Sunday, August 9, 2020

Fosse, Verdon, and all that jazz.

Ben Vereen (left)
Several years ago, we had the opportunity to hear Ben Vereen speak as part of an arts education event sponsored by Cleveland State. Following his address, I met him and had a picture. I told Mr. Vereen that when I was a child, one of my favorite movies was All That Jazz and he gave me the most peculiar look.

All That Jazz is an autobiographical film, directed by Bob Fosse, ostensibly a version of his own life and career -- from his own point of view, of course.

My brother’s copy of the soundtrack album was in constant rotation in our house, all through the year 1980. That was my gateway to the movie, through the music, which I knew by heart well before knowing anything about the content of the film. Snatches of dialogue included on the record, like “It’s showtime, folks!” “Pretty pictures,” and “You can applaud if you want to,” became catchphrases, dropped into conversation among the many young people who frequented our home.

It premiered on cable in the summer of 1981, just as I had turned thirteen, and it was an event screening. A crowd was invited to our place to watch. Here my troubles began.

Roy Scheider & Ben Vereen
(All That Jazz, 1979)
The story, in brief: Broadway director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) has been courting Death (personified by Jessica Lange) his entire life. He’s overworked, strung out on pills, cigarettes and alcohol, oppressed by his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend, producers, rival directors, and the critics. Through it all, however, he maintains a sense of humor, style, and above all, he is cool.

One very bad lesson this impressionable adolescent took away from the film, aware even then that it was based on the life experiences of the filmmaker, is that your personal life is fair game in the creation of your work.

And not by half -- Ann Reinking, aforementioned ex-girlfriend, plays a version of herself in the movie. How much more permission do you need to use facts from your own deeply personal or intimate moments in your stories, comic strips, plays? You don’t even need to ask permission.

Of course, that makes you a terrible person. But even that’s okay, because you are surrounded by terrible people. But you alone are cool.

Ann Reinking, center
(All That Jazz, 1979)
Last summer, All That Jazz was playing on the big screen at the Palace, and I brought my daughter to see it. She was sixteen. I didn’t think the subject matter was more adult than anything she regularly watched on her screen.

Driving home, however, she said, “I don’t know why you wanted me to see that.” I knew what she meant. It doesn’t hold up. I mean, I think it’s hilarious. But in 2019, with my engaged and empowered teenager next to me, I was aware of how toxic the character of Joe Gideon is. How entitled, how arrogant, how terrible he is, to everyone. Unapologetic and manipulative.

It is just another Great Man story, where time and again Gideon (i.e. Fosse) is shown to take bad writing, bad performance, bad situations, and turn them into art. All by himself.

And then there is his long, drawn-out, graphic death. And we have all had enough death in this family.

Since the start of the pandemic, the wife and I have been making our way through TV series. Watched High Fidelity in March or April, very disappointed it won’t continue.

The past two weeks we consumed Fosse/Verdon, a high-profile event from last year, produced by the creative team from Hamilton, with a mission to set the record straight on Bob Fosse (played by Sam Rockwell), to incorporate the story of Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), his muse, collaborative equal and partner, ex-wife, and mother of his only child, into his creative legacy, a place where she by all accounts rightfully belongs.

Sam Rockwell & Norbert Leo Butz
(Fosse/Verdon, 2019)
The eight-part program also passes judgment on All That Jazz, revealing it to be the flawed, solipsistic, and disingenuous thing that it truly is, Palme D’Or notwithstanding.

In the final episode, which focuses largely on the production of that movie, Fosse’s best friend, writer Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz) provides strongly worded and helpful criticism on the script, prior to production.
“The problem with your movie, Bob, is very simple. Your character doesn’t change. Your hero doesn’t change … none of your characters ever change, which is why your endings are always shit, I say this as a friend.”
This helpful piece of advice, “Storytelling 101,” says Chayefsky, is not heeded. Gideon dies at the end (a full eight years before Fosse himself actually did, in 1987) with everything a mess, his movie, his musical, his relationships, and everyone feels sorry for him. But death is not redemption. It’s just sad, for a moment. Then Merman starts singing, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” over the credits. Death is a joke. The ending really is shit.

Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse
Lin-Manuel Miranda as Roy Scheider

(Fosse/Verdon, 2019)
The final moments of Fosse/Verdon, which portrays Fosse’s actual death, is just sad. A sixty year-old man has a fatal heart attack on the sidewalk, while his creative and life partner watches, helpless. Sad. That’s the problem with life histories, they always end in death. But the hero still hasn’t changed.

However, let’s back up a bit. In setting the record straight, Fosse is stripped of the cool with which he bestowed upon Gideon. Just-Bob is revealed to be terribly insecure, racked with doubt, and in constant need of emotional and artistic assistance from Verdon, a woman who is driven, determined, and very smart, who herself needs to appeal to the men who hold power -- most notably Bob Fosse -- to achieve her dreams.

She’s not a perfect mother, but Fosse is a horrible father (unlike Joe Gideon, of course) they are each negligent “Ice Storm” generation parents, it’s eleven o’clock and they have no fucking idea where their children are.

Here’s the thing, I really enjoyed Fosse/Verdon. I mean, I would watch both Rockwell and Williams in anything, anyway. It's gorgeous, it's dramatic, it's witty. But in the end, the series felt like a long, drawn out, somewhat depressing version of All That Jazz. Only now we have reasons for toxic behavior.

Sam Rockwell & Michelle Williams
(Fosse/Verdon, 2019)
The behavior itself is not excused, but providing reasons, backstory, we do lean into forgiveness. And I am not sure that is warranted.

People without number have been molested as children, emotionally abused by their parents, had difficulty bearing offspring, but who are not themselves reprehensible in their behavior. Some of them are even great artists.

And while this may be the right time to reassess the life and artistic contribution of Gwen Verdon, once again she does the heavy lifting in a program which still feels like its mission is to rehabilitate the reputation of its more dominant, "Great Man" protagonist.

I say this as a friend.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Mirror and the Light (book)

Pengo’s 2020 Summer Book Club
Alexander, rumors only grow.
And we both know what we know.
On this date, four hundred and eighty years ago, July 28, 1540, Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, Order of the Garter, Viceregent and Lord Privy Seal, was beheaded at the Tower of London by order of King Henry VIII for crimes of treason and heresy.

Spoiler alert.

Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of novels on the life of Thomas Cromwell each conclude with a decapitation. Wolf Hall (2009) with that of Thomas More, Bring Up the Bodies (2012) with Anne Boleyn, and with the subject himself in The Mirror and the Light, which was released March 5 of this year.

My wife gifted me with the hardcover just as we all went into quarantine. It took four months to read half of it, and the past week to read the rest. I thought several times of putting it aside, but I have developed an attachment to the character of Cromwell, not only as Mantel has painted him but also in the performance by Mark Rylance in the six-part BBC adaptation of the first two novels.

Thomas Cromwell
(Hans Holbein, 1532-33)
Novelists who set a specific number of books to complete an epic story often find themselves trying to cram too much into the last one (Deathly Hallows comes to mind -- Half-Blood Prince, too, for that matter, maybe I'm just thinking of Harry Potter) and Mirror is the longest of this set, but for most of the first half I felt we were spending far too much time on tangential relationships and all the weird dishes that English men of wealth used to have for dinner.

Also, I have poor reading habits. I can take in maybe a page or two before bed and then I am spent. Summer vacation affords me the opportunity to sit and read, for hours. This past week I avoided work, both in my employment and my art. I set it aside. I vacationed. I went fishing with my son and I read this book. Once I could spend all of my time living in it, it came alive for me.

And it hurt. I knew how it was going to end, but I avoided delving into history to learn how or why beforehand. I even entertained the idea that he outlived the king and was put to death in the chaotic years that followed, but I was pretty sure there was no way that was how it actually happened. Henry VIII used people up, again and again, and it was Cromwell’s complicity in these acts which made it all but certain that he would eventually no longer be seen as useful to this monstrous monarch.

Rylance as Cromwell
(Wolf Hall, 2015)
It makes sense that the primary reason for Cromwell’s fall from grace was that, having successfully played the role of pimp for a monarch who was increasingly desperate for a male heir, he contracted a fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, whom history has regarded as the king did himself: fugly.

To the author’s credit, however, she creates an alternative scenario inspired by true events. The ever-playful Tudor decides to surprise his betrothed before their appointed first meeting. This was a habit of his, as illustrated in Shakespeare’s All Is True, putting on disguises to the delight of the ladies long past the age when such behavior was deemed appropriate.

In Mantel’s version of events, unprepared for the arrival, it was the German Anna whose first reaction to the middle-aged, somewhat lame and already overweight Henry was a reflection of his own physical state that no one had yet shown him.

The best way to read.
Again, I am put in mind of the BBC adaptation, in which Damian Lewis portrays a hot king Henry, and wonder, if they are to create three more episodes to bring the tale to its conclusion, whether or not they would use the Billions star and if it is even possible to make this actor unattractive.

Cromwell’s downfall as depicted is remarkable, he never loses his wit (nor Mantel hers, the author’s sense of humor is a particular delight) and his death handled in a manner in keeping with my own recent philosophical imaginings on the subject. It broke my heart.

What should I read next?

Monday, July 20, 2020

The Short Play Project: Acting With Myself Series

The world has moved on. I have not received a short play project video submission for some time. People have focused on other porjects, and so have I.

The novelty of creating drama at a distance has cooled somewhat. We're still doing it, of course. But now it is summer, and we have expanded our ideas of what that means. Perhaps as cool weather sets in this will change. But don't talk to me about the future.

When I first put out a call for artists to create short videos from my play scripts, the monologues went pretty fast. Not everyone was shelrting in place with another actor, or with anyone at all.

Several entries created a some kind of work around, and here are three examples of those. Lynna Metrisin chose the high school Thespian "Forensics" route, performing both roles on her own at the same time. Patrick Gladish used editing to play twin disaffected hipsters.

Eric Fancher employed a very subtle split screen and headsets to play against himself in what appears to be a single take. Check them out.

Performed by Lynna Metrisin
Videography by Jim Metrisin

Performed by Patrick Gladish

Performed by Eric Fancher

You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Savory Taṇhā in Performance (Saturday)

Cardinal Hotel, Winston-Salem
Room #207
Three performances of Savory Taṇhā, three very different performances. Or were they? All five performers brought their own unique interpretation to each character.

It was challenging deciding who would play which role on which night. I didn’t want anyone to have too many performances in a single evening, or too few. I also didn’t want any actor to be in any more than three scenes in a row. And that was more challenging than I thought.

Having made that work, the evening’s each had a different dynamic, depending on who played what. An audience member felt Thursday's show had a large number of empowered women characters, and on Thursday there were.

My wife noticed that Hillary and Zyrece were the center of several romantic entanglements on Friday, whereas tonight Brian and Zach were engaged in a few scenes with sexual overtones.

The legendary Harvey Pekar said, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.” Folks in the post-show tonight were fond of those dramatic moments that come out of everyday experience, and how we captured those. More than one person has asked if any of these characters were meant to carry from one scene to the next, but if they did that was the actor’s work, and not mine.

The pitfalls of online performance have been bemoaned at length by others (and myself) so I was particularly gratified for the comments our production received in that regard. That folks were able to suspend their disbelief and we drawn into the possibility that our actors shared the same space. During our rehearsals we worked on creating similar backgrounds and lighting as best we could, and it paid off.

Finally, I remember a comment from Thursday night. One was pleased with the variety of ages, the span of generations represented. And that was intentional. Because the origin of these stories are very personal. Ten months of constant writing, digging up these deep parts of me, the thoughts that trouble me, and those that give me peace, represented in a spectrum of moments, moment which for three nights were played out in real time for a life audience.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Savory Taṇhā in Performance (Friday)

Brian & Zach
During tonight’s performance I said “shit” under my breath over a live mic. Errors were made.

And yet, another great crowd, and another great performance.

Yes, people are tired of Zoom. DID YOU KNOW ..? Zoom stock was mired around $68/share at the beginning of 2020? It is currently at $275. But as one audience member said tonight, they are “all zoomed out.”

This audience member also said tonight’s performance “filled my cup with creativity,” which was delightful praise. Another added, “I felt closer to live theater than I have in months.”

There was a great deal of commentary about the camera work, our actors looking directly into the camera, closing the distance between audience and performer. My friend Luke said the eye contact made him feel like he was actually looking through the eyes of the person who was being spoken to.

My wife watched tonight, she was also taken by the faces, and the close-up expression in each of the actors’ eyes.

Our final word was on the final monologue, Monument, asking whether it was meant to comment on all that came before; this collector of the memories that have been discarded, or forgotten.

This weekend there is an estate sale at my mother’s home. You might call it a coincidence … but it’s really not.

Cleveland Public Theatre presents "Savory Taṇhā (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble)" featuring Anne McEvoy Zyrece Montgomery,  Zach Palumbo, Brian Pedaci & Hillary Wheelock with one remaining performance on Saturday July 11, 2020 at 8:00 PM.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Savory Taṇhā in Performance (Thursday)

Brian & Zyrece
Yesterday the New York Times published an essay with the unfortunate headline, Digital Theater Isn’t Theater. It’s a Way to Mourn Its Absence by Laura Collins-Hughes. Journalists and columnists don’t usually get to choose their headlines, there are people who specialize in that -- and a good thing, too, try writing one.

Unfortunately, while the mourning may be real, the phrase “digital theater isn’t theater” is a statement I have to take issue with. And why wouldn’t it be? I am currently the writer/director of a piece of live, if digital, theater.

Collins-Hughes accurately describes the thrill of live theater so; “Bodily immersed in an experience, sharing a single space, we emerge at the finish of those performances imprinted with sense memories.” Yes, we do. It’s why some of us chose this path, as opposed that of movies or television. It’s why I have spent the better part of two decades working on behalf of students to bring live performance right into their classrooms, another mission which has been suspended for the duration.

“Immersed.” That word makes me shudder. Remember immersive theater? An entire popular genre rendered suddenly extinct. They may try to open Broadway, but Sleep No More isn’t rousing any time soon.

And yes, we have enjoyed the recorded dramas that has been made available to us, especially the highly-anticipated Hamilton movie. But they really are just movies, aren’t they?

Hillary & Zach
“Even the Hamilton movie,” Collins-Hughes remarks, “a thrilling and democratizing testament to the power of stage performance, can’t capture the soul of theater, because that soul lives in the room.”

We saw it, we may even have watched it at the same time as LMM and the entire company the evening it debuted, joining in on a nation-wide Twitter commentary, a virtual lobby in which we could compare notes and share our thoughts and feelings.

But even in spite of this opportunity to commune over a piece of theater, even one as professionally executed as that, it was still only the document of a live performance, and not the thing itself.

Which brings me to Savory Taṇhā (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble), produced by Cleveland Public Theatre to be performed via Zoom, and enjoyed by a live audience of viewers. Not to be archived, not to be seen again. To heighten that sense of immediacy, each night different members of the five person ensemble will be performing different roles from the same sixteen scripts.

We had our first performance tonight, and it went very well. We had a wonderful audience, somewhere between thirty and forty people. They get to see and greet each other before the performance, and also after. It is true, audience mics and cameras are turned off for the performance, so we miss out on any possible laughs or other audience reactions, a necessary sacrifice.

The post-show discussion, however, was very nice, and a warm validation of what I was hoping to accomplish. They commented on the connection between actors, and the great intimacy. In rehearsal I emphasized how, in spite of its many limitations, this medium provides an opportunity for intimacy and closeness that a live performance in front of a hundred audience members cannot, and that we should take advantage of that.

One commented on how though each character has a unique voice, they are still people that you know personally. And that some of them are you.

Finally, it was so great to see colleagues and friends I have made who I have never met in person, but with whom we have shared work, audience members watching from Virginia, Los Angeles and elsewhere, and having the opportunity to share this work with them. Oddly enough, I am currently in North Carolina.

And I challenge you to tell me what we're doing isn’t theater.

Cleveland Public Theatre presents "Savory Taṇhā (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble)" featuring Anne McEvoy Zyrece Montgomery,  Zach Palumbo, Brian Pedaci & Hillary Wheelock with remaining performances Friday, July 10 & Saturday July 11, 2020 at 8:00 PM.

Source: Digital Theater Isn’t Theater. It’s a Way to Mourn Its Absence (The industry’s show-must-go-on smile masks a harder truth: that there is no substitute for the live interaction between performer and audience) by Laura Collins-Hughes, The New York Times (7/8/2020)

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Nickel Boys (book)

Pengo's 2020 Summer Book Club

On Monday, the New York Times published an editorial in which Lucian K. Truscott IV, a journalist and (white) direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson proposed the third president’s memorial in Washington D.C. be demolished and replaced with one to Harriet Tubman.

My first reaction was, oh. But I like that one. My next was, who cares what I think? As Truscott points out, Monticello is monument enough. Even Jefferson himself did not think serving as President warranted mention on his own tombstone, who are we to argue?

Statues are coming down across America, and about time, too. We are supposed to be a nation established on ideals, and not individuals. Laws survive, and serve the people. Writing survives, the history remains. It's the hero worship that is being swept away.

It is at this moment, during a period of pandemic and social upheaval, that I read The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. I’ve read two novels in this one vacation week, both released in 2019. The first grappled with the ripples of American Imperialism, the second with our nation’s as-yet unresolved sins of systemic racism. This one got the Pulitzer.

Inspired by the 2012 discovery of a secret cemetery on the grounds of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, Whitehead has done what he does so amazingly well, created a fictional story grounded solidly in undeniable (and accurate) truth.

It is a breathtaking tale, and by that I mean, I lost my breath. Halfway through the book I cried with something like, but not exactly like relief, and had to set the book down. And then, as with the Eggers book I read on Monday, I was whipsawed near the end and had to stop and regain my senses, to rethink everything that had come before.

“If everyone looked the other way, then everybody was in on it.” So believes the protagonist Elwood Curtis, and it is a belief he tries to hang onto. Taking a stand for justice even in the face of overwhelming and absolute injustice, a young African-American in the early 60s caught the wrong ride and ended up in a reform school where silence and complicity were necessary for survival.

Much like the nation we are living in. Exactly like the nation we are living in, in fact. It’s not for me to defend the hagiography of the Founding Fathers, those who owned human souls and those who didn’t but looked the other way. We have all always known where the bodies are buried, and now they are being revealed.

Summer's not over. What shoud I read next?

I’m a Direct Descendant of Thomas Jefferson. Take Down His Memorial by Lucian K. Truscott IV, The New York Times (7/6/2020)
Florida's Dozier School For Boys: A True Horror Story, National Public Radio, "All Things Considered" (10/15/2012)

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Parade (book)

Pengo’s 2020 Summer Book Club

I have been lazily making my way through The Mirror and the Light, the third book in Hillary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy. My wife got it for me in March, the perfect quarantine tome, but I have been reading maybe one page a night.

It doesn’t have the urgency that the first two books did, dispatching More and then Boleyn (spoilers? sorry?) We already know who loses their head at the end of this book, and the road is paved with clues as to how this may be justified. But it meanders mightily as Mantel’s dedication to historical reality means acknowledging characters and episodes who do not edify as the crafty Howards did.

Anyway, we’re on vacation and I intentionally left that at home. I wanted a beach read, and intended to pull something (with a soft cover) from the shelf but neglected to do so. But there are several books here, my son had a copy of The Parade by Dave Eggers lying around, so I picked that up yesterday morning and read the whole thing in a matter of hours.

It’s not terribly long, 180 pages or so, but I could literally not put it down. Even when not reading it, it was tucked under my arm. I went from beach to hammock to adirondack chair, and I was not going to stop reading until it was through.

The plot is focused tightly on a nameless protagonist who works for a private contractor for a construction corporation with ties to the (presumably but never-definitively-stated as U.S.) military whose mission is to pave a road through a small nation, also never identified, which has recently suffered through a civil war.

Reading I was reminded of the kind of novel they would assign in middle or high school, your Red Badge of Courage or Heart of Darkness, following one man through a dark journey of the soul. The man (who refers to himself as “Four,” because having no identity makes you less valuable to kidnappers) follows his assignment to the letter, years of corporate oversight determining how best to not get tangled in local affairs.

But as events spiral out of control, his humanity is slowly revealed, and he comes to trust and even admire those he encounters. The devastating conclusion, one which was always apparent if I had only been paying attention, reveals itself only in the final page, which I had to read three times to believe what I had just experienced.

Except for a few brief descriptions of sexual activity, I would absolutely think this novel is appropriate for an English curriculum, dealing as it does with the harsh 21st century realities of the post-colonial world, with serious questions about ethics and the accepting the consequences of our actions.

Also, many works in canon have troubling, distorted views of people of color, and as I was reading this one I felt as though those earlier works were being picked apart.

I dig Dave Eggers, even though I haven’t read much of his work. Might magazine was a big hit around our child-free, Gen X, late-90s house (he’s my wife’s age) and I certainly enjoyed Heartbreaking Work but then haven’t picked up anything else. Someone even gave me a copy of the DVD for Where the Wild Things Are but we never watched it because it’s inappropriate for children, and while I appreciate the irony now the kids are grown we no longer have a DVD player.

I should read another of his books. Recommendations welcome.

Friday, July 3, 2020


Anne & Zyrece
Today was my 300th consecutive morning of writing. When I noted that this morning, that number, at first I was proud of my achievement. Then I realized, that is nearly ten months. I started last September.

This year. This fucking year.

Whatever your plans, they were shelved in March. This year is now half over, and everything remains on hold. 2020 is canceled, and the only good thing we got out of any of this is Hamilton. Had we been asked, I am sure we all could have waited to see it at the movies.

We are, all of us, holding out for a miracle. That a vaccine is arrived at, faster than has ever been arrived at before, to eradicate the virus and return our lives to something like normal.

The artistic community, to take only one example, is in a desperate state. Our livelihood depends on live performance, audiences, sweat and spit and contact and everything that might possibly kill you.

This is what I wrote on “Day One,” before I had even started writing short plays each day. I was mentally preparing myself for the Chicago Marathon.
This day is cool and most perfect. I project my mind into the afternoon to come and wonder, can I accomplish this? The race is a little over a month, but today, today I will run, my feet -- not just my feet, my hips, and all the rest,carrying me across the city. I can do that, can’t I?

I am imagining the Cleveland that currently is, with runners through the Cultural Garden, and packing Edgewater Park. There will be water fountains and public restrooms, amenities which make the travel easier. Will it be a joy? Or arduous? Will I notice the good things? I cannot know.
Just revisiting this, knowing how much we have lost, how much I have personally lost since then, Sunday, September 8, 2019. I was running the twenty miles from our house to my mother’s house that day. She was waiting for me on the porch when I arrived. Sitting out with her boyfriend on a beautiful late summer’s day.

My mother was alive. The park was swollen with people. And I was unafraid.

Zach & Brian
So. Savory Taṇhā. We had a lovely rehearsal last night, this time with the "Friday" version, the one that will be performed a week from tonight. The script doesn’t change, but the performers will read different roles each evening; Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

I am directing, which is most practical but not what I prefer. Directing my own writing, I spend too much time on the wrong things. I prefer all my concentration be on the words themselves, paying greater attention to what is said rather than how it is being said. So that I might change them.

Then there is the frustration of working within the constraints of this medium. Light, space, reception, delay. My attention isn’t even on what’s being said, nor how, but how it all comes together, as a whole.

And yet, having said all that. I am loving this. This is where I am grateful to be working with such talented performers. This material, these scenes. Relationships played out in intimate fashion. This is an experience you cannot have on stage, this intimacy. The closeness, the vulnerability.

We had made plans. Other projects, different journeys. They did not include this show, though. There is a saying, "serenity can be achieved by trading expectation for acceptance." Or as I'd put it, by trading one expectation for another.

Cleveland Public Theatre presents "Savory Taṇhā (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble)" featuring Anne McEvoy Zyrece Montgomery,  Zach Palumbo, Brian Pedaci & Hillary Wheelock on July 9, 10 & 11, 2020 at 8:00 PM.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Savory Taṇhā (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble)

Three hundred days. I have written for a half-hour every morning, without missing a day, for nearly three hundred days. That is some kind of record for me. And for the majority of those days I have written a short, one-page play.

They’re not all good, to be sure. But most of them are, I think. There is some repetition, repetition of theme, or style. Sense of humor. It’s all me. These are the scripts I have been offering to anyone who would like to create a video for the Short Play Project.

More recently I received an offer from Cleveland Public Theatre to curate an evening of short plays for their current Encounters (Here and Now) Series.

To create a sense of community and immediacy, CPT has eschewed the current trend to post performances online for enjoyment at any time, choosing instead to produce live performances through which an audience has the opportunity to interact before and after a show (like you do) and that the shows themselves are like an actual theater experience in that, if you miss it, you missed it.

Choosing the right combination of plays for this forty-minute production has been a curious challenge. I had asked CPT Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan for some feedback, a reflection of what he or others may see in my work which folks respond to. He said it was my themes of longing, passion, melancholy, desire, nostalgia … these are not wistful emotions I have come to in my middle years. I was nostalgic for the 1970s before they were even over, and that was when I was ten.

Regret, mourning, coping with my mother’s death, reevaluating my choices as a younger man … I will be honest. This is not necessarily the first thing I would choose to present right now, during the pandemic, during the uprising. But in the midst of chaos we are still engaged in life, and I am content to offer these sixteen short plays as a reflection of all of our relationships, our fears and hopes and doubts and dreams.

And of course, I need to be clever. To protest my own ability to write works for people from all walks of life, we cast five actors who will read different roles each of the three evenings it will be performed. The text remains the same, the interpersonal reactions are different.

For the title, I wanted something which captured this sense of longing, without sounding overwrought. Or pretentious. That was meant to be a joke.

Constant Craving, the title of that k.d. lang song came to mind. And Savory Taṇhā is a variation of that. Savory is one of my love's favorite words. Taṇhā is the desire to return, to repeat, to stay in one place. Not to move on. The living bardo. It is a cause of human suffering, the inability to accept change.

But it tastes so good.

Cleveland Public Theatre presents "Savory Taṇhā (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble)" featuring Anne McEvoy Zyrece Montgomery,  Zach Palumbo, Brian Pedaci & Hillary Wheelock on July 9, 10 & 11, 2020 at 8:00 PM.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Our Midwest Journey (1995)

The Mississippi River
Twenty-five years ago my wife Toni moved here from New York City. We did not know at that time we would be married, we didn’t know any of this. My first marriage was over, my first theater company in the rearview mirror.

I had a new project, though. I was to start a series of late night productions at Dobama Theatre. I had proposed two ideas, an evening of short plays written by twenty-something actors about their experiences as adolescents and children in the year 1980, and a long-form improv based on the MTV reality program The Real World.

The first was an idea I had proposed once or twice at Guerrilla, using our skills as writers of brief plays to compose an entire show on a single theme, but it never came to fruition. Long form improv was something I also wanted to experiment with, but had no skill or training in it. I just knew it existed.

Before starting this new job, Toni and I decided to take our first road trip. It was a test of our new relationship, it was also terribly indulgent. We enjoyed room service and each other, and checked out historical sights and tourist traps on our way up to the Twin Cities to spend a few days with my brother, Denny.

I was also compelled to see as many non-traditional performances as possible, as though any one of them might provide me with insight or ideas to steal for this new project. It was a mania. Looking back, I am shocked by how many shows we saw on this trip, and how many ideas for the Night Kitchen actually did originate on this journey.

The following italicized passages are excerpts from my journal.
Thursday, July 6, 1995 - Chicago
We saw “Harold” (sic) at the Improv Olympics (sic) … it appeared as though there were very few rules … they would take one word (mine: moon rocks) and make a half-hour piece out of it. It went everywhere and always came back to the central theme.

I wonder how much was planned and how much they were truly winging it.
Danny Hoch
This was the period when both Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were working at IO (Improv Olympic), and so the odds are good we saw at least one of them that night, but there’s absolutely no way to prove that.

Regardless, deconstructing what I saw this one night formed the basis of my directing concept for The Realistic World, and pretty much every long form I have directed since. Perhaps I should have taken a class.
Friday, July 7, 1995 - Chicago
Saw "Some People" and "Too Much Light" ... In “Some People” Danny Hoch (24 yrs old, fm NYC) portrays eleven different people … to blur the line between “we” and “them.” It made Toni miss NY … the only kind of theater worth doing, theater that teaches, that instructs, that makes you leave with more than a smile on your face.

Special note: Remember all the disenfranchised Generation X’ers w/multi-color hair hanging out under the “L” asking for change.
This last sentence is a line I included almost word-for-word in the text for The Vampyres.
Saturday, July 8, 1995 - Chicago
We saw “Klown” 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 … I remember “Incomparable Pablo” at O.U. An evil little clown show, but those kinds are so powerful.
Die Hanswurst Klown
Late last year I wrote more about evil clown shows, including Die Hanswurst Klown: Pick Us and We’ll Burst, and you can read about that here.
Sunday, July 9, 1995 - Milwaukee
“Realistic World” idea I came up with in the shower … open show with introductions; one character has a monologue describing (improvised, of course) an uncomfortable event that took place “the other day.” Then all those involved act it out.
Unknown to me, IO had by this time already featured a program called “The Real, Real World.” I am sure it was hilarious, I was always aiming for a king of improvised cinéma vérité, which is not necessarily a good thing.
Break. The “narrator” comes out and gets a volunteer from the audience to describe something real that happened and then the characters act that out, taking it to a different (or who knows, maybe not) conclusion.
The very first time we did this opening night of The Realistic World, I asked someone in the audience what they did earlier that day and they said they had attended a funeral. I literally froze, literally. I turned into actual ice.
Another idea: give audience members the opportunity for additional participation by inviting them to wear a (button, ribbon, toilet paper) and if an actor needs someone new in a scene, they can just pick someone out and use them. Brilliant, no?
No. That is another fucking terrible idea.
Monday, July 10, 1995 - Madison, WI
Should I use improv games in the rehearsal of “Bummer”? Maybe one day a week.
1st day warm-up, hand out scripts, run them, discussion of content, pick five for memorization?
2nd day warm-up, run scripts, test memorization. Show & tell.
3rd day Improv day? More running of pieces?
The Infinity Room
The House on the Rock
Not a particularly inspired entry, but I am amused now by the fact was I was spending so much time fretting about my impending responsibility. You can read more about Bummer here.
Tuesday, July 11, 1995 - Spring Green, WI
Taliesin -- the home of Frank Lloyd Wright … (the studio) even has a little theater … a curtain designed by his students for his 90th (?) birthday … It smelled a bit mildewy but it was a theater. I’d love to mount a whole Shakespeare on that tiny stage.

From there to the House on the Rock. Monstrous! The most gifted architect in American history in the same town as this incredible, unbelievable THING.

It was like a real-life nightmare, all twisty & turny & dark -- were we indoors? underground?

The music machines … The Mikado. Glistening, gilded and red. The song it played, “Danse Macabre” -- I could have cried. Frightening! I will use it in the “Vicious Cabaret.”
True to my word, we did use the recording of the "Mikado" machine as the opening theme for This Vicious Cabaret.
Wednesday, July 12, 1995 - Winona, WI
(in a coffee house) "The Compass"
p. 42 Die Schmiere, “it means ‘smearer’ or something. It’s a cabaret which puts everything down.”
P. 43 Latin: Provisus, past participle of provider, i.e. To provide, providence, “to see ahead”
the negative, “improvisus” - unforeseen
Janet Coleman’s book The Compass was a revelation to me, about improvisation and, coupled with Jeff Weingrad and Doug Hill’s Saturday Night, about the corporate whoring of modern comedy. It was a foundational book for my award-winning play one-act This Is The Times.
Thursday, July 13, 1995 - St. Paul, MN
It was 102° today. Toni and I decided to give ourselves a break and just sit in a cold theater and watch a movie. But the place up the street (by Macalester) had their a/c busted and so we drove all the way into Minneapolis to see "Apollo 13."
This was the weekend that over seven hundred people died in Chicago during the heatwave of 1995.
Friday, July 14, 1995 - St. Paul, MN
I dreamed again last night about showing up to the first "Bummer" rehearsal without anything prepared.

Toni, my brother and I went out to see an improv show in a bowling alley. They have this little theater on the side. The troupe was called "Jump Up and Run." We three were the only ones in the audience, so we got our money back.

They “rehearsed” for us. They did two pieces, one called THX (“the three of you are listening”) where they act out a mundane activity (bowling) and two of them on microphones make the sound effects.

Then they did a musical based on a decade (Denny said 1850s) and an object (pasta). It was pretty funny.
The Young & The Weightless
This fascinating cabaret space is at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Several years later, when I was performing the Minnesota Fringe I caught a couple shows there, and I have to say there is nothing like being served a big fat cheeseburger, fries and a beer in the middle of a one-man solo performance of Hamlet. You can read more about that here.
Saturday, July 15, 1995 - St. Paul, MN
We saw "The Swan" at the Jungle Theatre. Interesting play.

Then we returned to the Bryant-Lake Bowl and caught an 11 PM performance of "The Young and the Weightless." Now there were more people in the audience.

A science fiction, musical soap opera. All improvised, they included what happened last week in the program.

They had a tendency to talk over each other, or to wait for someone to say anything. The funniest ones in the show were from "Jump Up and Run" … for the most part the whole experiment was fun, enjoyable to watch, etc. I am inspired.

I am also ready to go home.
"Funny Business" by Sid Smith, Chicago Tribune (4/9/1995)
"The Compass, The Improvisational Theatre that Revolutionised American Comedy" by Janet Coleman, University of Chicago Press (1990)

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Camp Theater! (2020)

(Not an actual link.)

These early days of the COVID-19 pandemic (oh, you thought they were over) artists have had a moment of reckoning, and it has not been pretty. Arts organizations have suspended or cancelled programs and productions, cut company and staff, and in far too many cases, closed up shop entirely.

In immediate response to the stay-at-home orders, my colleagues and I at Great Lakes Theater collaborated to create virtual programming for our English Language Arts instructors, brief video “modules” for use as part of asynchronous education.

One of my favorite pieces from our early experiments included inviting fifty actor-teachers, past and present, to recite Shakespeare’s “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy from Hamlet. We are currently working to anticipate the needs of our partnering teachers in the coming school year.

Ten years ago GLT began Camp Theater, a summer theater arts camp hosted at Berea-Midpark High School. My children, particularly my daughter have attended, on-and-off, since the beginning. It serves Pre-K through “rising” high school seniors.

There are a number of students who have joined us, year after year. It must mean we have been doing something right. For some of them, it is a way to get away from the usual school and societal pressure and express themselves without judgment.

It’s just two weeks, in the middle of June, kicking off the summer. Helping to facilitate this camp is a highlight of my year. And we needed to decide how to make camp happen this year in a way that kids who have already been “zoomed out” would choose to participate.

Zelda as Henry IV
Anonymous, late 16th or early 17th cent.
(National Portrait Gallery)
For the little kids, the team created brief videos that included stories, crafts and performance ideas so that parents could share them with the children to work at on their own time. It was agreed that the older campers would not be interested in another instructional video and besides, so many of them attend to see the other folks they only see here.

Last week we met for a half-hour at 10 AM every morning where they were provided with an artistic assignment to work on during the day in preparation for the next day’s work. I tried to work theater games into the mix, but they were dropped after the second day. We had over twenty campers and Zoom failed to accommodate that kind of interaction.

Just as well! They were there to work. Campers wrote short plays, they performed each others’ written work, they created costumes for brief two-person scenes from Shakespeare's "Henriad." By the end of the week, I was satisfied that we had fulfilled our mandate for this strange time; to be there for them.

And they were there for each other.

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Short Play Project: Short Film Series

No one wants to announce favorites among their children. Everyone who has taken one of my play scripts and recorded it for video has brought joy to me, and hopefully provided them artistic satisfaction during this time of social isolation.

However, there are a few who spent a great deal of time and talent, creating fantastic costumes, providing soundscapes and music, and engaging their cinematographer colleagues to create the kind of short film that is worthy of submission to a festival (and don't think we aren't talking about it.)

Three I would like to highlight here, and they are not the only three, feature interpretations of the text I have written that take them into an entirely other directions, featuring animation, sound design, and real live cats.

Performed by Melissa Crum and Patrick Stoops
Directed by Melissa Crum
Animation by Patrick Stoops

Performed by Paul Manganello & Timothy Michael Blewitt
Camera by Erin Dawson

Produced & directed by Davis Aguila & Michael Prosen
Performed by Michael Prosen, Davis Aguila and introducing Donna Bae

Other amazing short films include Creation, Consent, and many more you can find on the complete Short Play Project Playlist.

Monday, June 8, 2020

The Short Play Project: Kitchen Series

The kitchen in our house is really important. It's also the most unfinished room in the house. Whenever we entertain, there's always a moment when I realize everyone has gathered in the kitchen and I have to say, why are we in the kitchen? Let's relocate.

Some people have kitchens that are made for social time, with space and islands and stools but not at my house. It's intimate, there's nowhere to sit, nowhere to rest your drink, really. At least we added a pass-through ten years ago so you can talk to people in the dining room.

But it's where the food happens. And it's just the right size for me and my wife to talk when it's just us, away from the kids. We have had some of the most loving conversations and worst fights in the kitchen, dating back twenty-five years this spring.

With one exception (see "Cooking," below) I haven't written one short play script that was meant to take place specifically in a kitchen. But it doesn't surprise me that several chose the kitchen as the location for certain kinds of personal interactions. The play "Teamwork" was, in my mind, an office place conversation, but changing it to a tense discussion between partners also makes perfect sense.

Performed by Roxana Bell & Beau Reinker

Performed by Henrik & Brenda Hansen

Performed by Lauren Bruniges & Caleb Knueven

You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Documenting Cleveland, Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Literary Cleveland invited folks from all over Cleveland to document our city on Tuesday, May 12. It is their intent to create one, unified essay that chronicles this time, in this place.

They had intended to release the final product last week, but the task has proved greater than they had originally conceived (see tweet).
In the meantime, this is my 1,000 word entry. We were asked to write in third person. Mine is perhaps more personal than the criteria required, but it was my day, it was a particular day, and this is what happened to me.

It was a peaceful, uneventful Tuesday, in the midst of a pandemic. Three weeks ago. Before the uprising.

6:56 AM – Home, Cleveland Heights

After hitting snooze four times, he finally got up at half past six. It was a bit chilly for mid-May, but he opened the door to the side porch. He liked to hear the birds. The gas fireplace was lit, and it was time for morning pages.

He had slept through the night. If he didn’t take Benadryl the night before, he usually woke around two-thirty and just lay there for an hour. They said it was from all the worry, but he thought it was from all the alcohol.

8:09 AM – Forest Hill Park, East Cleveland

He took a brisk run through Forest Hill Park. It was overcast and cool, and it was gosling season. As he ran through the park, he had to make a wide berth so as not to get attacked by hissing, parental geese.

Out in the neighborhood he had been running onto the tree lawn, or onto the street, to provide at least ten feet of distance between himself and anyone who shared his path.

8:51 AM – Home, Cleveland Heights

He had lemon cake for breakfast. His wife had made one for family friends, and one for them. Saturday night he had made a loaf of potato bread and a batch of chocolate chip cookies because he was bored. Those went in about two days. In the past two months he had gained ten pounds.

His dreams had been vivid, active. Full of crowds. He only dreamed about people and places that he never usually encountered during the day. Last month it was the parking garage at work, which he had last entered on March 16. Now it was live performances. Memories of his dreams leaked into his waking thoughts.

9:31 AM – Home, Cleveland Heights

He settled into his workspace later than he’d planned. His desk was the wooden, round supper table downstairs. His wife, daughter, son; everyone else worked in their own bedrooms. The whole first floor had become his office.

11:22 AM – Home, Cleveland Heights

He was in a Zoom meeting with the education team. Today they were discussing the summer arts camp. This year they were creating five days of virtual programming, which would include storytelling, crafts, theater games, and scene work.

His daughter wandered by, so he pulled her into the meeting and everyone was glad to see her on the screen. She had an AP Calculus exam at 1:00 PM, and was clutching a fistful of sharpened pencils.

His co-workers had a lot of questions for her about online testing.

She reminded her father, him, not to use WiFi or to make any sound from one to three. Her brother said he didn’t know what he would do with himself for two hours. 2:22 PM – Home, Cleveland Heights

He typed up a list of items he had made note of last weekend, rooting around in his mother’s attic in Lakewood. The boy was on the couch, reading. Quarantine might be good for something after all.

3:21 PM – Mom’s House, Lakewood

His mother had died in January. They’d made plans to sell her things, her house, but that had been put on hold. His brother and family had driven all the way from the Twin Cities in one day to stay at that house, and go over her things.

He drove from his house in Cleveland Heights. Cars like were closed, atmospheric chambers, safe transportation vessels. Driving, he felt something like normalcy. Then he saw all the people at Edgewater, milling about without masks on and thought, “What the fuck is wrong with those people?”

4:07 PM – Mom’s House, Lakewood

He and his brother took a break from sorting through boxes. They were in the backyard, in the garden behind their mom’s garage. They stood apart and drank beer and talked about family. A neighbor came over to the fence to say hi. He and his brother were sorry/not sorry about not shaking hands. The neighbor told them their mom came over shortly after he and his wife had moved in, with photos of their house,the neighbors', from back in the day.

Mom grew up here, in her house in Lakewood, one that had been in his family since 1940. Eighty years.

He missed her every day, but he was grateful she wasn’t part of this.

4:51 PM – Mom’s House, Lakewood

They went through photos, so many photos. Some very old photos. It was just as well he was already wearing rubber gloves.

6:49 PM – Mom’s House, Lakewood

The rest of his family arrived in the other car with carry out. They dined al fresco, on that gorgeous spring evening, cool but bright, seated six feet apart in his children’s grandmother’s backyard. The neighbor on the other side introduced herself, too. She told lovely stories of how his mom and her daughter, the neighbor’s, would chat as his mom tended the garden.

He kept reminding his brother to keep his mask above his nostrils.

9:10 PM – Shoreway, Cleveland

He and his daughter talked as they drove back to the east side. She was worried her senior soccer season would be canceled. She would be a captain this year, and they’d already made plans how to continue team building traditions while keeping social distance.

They took the Shoreway, which at night feels like flying over the city. His daughter spied The Q. She just knew the Harry Styles concert was going to be rescheduled. His kids had been taking all of this so much better than he thought he would have at their age. Or was now.

11:15 PM – Home, Cleveland Heights

He and his wife returned to their couch, before the fire. They sat in silence, sipped whiskey, and read. Tomorrow would be much the same.

UPDATE: Literary Cleveland published the completed, final essay in Cleveland Scene on Tuesday, June 16, as well as an interactive map featuring all 140 submissions from this project.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Producing Theater Online

Clockwise from top left: self, Brian Pedaci, Chennelle Bryant-Harris, Carrie Williams
"The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth"
(Brave Spirits Theatre, 2020)

Now let us speak in defense of "Zoom Theatre."

I have not witnessed as many plays online as perhaps I should have by now. There are plentiful professional recordings of plays from before the quarantine that were shot before an audience using several cameras. Like movies, they are.

Hamilton will be released on July 3, and it will appear as one of those. Even more bizarre, filmed iin the summer of 2016 by a company and for an audience who have no idea that Donald J. Trump is about to be elected President of the United States.

We have been paying to stream independent film, but I really should be accessing productions from behind a paywall to support theaters. The critics on Three On the Aisle have promoted several events which, unlike their former offerings in New York City and elsewhere, I can actually view from the safety of my own home.

However, in spite of my desire to support my fellow artists, I have avoided diving too deeply into the world of “Zoom Readings.” There have been plentiful opportunities to hear actors read new scripts or even the works of Shakespeare, but when you spend your working day staring at a screen, returning to it for entertainment is a particular investment.

Speaking of which, anyone else's butt hurt? I mean, from sitting? Just me? I digress.

There have been some impressive attempts to elevate the medium, and the time that goes into them makes the experience much more rewarding.

Earlier this week I was a participant in the Brave Spirits Theatre reading of The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, a forerunner to and by all accounts the inspiration for not only Shakespeare’s own Henry V play, but also the Henry IV plays.

Running at only ninety minutes, this work, entirely in prose and whose author is lost to history, the work his none of the grand poetic turns of Shakespeare’s work (nothing to match “Muse of Fire” nor “Band of Brothers”, no “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world” to be found here) it’s full of humor, drama and above all jingoistic bravado, this is by all records the play that created the English appetite for historical drama.

Bedroom Studio
Directed by Kelly Elliott (she also directed Shakespeare’s Henry V for Cleveland Shakespeare Festival last summer) we had a couple rehearsals before performing once, live streaming on YouTube.

The thing about Zoom performances is that it is incumbent upon the actors to provide their own costume, to create their own set, and must work together to create props which, if shared, need to be identical. We had great fun putting it all together, and it was helpful and rewarding that BST provided dramaturgical commentary before and after the work. Any technical issues could be addressed in real time in the comments section, which was also a bonus. Some of us were even following along “backstage.” It was kinetic, lively, and loud.

There is a certain forgiveness audiences will provide a free performance, generously offered by a company trying to connect with their audience during this quarantine, and even it has to be said, to remain relevant.

Last weekend my wife and I paid admission (they had asked for a minimum one dollar donation) to watch Cleveland Public Theatre present a live “virtual reading” of Excerpts from Panther Women: An Army for the Liberation by India Nicole Burton.

Also a history play, about the women of the Black Panther Party, presented in prose, verse and dance, it was a highly choreographed piece, had a fluidity by featuring few performers (four, the screen was complete the entire performance) and it was brief, only forty minutes.

CPT is also creates a sense of live theater by giving audience members the chance to communicate before and after the performance (not during) and these online offerings not archived. They’re live, like theater should be, and not recorded. Subtle differences in performance, or outright mistakes, are for that audience only.

That one way, that one time, just for us. Just like live theater.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Short Play Project: Parenthood Series

Since we started having living children time has collapsed. Just last night (it was a very hot night, I could not sleep) I was thinking of the rooms in our house, and the different uses they have had.

My wife and I each had our own office, which were sacrificed; one room for the children, one for a playroom. Then two rooms for the children. Layers of paint, the acquisition and letting go of various furnitures. The music, the craft, the arguments, the injuries. And finally, coming to terms with the reality of their one day moving on.

Several writing prompts inspired reflection upon the condition of parenthood, lovingly interpreted by these performers.

Performed by Emmy Cohen & Moira Cohen

Performed by Tim Collingwood

Performed by Derek Koger & Evelyn Koger

You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Short Play Project: Quarantine Series

Yes, I have written a few short plays about sheltering-in-place. I mean, I'd rather not. I posted a tweet from theater artist John J. Caswell, Jr. that read, "No offense but I'm not going to go see a play reliving any of this."

He posted that two months ago.

But sometimes inspiration strikes and sometimes the results are enjoyable. Almost a month into quarantine I wrote Quarantine, which has been delightfully rendered by my long-time friends Ben and Pam, detailing the busy life of stay-at-home Gen Xers.

I've been catching up a lot with old high school friends on Zoom recently, and was made terribly aware of how the lion's share of my good high school memories are from the last several months of senior year. Having teenagers at home myself, I much more aware of what they are missing than what I currently am, in the form of cancelled concerts, parties, and ceremonies. A month ago I wrote Prom, to lend some perspective, perhaps, to the turns that life can take.

Finally, I have included here Giovanni, which started as a in-joke at work, but actually provides some sympathy to the much-maligned character of Friar John from Romeo and Juliet.

Performed by Ben Dooley & Pam Turlow

Performed by Maria Guardino Schreiner

Performed by Tim Keo

You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.