Sunday, October 18, 2020

Process V

“And there sat in a window a certain young man being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead.” - Acts of the Apostles 20:9
This week I turned in my spooky short story. It’s a week early, but I have so many projects spinning all at once I wanted to complete my edit of this, the first draft, and get it out of here so I wouldn’t look at it any more. My vignette written in the manner of Richard Wright is close to where I need it to be for evaluation but I want to keep looking at that one.

Because of these other two classes, it had been a while since I had thought about my playwriting workshop. I had gotten out so far ahead with that I was able to let it sit for a while. My wife is out of town visiting relatives, so I spent the entire day yesterday looking over the script, rearranging the sequence in which things happen. We will read more pages of that tomorrow night.

I was actually a little melancholy yesterday, I made overtures to my kids to spend some time but they were both totally engaged with friends, either online (him) or in person (her). So I just kept diddling with the script, weighing in as one does these days on social media, and crafting a seven foot pipe for the safe distribution of candy on Halloween. It’s really cool, with orange and yellow stripes, like this giant, Tim Burton, Willy Wonka, candy corn colored bendy straw.

This morning was an interesting experiment as I tried to write stage violence into this piece but wasn’t sure what was most appropriate, necessary, and most of all realistic. I can say, however, that I have successfully employed both Chekhov’s letter and Chekhov’s chocolate cake. And if you don’t know what that means, you've not been doing your homework.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Enola Holmes (film)

[Enola looks at the camera.]
Who owns Sherlock Holmes?

The British actor Millie Bobby Brown is only a year and a couple weeks younger than my own daughter. Two years in a row she, my daughter, dressed as the character Eleven from Stranger Things. So watching Brown grow as a person, first in subsequent years of that show, and as the star of the new film adaptation of Nancy Springer’s “Enola Holmes Mysteries” has been like tracking my own daughter’s development, as a person, as an artist.

Last year the two of us watched all of the third season of Stranger Things together on the Fourth of July. And now we have seen Enola Holmes. We had a delightful evening, she, the wife and I, curled up on the couch, watching an inoffensive and charming period mystery. The "woke" touches were welcome, after all. The entire affair is awash with the suggestion of a new and better future for all. One can hope.

It is very much Ms. Brown's project and during the credits my daughter expressed a desire for them to make a sequel. Target audience hit. 

The girl as "Eleven"
Halloween, 2016
The film is subject to yet another lawsuit from the Conan Doyle estate, who are determined to protect their copyright over the few Sherlock Holmes mysteries which have not fallen into the public domain. This recent suit ascertains that the character of Holmes as depicted in the film (Henry Cavill) exhibits a kinder, more sympathetic personality, one which was only evident in those very last works created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

Courts concluded several years ago that all characters for the Holmes stories prior to 1923 are in the public domain. This ruling came after the Conan Doyle estate attempted to litigate that since the character of Sherlock Holmes was not complete until Conan Doyle’s final story, the character himself could not be in the public domain. Since they were unable to win that case in the courts, they have since concentrated on prosecuting any example of Holmes’ character or history derived from the remaining copyrighted works.

Funny, the magazine GQ asked Cavill about the lawsuit, which is like asking a guy on the assembly line about an announced automotive recall. “It’s a character from a page which we worked out from the screenplay,” Cavill explained, with evident patience, adding: “The legal stuff is above my pay grade.” 

I would like to make it clear, I think copyright is important. And I believe things should eventually fall into the public domain. As long as we live in a capitalistic system, artists must reap the benefit of their work. It is also important for other artists to have the opportunity to reshape and reinterpret pre-existing work. Lawyers figure these things out, that is what lawyers do. It is, as the man said, above my pay grade. 

Susan Wokoma, Henry Cavill
Timeless social commentary in "Enola Holmes"
(Netflix, 2020)

I myself have adapted a couple of public domain novels, and created an original story using characters created by Conan Doyle. This has all been done legally, and I am also happy to protect my copyright over my own adaptations and interpretations.

Shortly after the movie premiered on Netflix, playwright Emily McClain (Slaying Holoferenes) posted an hilarious and pointed Twitter rant thread that began, “I need an ‘I Was Tricked Into Watching Enola Holmes Support Group.’”

A lot of my own friends posted positive notices about the film on Facebook, but McClain’s friends were telling her (her words), “Watch this! It’s so you! You could have written this! You’ll love it! It’s right up your alley!”
 
"Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street"
(Great Lakes Theater, 2020)

Pointing out works by others that we “could have written” is one of those unwittingly irritating things friends of playwrights who aren’t themselves playwrights like to say, along with (my words) “I have a great idea for a play I’d like you to write,” and suggesting, “That’s your next play!” after we report absolutely any trivial thing that has happened to us. 

My daughter got elbowed in the face on the playing field the other night. "That's your next play!"

McClain admits she does like to write plays about “plucky female characters subverting social expectations” but was brought short on the romantic subplot of the Eola Holmes movie, which appears nowhere in Spinger’s novels. The adapted screenplay, it should be noted, was written by a man.

Hot London Action
"Enola Holmes" (Netflix, 2020)
This was a particular concern of mine when putting together Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street. I wanted a female narrator, but under no circumstances did I want any romance in the script. I also knew having Young Vicky appear at Holmes’ flat unattended might be ahistorical, and that adults watching with children may be made uncomfortable.

So I just acknowledged it, making a big deal out of the door being left open and that Mrs. Hudson was always listening to their conversation. Moving on.

The new, full-length piece I am currently working on is a two-hander, between two women. Do you know how many scenarios I have imagined to create tension and conflict that involve men? All of them. And I’m choosing something different. 

As the young woman says, "The future is up to us."

Many thanks to Emily McClain for allowing me to quote her Twitter feed! You can learn more about her work here.

Source:
Henry Cavill on playing Sherlock with emotions and returning as Superman by Stuart McGurk, GQ Magazine (9/24/2020)

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Process IV

Question: How do you write in the style of an author whose work is intimately woven with life as they had experienced it in these United States when their life’s journey is not merely different from your own, but different as a direct result of the social structure that created the difference between theirs and yours?

To put it another way, their point of view made their writing what it is. For me to emulate that I should, what? I cannot pretend to be him. And I cannot write from my point of view simply emulating those elements of style which make his work unique; use of color, description of space, expanding of time, sense of alienation, anxiety, existential dread.

I cannot do this because the most important element, for him, his reason for writing, was protest. Expressing his walk of life, or mine, was not enough. The reader needs to be aroused, outraged, and moved to action.

Last Wednesday my professor asked the class how our writing was going, present progressive tense, as though it had already begun and is in process. I had not yet written a word. It’s an eight-page vignette that is due in a little over two weeks. But I have been engaging myself in these questions and finally arrived at a scenario, which I storyboarded yesterday and wrote the first pages this morning.

I may even use some of this post in my artist’s statement for that story.

The work on the play continues, just this week I had something of a revelation. Every piece, the play, the gothic short story, the protest vignette, has its own agenda. They each, however, require tension. For the play script I continue to be haunted by the observation of Joe Barnes, "It is hard to write a compelling play about two characters who are basically decent." They are decent, a mother-daughter duo who have (generally) open avenues of communication.

How to create conflict that does not involve men, men with a capital M. That it does not involve father, or boyfriend, or lover, that their struggle, if there is a struggle (there has to be a struggle) is between them, and not some other person. If you do not understand why this is important, you haven’t been paying attention.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Ben Is Dead (magazine)

How to explain to future generations what it was like not to have all your lifetime memories at your fingertips. What was it like to have a conversation and not to be able to find out immediately the name of that actor, the title of a movie, the correct lyrics of any given song?

For twenty-five years, I had the memory of a song, one I knew from a few weeks spent abroad in 1984. It was played often enough at that time that I could remember a series of notes that were whistled (or were at least, a whistle-like sound) as part of the chorus. I was pretty sure it was a song about breakdancing (there were actually several popular songs about breakdancing that summer) that it was an American song, though never a hit in America. I had lost it.

In 2009 I reconnected with members of the team that I had journeyed with a quarter-century prior (via Facebook, of course) and asked if anyone could help with this song, which was still stuck in the recesses of my mind. They could not, but it occurred to me then to do a Google search of “dance hits Spain 1984” or something along those lines and found it. Street Dance by Break Machine.

Not only did I find it, I immediately bought it on iTunes. And I can honestly say that the word I would use to describe this discovery is relief.

"Fraidy Cat" (ABC 1975)
Life is terrifying. You will die.

The thing about childhood memories is that it used to be that unless they were somehow recreated in the form of a period film or television program, you just forgot them. Or they were there somewhere, but memory is fluid and they could change drastically. Maybe you'd doubt they ever existed as you remember them.

Was there really a Saturday morning cartoon about an alley cat on his “ninth life” who was terrified of death, and constantly haunted by his previous eight incarnations?

Yes, that was Fraidy Cat which had eighteen episodes on ABC in late 1975. I was seven. It was really terrible. But you can watch the entire thing right now on YouTube.

Personally, I had quashed a great deal of my childhood memory as I grew into adolescence. The youngest of three boys, my brothers were a constant reminder that my interests were childish (I was a child) and there was also the cultural pressure to discard the old and embrace the new. Disco is crap, buy this New Wave album.

Magazines, toys, posters, even records were sold at garage sales and clothes were given away. In my rush to be an adult I married too soon and bought a house. Twenty-five years ago, in 1995, I turned twenty-seven. I had lost the wife but kept the house, and my new girlfriend moved in. And together we began to rediscover childhood.

"Bummers"
Art by Jared Lee

This was the era of Generation X nostalgia. We were all indulging in the trappings of the mid-to-late 70s. In Pulp Fiction a drug dealer eats from a box of Fruit Brute. Schoolhouse Rock was back on television. The Saturday Morning Cartoons album was released, featuring covers of TV theme songs by popular artists; this is where the Ramones doing Spider-Man comes from.

The thing is, these things weren’t in here, on our computers. Few had email in 1995, far fewer access to the “world wide web” or AOL. These things were out there, in the world, and we had to find them.

One of the valuable treasures I found, just as we began work creating the first Night Kitchen play Bummer (a collection of short plays about being a kid in the year 1980) were the “Retro Hell” issues of the magazine Ben Is Dead. The cover captured my attention at the local bookstore because the logo for that issue emulated the Scholastic magazine Dynamite.

Dynamite was an eagerly awaited item for me in every shipment of Scholastic books at Glenview Elementary because it was not only a fun activity book but was also a connection to popular culture, with interviews and features about TV and pop stars written for kids. It also included a regular single-panel cartoon called "Bummers" which was the inspiration for the title of our production in the Night Kitchen.

Ben Is Dead
was a 90s, L.A.-based zine-turned-magazine that indulged in confessional essays by twenty-somethings (primarily written by the creator, Deborah "Darby" Romeo) as well as reviews, interviews and pop culture items. Each issue was based around a central theme. Retro Hell was originally intended to be two issues, which blossomed into three, and finally the book, Retro Hell: Life in the '70s and '80s, From Afros to Zotz (1997).

The first issue of this series alone (BID #25: 146 pages!) included personal reflections on Teen Idols (e.g., Brandon Cruz, Adam Rich) an interview with Debbie Harry, instructions on how to make a bubblegum wrapper wristband, recipes from the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery, memories of a 1980s teenage lesbian, how to make a slam book and a cootie catcher, a list of incorrectly heard lyrics, a long list of games you can play with your hands (cheek pop, hand horn, vagina hole) and creepy LPs intended for children ... and so much more!

Also, the margins included a variety of long-forgotten catchphrases and put-downs like, “You think you’re hot shit in a champagne glass, but you’re really cold diarrhea in a Dixie cup.”
Editorial by Darby

Sensations can bring you back … Sometimes smells do it. There’s this one smell, of clammy hands and tar, that brings me right back to the elementary school auditorium where I was square dancing partners with Jimmy (I forget his last name now) - total babe. 

The idea is that you can control this. These feelings don’t have to be random or accidental. They don’t have to be sentimental or emotional. They are a part of you forever and can be accessed on demand. You don’t need to be naïve or immature or go out with a person half your age to feel the force of youth … I guess it all depends on whether you’re going to utilize your past or just wallow in it.
Now these memories can literally be accessed on demand. At the time it wasn’t so easy, so having these volumes was extremely joyful. And shocking. It didn’t make me want to relive my past, but to better understand it. And believe me, I have utilized it.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Process III

“One of the best pieces of advice he had ever received as a rookie was to treat your station as one table. Check all the tables, see how they are, and then go get whatever they need all together. Be smart, save time.” - from Carl’s Last Night
My evenings are spent treating my graduate school work as one table. I keep track of time, reading for all three classes in equal measure, taking notes, and writing. Lots of writing.

This weekend I completed the first draft of a short story for my “gothic fiction” class which will be workshopped in a couple weeks. That one was heavily plotted, which is why I was able to bang it out so fast. There are stories in my head which have rolled around so long that, given the opportunity to actually write them down, I don’t need to think about what happens, and only need to concentrate on the words to share it accurately. This was one of those occasions.

My playwriting workshop will be reading twenty pages this week, twenty pages from the full length script I am writing for that class. That one is coming to me in bits and pieces. I have characters, and setting, but no obvious plot. But that works too, as our professor keeps reminding us, writing means quantity over quality. Don’t worry so much about writing the thing, just make sure you keep writing, and write a lot.

That third class, dedicated to the works of three prominent African American, male authors of the mid-twentieth century, has required a considerable amount of reading. An entire novel every two weeks. The writing for that one has not yet commenced, but will involve emulating the style of one of these authors, and not only their style, but their approach to social beliefs (but the emphasis is on the former.)

It is this assignment which is most challenging, and therefore most exciting.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Process II

This is my one hundredth post for 2020.

I have not written a short story in a long time. I wrote a brief piece for a local magazine about ten years ago that I was happy with. I tried my hand at writing articles for Cleveland Magazine in the mid-aughts but they weren’t very good. 

They were fine.

For my “dark fiction” class I need to turn in a short story in a couple weeks, one which includes elements ranging from the gothic and grotesque to the horrific and weird. Neither my writing fiction nor engaging in negative storytelling do I consider strong suits; hence, I took the class.

Creating and comprehending the plot of a mystery, specifically Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street, inspired me to plot out the plot visually in a manner I had not attempted before. I created a chaotic flow chart, where I could drop things I knew must happen, in the order they must happen, at various points on a large, blank page, correcting them with arrows. The spaces in between were then filled with songs, puzzles, and other elements which I hoped to include and gave me a visual sense of pacing.

As a result, I could write the play in pieces-parts, without worrying about the order -- I could organize them according to the graphic later -- and concluded with a first draft that was coherent and largely complete. This was something which would have been useful crafting my previous mysteries, espcially those which had been adapted from pre-existing works. 

The story I am working on for my fiction class is one I have been thinking of for twenty-five years. Seriously, I have had this tale rolling around in my head for decades, but have never written it. Because I never had the time or inclination to -- I did not know where it fit in my writing life. Now I do, and I cannot express how exciting that is.

Because it is an assignment. I have to do this, not for me, but for a class! Which is a much better reason for me to get it done.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Process I

Now summertime has come to an end
So I've gotta get back to my studies again
And make a grade so I can pass
And go-o-o up to the head of my class
I washed the dishes and scrubbed the floor
And taught me to love what I'd began before
 
Now I'm so glad the summers past
And school is in at last

- Josie Cotton, “School Is In”
Our school district has committed to nine weeks, at least, of remote learning this fall. My children, a sophomore and a senior, are at their desks during the day for synchronous learning -- the girl at her desk less than the boy, as she is attending some in-person classes at the university downtown.

And I am also at school, taking three graduate school courses. So, in addition to my work Great Lakes (more on that in a moment) I am spending almost every waking moment either reading or writing. Mostly reading, though. And I feel more myself than I have in years. Or more like a person I remember wanting to be.

I was a mediocre student in high school, and a downright shameful one in college. I always enjoyed reading, but I resented assigned reading. I like to write, but writing assignments were a chore and a bore.

There was a little voice in my head, a child’s voice, saying, “No! I won’t do that! You can’t make me!” It was there far longer than it should have been. Now I spend my mornings, evenings and weekends, reading. Novels, short stories, and play scripts. And I am digging it.

My morning pages ritual remains, but the goal is the free-writing itself, not to produce a short play script. For the better part of a year I have been posting short plays at New Play Exchange, and I may actually take many (though not all) of them down. It was always an experiment in practice and motivation.

Attending weekly playwriting workshops, in addition to my theory and literature classes, I have not the time nor interest in extracurricular pursuits. The process is now focused on the craft of writing longer scripts.

I also have less time for ruminative blogging.

We have something very special in the works at my place of employment, though I suppose that is true pretty much everywhere. We are all and have been figuring out new and original ways to provide our services.

Since 2001, I have spent four September weeks in rehearsal for the school residency program. This year I am not. Instead, we have reimagined how to provide these lesson plans to area schools, and my colleagues and I have been dressing up as famous characters from Shakespeare, recording scenes in the park. 

Tonight is a cool Saturday in September. My son and I sat out by the firepit, and together we read.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Culver City Public Theatre presents "Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street"

Brian Knoebel as
Alma Tadema-Lawrence
(CCPT, 2020)
Last night was a treat. Chennelle and Chelsea joined us for some late summer, socially-distanced deck time so we could watch the premiere of the Culver City Public Theatre (CCPT) production of Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street.

This is the second production of that script. The folks at CCPT, who produced Rosalynde & the Falcon last year, were intending to offer performances of About a Ghoul to their audiences as their annual, free, outdoor summer show for families. Things being how they are, they thought a mystery might be better suited to the medium.

At first they considered a live “Zoom” performance, opting instead for something pre-recorded, with surprising results!

California is three hours behind us, so I made the mistake of thinking last night’s 6:00 PM showing would be during one of my classes. When I finally put it together that it would be, in fact, at nine (eastern) … well, then I thought I might see it. I might not. I haven’t been sleeping well. I might wait and see it this weekend.

Richard Rosales (left) in
"Rosalynde & the Falcon"
(CCPT, 2019)
I told all of this to Chennelle late in the afternoon and she invited herself over -- which was just all right with me! We rarely see each other (we all rarely see anyone anymore, of course) and besides, she originated the main character of Vicky for the inaugural production for Great Lakes Theater.

I don’t just mean she was the first to perform the role, either. I wrote it for her. I was so happy to get to watch this with her.

We all sat out on the deck, beneath the fairy lights, six feet apart, drinking seltzer in the open air, on an appropriately cool September evening, and were treated to an engagingly loopy COVID-era production.

Richard Rosales is the titular detective. He played the King in CCPT’s Rosalynde in the park, and brought his high haughty humor to the character of Sherlock Holmes as well, while Ashley J. Woods as Vicky is like a Covent Garden flower seller channeled by Catherine Tate’s schoolgirl Lauren Cooper, and they make a charming pair of sleuths.

King Edward busts a move.
Scene-stealers include Brian Knoebel who was killing it with his drag renditions of Miss Barnaby and boho artiste Alma Tadema-Lawrence (he left us cackling with glee) and the precious young Maggie McKissick as Annie, the orphan, in an actual curly red wig and moppet’s dress.

Director Marina Curtis Tidwell did not merely direct a play, she produced a TV show, complete with music and Pythonesque animations. Marina truly did a remarkable job keeping the edits tight and timely.

Each actor created their own scenes in their own homes, provided costumes, backdrops and set pieces by the company to give a coherent look. The production would not look out of place on your local PBS station, a playful mystery for kids with some historic educational value and a strong anti-bullying message. 

First Reading
(August 25, 2019)

They were even able to incorporate the “choices” that are intended to be offered to a live, child audience -- “should I do A or B?” In this case, the actor looks at the camera to consult the viewer (a Blue’s Clues moment) though in this case the outcome is predetermined.

It is shocking to me, shocking, that it was one a year ago that a number of us clustered together on our deck to hold the first reading of this script. Chelsea and Chennelle were there, too -- Chelsea reading Vicky and Chennelle the Barney track. If we knew then what we know now, right? It is a mystery.

Last night I slept like a baby.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Three-Hundred and Sixty-Five Days of Practice

For one calendar year I have written my morning pages every single day, not missing a day. This morning, to celebrate, I share my exercise with you.




Monday, August 31, 2020

My First Fringe Festival

"Happy Happy Bunny Visits Sad Sad Owl"
(not actually) by Samuel Beckett, age 7
from "The Complete Lost Works of ..."
The last millennium, as any obnoxious numerology will tell you, ended at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 2000, because we count from one to ten, and not zero to nine.

Anyone with a social life or a personality or friends will tell you oh hell no, I was there and the new millennium began on January 1, 2000 baby, whoop whoop, that was awesome.

Which just goes to show that numbers are only symbols and the majority wins in the marketplace of popular imagination.

The year 2000 was, for me, an ending and not, as it seemed to me at the time, the continuation of a journey upon a determined path. I was newly wed, I had started a popular theater company, I was 32 years of age, and we had plans to start a family. And yet, there was a new me that was about to be born. My first life was about to end, for better or worse, and I was unaware.

Philip Bosco, Michael Cumpsty,
and Blair Brown
"Copenhagen" (Broadway, 2000)
The summer of 2000, my wife had left a job at a weekly newspaper to begin grad school, rehearsals were about to commence -- for both of us. Bad Epitaph was producing Cloud 9, and Dobama’s Night Kitchen her new play Angst:84. Late August, twenty years ago, and it was the perfect time to plan a weekend in New York City, to see old friends and even catch a show. We took the train. Time was expansive. We had no kids.

We had even gotten tickets to see Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen at the Royale. Science plays were all the rage, don’t you know. David Auburn’s Proof was transferring to Broadway that fall, Caryl Churchill's 2002 play A Number and Stoppard's Arcadia nine years earlier. Three actors walked in circles around a bare stage ("like particles in an experiment") talking about physics. It was a hit! We used to be smart.

It was a dare, taking a train and buying tickets for a show, and we just made it, too. Heading straight from the station to the theater, we shoved our backpacks under our seats, no time even to pee.

We were staying with her old boyfriend Harris in an apartment on the east side in the 60s. As the three of us made plans for the weekend, he suggested we see a show at the New York International Fringe Festival. I did not know what that was.

That night, my wife was having dinner with an old friend from Sarah Lawrence and so Harris and I had disco sushi at Avenue A and went to see a festival offering, FrankenClown, ostensibly an evil clown show, even promising “several slayings and raucous laughter” but turned out to be a pretty straightforward retelling of Shelley’s classic in clown make-up.

Home of disco sushi.
But. My God! Looking through the festival guide, there were over one hundred shows going on across the L.E.S. A happening was happening! I felt vengeful and jealous. Also old.

I thought of the past five years of my life, the several shows we had created in the Night Kitchen, original plays and ensemble-written pieces and long-form improvs, any one of them could have been submitted to this festival -- except it didn’t exist yet. The New York fringe began in 1997, and I left Dobama soon after. Alas.

After the show we caught up with the others and bar-hopped until about four a.m.

CJ does the thing.
The next morning my head and tummy were a little tender and so we lay low for the early afternoon. One of them said something about “CJ doing the thing” and I was the only one in the room who had not yet started watching The West Wing, they had to explain it to me. Harris downloaded “The Jackal” using LimeWire because we could not yet just dial up something from YouTube, so I could hear the song. It was peak Y2K.

That night we had more success with the fringe, joining a packed house at Surf Reality in the East Village to see The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (partially burned) in a Dustbin in Paris Labeled "Never to be performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I'll Sue! I'LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!!! It was created and performed by Theater Oobleck members Ben Schnieder and Danny Thompson, and Neo-Futurist founder Greg Allen and included elements of each companies’ work, particularly their high-brow loopiness.



By now I was in the zone and I desperately wanted to see one more show before we left. Sunday afternoon we packed our backpacks and headed back downtown for one more show. We saw the play Merrick's Gallery at the Present Company Theatorium on Stanton Street, headquarters for the entire festival. During intermission I nosed around, trying to gladhand one of the administrators.

I was bitten. This was the next step. Bringing a show to New York to participate in a festival like this was definitely on the agenda for the future. And the opportunity presented itself sooner than I imagined, though not with one of my shows. The Night Kitchen took my wife’s play, Angst:84, to the Fringe the next year, produced right there at the Present Company Theatorium. I ran sound for that production, and during my copious spare time took in sixteen other shows at FringeNYC 2001.

This experience did not start my new life, but in hindsight it was a piece of it. For the better part of ten years I had endeavored to create new works in northeast Ohio, to be a participant in making Cleveland into the theater city I knew it might be. And it's not like I hadn't attending storefront theater before in Chicago, the Twin Cities, New York, London, and elsewhere.

But to be confronted with the sheer massive scope of current theatrical productions, all in one place at one time, was to be more suddenly and deeply engaged in the national and global theater community. There was an element of FOMO to it, to be sure. I wanted in.

"Angst:84" company at the Present Company Theatorium (FringeNYC 2001)

I brought three of my own shows to fringe festivals, in New York and elsewhere. Did it make an impact on my career? Maybe. Was it fun? Sure. Did I learn anything? A lot. But it feels like a long time ago. And now I have, at last, started grad school.

Amy Salloway, who I met at the Minnesota Fringe in 2003, she said, "Fringe festivals are summer camp for theater people." For me, however, summer is over.

Sources:
Playbill, "Copenhagen" (Royale Theatre, 2000)
Dog Days Sizzle for Theater's Off-Offbeat Pups by Jesse McKinley The New York Times (8/18/2000)

The former Present Company Theatorium space was demolished to make way for luxury apartments in the late 00s.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

David Hansen, American Playwright

I’m on social media. You’re on social media. I mean, you’re here, right now. Funny to think of something as old and tired as a blog to be social media, but it totally is. Welcome.

I have a dry wit, it comes from my mother’s side of the family. As she was swiftly losing her mind in early December, the nurses and doctors would test her faculaties by asking basic questions. Do you know where you are? What day is it? What year is it?

That last gave her trouble first. Then they asked, “Do you know who the President is?” After a brief pause she said, “Who can forget that?”

Learning the niceties of online communication has been hard-fought for me. But I have learned, like everyone else, to include an exclamation point to show the enthusiasm you might otherwise do with a smile. And to add a smile or wink emoji to let someone I know that I am saying something in jest. To them.

But if I am making a sarcastic comment on Facebeook, or especially on Twitter, it is galling to add “” or some other indicator to a wry joke. Drawing attention to the fact that my comment is not meant to be taken seriously ruins the joke. Either you “get” it or you don’t. If you don’t get it, it’s probably not a very good joke.

The other day, I posted something on Twitter, summing up my lack of respect for a certain political action committee, founded by a certain set of Republicans, who have made it their mission to make sure Donald J. Trump is not reëlected.

Liberals are thrilled, and to the extent that anyone wants to assign this president to the ashcan of history, so am I. But let’s not kid ourselves, if absolutely any other human were representing the GOP of the ballot, these fellows would be providing their money and support to the person. It’s not conservatism they despise, it’s just that man.

The Lincoln Project
steals memes.
(h/t JeffFromRegina)
They tweeted something which included the phrase “Are you in?” and urging folks to respond. I replied stating that I had: “Suddenly decided that after a lifetime of harmful, self-serving decisions, I actually don't want my obit to include the phrase ‘voted for Trump twice.’" and included their hashtag (see above.)

Two days later that Tweet has over 4,800 likes, and hundreds of retweets. Most replies congratulate and thank me. A small handful call me out for being stupid enough to vote for him once, and in that they would not be wrong, if it were true.

Because it was a joke. I feel a bit of what they used to call sheepish. But not much.

Several years ago my colleagues made up a little song, inspired by the song "Joseph Smith, American Moses" from the cringey and somewhat dated musical The Book of Mormon. It went like this:
“David Hansen ...
American Playwright.”
That’s it. And that is how I became David Hansen, American Playwright. I put it on my Facebook page, and on my website. It does feel odd, however, to use that title, things being how they are. What do I mean when I call myself an American playwright? Am I one of those Americans?

No. At least I hope not. I am one of these Americans, which should be obvious when you read my work, which is much more sincere than what I choose to tweet. I put forth an America I see and would like to see.

But if you are unfamiliar with my work - unfamiliar with me - how can you tell? A white, cis-male of a certain age, perhaps my bold statement of nationality is an indication of some kind of jingostic bent.

In my individual pursuit of a more perfect Union, it is a risk I am currently willing to take.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Short Play Project: ArtWorks Theatre Co-Op Series

Last month I was contacted by Giorgiana Lascu at the Center for Arts-Inspired Learning. She was seeking short plays for her high school aged interns to perform, record and edit as part of the ArtWorks program.

She had six young women and one young man engaged in performance and video production, and asked if I had any plays that weren't bound by race, gender or age. In fact, the vast majority of my short plays are written for anyone to perform! We spent an exciting afternoon as I pitched scripts and her protégés had a great time reading and choosing from them.

ArtWorks is a job training and arts education program, a paid internship, and these high school aged kids were to direct, shoot and edit these scripts, as well as perform for each other.

Thrilling for me is how teenagers interpreted the relationships in each of these pieces. "Driver's Seat" was written with a parent and child in mind. Here they are siblings or friends, possibly people in a relationship. "Confidence" was included in Savory Taṇhā, and it is fascinating to me how social cues change between age and experience. The text lays it all out for you, the question is how do you communicate?

My favorite reaction to "High" is what my mother-in-law texted me after watching it:

"sorry" 🙄

(lol)


"Driver's Seat"
Performed by Ta'niyah Richardson & Natozjah Johnson


"Confidence"
Performed by Yai Johnson & Miasia Wells


"High"
Performed by Al Gorman & Freddie French

Videos recorded and edited collaboratively by ArtWorks Theatre Co-Op 2020: Frederick French, Al Gorman, Yai Johnson, Natozjah Johnson, Ta'niyah Richardson, Dalaija Walker & Miasia Wells.

You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

How I Spent My Summer (2020)

Rich & Dave (1991)
When I was in college, I used to make a mixtape every summer. I referred to it (to myself) as a “junk tape.” It was intended to be a document of the season, because I love summer so much, even when I hate it.

If there was a song I was listening to a lot, I’d add it to the tape. A movie I discovered at the video store, I put a snatch of great dialogue or music on the tape. Or moaning. You get what I’m saying.

Bumpers from Sunday Progressions, maybe I would record myself reading one sentence from a novel or a comic book. I still have them somewhere, from 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990 …

The 1991 mixtape was the absolute best. It was a complicated summer, the tape begins from when I left Los Angeles, and chronicles my being single in my new apartment, trying to rekindle a relationship, meeting people on Coventry, getting kittens, waiting tables, having troublesome one-night stands.

I remember it included Whispers & Moans, So Like Candy, the theme from Northern Exposure, Satisfied, Mama Said Knock You Out (Unplugged), Who, Where, Why? (Video Mix), There She Goes, and on and on. It was the very best mixtape ever made.

The following summer I was partway through creating my Summer 1992 mixtape when it, the 1991 tape, and my car, were stolen in New York City. I made summer tapes for a couple years to follow, but it was always with a sense of sadness for their lost brethren.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern (1991)
The summer of 1991 still exists, of course, in my memory. Not many photographs, not much documentation, but I was there. Out there, on the street. Performing at open mics in the yard, handing change to addicts, listening to my roommate have sex, meeting characters. Laying the groundwork for my adulthood. But there is still an emotional gap, and it is recorded onto that lost cassette.

Now, unlike then, I have documentation. Gigabytes of documentation. But will this summer be absent in other ways? Because of everything that did not happen, or happened at a technological remove.

Will we hold memories of good times when our senses are not entirely engaged? All the cocktail parties, trivia nights, play readings and performances, did they actually happen if the people we interacted with were not in three dimensions? Have no odor? No observable feet?

CAMP THEATER

Trying the think back even two months is taxing. Each Friday I think, again? And yet, I will retain fond memories of this year's virtual Camp Theater!

However, though we all have made fascinating and in some cases groundbreaking discoveries in online and distanced performance, nothing compares to the energy of young people brought together to play and work, to act, dance, sing and combat, to dress up and stage work together, and I hope we never have to do it this way again.

Chase Kneuven & Alexis Long (Culver City Public Theatre)

THE WAY I DANCED WITH YOU

Our friends at the Culver City Public Theatre were forced to suspend their spring production of Romeo & Juliet -- and also their free, summer production of About a Ghoul, my children’s play adapted from Moroccan folk tales.

In lieu of these events they have hosted a series of virtual play readings, and I was very happy to witness their reading of my play The Way I Danced With You, directed by Lauren Bruniges and performed by Alex Long and Chase Kneuven.

Even better, they are currently in the process of creating a full, virtual production of Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street, which will be presented on select dates next month.

Topsail Island, North Carolina
NORTH CAROLINA

Okay, I don’t want to get defensive about this but, okay? We went on vacation, and not just anywhere, but we went to the beach. I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking, “what the fuck were you thinking?”

Look, it’s not like we went to Florida. I wasn’t soaking in a hot tub with two hundred strangers, I wasn’t soaking in coronavirus soup. My mother-in-law had rented a beach house before it all came down and we weighed our options and thought, well. We know this place. The beach is not crowded, we will social distance, be together as a family. No hugs, no handshakes. We’ll dine-in and enjoy the sun and try to create some sense of sanity.

And you know, that's just what we did.

SAVORY TAṆHĀ

Anything I might say about Savory Taṇhā (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble), I believe I have already said. In the midst of this time of artistic uncertainty, it was such a release to work with actors, even via Zoom, to create a live performance.

I am reminded of freshman year at school. First years were not permitted to do acting work. As an extracurricular I volunteered to be a DJ for the green radio station, and one of my classmates mused that I had found a way to still be vocal and creative, even if I couldn’t do so onstage. It felt like that, almost like getting away with something.

Brian Pedaci & Zyrece Montgomery
(Cleveland Public Theatre)
The fact that I conducted the final rehearsals and all of the performances from a beach house felt even more transgressive. This is how I get my kicks, I guess.

HAMILTON

Everybody watched Hamilton.

MAINE

We had barely been home before driving off again, this time to Flood’s Cove. Heading out, I thought it was an unwise decision, and not for the obvious reasons. I have never arrived at the Barnstable without my mother there waiting for me. Stepping into that empty, unprepared cabin, was a challenge but I held it together. We closed the door to the first floor room she used to share with father, and just last year with Jacques.

My wife, my son, and I (the girl has a job and stayed at home) only this trio dined each night at the table which was traditionally full of Hansens and Bakers, Thayers, Kosboths and Tanskis. I wondered why I was there, was I there for me, or was I merely holding a place?

But as the week progressed, I felt my own place. The boy and I would fish, or he would fish and I would read and we went out on the water and I began to feel my own sense of ownership. And I knew I would return.

Many grateful thanks.
ESTATE SALE

Settling my mother’s estate has been a multi-level process, one which should have been resolved months ago but for the virus. Every time I go there I feel as though it will be my last, first to assess the estate sale team, bringing everything she has ever owned (she has owned, but also what he parents owned, eight decades of belongings) to be sorted, priced, and sold.

It was overwhelming. This is why you pay people to do things you don’t have the heart to do.

The sale was successful, ask me for a reference. I was out of town for the weekend itself, I was glad to be literally removed from town. But I still needed to return to haul out the garbage, the useless leftovers, the junk. The unwanted artifacts.

Waiting for the guys to come, the junk men. Lying on the floor of the dining room, the same space mom occupied in her hospice bed as she died. I hoped it would be poignant, that there might be some epiphany but mostly I just looked at my phone and dozed.

CENTER FOR ARTS-INSPIRED LEARNING

As the summer was drawing to a close, I was contacted by Giorgiana Lascu at the Center for Arts-Inspired Learning (formerly Young Audiences of Northeast Ohio) to provide some short play scripts for her teenage interns as part of their end-of-season program of events. We spent a crazy morning pitching out scripts and her charges were very excited about getting to work on them.



In the past five months, folks have created nearly seventy-five short films from these scripts. I have actually backed away from writing as many, recently I have been playing with dialogue between a mother and daughter and I am not sure where that is going to go yet, but it is an exciting new journey.

Meantime, it does my heart glad to look back over the summer, to see it book-ended by Camp Theater, and by this project, enjoying the work of hopeful young people.

THE DECK

Five years ago we had our deck rebuilt and since that time I have taken loving care of it. We have expanded the furniture to include shelves and a small table, found on someone’s curb.

Houseplants and candles and twinkle lights and now it is as though we have added an entire new room to our modest abode. And we write and we read and we drink (we’ve recently cut the drinking) and relax and create and do our best to enjoy what we have and to make our way through.

I am anxious about the time we all have to go back indoors.

Thank you for listening to my Summer 2020 junk tape.

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 another number. Then Merman starts singing, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” roll 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?