for lunch, until a flying suitcase shows him how much more is out in the world to experience. A duo of puppeteers carry Larry through several journeys utilizing forced perspective, unusual voices, and plentiful droll charm.

The first time I was made aware of this annual event was five years ago, when I was at the very beginning of my enterprise in the writing and creation of plays for child audiences. I am constantly amazed and delighted by the effort and craft companies from all over put into developing stylish and moving productions like these, and they have inspired me in my work.

Bring the family downtown tomorrow, several of the events are ticketed and while others are free. But you don’t even need to bring a child to be captivated by these productions.

Family Theater Day in Playhouse Square is Saturday, May 5, 2018.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Famous History of Troilus and Cressida

Diomedes & Cressida (Troilus at left, seething)

Every three years, by accident is not design. I am contracted by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival to direct one of the Bard’s lesser-performed works. Six years ago that was Henry VIII. In 2015, Timon of Athens. This summer, we will present Troilus and Cressida.

It’s fun. “Oh,” the people say, “I’ve never seen that one!” That’s right. No one has. I mean, they have, there are those that have, but most have not.

We learned of a couple who saw a Shakespeare play on their honeymoon and have made it their mission to see a production of every one of his (to date) thirty-eight acknowledged plays. Three years ago, they traveled from Cincinnati to see my Timon. It was number thirty-four on their list!

The advantage of staging the pieces few know is that I can do whatever I want with them. People would howl if you left “To be or not to be” out of your production of Hamlet. No one would notice if I left out “What is aught, but as ‘tis valued?” though that is a good line, one of the major themes, and I feel not bad at all giving it to a different character to speak.

Troilus and Cressida is lesser tale of the Trojan War, named for the fiery, brief love affair between one of the sons of Priam (Troilus) and the daughter (Cressida) of a Trojan priest and traitor. When, on the urging of the traitor for his daughter to join him on the side of Greece, an exchange is arranged for her and a Trojan prisoner.

Hannah Woodside as Cresida
Brinden Harvey as Troilus
(Photo added 6/10/2018)
The text suggests that Cressida easily takes up with one of the Grecian soldiers, though you could easily imagine she is actually trying to align herself to one who would protect her in a perilous situation. Regardless, Troilus spies their exchanges and assumes the worst.

There are those who believe this play answers the question, “Did Shakespeare believe that Romeo and Juliet would have had a long, faithful life together, had they lived?” That answer is no.

However, that is not all Troilus and Cressida, the play, is about. It’s about all kinds of things, with a mythological weight thanks to a staff of characters including Agamemnon, King of Greeks, Helen, she whose face launched a thousand ships, Cassandra, the clairvoyant and unheeded, Nestor, the ancient and verbose, Priam, king of Troy, and Andromache, his daughter-in-law.

I have cut all of these characters from this production.

Rather, we will focus in large part on Troilus and Cressida themselves, who are not actually the primary focus of the full-length text, as well as the character of Achilles. War has bogged down. As Ulysses observes, this is due less to the Trojans strength, and more to the laziness, apathy and indulgence of the Greeks, as best reflected in the person of Achilles, who refuses to fight and spends hours in his tent with his lover, Patroclus.

Our production will reflect a modern superpower, one also accused of apathy and indulgence.

Rehearsals begin this weekend, the company largely composed of actors I have never worked with before, or even met before auditions. I am very excited to get started.

Cleveland Shakespeare Festival presents "Troilus & Cressida" opening June 15, 2018.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Play a Day: Fairfield

Eric Coble
For Monday I read Fairfield by Eric Coble, and available at New Play Exchange.

Two months reading a new play every day, and this is the first time I have presented the work of Eric Coble which is odd because we are friends. I am friends with playwright Eric Coble. Everyone hear that? Me and Eric Coble. Yes.

We met in college, I was completing my fifth year as an undergrad and he began his MFA in Acting at Ohio University so though I think of him as older we are the same age. He stopped acting in 1996, I was the marketing director at Dobama Theatre when he walked on stage for the very last time in Eric Overmyer's Mi Vida Loca. Coble is an excellent actor and I am sorry no one else has the opportunity to see that.

Because he was committed to becoming a playwright! And he has been most prolific and most successful. I had the great good fortune to perform in The Velocity of Autumn opposite Cleveland legend Dorothy Silver at Beck Center in Lakewood, before it moved to the Arena Stage and then Broadway, a production for which Estelle Parson was nominated for a Tony.

The Velocity of Autumn
(Beck Center, 2012)
I am dropping all the names today.

For ten years Eric and I have been colleagues in the Playwrights' Unit at the Cleveland Play House, where I have been blessed to receive Eric's guidance, advice and good humor as I have made my own journey as a professional writer.

I have also had the fortune to experience several of his works in progress, including Fairfield, as well as seeing the CPH premiere production in 2015. In the spirit of #NewDayNewPlay, however, I did re-read it before writing my recommendation!

Fairfield takes place in an inner-ring suburb somewhere in the United States. Except the only city like this one in the United States in Cleveland Heights, a magical fantasyland where an almost equal number of white people and black people (and a not insignificant number of Jewish people) live side-by-side and get into heated arguments about race and racism and yet never actually set fire to anything and we don't leave because we love it here. Except for all the racism.

Fairfield
(Cleveland Play House, 2015)
Eric was a member of our school board when he wrote this play (we both live in Cleveland Heights, the city of great writers) and after the table read I asked if he wasn't concerned about how it might be received. He just gave that carefree smile of his and told me he wasn't running for reelection, anyway.

Coble has an incomparable way of taking difficult contemporary issues to outrageously hilarious extremes, and Fairfield is a classic example of this. He explodes modern conversations about race, while still presenting engaging and (with one obvious exception) sympathetic, well-meaning, occasionally delusional characters who truly want to do the right thing, even if they only help make everything spin more wildly out of control.

As one of the parents whose children attend Fairfield might say, Eric Coble knows how to "use his words."

This month I have been heartened to read thirty great works by thirty tremendous playwrights. So many of them were recommended to me by other playwrights, dedicated individuals who proudly promote each other's work.

I am taking a short break from writing, however, as I concentrate on an outdoor, summer production of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. Perhaps I will see you there!

Eric Coble is currently developing his new play, "The Girl Who Swallowed a Cactus" at the New Visions/New Voices Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.