Monday, December 10, 2018

Adventures In Slumberland (script)

Photo: Steve Wagner
NEMO: Can I help put up the tree? I want to go out into the street and sing carols and see all the people!
MAMA: No, no, no.
NEMO: I am missing everyone! They are missing me!
MAMA: Nemo, no one misses you, you are no-one.
Adventures In Slumberland was my first script for Talespinner Children’s Theatre, an adaptation based on characters created by the legendary comic strip artist and animator Winsor McCay.

Perhaps you are old enough to remember the animated film of the same name, which was released in 1989. If so, you have a poor idea of what the original comic strip (Little Nemo in Slumberland) was all about, trust me, my short play had little to do with that.

The great animator Hayao Miyazaki actually had a hand in that film’s production for a very brief moment before walking away. Among other problems he had with the production as it was developing, he reportedly could not get behind a story that literally takes place in a dream, because that means it isn’t real.

And he’s not wrong. You go to sleep, think a lot of amazing things, but in the morning you are still the same person you were when you went to sleep. None of it actually happened.

This, and other issues, were foremost in my mind when creating this play. If the protagonist is a five year-old boy, how might a dream actually change him?

And as it was to be a holiday play, shouldn't it all take place on Christmas Eve? But if the action takes place over the course of only one night, we would miss out on all those hilarious waking moments which concluded every single McCay Slumberland comic strip. I needed to resolve that issue, too.

Then there are all those so-called “Easter eggs” I was aching to include; nods to other pop culture references to Little Nemo, including those found in the comic book Sandman, lyrics from Genesis, and that more contemporary animation with a character named "Nemo." (Chennelle calls them Easter eggs, someone else might call them copyright violations.)

One of my favorite parts of McCay’s strip is how he was able to accurately depict what a dream looks like, how a dream works, how people talk in dreams. Also how maddeningly repetitive or frustrating they can be. Nemo spent years trying to reach the Princess, always failing just before waking -- because that’s what happens in dreams!

But meeting the Princess is a MacGuffin, not the actual goal of the adventure. Neither is finding Santa Claus. I loved including Santa Claus, but he’s not the main event, either! I am so subversive.

My first children’s play, Adventures In Slumberland, is a forty-minute, honest-to-goodness, Joseph Campbell-inspired hero’s journey toward self-actualization and personhood.

And it’s now available in paperback and eBook. Please share and enjoy with the literary manager of your local children’s theater, college or school.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Serial (podcast)

Emmanuel Dzotsi & Sarah Koenig
Photo: Sandy Honig
Recently, Aaron Sorkin wrote an essay for New York Magazine in which he described the journey of his new stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. He was tasked with a seemingly intractable puzzle; stay entirely faithful to the original without changing a thing, but make it fresh and new.

While Mockingbird is a widely-cherished piece of work (the book, the original 1990 stage play by Christopher Stergel, and the award-winning film) presenting it as-is to a 2018 audience held a host of challenges; two notable problems are the unchangeable (see: undramatic) character of protagonist Atticus Finch, and the fact that a story which is primarily about race has few characters of color. Those present do not speak very much.

In the first case, Sorkin has addressed the problem of Atticus’s seemingly flawless character by making that his flaw. Atticus Finch believes that, as Sorkin puts it, as another put it before him, “there are fine people on both sides.” His crisis of conscience comes when that belief is permanently shaken.

As to the other, to creating scenes where the Finch housekeeper Calpurnia, and the accused Tom Robinson get to speak their minds where previously they had not, that is an issue where the estate of Harper Lee felt it necessary to take this new production to court.

Unlike in the 1960 novel, this recent trial played out in Mr. Robinson’s favor.

But the trial in this new adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird still ends in tragedy, as it must. Justice is denied. And the frustration felt by Atticus Finch and the disillusionment experienced by his young daughter Scout remains the main focus of this story, the one white Americans who love it most relate to.

Sorkin here quotes his friend and colleague, director David Fincher, stating, “art isn’t supposed to answer questions, it’s supposed to ask them.” The internet tells me it was actually the playwright Anton Chekhov who said that, but who knows. The point is, Mockingbird remains a troubling work, and in an era where violence against black men in America by those in authority is still an everyday occurrence, is it enough to simply ask questions? Do we not demand answers?

Justice is also the theme of the third season of the podcast Serial. A spin-off from This American Life, the concept is simple -- instead of one, brief story, or one episode-long story, one entire modern American mystery is investigated over the course of weeks.

It would have been hard to top Serial’s first season, and it was. The 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee had much going for it to create a pop culture phenomenon; teen sex, interracial relationships, Islamophobia, drugs, an attractive anti-hero in the convicted boyfriend, Adnan Syed, and even late 90s nostalgia (pinging cell towers, anyone?)

Episode Six mural art by Martinez E-B
Photo by Moth Studio
And then there is the producer-host, Sarah Koenig, who has no qualms about crossing journalistic boundaries and becoming part of the story. She breaks the cardinal rule of impartiality, developing something of a crush on Syed, and openly expressing confusion and concern about what the truth actually is, which is fine for me because 1) she’s entirely up-front and transparent about it and 2) who the fuck is impartial anymore?

Season two was something of a let-down. The Bowe Bergdahl case, a story of American involvement in Afghanistan, was compelling, fascinating even. But as a central character Bergdahl is, excuse me for saying so, boring. Worse, I don’t like him. Worse, I don’t care about him.

Season three left me emotionally startled at the jump, and kept me there, and for very personal reasons. They broke the mold of the first two seasons by changing focus from a single mystery to be plumbed (a murder, a disappearance) to a larger social ill to be remedied -- namely, the American criminal justice system. And the main character was not a person, but a city. Cleveland.

For nine weeks, Koenig and reporter-producer Emmanuel Dzotsi set up shop in the Justice Center downtown, and followed the stories they found there, drawing a complex web of tales depicting a dysfunctional system through which we meet a engaging collection of characters (people) in places a little too close for comfort.

In episode six (You In the Red Shirt) a citizen is harassed by East Cleveland officers in “the park.” It’s not just any park, though. They say its proper name just once, Forest Hill Park. I take a run in that park every day. There is a world within my world of which I remain blithely ignorant.

I am not going to describe the stories, these citizens, you need to listen to the podcast yourself. Perhaps you already have. But I was startled by how Koenig chose to conclude, with a litany of suggestions. And it’s a long list.
“Don't pile six charges onto a single crime when one charge will do. Don't overcharge to force a guilty plea. Don't lock anyone up, unless they're demonstrably violent. Admit that police officers lie under oath. Get out of the punishment business and turn toward the urgent problem of fairness.”
She goes on for four paragraphs. In this holiday season, she even quotes Dickens: “Don't be insensibly tempted ... into a loose way of letting bad things alone to take their own bad course.”

Her final word is, “Let's all accept that something's gone wrong. Let's make that our premise.”

And so, they say that art isn’t supposed to answer questions, it’s supposed to ask them. But these days, it is as though even journalism -- tasked with reporting the truth -- doesn’t even ask the questions. Koenig and her team do ask questions, some very difficult questions.

And they dare to provide some answers. Because for God’s sake someone has to.

Behind the Scenes of Serial Season Three, featuring Sarah Koenig and Emamanuel Dzotsi, comes to Playhouse Square on Saturday, December 15, 2018.

SeriaLand, a blog by Cleveland attorney Rebecca Maurer, providing greater historical context to Serial Season Three.

Cleveland Talks Serial, a podcast produced by IdeaStream. A round table discussion on the series.

Serial (podcast)

"Bringing To Kill a Mockingbird to Broadway was nearly impossible" by Aaron Sorkin, New York Magazine 11/26/2018

Monday, December 3, 2018

Christmas Wrapping (song)

This weekend, ageing alt-rock hipster Twitter was going nuts over a tweet from Andy Partridge (XTC) in which he lavished praise on that holiday classic Christmas Wrapping by Akron's own The Waitresses.

"So much about this that I wished i'd done," Partridge said. "The cheekiness."

Waitress scribe Chris Butler on Facebook responded simply, "Speechless."

Indeed. If I received such praise from the man who wrote Dear God I would also be gobsmacked.

Why is Christmas Wrapping such an endurable bop? It's completely dated; early 80s white girl rapping, syncopated, post-punk pop with jangly guitars and jingle bells, even the lyrics lock it rigidly to the year it was released:
Had his number, but never the time.
Most of '81 passed along those lines.
Perhaps it is that sentiment, about never having the time, which makes the story part of the song something everyone relates to.

Butler was commissioned by a record label to create a Waitresses song for a compilation album of indie holiday tunes, and he found the idea of writing a Christmas song (especially in the middle of summer) to be as oppressive as the holiday itself can be.

"I hated Christmas," he told reporter John Petrick in 2005. "It wasn't about joy. It was something to cope with."

And so, he created a narrative of a young adult - not a parent or a child - working, dating, getting sick, looking for connection, settling for a solo Christmas dinner in her apartment before finding that last minute date at the grocery store.

Truth be told, I was not hip to this song when it was released. I was thirteen and not as cool as all that. But there was an early 80s revival in the mid-1990s, as Gen Xers were recovering bits of their lost childhood, and this record went to the top of my personal holiday playlist in a big way.

Because of nostalgia for the New Wave era. Because it’s downtown and upbeat. Because it’s about striving and failing and being happy with what you have. Because the late Patty Donahue knows what boys like, she’s a square peg, and she can use my comb.

"How an obscure 80s punk band created a Christmas classic" by John Petrick, The Star Online 12/22/2005

UPDATE: In my original draft, I erroneously said the track was synth-laden. "No synths!" - C.Butler