Saturday, September 15, 2018

On the Dark Side of Twilight (Evolution of the Vampire)

Self as John W. Polidori
Ohio University, 1988
Thirty years ago this fall, I played John Polidori in the Ohio University School of Theatre production of Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry, directed by Alana Byington

The plot centers on the whirling personal and professional relationships of George Gordon Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, with particular focus on that unusually cold summer of 1816 they spent together at the Villa Diodati. It was there, one evening, after reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem "Cristabel" that this trio, Byron’s personal physician -- Polidori -- and Byron’s lover Claire Clairmont, challenged each other to write a ghost story.

Brenton’s work goes on to describe the crippling effects these artists’ attempts to love freely and fight against contemporary social norms of propriety and restraint had on their lives and work. The play also has a lot to say about men who dare to live life on the edge and the women who must deal with the consequences.

John William Polidori
F.G. Gainsford, circa 1816
What is only obliquely referred to in this work are the stories created the evening of that fateful writing exercise. Most famously, this was the night Mary Shelley would later claim she arrived at the idea for her novel Frankenstein. Like Bloody Poetry, her classic tale investigates themes of great risk and fantastic achievement, but also issues of abandonment and personal responsibility.

Less well-known is the ingenious idea Byron had arrived at that night; a modern re-imagining of the “vampyre.” Folk tales describe this monster as an outsider, living on the outskirts of society, feeding off blood and human flesh like a ghoul. Byron wondered what it might be like if such a demon could pass as human, even enter society? But he grew tied with his own fragment of a story and set the work aside before it was brought to any conclusion.

His doctor, who fancied himself a writer, had arrived at a story about a skull-headed lady “peeping through a keyhole” (we have Mary Shelley’s word for this) which everyone agreed was dreadful. A few short years later, Polidori chose to appropriate Byron’s idea of a gentleman vampire, producing The Vampyre: A Tale in 1819. The good doctor attempted to exact some artistic revenge on the lord who famously made a habit of crushing him with withering verbal abuse, by creating the rakish Lord Ruthven, a thinly-disguised parody of Byron himself.

The Vampyres: A Play
Dobama's Night Kitchen, 1997

Brian Pedaci (right) as  John Polidori
The joke was on Polidori, however, as when The Vampyre was first published, it was mistakenly attributed to Byron, a fact which each man found galling.

Then a twenty-year-old student, I researched the person of John Polidori for the performance, surprised to learn I was playing a man my own age. I was taken by not only his own brief unhappy life (he committed suicide at the age of 25) but also the legend of the vampire. Many abortive works I created that school year -- comics, short stories, scripts -- included immature and unfortunate ruminations on suicide. One idea was for a daily comic strip about a modern Polidori who, following a romantic humiliation and contemplating his own demise, is seduced by vampire.

If the idea of a vampire preying upon the despair and near-suicide of a young man sounds familiar, it is because I had started reading Anne Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles.” The comparison to Louis and Lestat was purely intentional. In the following years I would read a few more vampire novels, but not an overwhelming number of them. I was more interested in the vampire as a metaphor than as a romance. More After Dark than Lost Boys. I prefer Throat Sprockets to anything by Poppy Z. Brite.

With director Andrew May
On the Dark Side of Twilight, 2010
My infatuation came to a head a few years later after the disillusion of both my first theater company and my first marriage, resulting in the script The Vampyres: A Play. Borrowing directly from Polidori’s tale, and using the name’s of all those at the Villa Diodati, a young doctor (John) enters a goth-themed coffee house, meeting an old crush (Mary) and two preening rockers (George and Percy) who may or may not be actual vampires. There is also a teenage barista named Claire, who is actually my favorite character in the play.

My first full-length work, I threw everything into it and it is one big angry mess. The original songs by Queue Up, however, are killer.

Anyway, ten or so years later, then-Director of Education Daniel Hahn was looking for a touring script to compliment Great Lakes Theater’s mainstage production of Bat Boy: The Musical. I made a mad proposal. The character of Bat Boy is some kind of mutant creature half-boy, half-bat. Its origins may be from the Weekly World News, but the story has much in common with B-level monster movies from the mid-20th century.

What if we created a brief history of the vampire in Western literature in four short plays, each describing a pivotal moment in vampire history? The greatest challenge, as I saw it, was how we could successfully incorporate that most recent trend in vampirism; sparkling. Yes, we would have to acknowledge the most controversial of vampire sagas, Twilight.

My working title was Evolution of the Vampire. Daniel suggested something more evocative. In the first chapter of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Jonathan Harker begins his diary entry, "It was on the dark side of twilight when we got to Bistritz ..." It is a much, much better title.

The four scenes or “arcs” of On the Dark Side of Twilight play out like this:

Arc One represents Polidori’s The Vampyre. Set in 1810, we meet Lord Darvell (Byron’s vampire) and the callow Aubrey Porlock; his Christian name taken straight from the good doctor’s short story, his last a combination of Polidori and Orlock, the main character in F.W. Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu.

(It's is also a nod to the author of "Christabel," who ostensibly made all of this possible. A “person from Porlock” interrupted Coleridge as he was feverishly writing "Kubla Khan.")

Aubrey Porlock and Lord Darvell
(Dusten Welch & self)
As they travel the Continent together, Aubrey is set upon by a monster while trying to complete an assignation in the woods with a local girl named Xanthe, and neither he nor Darvell are ever heard from again.

Arc Two is an homage to Dracula, the text which set so many rules of vampirism (death by sunlight, aversion to garlic and mirrors, etc.) Here, at the turn of the twentieth century, a young society couple entertains a strange eastern lord who turns out to be Porlock, now a vampire himself, returning to London after nearly a century.

This scene includes a silent coda, a tribute to Murnau’s film, in which the “count” is tricked by his prey into feeding until sunrise.

Arc Three, set in the mid-1980s, is inspired by the work of Anne Rice. With her works, a vampire is now someone to be understood, one to be sympathized with. He is our hero. A fledgling vampire named Edwin is interviewed in New Orleans and we learn that his master is none other than Porlock, who has survived and immigrated to the Americas.

Arc Four, present day. Edwin passes as a teenager in an Alaskan high school. A romance develops between he and a fellow student named Lucy. Their time together is cut short by the arrival of Porlock, who receives his final rest at the hands of an old (very old) companion.

Edwin and Lucy
(Dusten Welch & Emily Czarnota)
The entire package includes a narrator who guides the audience through this two-hundred year journey by sharing found materials in the manner that Dracula is composed entirely of diaries, letters, newspaper articles, and other contemporary accounts.

Written to be performed by a company of three (though it could also accommodate a company of up to twelve or more) the premiere production was directed by Andrew May. I performed the older male roles, Dusten Welch the younger, and all of the female roles by Emily Pucell Czarnota.

Working with Emily for the first time with this production was a life-changing experience, and over the next several years she originated performances in several of my works, including The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the short play The Schoolboy (part of the Seven Ages anthology.) Most meaningful to me, I wrote for her the part of Beatrice in Double Heart, her wit and delivery foremost in my mind when composing verse lines for this younger iteration of Shakespeare’s great romantic heroine.

Emily as Xanthe
On the Dark Side of Twilight, 2010
In performance, On the Dark Side of Twilight is chilling, creepy, knowing, and also very funny. Plain Dealer theater critic Tony Brown found it "hysterical, campy fun." But is has a deeper relevance, as vampire tales have always been allegories, reflections of the fears and taboos of the time.

Polidori's short story portrays the struggle between propriety and the evils of Byronism. Stoker's is a thinly-veiled examination and reflection of sexual repression and xenophobia. Anne Rice created a homoerotic romance at the dawning of the AIDS crisis. And Stephenie Meyer brought the story full-circle, creating a novel aimed directly at teenage girls to promote and champion morality, chastity, self-delusion, and male dominance through emotional and sexual abuse.

On the Dark Side of Twilight tackles all of these issues, while remaining brisk and compelling, a compact and humorous horror story that would make an excellent high school, college or community theater production.

Read the play script for "On the Dark Side of Twilight" at New Play Exchange.

"Vampire play 'On the Dark Side of Twilight,' performed by Great Lakes Theater Festival, is campy fun" by Tony Brown, The Plain Dealer 2/19/2010

Monday, August 20, 2018

Shakespeare (Not) On Stage

Roderick Cardwell as Richard Burbage
in "The Great Globe Itself" (2015)
Photo by Ryan Labay
Several years ago I wrote a play about the Globe Theatre, one which described three different buildings which have used that name, from three different eras in two different cities, each which was built to feature the works of William Shakespeare. My play was titled The Great Globe Itself, and toured northeast Ohio, in libraries and schools and theaters.

Shakespeare does not appear.

Over twenty years ago, my wife and I saw The Herbal Bed by Peter Whelan, a fiction inspired by the once long-forgotten-to-history accusation of “lechery” against Susanna (Shakespeare) Hall, eldest daughter of Stratford merchant and landowner William Shakespeare. The case was found in favor of the defendant, and the play begins as a bodice-ripper which soon evolves into the Puritanic courtroom drama not unlike The Crucible in its torturous circumlocutions.

Shakespeare does not appear.

This summer I read Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will, a fanciful imagining of the hands the collected, collated, edited and published the First Folio. inarguably the most significant publication in English literature. (see my blog post on The Book of William)

Burbage dies (almost three years after Shakespeare of Stratford) and it suddenly occurs to their surviving contemporaries that so much of what gave the work its power was locked inside the heads of those who spoke his lines. If not written down, they would be lost to history. The scramble to create a proper volume of the complete works -- in fact, determining what a complete works should consist of -- is as delightful to read as I am sure it is astonishing to witness.

Shakespeare, who as aforementioned was already dead, does not appear.

Finally, my brother sent me a play script from England for my birthday; I Am Shakespeare. Written by Mark Rylance, Oscar and Tony Award-winning actor and former Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Rylance is also a notable Shakespeare-denier, an Anti-Stratfordian, one who does not believe the “Man From Stratford” (as they like to call him) wrote the works attributed to him.

And yet, Shakespeare does appear in I Am Shakespeare.

At least, a version of him does. Rylance’s play falls into that category of “debate” plays that Shaw was so fond of creating (see my blog post, Shakespeare On Stage) though is Shaw’s case the argument was on the works’ merit, not its authorship. Shaw was openly scornful of those who proposed or defended such theories.

In Rylance’s play, William Shakespeare, as a character, arrives in the present day at the garage of Frank Charlton, a man obsessed with the “Authorship Question” and who hosts an online chat program that would appear to have a small, devoted following. The program has also ruined his marriage.

(Rylance uses Charlton as his stand-in, and wrote the role for himself to perform. He acknowledges, it would seem, that many who share his unorthodox views are not successful and lauded actors and directors of stage and screen, but more likely to be tin-foil hat wearing losers.)

Shakespeare, the character, has arrived from the past or elsewhere to debate the legitimacy of his achievement. He is soon followed by Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, and Mary Sidney, all to make the same claim. Attention is also given to Marlowe, who is obviously too cool to make an appearance.

It’s all a fun exercise, and very witty, though much of the humor stems from a wide knowledge of and deep appreciation for the works of Shakespeare. You already have to be in on the joke.

When writing The Great Globe Itself I had several agendas. The play was meant to illuminate the significance of the Globe Theatre (three Globes, as I said) as a unique acting space, one specifically suited to (most of) the works of Shakespeare.

I also wanted to tell the story of the theater Shakespeare’s made legendary in such a way that anyone without any knowledge of his life or work, could appreciate and enjoy it.

Ultimately, and here’s the kicker, I wanted to see if I could get away with writing a play about Shakespeare that also suggests the "Man From Stratford" didn’t write his own works -- but that no one would notice.

You didn't notice, did you? It was probably the impenetrable accents. My mistake.

Read "The Great Globe Itself" at New Play Exchange.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Single White Fringe Geek (blog)

American Theatre magazine produces a podcast I have been enjoying called Three On the Aisle, for which critics from the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal (Peter Marks, Elisabeth Vincentelli and Terry Teachout, respectively) weigh in on the national theater scene.

In this most recent episode, they began by discussing staff layoffs at the New York Daily News, and listeners were treated to the unusual sound of Marks losing his shit, loudly and profanely lamenting the fate of American theater criticism.

This is not a subject I am unfamiliar with. In this blog I have also asked what will happen when theater criticism is no longer a profession unto itself, but is a minor responsibility relegated to journalists who have numerous, diverse beats, freelance community writers, and blogging theater fans.

At the turn of this century, John Vacha wrote Showtime in Cleveland, the history of Cleveland theater up to the year 2000. For this book he leaned heavily on newspapers and the work of theater critics, not only to discover what details could be gleaned about specific productions and performances, but also the behind-the-scenes history of the business of theater in one large American city.

Without a written record, our work may be lost to future generations. And in the present, audiences and potential audiences suffer from a lack of sources of good theater criticism. And yes, we as artists miss out on having a variety of critical eyes assessing us, holding a mirror to our work.

Fifteen years ago today, we concluded our run of I Hate This (a play without the baby) at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. At this festival I attracted audiences, met new colleagues, and received plenty of praise and encouragement on the local online message boards.

I also received my first actual pan for this play. Matthew Everett had only just started the blog Single White Fringe Geek, a record of MN Fringe reviews he keeps to this day. On my way out the metaphoric door, I read his review and it was not exactly glowing.

Red Eye Theatre, Minneapolis, MN (2003)
Everett felt that, in spite of the play's unique male perspective on the subject of stillbirth, it suffered from not including the grieving mother’s voice.

He said that the narrator (me) was the only fully-developed character, and that of those other characters represented, the kind ones were casually dismissed while much more attention was focused on those who were unkind, insensitive, or -- to use my own word from the show -- evil.

“There was,” Everett wrote, “a lot of anger in this play. It bordered on being unsympathetic.”

This was a lot to swallow. When you stick your neck out to create something so intimate, you know you are taking a risk. And yet, you can’t imagine someone actually criticizing you.

I hadn’t read his review these fifteen years, though I never forgot the gist of it. Reading it again, however, was eye-opening.

Because now I understand it was the single most important review I think I have ever received.

Remember, this is was at the beginning. He attended the eighth public performance of a show I went on to produce regularly for almost five years, and have returned to several times since. And it was with comments like his in mind that I revised the script, and more importantly, modulated my performance.

I didn’t change a lot of the script, a few words, light editing, nudging the piece in a certain direction. What would have happened at the New York Fringe Festival the following year without Everett’s observation? If I had received a notice like his in the New York Times, instead the positive review I did receive, due perhaps to the changes I made at his suggestion? That might have been devastating to me.

I do not believe I am overstating this when I suggest that Matthew Everett's highly-critical review saved I Hate This.

We need criticism; thoughtful, engaged, intelligent, professional criticism.

"A Cornucopia of Questions," Three On the Aisle, 7/26/2018
"Closing the Fringe With Mom - Part 6," Single White Fringe Geek by Mathew Everett, 8/12/2003

"I Hate This (a play without the baby)" now available for Amazon Kindle.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Lincoln In the Bardo (book)

“We’re only tourists in this life
Only tourists but the view is nice.”
- Everybody’s Coming To My House, David Byrne

“And life is finite
But shit, it feels like forever.”
- tonite, LCD Soundsystem

“And when my time is up, have I done enough?”
- Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story, Lin-Manuel Miranda

“We are blessed with love and activity, but not enough time.”
- Me, July 27, 2018

“We had again been granted the great mother-gift:
“More time.”
- Lincoln In The Bardo, George Saunders
In fiction, ghosts are a manifestation of regret. Can a ghost exist without a belief in the need for its own existence? And that need is to complete something that had not been accomplished in life, as though life itself is defined by accomplishment.

Because it is, really. That is how we as humans define it.

In his riveting, ruminative novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, author George Saunders argues that life is what it is. What we do or what happens to us cannot be judged, it was what it was. No need to glorify not denigrate. Do what you can. Succeed or survive. Strive to do your best, surely. But let no one describe to you what that may be. Then, let go.

I find myself lamenting the scarcity of time. But time is not a thing. Life is a thing, the world is a thing. These can be valued, in the moment or not at all.

Three days ago I was sitting on the porch of a rustic cabin in Maine, listening to the sounds. My son’s peculiar and delightful laugh, the unfamiliar voices across the cove. I recalled that breakfast diner in Charlottesville, last month. (I remember -- the Nook!) The brick wall, the delicious odors; the coffee, the hash browns.

Today I sit at my desk to make a note of the memory. I hear the ticket printing machine, the brief, almost imperceptible whine of the copier. All of these things are special. They are not special because of what they are, they are special because they are what is.

I think I may be Buddhist.

Friday, July 27, 2018

How I Am Spending My Summer (2018)

last nite.
And what's it you do again?
Oh I'm a reminder
The hobbled veteran of the disk shop inquisition
Set to parry the cocksure of mem-stick filth
With my own late era middle-aged ramblings

- tonite, LCD Soundsystem
Sitting on the porch of Barnstable (or to some, “The Barnstable”) on the day after my fiftieth birthday, I am weighted with a feeling of loss. Not merely the loss of an old friend, or that sorrow that has followed our family, like a train, as we have lost fathers and heroes and our sense of hope for the future.

It does not help that I am currently reading Lincoln In The Bardo.

Topsail Island
This place is filled with memories, but also doubts. I carry with me the fear that I have failed or continue to fail in my efforts to be an active, engaged parent. As years pass and traditions fall by the wayside, or as I watch the moments tick by in which I am not actively creating or facilitating an activity, like fishing, or a game, like a treasure hunt.

Those moments in which I have intentionally passed on the opportunity to hold my children in a form of stasis, have encouraged them to grow up too soon, to make their own play and not to lean so heavily on mine. It is like a crime. I have such regret.

Seriously, I may need to set this book aside.

Each summer is marked by moments, those events we have scheduled and look forward to, signposts which I see approaching fast by the side of the road, and then catch in the rear-view as they pass at one thousand miles an hour.

With Joseph Morales (A.Ham)
Theater camp, outdoor Shakespeare, then North Carolina and Virginia. Pre-college, Hamilton, and now Maine. My birthday come, now gone, and we, too, will go, in forty-eight hours time. One million miles an hour.

The women were unavailable to attend Girl Camp this summer, and so for the first time since my son was five we have no opportunity for Boy Camp, which has always been a strange mystery. We will make up for that in other ways, at least I hope we do.

And yesterday I was gifted with tickets to see David Byrne at Jacobs Pavilion in two weeks! Another signpost. I am looking forward to that. And then, more or less, our summer will conclude. We are blessed with love and activity, but not enough time.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Top Ten Life Lessons Pengo Learned From Fred

Me and Fred, from a lost "silent" film. (1986)
This was not the post I intended to write on my fiftieth birthday. But life rarely goes as planned, and birthdays are as arbitrary as any other holiday.

Fred Steiner died this morning from a massive coronary. Apparently he was looking out his window contemplating mowing he grass, which is as fine a way to go as any I can think of.

Fred graduated from Bay High in 1980, a contemporary of my eldest bother, Denny. But we spent a lot of time together, watching movies, engaged in RPG, and producing comedy television for the public access channel.

We haven't spent a lot of time together recently, the last time I saw him was at his mother's funeral, before that at my father's. But unlike some from those old days we never had a falling out, never really lost touch.

I was unable to attend his 50th birthday party, si years ago, but I did pass along a number of things I had learned from him, sincerely offered, to be read at the event. It was only appropriate to be produced as a Letterman-esque "Top Ten" list.

10. Do the best work you can. Don’t get uppity. Create low expectations.

9. Christian Bale was a grown man before he learned what I learned at age fifteen: Do not have a tantrum when the camera is rolling.

8. The cool person stays in his chair, and makes people come to him.

7. Turn TV-viewing into a contest. It's more fun that way.

6. Fred’s defense of The Creature from Alsace Lorraine sketch; “Nobody told me no.”

5. Be original. Avoid high-concept. Edit.

4. Make the Dungeon Master laugh, and you can get away with anything.

3. "I’m SO fucked in the HEAD!"

2. Women are people, not aliens. They are easy to talk to and if you want something from them, just ask.

1. [This one is private.]
When I was a teenager Fred treated me with respect and dignity, long before Denny did. He was one who taught me decency and humility, and humor. I am very sorry he is gone.

Friday, July 20, 2018


This is Monticello.
Eighteen years ago, my wife and I took a second honeymoon. We’d only been married a year, but through the five years we’d been together we had already taken several road trips. One of the great joys of my life was finding a partner who was as delighted by roadside attractions as I was.

For the year 2000 we would take the longest excursion we ever had, perhaps we ever will. Three weeks on the road, traveling south through Memphis and Asheville, taking a week with friends in a roundhouse on the Outer Banks before heading north again through the two Virginias.

Approaching Nashville, we spotted signs for Belle Meade Plantation and decided yes, we have time for this. This was before we had teenage children, whose vote would most likely be “no,” not for any unpleasant reason, but usually out of a desire to “get there,” meaning either our final destination or a hotel with a pool.

Like many stately homes of the old South that were not burned to the ground during the war, Belle Meade has been preserved as a museum, a celebration of antebellum gentility and prosperity. Owner John Harding bred horses, which is a fine thing to do.

The building remains, complete with bullet holes in the stone columns from a “skirmish” between Union and Confederate soldiers. What no longer remained was any evidence of where the 136 enslaved people who worked the plantation and kept it successful for the white family in the big house lived, and raised their families.

Thomas Jefferson
Statue by Alexander Galt, UVA Rotunda (detail)
At the turn of the 21st century, however, things were finally beginning to change. They acknowledged these enslaved men, women, and children -- with particular emphasis on the seventy-two who remained after the war to work as employees, as though that suggested slavery on this plantation was the “good” kind, and not that other kind.

The year before, in 1999, there was a screening of Gone With the Wind at the Cedar-Lee, celebrating the film’s sixtieth anniversary. That was the first and last time I will ever see that movie. AFI still rates it as one of the top ten films ever made, and for sheer craft and artistry, perhaps it is. I fucking hate that movie, one which minimizes the entire American slave trade with the phrase, “they weren’t miserable.”

At the tail end of our journey, we spent a night in Charlottesville and the day at Monticello. It was a lazy day for us, touring the house, yes but also strolling leisurely through the gardens. Our children are good travelers, but it has been a long time since my wife and I have taken a journey on our own, dined at our own speed, made appointments at our own speed, and were able to silently take in a garden, a view, a work of architecture or art without distraction or comment.

One feature she very much liked was the Garden Pavilion, a small room, made of brick, perched on the “little mountain” with a grand view of the valley, the land beyond. She fancied what a marvelous room that would be to sit in and think or write, for hours.

Now remember, this first visit was in 2000, only two years since DNA testing made scientifically evident that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least five children with Sally Hemings, an enslaved person who lived at Monticello. The white descendants of Jefferson were still not prepared to accept the results, many surely never will be. But already the message was being shared from the docents at the site that slavery was to be acknowledged, though that message was not yet very loud.

Garden Pavilion, 2000
We learned about Jefferson the statesman, the scientist, the scholar, the philosopher, the farmer -- though he never really got his hands dirty. We also saw that peculiar bed that opened to his changing room and his study, which used to seem cool but now all I can think is, well, that’s a difficult bed to make.

Of course, he never made it.

It was easier just to tell his story, because it is most evident. Not merely because he was the third President of the United States, but because all of his stuff is still right there, to look at. Following emancipation the housing for the enslaved people was destroyed, what little possessions they owned, lost.

This July 4th weekend, NPR rebroadcast a Studio 360 episode about Monticello, and having recently visited it seemed a bit tone deaf. When an historian described the many debts Jefferson left when he died, he mentions in passing the “contents” that were sold off to raise funds.

Historian Hugh Howard says, “They have an auction, and they sell much of the contents of the house, which don’t go for a lot of money. They sell the slaves, which do go for a certain amount of money. And they begin to think about selling the house.”

He just glosses over the slaves. They get sold. That’s over six hundred people with lives and families who were auctioned off to pay the debts of one man. This episode was a rebroadcast, actually recorded in 2012. Even as late as six years ago a white man can casually reference an obscene act of human cruelty as casually as he was reading a ledger.

The good news is that the tenor of the conversation at Monticello has evolved mightily over the past eighteen years. Today you can expect to hear the stories of many others who lived and worked at Monticello, people whose stories might otherwise have been lost to history.

Hemings Family cabin (reconstruction)
It was a hot day, a not atypical summer day in Virginia, when we visited late last month. Waiting for the house tour we took the “Slavery Tour,” a walk-and-talk along Mulberry Row, which was once a bustling engine of toil and industry, made of homes for those who worked there, as well as workshops and storehouses for the various trades that kept the plantation alive.

Some small buildings have been recreated during the past generation. But our guide mostly led us from one shaded area to another (where we were able to enjoy staggeringly beautiful vistas overlooking the valley) and told true stories of those who lived and worked the row.

Joseph Fossett, a member of the Hemings extended family, was one of the very few enslaved people granted freedom in Jefferson’s will. We heard of the arrangements Fossett made with individual whites to purchase his family members at auction, to be bought by Fossett (with interest) as he made his living in Ohio as a blacksmith. For his youngest, Peter, it was an additional 25 years in bondage before Fossett was able to bring him north to freedom. Joseph Fossett worked every day to pay for his own children’s freedom.

"They sell the slaves, which do go for a certain amount of money." Which. Indeed.

But our tour wasn’t some matter-of-fact description of a bygone era. Our tour guide had an agenda, comparing slavery to the modern prison system, reminding us that the scars of race-based slavery are with us today and are nowhere near invisible.

Because our tour guide, this young man, is from Charlottesville, raised in Charlottesville, this is his home. And he was present during the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in August 2017, and Heather Heyer, who was murdered by a Nazi-sympathizer during the rally, was a friend of his.

Taking the new house tour, we heard once again about Jefferson’s many great achievements, but also the names and the stories of those who worked below floors, exhibits which have also recently been developed to illustrate slave life at Monticello.

Garden Pavilion, 2018
Why so much emphasis on slavery? Isn’t that past? Isn’t it time to move on? That is an argument, but it’s a useless one. It is an argument of exclusion. Thomas Jefferson did a great many things, including lead a country, establish a university, write the Declaration of Independence, the foundation of our democracy. He would never have had the time, the wherewithal to accomplish any of these things without the toil of the six hundred and seven people whose work gave him the time to sit and write and think.

And so we returned to the Garden Pavilion, from which Jefferson would have sat and thought and wrote, overlooking Charlottesville, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Rivanna River beyond. And in his day, he would also be keeping his eye on the hundreds of men and women downhill, harvesting all of his valuable tobacco.

Telling the story of Monticello requires telling the story of the people who literally built Monticello.

See also: Monticello Is Done Avoiding Jefferson’s Relationship With Sally Hemings by Farah Stockman, New York Times, 6/16/2018

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.