Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Twentieth Century Revival Party

“It's something you learn after your second theme party: It's All Been Done Before.” - Prior Walter, Angels In America
We used to have parties, lots of parties. Post-show parties, theme parties. My first 1980s Revival Party was in 1989. Once upon a time that would have seemed cutting-edge, but seriously. We’re talking about parties.

I had a premonition of dread regarding NYE 2000, which had as much to do with my personal brain chemistry as it did with politics, culture, and the residual fear that Christ was returning and that we were all totally fucked.

We saw the Canadian art-house film Last Night at the Cedar-Lee in December 1999, an apocalyptic comedy with a mean streak of melancholy (speaking of which, Lars Von Trier entirely cribbed the premise for this movie for his Melancholia only eliminating any trace of humor) which left me feeling refreshed, and positive. The world might end, but it’s going to do that, anyway. At least we have had love.

The USO Hall
I looked forward into the 21st Century with a renewed sense of hope. And we all know how well that’s worked out.

To celebrate the end of the Millennium, on December 31, 1999 (numerologists be damned) we invited our friends to decorate our house for a Twentieth Century Revival Party, assigning a different decade to each room.

A salute to Spiritualism was featured in my office, a Roaring 20s speakeasy in the bathroom. There was a Depression-era soup kitchen in the dining room, in the living room a WWII USO party. Cold War martinis and Hawaiian appetizers in the kitchen, the basement was a psychedelic Sixties happening with brownies, both leaded and unleaded.

The password is "swordfish."
In the hallway upstairs I erected a stack of television screens which played a six-hour curated VHS video of 80s MTV clips. Remember when MTV played music videos? Of course you don’t, no one does.

And the wife’s office included computers featuring newfangled "webcams" of New Year’s Eves in New Orleans, New York and elsewhere, and guests recorded messages for a time capsule we will open on our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.

We gathered in the USO Hall for the countdown to the new century (numerologists, shut up) and the best prank which did not happen was when Brian thought of going into the basement and killing the power exactly at midnight, only he didn’t and just told me about it later.

Video Killed the Radio Star
Practically everyone I knew at the time was there. Certainly, almost everyone engaged in our work with Bad Epitaph and Dobama's Night Kitchen. New Year's Eve is fun, but I don't think anyone wanted to be caught without something special to do that night and I am glad so many chose to come to our party, to be with us.

But that was it. Whether an effect of growing up, losing a child, or having living children, we stopped throwing parties at our house. We looked inward. Certainly, my wife and I continued to be social animals, but turning our home into the site of such loud, animated festivities became a thing of the past.

But who knows. We have teenagers now, and they may come up with their own ideas. After all, we are on the threshold of the "New Roaring Twenties."

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 30, 2019

Ten Most Visited Posts of the Decade

The Great Lakes Exposition of 1936
This blog began as an investigation into the year 1936, the Cleveland Centennial. Since then I have written posts both professional and personal, all in the service of my own work as a playwright.

I am not a wildly popular blogger. Some things do go viral, but in general any given post averages somewhere between fifty and one hundred aggregate views. I could look back to the year 2010 and find most posts have, in the past ten years, received a total of thirty, forty, fifty views.

Touchable.
The most viewed posts run the gamut, from dry, investigative work, to personal or opinionated essays on my work in theater.

It stands to reason that those which were written eight years ago have more views than those written two years ago. But Eliot Ness stands out as a person of great interest, garnering almost twice that of Chef Boyardee, which ranks second.
  1. The Death of Eliot Ness (2011)
    detailing the death of a one-time Cleveland Safety Director
  2. Chef Boyardee (2011)
    the true story of an icon you thought was fictional
  3. Ohio Criminal Syndicalism Act (2010)
    a forgotten anti-First Amendment law targeting organized protest
  4. Tony Brown (2011)
    a local theater critic ghosts and how history will pay the price
  5. Funky Winkerbean (2012)
    what happened to you, man?
  6. Styles Court, Styles St. Mary, Essex (2012)
    photos of location shots for David Suchet's "Poirot"
  7. Single White Fringe Geek (2018)
    how a negative review was a blessing
  8. Randall Park Mall (2012)
    a 1976 editorial from the Plain Dealer about northeast Ohio's glorious future
  9. The Famous History of Troilus and Cressida (2018)
    my concept for an outdoor production of "Troilus and Cressida"
  10. The "Santaland Diaries" Diaries (2017)
    notes on one six performance week of the David Sedaris classic
For the record, this is my 1,305th post for this blog since January 1, 2010. The Eliot Ness post has been visited almost 10,000 times, the "Santaland" post nearly eight hundred.

What will the next ten years yield? Will we still be blogging then, or may I deliver my messages directly into your brain?

Read my own list of Ten Best Blog Posts of the 2010s!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Top Ten Moments of 2019


At the devastating conclusion of 2016, I pointed up ten moments from the year which made it worth living, because there needs to be something. The past few months have been spent coping with great anxiety over my mother’s health, and there is yet much to remember and to celebrate about 2019.

1. "Spamilton"

The girl and I went to the Hanna the day after New Year’s to enjoy Gerard Alessandrini’s parody of Hamilton, which was delightful in its low-budget aesthetic, fast pace and cheap jokes. If you aim at a king you must kill him, and it was the versatile comic abilities of the performers which kept us in stitches.

Though my daughter got all the Hamilton references, I did have to help her out a little with the more obscure musical theater references. And by obscure I mean Liza. The kids don’t know Liza.

2. "Witness for the Prosecution"

There are a few non-speaking roles in Agatha Christie’s courtroom drama Witness for the Prosecution and I was asked by Great Lakes Theater to appear as a barrister for a small number of student matinee performances, the very first of which was for an audience of mostly middle school students.

They sat surprisingly silent throughout this sixty-six year-old drama, and we were all shocked and delighted when the place erupted during the final five minutes as Christie revealed first the first verdict, then one twist upon another. It was a unique experience you can only get from live theater.


3. “Awareness” (short film)

This spring I had the privilege of mentoring a New East Tech High School student in creating a public health play script. Actually, it was originally slated to be a live performance, then the screenplay for a short film. The student is a poet, with a great sense of style and humor, and mostly I shared with her what I saw, what I felt was missing, which moments were better reported and which dramatized.

Checking in every other week, she wrote very fast (and on her phone, no less) arranged table readings with her classmate and oversaw the production of the final video product.

4. Melissa & Patrick’s Wedding

My wife and I attended a stunning destination wedding in New Orleans, which was delightful and romantic in so many ways. We once visited the Crescent City together, over twenty years ago, and there is no one I would rather travel with, she is my soulmate in tourism. Also, it was a delight to participate in a richly fantastic Millennial nuptial composed of so many of my theater and actor-teacher colleagues.

5. Women’s World Cup

For feminists (and those who love them) it has been the best of times, the worst of times. But the best moments can be spectacular, like Megan Rapinoe and the utter dominance of Team USA in the Women’s World Cup. You could catch us most matches at a huge, full table at Heights Grill, people by members of the high school team, their coaches and families.

And you would know us by my wife’s mauve do.

6. College Visits

Twice this summer I joined the girl in investigating colleges and universities, first in NYC and then in Providence. It was a joy, stealing this opportunity to spend one-on-one time with my daughter in new places, trying new restaurants, watching her take extensive notes on what she’s discovered.

7. School of Rock presents "American Idiot"

My son was introduced to Green Day early and they are the bedrock of his rock and roll education. I took him to see the Broadway tour of American Idiot at the Palace Theatre when he was nine, and the Beck Center production a year later (Beck’s was better) and when he was cast in the American Idiot show at his chapter of School of Rock I may have been more excited than he was.

8. Crossing the City

I have run from my house to my parents house a few times, at least once each time I have trained for a marathon. This year I did it twice, the second time with my son. He was riding, I was running. It was a hot day, the last ten miles were grueling (much like the race itself) but having the opportunity to share the experience, the city, my training, four hours together making our way from Cleveland Heights to Lakewood, we had an adventure.

9. Mike Doughty plays "Ruby Vroom"

I’m not actually the kind of father who pushes his artistic interests onto his children. No, really. But we have also exposed them to an awful lot of what we like, which is nearly everything. So I believe they have come to their tastes organically.

Making her mark at the Smiling Skull Saloon.
Having said that, the boy has also been a huge Soul Coughing fan and when Mike Doughty announced he was touring the twenty-fifth anniversary of their first album Ruby Vroom I thought that was a father-son experience not to be missed.

Falling as it did this fall in the midst of great emotional turmoil, listening to Doughty and his band conduct a faithful recreation of the album live was surprisingly affecting to me, a stark reminder of my young adulthood. I may have cried (I didn’t actually cry.)

10. Christmas in Athens

It’s been hard. It continues to be hard. But I am so grateful to my brother Henrik for returning from England -- for the second time in two months -- so that one of mother’s boys were home for the holiday, affording me this opportunity to be with Toni’s family in Athens, if only for a couple days.

Merry Christmas to you and yours, best wishes for the New Roaring Twenties.

Friday, December 20, 2019

My 2019 Holiday Letter

O Heavens, is’t possible
A young maid’s wits
Should be as mortal
As an old man’s life.

- HAM IV.v
I feel I owe you an explanation.

My mother has always been a humble and giving person, generous and thoughtful of others.

She is also proud, dignified, first to accept responsibility, to the point of guilt, the last to cast blame.

My mother can seem judgmental, when she is, in fact, the opposite. She reserves judgment to the point of seeming aloof.

This is perhaps why her demeanor has intimidated virtually every woman I have been with, all but one. My wife and my mother share a special relationship, the manner in which mom welcomed Toni into our family is a gift she has never taken for granted.

Mom's sense of privacy, and her respect of privacy for others has kept me from broadcasting her condition. But I thought it was only right, at this time, to share with those who care about her, and care about me, how she is, and what has happened.

Shortly after my father died in 2016 she revealed to me that she has Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). She was diagnosed almost fifteen years earlier, and she didn’t want me to worry. It’s the kind of leukemia you live with until it begins to cause problems.

This summer she discovered that her white blood count was generously high, and she was prescribed treatment to bring it down. At the same time, her immune system began to attack her red blood cells, and so it was that two months ago, in early October, she was hospitalized and nearly died.

She was provided transfusions of healthy blood to keep her alive, and a series of infusions to suppress her immune system so that her blood count might normalize, which it did.

And so the autumn continued, and we all tried to carry on as normal. That includes me, the son who never left Cleveland (my brothers live in Minnesota and in England), my immediate family those relatives and friends who commune with her daily, and also and her partner, Jacques.

Jacques and my mother were high school sweethearts, a romance rekindled after the death of my father. It is a touching and important story, but for now it is enough to say they had a lovely summer together, with hope to enjoy a few more.

But things were not normal. I received his calls; your mother has fainted, your mother took a fall. Each time she would say it was nothing, she did not wish to go to the hospital.

She had regular appointments scheduled with her GP, her oncologist, her cardiologist, and I planned to join her at these.

November I could see her becoming increasingly physically unsteady. But she attended my kids’ high school musical, their fall concerts. Every week or so she might call one off. I was becoming anxious about her condition, but I did not know what else to do. Please remember, she is a private person, and I have always meant to respect her wishes.

Thanksgiving was coming, and my brothers and their families were coming home and maybe then together we’d figure out a course of action. Plans were put into place to have home health care join them a few times a week, to look after mom and to take care of chores.

Over the course of a very noisy week, with two families sharing her home in Lakewood, I could see a sharp decline, not only physically but she was having increasing difficulty in finding the right words to express what she was thinking.

I began spending nights at mom’s house. It was exhausting, sitting with her while she struggled to speak, waiting for the moment in the evening when Jacques and I would muscle her to the toilet, and into bed, as while she stopped being able to send motor commands to her legs.

And I missed my kids, my wife, until that afternoon two weeks ago when she fell out of bed during a nap and we finally took her to the emergency room.

We do not know the course of events. It is enough to state the fact. My mother has developed progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML) a rare infection of the brain which can affect those with a compromised immune system.

After more than a week in the hospital, we brought her home. We have converted her woody, carpeted dining room, where we enjoyed a large, Hansen family Thanksgiving dinner less than three weeks earlier, into her new bedroom. She is tended to around the clock, as necessary, by team of nurses aides and those from hospice.

Already there are things I miss. I miss her smile, her voice, her sense of humor. But she is still with us and I try to see her every day.

I worry about her, think about her, how this is affecting us as a family, her partner, and most importantly to me, our children.

Growing up I lost my grandparents over the course of four different decades, in 1976, 1981, 1989, and 2005. The loss of grandparents was to me occasional. Inevitable, to be sure, part of life, but infrequent enough to more easily process the grief.

My own children lost two grandfathers in two years, and only recently. Seeing them watch their beloved Tertia slip away is hard to bear, and it breaks my heart for them accumulate such pain during their teenage years.

We do not know what happens next. My brothers make plans to cycle through town. My wife and I make plans to visit my in-laws for the holidays, taking two cars in case of. The new year is a mystery.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The New Normal

Home tree.
Yesterday morning, I think it was yesterday, I was sitting on the couch in my home, in my bathrobe, in front of the fire. It was five-thirty in the morning, the tree was lit, also the faux-antique bulbs surrounding my wife’s collection of nutcrackers on the mantle.

I was drinking good coffee from a ceramic mug, writing pad in my lap. The children still asleep, not to wake for an hour before rising and getting ready for me to drive them to school. It was a familiar atmosphere, to time I create for myself to sit and think and write.

And it felt like a dream. This was the fantasy, the peace, the comfort, the home-ness of it all. The normalcy. It wasn’t normal.

Because normal, these nights, is lying on an uncomfortable hospital recliner. Mornings are spent in half-darkness, with not-great coffee in a foam cup, writing for a few moments before being interrupted by a nurse, another doctor, or having to go to my mother to get her to stop pedaling her leg in bed, anxiously kneading at the sheets, to encourage her to breathe, relax, and go back to sleep.

Sunday night my wife took the shift for me, affording me a night at home. And so I had a morning to myself. And it felt surreal. And wrong.

As I type, I am seated at a hospital-issue table trying to piece together thoughts as mom dozes in and out of afternoon rest. She may suddenly decide she needs to sit up and go someplace, though not being able to successfully negotiate bipedal locomotion is what got us into this place.

The wife passed off a flask as I checked in last night, I am day drinking bourbon and Cherry Coke Zero. Not my favorite cocktail but I am glad for the comfort and joy.

Atrium tree.
Speaking of the holidays, this afternoon, a table for one at Deagan's. After days of fast food I desperately wanted lettuce and so enjoyed a Caesar Salad ... and a holiday ale and peach cheesecake. I am eating my Christmas. I am drinking my Christmas.

Mom’s frustrated. Confined to an uncomfortable bed, fretting all the tasks which are beyond her present capability, bored with the selection of room service we have already exhausted. And she cannot adequately express what she thinks, and she knows it.

The laughs are further between. There are few reasons for a smile. It gets quieter and quieter.

We await the results of a test. It’s not a pass/fail test. The days are tedious and trying. I am grateful that she has a partner who loves her and joins us and affords me the chance to slip away and take a shower and a nap and return to the room where nothing ever happens.

Tonight will again be restless. Tomorrow evening my wife will return to take a shift. Thursday morning I will rise from my own bed, put on my robe and sit before the fire with my coffee. And it will feel wrong.

The short play "Magic" is available for reading at New Play Exchange.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Lestrade's Lads

Steve Lewis (left) and Henrik Hansen
This photo was staged.
(Chronicle-Telegram)
When my brother was in middle school, he and eight of his colleagues formed a local chapter of the Baker Street Irregulars. Theirs was an officially recognized “scion society” of BSI, an international organization of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts that has in its time included such notable members as Harry Truman, Neil Gaiman and Curtis “Booger” Armstrong.

This youthful Bay Village society called itself Lestrade's Lads, after the Scotland Yard inspector who often took credit for Holmes's achievements.

The BSI celebrates the birthday of “the Master” each January 6 with a gala in New York City. In 1978 the Lads were in eighth grade, and they were content to sit together at our house, listening to vinyl records of 1940s radio adaptations starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, sharing trivia, and hoping Big Chuck and Lil’ John might play one of the films.

One of the more notable things about members of the BSI is their engagement in the game, or the belief that Holmes and Watson were not fictitious and that Arthur Conan Doyle was merely a literary agent for Dr. Watson. The “fun” part of this game is creating a realistic timeline and character biographies from Doyle’s fifty-six short stories and four canonical Holmes novels which can be wildly contradictory.

These mental exercises are beyond my ken, as I have never been a great follower of the character of Sherlock Holmes in any medium, beyond the recent incarnation as performed by Benedict Cumberbatch. Even then I only watched two seasons.

But having been assigned the responsibility of writing a new mystery for the character, I did not wish to stumble blindly into a chronology so richly mined. I hoped to create a pastiche, and not merely fanfic. A possible, brief adventure that could fit into the established narrative, and because I wanted him to have a young female companion, I needed Watson to be absent.

In 1962, William S. Baring-Gould published what has come to be regarded as the definitive “biography” of the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. He writes:
Watson, in the winter of 1900-01 and the following spring, was much too busy writing his narrative of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" to share many cases with Holmes, but his narrative was in the hands of the publishers by May of 1901, and he was able to take part in a case destined to become a classic in the annals of criminology -- that of the Priory School.
And so, the adventure of Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street takes place over the course of a couple of days in early spring, 1901. For good measure, I even sent Watson out of the country for a fortnight on a family matter.

Each of my brothers were in town for Thanksgiving. Henrik, a life-long Anglophile, has been living in England for over a quarter-century. Shortly before he departed this afternoon, we went through the few childhood belongings that remain in the attic of my mother’s home.

These include a massive, two-volume set The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, The Sherlock Holmes Scrapbook, magazines, photographs, paperbacks, and newspaper clippings, and the three-album set of radio dramas Lestrade’s Lads listened to more than forty years ago.


To be continued.

Sources:
Bay’s Baker Street Irregulars: Sherlock Holmes ‘never said all that’ by Cynthia Roberts, The Chronicle Telegram (1/1/1978)
The Baker Street Journal: An Index to an Irregular Quarterly of Sherlockiana (Vol. 20:1 - Vol. 43:4)
Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, A Life of the World’s First Consulting Detective by William S. Baring-Gould (Bramhall House, 1962)

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Assessment


Last Tuesday I sat in the window at Appletree Books, writing new monologues for The Witches. We’d had a reading the night before, of the first fifty-five pages, It went well, people laughed. They cared about what was happening. That was a good sign.

The main characters are three women who work in a roadside attraction, and their ages are relevant to the story. One Millennial, one Gen X, one Boomer. After the reading, one had questions about Morgan, the one in her forties, the overlooked middle child of the trio. She’s overshadowed by the other two, which is, of course, the point.

But we’re not done with the story yet, and so I sat in the window on Cedar Road the next night, writing two monologues for that performer, who plays Morgan and also the enslaved woman from 1692, Ruina. She figures into the opening play-within-the-play in which she accuses Goodwife Miller of being a witch.

It’s an original story culled from so many sources in my head, I am piecing it together carefully. Not too absurd, not too real. I don’t know why I am sharing all of this today, except to wave frantically saying hello, still here. The work is happening.

It’s the kind of inner-monologue I normally would share on my running blog, but since the marathon I haven’t been too interested in running.

This week, this Thanksgiving week, there are many and wonderful things to accomplish and experience. Tomorrow I will be meeting a middle school aged intern at a CMSD school to introduce her to a team of actor-teachers so that she may shadow them for the day before I head off to visit other teams at other Cleveland city schools.

We will discuss your affairs this very
afternoon over a bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!
We’re also having our annual pre-holiday potluck in the office, for which I will once again be providing the Smoking Bishop. As we speak, baked and spiced citrus is soaking in wine and sugar. If I still have my legs tomorrow afternoon, I will be editing prize-winning short stories written by CMSD students for broadcast on the radio in mid-December.

Tuesday is the first of two student matinees of Great Lakes Theater's A Christmas Carol to celebrate the writers of these stories. It’s always a thrill to kick off the holidays in this manner, but it takes a great deal of preparation and occupies my thoughts for most of November.

At the same time, both of my brothers and their families are coming to town for Thanksgiving, which is also a reason for celebration but with it comes all the attendant plotting and planning.

This in addition to all of the holiday planning for my own, nuclear family. We have our personal traditions and as long as the children live in our house we will honor and keep them.

As you can see, much is happening. I wouldn’t have it any other way,

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Ten Best Blog Posts of the 2010s

Self (2010)
I do not recall celebrating the end of the first decade of this century, we just kept calm and carried on. Today, however, there are all kinds of folks asking, "How did you spend the past ten years?"

Ye, gods. I shudder to think. That would be called my 40s, and they flew by. What on earth did I do with them? I don’t feel like I’m any different, anywhere different than I was in 2009.

But the end of that year was when I was awarded a Creative Workforce Fellowship, which was an important step in my journey as a professional playwright
My primary goal in having received the fellowship was to write a play inspired by the events of 1936, and to that end I began this blog, Cleveland Centennial. Most of 2010 was spent chronicling my research, then this blog became a general repository for my thoughts and experiences regarding playwriting and theater.

Reviewing over one thousand unique entries, and in chronological order, here are my Ten Best Blog Posts of the 2010s.

My Last Harvey Pekar Story (7/12/2010)
The day my five year-old son taught me how to mourn.

The Hobbit (12/11/2011)
Researching the events of World War One led to reconsideration of a book I thought I knew.

On the Scary (10/4/2012)
A winding discourse on what scares us, and how the worst monsters are real.

Before Sunrise, Before Sunset (9/18/2013)
Experiencing the first two installments of Linklater’s trilogy inspired a new work.

Guardians of the Galaxy (8/10/2014)
Our doomed desire to pass deeply felt emotions onto others through our favorite tunes.

Brian Chandler Cook performs "I Hate This" (9/9/2015)
Witnessing the transference of your story to another.

Theater of War (1/9/2016)
My job, in a nutshell, and the last book I ever loaned my father.

Objectively/Reasonable (3/7/2017)
The Cold Civil War begins, and everyone is forced to choose a side.

Single White Fringe Geek (10/8/2018)
The single most helpful review I ever received was negative.

My Own Private Dramaturge (6/8/2019)
How we carry the wisdom of our fathers, sometimes literally.

Read the Ten Most Visited Posts of the Decade!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Writer in the Window (2019)

Four years running, I have participated in the "Writers In the Window" event at Appletree Books.

The very first time was in 2016, just before the election. It was hot, the door to the store was propped open, and the Indians were still up in the Series, 3 games to 2. Things looked good.

I sat in the window three times that November, writing a good deal of Red Onion, White Garlic. Last year it was About a Ghoul. I write plays every November, on display in the window of Appletree Books, in full view of Cedar Road rush hour traffic.

Usually I have a laptop, this evening I brought a wooden writer's desk and wrote by hand for two hours, and I daresay I accomplished more in this manner, penning three scenes for The Witches, which I will get to hear read next week

I am lost as to what happens next. But that was also true two hours ago.

Appletree Books is located at 12419 Cedar Rd. in the Cedar-Fairmount District of Cleveland Heights.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Name of the Game (song)

The Name of the Game was released in October, 1977. The first single from the ABBA album ABBA: The Album, it reached number 12 in the United States, and (I was unaware of this until I read the Wikipedia entry) the distinctive bass line was inspired by Stevie Wonder’s I Wish.

I was nine years old in late 1977. What I find amazing is that even at that young age, I knew exactly what the song was about: A young, self-conscious woman (we will say she, the lyrics are sung by self-identifying women) making an appeal to an apparently worldly, probably older man (we will call this person he) a man with whom she has made an emotional connection, to please be honest about what is happening between them.

However, the real impact of this song cannot be understood in the shorter, 3:58 version which was the American radio edit, which omits the entire second verse. I had the album, it was the first pop record I ever bought, so I was aware of the difference.

I have already described what it was like growing up, consuming the pop culture of the late 1970s. I had created for myself a somewhat dark image of adult interpersonal relationships. My parents might be square, but my own adulthood would apparently be one of mistrust, and fleeting, furtive coupling.

This song, especially, in its complete 4:51 album version, affirmed and confirmed this theory. The first verse marks her as insecure, and describes her disbelief that anyone would pay her any attention at all.
I was an impossible case
No-one ever could reach me
But I think I can see in your face
There's a lot you can teach me
In its brief, radio-ready incarnation, the song just rises and rises and rises to the chorus, begging the question, what’s the name of the game?

The second verse, however, makes her sound almost pathetic, as though she thinks of herself as some kind of social outcast.
I have no friends, no-one to see
And I am never invited
Now I am here, talking to you
No wonder I get excited
Because there is a second verse, the heights of the chorus is abruptly brought back down to Stevie Wonder’s pilfered, down-beat bass line. The lyrics then dive so much deeper into the narrator’s personal insecurities, which become even more pronounced, and her surprise that this beautiful mentor has focused his attention on this neophyte, out of an entire crowd.

You might even say he is grooming her.

Her complete shock at this development leads her to ask, “would you laugh at me, if I said I care for you?” That’s a special kind of fear, and now instead of asking for the ground rules of the game, she now sounds afraid it’s just a game. Is he using her? Can he be serious?

This second verse raises the stakes tremendously.

Again, at the age of nine, I got this. I understood it. And even then I was worried I might one day be treated the way she is.

As a child it never occurred to me that I could be the one who treats someone else that way.

Which is all to say, I am entirely unhappy with the manner in which this song is employed in the musical Mamma Mia! Altering the lyrics somewhat, it becomes a somewhat creepy plea from a young woman asking an older man if he is not, in fact, her biological father. So glad they didn't use it in the movie.

I have said too much.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Balm In Gilead (1989)

"Balm In Gilead" by Lanford Wilson, directed by Dennis L. Dalen
(Ohio University School of Theatre, 1989)
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?

- Jeremiah 8:22

“‘Disintegration’ is the best album ever!”
- Kyle Broflovski, South Park
Nineteen Eighty-Nine was the greatest year in musical history. This is a point of some debate, but I know it to be true. Psychologists have explained that each individual believes the music released in one’s twenty-first year will generally be regarded as superior to all others.

But come on, Paul’s Boutique, Three Feet High and Rising, Deep, Pretty Hate Machine, I could go on. Disintegration is indeed the best album ever, and well describes my own psyche at the end of my third year in college, when it was released.

I had gone from second-year golden boy to third-year pariah, and started my fourth-year in perhaps the most mentally correct place I have ever found myself. I learned that I need to get my professional shit together and was ready to just bear down and work until graduation.*

The undergraduate production that fall was Balm In Gilead by Lanford Wilson, a production which opened thirty years ago tonight. An ideal play if you want to cast as many people as possible, Wilson’s work is a hipster fantasia taking place in and around a twenty-hour diner frequented by the addicted, sex workers, and also thieves, hustlers, and criminals.

Joe (Peter Voinovich) and Darlene (Susan Hobrath)
All my best friends, my contemporaries, were in this production (except Jules, who was across the alley, performing in Hurlyburly) and we all underwent a deep, focused investigation of the world of heroine users, expending the kind of time on research that was so plentiful at school, even if we were unaware of it.

We had scheduled a meeting with a therapist at the campus addiction recovery center. I knew absolutely nothing about heroin, save for having watched Sid & Nancy. What I learned became quite valuable, as I will soon point out.

We did not need to study the time period, because director Denny Dalen did not set it in any specific time period, or to be more accurate, we were each from different eras, as though we were walking through some kind of purgatory.

Larry was a 70s street hustler, with picked out Afro, Pete a Miami Vice styled wannabe kingpin in a blazer and T-shirt. Ricky in all-white disco attire, Susan a 60s flower-child, Lisa a hard-boiled 1950s waitress with small apron and snood.

Me, I was the narrator, an addict named Dopey in a mid-80s Deep Purple T-shirt and a high school varsity jacket. My long hair ratted out and my first real beard, I have deeply warm feelings about this costume. Much love to designer Tavia DeFelice.

The script is very challenging to read, as several conversations can be happening at once. You had to say your line in the order it appears on the page, but you might be responding to something someone said three lines back. But the more we did it, the more we heard it, and the more it became like a kind of word jazz.

I remember the week leading up to opening was particularly tough. Denny had something for everyone, and more for some than others. The underclassmen were a pain, as they debated every observation Denny had for them, responding with some explanation for how the way they were doing it made sense.

There's a saying. "Take the note." Don't argue with me. Do it.

One night, before we started in with notes, someone speculated on how long notes were going to go, and how wearying it all was.

Self as Dopey
“Not for David,” said one of the second-years. giving me the side-eye. “He never gets any notes.”

I was a little too quick to respond. “No, I don't. But if I did I’d be sure to pitch a fit about them.”

It got better. Denny was not happy with the penultimate dress, and everyone knew it.

He said, “David is the only person on this stage who knows where he’s coming from and where he’s going to,” or words to that effect.

I don't usually remember compliments, but I remember that. A couple years ago, when posting about Greg Vovos' play, How To Be a Respectable Junkie, I recounted my experience in preparing for this play, and how close study of the text and an understanding of the effects of heroin made it possible for me to pick apart the threads of conversation and develop a clear map of  (as the man said) where I was coming from. Where I was headed to.

Check out the post, the playwright makes it all crystal clear.

So yeah, I was proud of myself, for being the professional, for embodying a whole character and being confident about it. It has been a very long time since I have had the opportunity to dive so deeply into a character.

But the whole production was like that, it was practically immersive. Balm was staged in the Form, a deeply thrust stage. The set (Daniel N. Denhart, designer) inspired by Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, the non-present walls of the diner clearly defined by light (James A. Gage, designer) all organey warm inside, and bluishly cold out.

The script is a symphony of despair, one that repeats night after night, as we lounged about the set, crouching in corners, shivering, when we weren’t on. Smoking live cigarettes. Spitting.
DOPEY: (turns to face the audience) Are you getting any of this?
And who knows. Maybe I could have been an actor.

"Balm In Gilead" by Lanford Wilson and directed by Dennis L. Dalen, at the Forum Theater at Ohio University, November 3 - 11, 1989.

*Side Note: Fall Quarter 1989 I had roles in three productions, the mainstage and two fourth year studio plays, whereas all other fourth years were in only two. In addition to Dopey I also played the Fire Chief in Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano" and in Tennessee Williams' "The Gnädiges Fräulein," the Cockalooney Bird.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Twenty-Twenty

"About a Ghoul"
(Talespinner Children's Theatre, 2019)
Where did twenty years go? How did we sail blithely from marriage and plans for a productive and beautiful future to find ourselves gray and so very, very troubled?

Certainly, I blame the children. The child we lost, and those we have, those bright, living children who engage and surprise us every day.

This weekend we’re seeing Damn Yankees at the high school, and both kids are in the pit orchestra, that’s a first. I performed that show at my own high school, thirty-four years ago. The show was dated then, but today the D.C.team is actually in the World Series. How odd.

The past year has had its professional achievements,  including the “world premiere” of The Way I Danced With You, a West Coast production of Rosalynde & The Falcon that was a delightful success, as was the opening of About a Ghoul at Talespinner Children's Theatre, and the publication of Red Onion White Garlic.

Looking to the New Year, however, there are great and challenging plans “afoot” (as the man says) including the new children’s touring play Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street, to be directed by Lisa Ortenzi for Great Lakes Theater, and for which we now have a cast, a tremendous company of artists.

Also, my new play The Witches will have a workshop production in April, part of the Test Flight series at Cleveland Public Theatre. The text is still in pieces-parts, but we’re having a private reading in November and I am very excited to hear what we have aloud.

Finally, and I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but announcing something can make it true, I have applied for graduate school, which I have forestalled for over twenty years.

The truth is, though I have always assumed I would eventually seek a Masters degree, it never fit into whatever lifestyle I was pursuing at the time, but that of producer, director, actor, playwright, and also actor-teacher, education arts administrator, father of two.

And it won’t fit now. It will never fit. Because nothing fits. You just keep shoving more pieces in there.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Cloud 9 (2000)

"(It'll Be Fine When You Reach) Cloud Nine"
From left: Diane Mull, Tracey Field, Nick Koesters, Alison Garrigan, self

“I hear you are considering Cloud 9.”

This was James Mango, Artistic Director of Charenton Theater Company. The other new theater start-up, creating professional work in funky urban spaces.

We were at an event at Fadó, an Irish-themed bistro in the Flats. It was late Spring, 2000. Standing out on the boardwalk, on the banks of the Cuyahoga. The weather was perfect, the city was on the rise. The Millennium had begun (don’t argue with me about numerology) and everything was possible.

James told me Charenton was also considering that title, and proposed a co-production. I was suspicious. Not skeptical, I was suspicious.

He told me that with their management and promotional skills, the show could be a blockbuster. I asked him, what does Bad Epitaph have to offer?

He said, “The best talent in Cleveland.”

Diane Mull as Edward
Photo by Anthony Gray
Well played. He flattered me, he came to me and made a generous suggestion. I told him I’d think about it, and immediately went into overdrive, figuring out how soon we could announce the Bad Epitaph 2000-01 Season, and to secure the rights to produce Cloud 9. On our own.

Why? Arrogance, I imagine. I was thirty-two. My company was a hot property. I didn’t want to dilute it. Co-productions were not yet a thing, but they would be and very soon. James was thinking outside the box. I was being territorial. That was my first mistake.

Most of our core company was involved in the production of Cloud 9, and I will say it was the best in Cleveland. Roger Truesdell was tapped to direct. He had helmed Sin the previous fall, presented at Inside Gallery (now the site of the Bourbon Street Barrel Room) a temporary forty-seat space which sold out every performance.

Most of the spaces we had already engaged were either unavailable or defunct for that fall. I can’t tell you how many interesting spaces we had considered for Lysistrata, including the Paris Art Theatre on West 25th Street, an abandoned pornographic film house.

We could have had the Studio Theatre at Cleveland Play House, an intimate thrust space. Just a few years later Dobama would often use the space before they found their present location in Cleveland Heights.

But I got it into my head we must have a proscenium, and we found one. A sweetheart deal with the folks at Tri-C East, in Highland Heights. They had a new, state of the art facility and wanted to draw attention to it. It was a six hundred seat auditorium.

"Come Gather Sons of England"
Company from "Cloud 9"
(Bad Epitaph Theater Company, 2000)
Well, that’s very big,isn't it. But I had high hopes for attendance. All of our productions caught fire and attracted large audiences -- Hamlet, Sin, Santaland, Lysistrata, they were all selling out shortly after opening.

Also, we were generating great press! Our new was nominated for a Northern Ohio Live “Award of Achievement” for Lysistrata, and in the awards issue was a feature written by Christopher Johnston, about the company, and me in particular. Surely, Bad Epitaph was ascendant. This production would attract even greater audiences.

From the beginning, however, my best instincts told me that all of our productions should be produced within the city of Cleveland. The original mission clearly stated we would be presenting classics and important contemporary drama in an urban setting. Now, we were moving into a cavernous space, way out at the intersection of Interstates 271 and 480. That was my second mistake.

The acting company included regulars Nick Koesters, Tom Cullinan, Alison Garrigan, Chris Bohan, myself, were joined by actors new to Bad Epitaph, Diane Mull and Tracey Field. A raked set was designed by Don McBride, spectacular light effects were created by Greg Owen-Houk, and our house composer, Dennis Yurich, created original music.

The production was set in both 1880 and 1980, nice round numbers. What had originally been a contemporary second act was now itself a period piece, which began with a news report on a London pop station (Sarah Morton as the DJ) and a brief snatch of the title song as though interpreted by XTC.

Our version of the complete song, sung by the company, was much more wistful. It begins with Gerry (Nick) singing the first verse solo, before being joined by Lin (Alison), then myself and Diane -- the Edwards -- and the song builds and builds until everyone is on stage, singing. During the climax we are all dancing, but we are each dancing by ourselves.


Roger created a beautiful picture postcard, exactly what I hoped the production would be. It closed with a signature Truesdell moment, with glitter and confetti showering onto Betty 1980 (Tracey) and Betty 1880 (Nick) as she has finally found herself.

And the reviews were positive, pointing up the strengths of our production, and also its failings. Tony Brown for the Plain Dealer commented that the “too-large theater ... dilutes the intimacy.” Imagine if we staged this at the Studio, or in another welcoming art gallery. Brown also called our production “a perverse sort of children’s theater for adults.” I’m not sure he meant that as a compliment, but I will take it as one.

The critics agreed that this script had come into focus into the intervening twenty years. Free Times critic James Damico claimed Churchill’s text, “never convincingly coheres or evolves dramatically … held together solely by the consistency of its anti-establishment criticisms." But he also said that time and our “resourceful and energetic production” had considerably “considerably depoliticize[d] and clarif[ied] the play’s properties.”

Which is another way of saying we took the rough edges off. The headline for the PD review was “Strong message is sugared in 'Cloud Nine'.” Indeed.

Now, and I can’t remember why I thought this was a good idea … we had a pre-opening night preview. That is not unique. However, there was no admission, In fact it was promoted as FREE. A free performance, the night before we opened!

Tracey Field, Nick Koesters
This is all well and good if you are only telling friends and family. But we promoted it. Because I felt we needed strong word-of-mouth, and what better way than to paper the preview? And people came! Our free preview was a big hit, all our friends and family came! It was the largest house we had for the entire run.

What the fuck? What was I thinking? Am I some kind of Communist? We had an entire weekend of previews for Lysistrata (I was terrified it would suck and I wanted time to make massive changes, which it turns out I did not have to do) but still we charged admission for them.

There were over fifty people there for the preview, their number dwarfed by a sea of seats. We didn’t even ask for a donation on the way out. This was my third and final mistake.

I loved this play, I wanted to return to a text that had so inspired me as I began my journey as a theater artist. And we did it just right. And audience size varied widely ... between ten and fifteen people.

One night, after another inspiring and poorly-attended performance, I drove to Cleveland Heights to catch the last half of Angst:84, a new play by my wife, Toni K. Thayer, at my old haunt, Dobama’s Night Kitchen.

I snuck into a seat in the back row on the far left side of the house, which was nearly sold out. An audience composed largely of teenagers and young adults, exactly the demographic for which I had created this project five years earlier. But I’d never produced such a popular show for the Night Kitchen.

I was happy for her. I was jealous. I was sad. I missed this. I was an adult, soon to be a father (or so I thought) and I had moved onto adult projects. But I still wanted to be back here, in the basement, in a great neighborhood, making exciting art for a young audience.

And yet, and you will have to take my word on this, over the years several have told me they did see our production of Cloud 9, and how much it meant to them. I get those comments about this show more than anything else Bad Epitaph produced.

Sources:
Strong Message is sugared in 'Cloud Nine' by Tony Brown, The Plain Dealer, 10/23/2000
Clearing the Clouds; Bad Epitaph works wonders with 'Cloud 9' by James Damico, The Free Times, 11/1-7/2000

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Cloud 9 (1986)

"Cloud 9" by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Deborah Nitzberg
Set Design by Fred Duer
(Ohio University School of Theater, 1986)
Recently, my wife noticed that I sometimes do not include my role as Artistic Director of Bad Epitaph Theater Company in my biography. Bad Epitaph operated (more or less) from 1999 until 2004. We had many great artistic triumphs, and a few failures. I feel my work as titular head of the company to be its Achilles' heel, and am therefore loathe to cite that responsibility as a credit.

Take for example our production of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 in the year 2000. A fine production, from an artistic standpoint; the direction, performers, all elements of design including original music and sound. Exactly the attention to detail we had been striving for in the eighteen months we had been working together as a team.

And audiences stayed away and we lost all the profits we had raked in from our acclaimed production Lysistrata. What happened?

To answer that question, I need to go back to my first semester at college.

For every theater artist there’s that show you saw that changed everything, that made you realize the full potential of what theater could be, and why it is an art form unique from all others. For me, that was Cloud 9.

First produced at the Royal Court in 1979, with a Broadway run in 1981 at the Theatre de Lys, (now the Lucille Lortel) Churchill’s work was part of the 1986-87 Season at the Ohio University School of Theatre. It was produced in repertory with Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.

Now get this: I was a freshman. I had decided to pursue a degree in acting. As a child my parents had taken me to plays and to musicals, which each seemed very different to me. I liked musicals and found a lot of plays to be boring. Not necessarily unenjoyable, just not exiting. And yet I wanted to perform in them.

Today I love watching plays, and do not find performing in them to be enjoyable. We change.

Of course, my knowledge of what a play is was quite limited. So many of the works I had seen at local theaters or performed in at high school were not new. You Can’t Take It With You. Blithe Spirit. The Importance of Being Earnest. The works of Shakespeare. To my mind, that was the majority of work an actor would do, the canon.

From left: Matthew Glave, Kevin McCarty, Alana Beth Lipp
Costume Design by William Anderson
All incoming freshman were required to take Introduction to Theatre Criticism, led at that time by the legendary Al Kaufman. A very important course, especially for a callow youth like myself, we learned the language of artistic evaluation. You like it (or you don’t) but can you articulate why?

We were told to read Cat On a Hot Tin Roof before attending the performance, but not to read Cloud 9. How does reading a play beforehand color your reception of the work? How does coming to the work without expectations?

Like a lot of my classmates, we were disheartened by this production of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. It wasn’t very good. Some performances were downright awful. Was that all right? Could we say that? Al assured us that we could.

I became concernedabout the next four years. Is that what this school has to offer?

Then I saw Cloud 9. And my head burst open.

In brief, this play is a satire on British colonialism and mores and how the past is never past. Churchill plays with form, setting the first act in 1880s in Africa, and the second act in 1979 in London … but to the characters, members of one British family and those in their community, it has only been twenty-five years.

This gap in time is not explained. It just is, and no one questions it.

It begins as some kind of British farce, the gender reversals (mother played by a man, the young son played by a woman) easily dismissed as a kind of funny panto. That is, until the highly-anticipated arrival of a famous explorer breaks the thin veneer of gentility. He attempts to seduce the mother, then the son, and finally gains his satisfaction with the African servant Joshua.

“Shall we go into the barn and fuck?” asks the explorer, and they bound off, hand-in-hand. It was hilarious, and shocking, and a release. And my idea of what theater could be changed forever.

I was stunned by the play’s frank use of language, and how it addresses issues of homosexuality, feminism, domestic abuse, drag, pedophilia, incest. But the play also created in me a deep sense of longing, desire, and disappointment. If the first act was arch comedy, the second act was more troubling, as the now-adult children, freed from Victorian restrictions, struggle to understand who they are.

What did it all mean? I did not have the words, the experience to express the feelings this production aroused in me. It was 1986. I was just eighteen years old.

From left: Kevin McCarty, Cynthia Collins
Alana Beth Lipp, Joseph Hulser
In the middle of the second act, the company breaks the fourth wall to sing to the audience, a song called "Cloud 9." In this production, the lyrics were in a capella harmony, like a street corner, doo-wop melody.
The wife lover’s children
And my lover’s wife
Cooking in my kitchen
Confusing my life
And it’s upside down when you reach Cloud Nine.
It was a sexy-sassy rendition, and I was jealous. I wanted to be them. The actors, I mean, I wanted to be performing in a show like that.

More troubling to me now are the many difficult turns my personal life was about to take and I wonder if I missed the lesson of the story, that liberation does not necessarily make us happy.

In the New York Times, Frank Rich called Cloud 9 “sentimental agitprop,” and while he didn’t mean that kindly, I wish I had had those words to include in my essay for Dr. Kaufman. As a playwright, I have become a champion of sentimental agitprop. It's what I do.

Moving ahead twelve years, I developed a desire to direct a production of Hamlet with all those artists I had met and grown close to during the previous several years. And maybe someday I will write about that production.

In brief, it was a success. We decided to produce a new play, Sin by Wendy MacLeod, and also the first Cleveland production of The Santaland Diaries, both successes. Finally, in spring 2000 we produced Lysistrata, which was a huge success.

I was happy to skip from production to production under the banner of Bad Epitaph, after Hamlet’s warning not to offend actors; “After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.” It was a moniker which invited abuse and I was all for it.

From left: Raeleen McMillion, Cynthia Collins
Kevin McCarty, Alana Beth Lipp
We were compelled to create a season. I say “we” because I am almost sure I would rather not have done so, better to just produce a play when there’s a play you want to produce. It had worked so far. But suddenly we were in competition -- or perceived that we were -- by another upstart company, Charenton Theater Company, a name even more pretentious than our own.

Charenton’s first few offerings were mid-to-mid-late twentieth century classics like Waiting for Godot and American Buffalo. Works that say, “I haven’t read a play since college.”

And what did I do? I chose to kick off Bad Epitaph’s first full season with the most memorable play I had seen in college, Cloud 9.

To be continued.

Photos courtesy of Alana Byington

Source: Sexual Confusion On ‘Cloud 9’ by Frank Rich, The New York Times, 5/20/1981

Monday, October 7, 2019

Tyrant, Shakespeare On Politics (book)

Angela Merkel, on vacation, reading "Tyrant."
Stephen Greenblatt, American author of the acclaimed Will In the World, was apparently so entirely disturbed by the election of Donald J, Trump that he swiftly produced a brief examination of Shakespeare’s villains (189 pages) and how they each compare to the current occupant of the White House.

Tyrant, Shakespeare on Politics, was released on May 8, 2018, and even at that point it was easy to see what kind of President Trump was going to be, as if that were not previously evident. Though he never names the President, his thesis is clear, with every chapter and every would-be emperor described, accurately for the most part, with precisely the same language many have used to describe Trump.

He calls Jack Cade, leader of a populist uprising in Henry VI Part 2, a “loud-mouthed demagogue” possessing an “indifference to the truth, shamelessness, and hyperinflated self-confidence.”

Shakespeare's Richard III “divides the world into winners and losers” and “is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it … because it gets in his way.”

Macbeth has “a compulsive need to prove his manhood, dread of impotence … a fear of failure.” These psychological cues explain his “penchant for bullying, the vicious misogyny” and “explosive violence.”

Surprisingly, Greenblatt spends few words on the character of Julius Caesar, who, of all of Shakespeare’s monarchs, has been the one most often directly compared to Trump, for all of each man's vanity, poor health, and weakness for flattery at the same time ferociously protesting their own god-like inability to be manipulated.

Instead, this author focuses, as the play does, on the character of Brutus, and his desire to preempt disaster and assassinate Caesar before he attains absolute rule. Shakespeare’s lesson, it is clear, is that violent overthrow, no matter how pure the intent, is never pure, and impossible by design; an oxymoron in action.

“Real-world actions grounded on noble ideals,” Greenblatt suggests, “may have unforeseen and ironic consequences.”

Carole Healey as Julius Caesar
Photo: Roger Mastroianni
(Great Lakes Theater, 2019)
Published almost a year before the release of the Mueller Report, Greenblatt also provides a warning; that, though investigation and the possibility of impeachment is not a violent act, subverting the will of the electorate will always be suspect, and probably futile, even if you believe it would be the poorer choice to do nothing at all.
“The attempt to avert a possible Constitutional crisis, were Caesar to decide to assume tyrannical powers, precipitates the collapse of the state. The very act that was meant to save the republic turns out to destroy it. Caesar is dead, but by the end of the play Caesarism is triumphant.”
As it happened, the Mueller investigation came to a close without touching Trump nearer, finding that while a foreign power certainly offered Citizen Trump political assistance during the 2016 election, there was not definitive proof that he accepted it.

It should surprise no one who has been paying attention that we are now mired in a nearly identical circumstance, with definitive proof that President Trump himself has solicited political assistance from (at least) one foreign power for the 2020 election.

Impeachment now increasingly likely, looking into the works of Shakespeare may be a direful predictor of future events.

Great Lakes Theater presents "Julius Caesar" directed by Sara Bruner at the Hanna Theatre through November 3, 2019

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

"I'm Alive You Bastards And I Always Will Be" produced by Nightbloom Theatre Company

Photo: Steve Wagner
Tonight I am going to see the premiere production of a new Cleveland theater company, I’m Alive You Bastards And I Always Will Be, written by Roxie Perkins and presented by Nightbloom Theatre Company. And I’m scared. And I’m thrilled.

The company promises risk-taking work but doesn’t everyone promise risk-taking work? However, this production promises adult themes, strong language, violence, and references to sexual violence.

Most stage violence I have experienced of late is either cartoon gore (your B-movie musicals, for example) or a couple of dickheads punching each other stupid in this month’s toxically masculine, “kick ass” play. None of them inspire anything close to actual fear. Neither, for that matter, does Sleep No More.

The most popular example of shock theatre is the Grand Guignol. Before the advent of splatter films (also, World War II) middle class French audiences got a kick out Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris, where on any given evening they could expect to see half a dozen short plays utilizing grotesque and realistic stage effects to portray short dramas of torture, crime, and madness -- there were comedies, too, primarily on the subject of cuckolding.

It has been a long time since I have experienced anything truly creepy, weird or startling. I witnessed Die Hanswurst Klown present Prick Us And We'll Burst in Chicago almost twenty-five years ago, an evil clown show developed by a troupe of improvisers. The program was designed in such a way as to make you believe this was a real troupe of East German clowns, only the very last sentence of the performer bios suggested who the actor actually was.

From my journal, July 9, 1995:
Unbelievable. Helmut Voelker, with the big forehead, unwavering, glassy-eyed stare and gaped mouth, piercing high laugh, he couldn’t break eggs except on his head, he was so frightening and pitiful, REMEMBER HIM … like a wild animal. He frightened me. And when his hand was hit by a mallet or his penis was cut off, or his gift of a rose was refused, he howled and cried so pitifully, it made me feel terrible ...
Die Hanswurst Klown
Yeah, one of the other clowns severed Helmut’s penis ... while he was having sexual relations with a pumpkin. Blood spurted into the air.
Standing on a ladder, he made a solo, mournful, articulate soliloquy to the moon. This one expression of love was the only time he spoke during the entire show.

And it was in German.
Late during the history of Guerrilla, I had proposed reconfiguring the entire concept. In spite of our “game show” structure of introducing short plays, the whole endeavor still felt (to me) like a Too Much Light knock-off. What if we made an actual set, evoking a demented cabaret, with each of us developing alter-egos which we would maintain week after week, and that it would be these performers presenting the short plays?

From my proposal, June 1993:
“Maison de Foux” ... I picture a dinner theater trying to stay open after the city has been carpet bombed. Charred doorways, curtains askew, a big sign of lights proclaiming the name of the show, with a few bulbs missing or burned out … walls adorned with water damaged posters of rock stars, politicians and movies ...

While the audience is still meant to feel as though they are an integral part of what goes on, they are no longer encouraged to believe they own the place.
Nothing came of that idea, at least not at Guerrilla. The concept was revived in a somewhat different form for Night Kitchen.

Backstage with "The Gaslight Guignol"
Erin Meyers, Mike Schmidt, self
Jenna Weiss, Toni K. Thayer
This Vicious Cabaret was my attempt at an evil clown show, a post-apocalyptic comic nightmare in which a band of roving performers acted danced and sang for their supper (we literally accepted non-perishable food items in lieu of payment). Global warming had led to massive water shortages and the collapse of civilization as we know it.

The evening culminated with an audience member being chosen to join the company, but also having to choose which member of the original company would have to be killed to maintain balance. My character, Serious George, the most horrible of our quintet, was prepared with a knife to slit the throat of whoever was chosen. In case it was me, Mister Alfred (Mike Schmidt) would sneak up behind, grab my knife hand and do the deed.

I had palmed a blood packet, so the knife wound was particularly ghastly, a fine conclusion to a dark evening. Sometimes the packet would “pop” and blood would shoot across the stage.

Tonight, Nightbloom Theatre Co. has promised such effects as extreme, prolonged stage violence, punching, kicking, head trauma, eye gouging and gouts of blood. The play I’m Alive You Bastards is a feminist warning or threat: What will happen when the lid finally blows off of women’s collective efforts to suppress rage and anger? What happens when women transform into their monsters they have held inside?

The wake of the #meToo Movement has brought to the fore a new genre of unapologetically and aggressively feminist plays, like Mathile Dratwa’s A Play about David Mamet Writing a Play about Harvey Weinstein and Sharai Bohannon’s Punching Neil LaBute project. These are exciting creative developments.

So when I say I am scared to attend this show, it’s not really the stage violence I am afraid of. We know that’s fake. A surprise is titillating, that’s why we go to haunted houses. It’s the ideas, and the expression of those ideas which fill me with anticipatory dread.

Nightbloom Theatre Co. presents "I'm Alive You Bastards And I Always Will Be" at Maelstrom Collective Arts through Sunday, October 6, 2019



Happy birthday, Alice Bluegown. We remember.

Source: Crash Course Theatre #35: The Horrors of the Grand Guignol