Saturday, October 16, 2021

Process XLI

Okay, Anton. Whatever you say.
I was rushing to get a paper completed by last Thursday, only it is really due next Thursday. So, I have a paper due next Thursday which is mostly complete, so that’s good.

My work will appear in a certain collaborative holiday project but that hasn’t been announced yet so instead I’ll just mention it here to be all oblique and shit.

We spent the week in rehearsal learning the Hamlet residency, which was awesome because I love Hamlet and it is exciting when I’m in a room of people who agree, or at least listen to me go on about it because they haven’t really formed their opinions yet.

I finished the first draft of the play I am writing for workshop, which is dynamite because the only the first half is due this week, so again. Ahead of the game. I am writing every single morning.

Next weekend, Chennai Art Theatre will be reviving their production of I Hate This (re-titled What Happened) at Indianostrum in Pondicherry, India. Pondicherry (or Puducherry) is a three and a half hour drive from Chennai, so they will be reaching an entirely new audience, and I wish them a strong turnout.

As for me, I’m taking the boy to NYC next weekend. Some time ago he expressed a strong desire to witness the musical Hadestown, as he has never before asked to see a specific production, I thought that if we could we should.

And tonight. Tonight, we return to the Hanna Theatre for the first time since January, 2020. Sara Bruner is directing The Tempest, she who played Ariel in the GLT production fourteen years ago, the one in which I played Adrian, Shakespeare’s least-consequential named character. We’re masked and vaxxed, and it will be a celebration.

Friday, October 15, 2021

On Trigger Warnings

"Six"
(West End, 2021)
Recently, a theater critic lamented on Twitter the lack of “trigger warning” for the musical Six.
Trigger warning: a statement cautioning that content (as in a text, video, or class) may be disturbing or upsetting - Merriam Webster
I know little about Six, a British musical which recently opened on Broadway following an eighteen month postponement. What I do know is that it is a celebration of the wives of King Henry VIII, each of them modeled after a contemporary pop star. It is presentational, like one of those rock music competition television programs.

The suggestion that the show requires a warning of disturbing content led to a great deal of theater twitter tweeting, much of it centered on how dumb a person needs to be not to be aware that Anne Boelyn and Catherine Howard were beheaded, or that Henry was generally an abusive husband.

Two things. 1) Why should an American know that? The British Monarchy is not part of our curriculum. And 2) The show isn’t really sold that way. The advertising shows a diverse sextet of women with microphones. They’re not even wearing crowns.

Sure, I know who they represent, I do Shakespeare. I don’t look down upon those who do not.

I have thought a lot about trigger warnings, and I have decided they don’t trouble me, and they may help those who could use such advance warning. “This program makes light of spousal abuse and murder, please be advised.”

Dear Evan Hansen was part of our subscription package for the KeyBank Broadway series two years ago, and apparently it was a popular show with “the kids.” We took the family. My stomach bottomed out when one of the characters dies by suicide. I had no idea. My teenage children have exeperience with suicide, it’s not some abstract concept. It made for a difficult evening.

"Dear Evan Hansen"
(Broadway Tour, 2019)
I understand, life is full of challenging experiences, but like those going to see Six on Broadway, we expected a fun evening. Hell, we paid for one.

This school year, we have introduced a warning to the final scenes of Romeo and Juliet our actor-teachers perform in the classroom. Surely, you ask, they know Romeo and Juliet take their own lives. No, maybe they don’t. Some schools bring us in before they have finished the text. And many students know someone who has died by suicide, and watching that act performed with the degree of realism our actors bring to the performance may be troubling, whether they know the ending of the play or not.

So yeah, I fail to see how a content warning in any way mars one’s enjoyment of a performance. That is unless you are the kind of person who thinks they are stupid in which case I might ask, why so sensitive?

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Process XL

Let’s talk about the well made play. What is it? Do people still even make those? I mean, any one worth speaking of? 

The well-made play consists of:
  • All action!
  • Surprises!
  • Suspense!
  • Contrivances!
  • Neat resolution!
Or so they say. George Bernard Shaw did. He said it, he didn't do it.

These two classes I am taking this semester, the one on dramatic structure and the playwriting workshop, they blur into each other. What I am learning in the former is employed in the latter.

The thing about a murder mystery, or even an involuntary manslaughter mystery, is the extent to which it is based on surprise. And is the mystery compelling? Most important-to me, anyway (and to Shaw) is whether or not I can craft a shocking mystery with a MESSAGE.

Yes, a message play! I said it, and I’m not ashamed of it. Neither is Shaw.

Okay, the past week has been an emotional adventure. I mean, I haven’t been emotional. Quite the opposite, actually. Since I began taking anti-anxiety medication, I have been floating somewhere an inch underwater. And considering when I started this medication, which is about two years ago now, it has been the absolute best time for me to be taking it.

Am I missing anything? I don’t know, have I been productive and not wanted to curl up and die? Yes to both, thanks. Emotions are overrated. They only cause pain and interrupt my sleep.

Friday evening my son was at his Syndicalist book club (he’d bludgeon me if he knew I said that) and my wife is seeing the new Bond film as part of a trio of ladies, which is only just. Me? I tried to decompress and yes! Write.

One final bit of good news: Today I have written morning pages for twnety days straight. After a summer adrift, I have returned to a practice which pleases me. Cheers!

Sunday, October 3, 2021

On Submissions

Dance Nation
(Dobama Theatre, 2020)
Photo: Steve Wagner
This week we are reading Clare Barron’s Dance Nation which, among other honors (including as a Pulitzer Fialist) won the 2015 Relentless Award. A production of this play was underway at Dobama Theatre when all productions were suspended in March of last year.

The Relentless is an annual award, established by the American Playwriting Foundation ten years ago and dedicated to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman due to his “relentless … pursuit of the truth” (quote attributed to Ethan Hawke).

I have applied to this award only once, with the play The Way I Danced With You (The George Michael Play). It was the play that I had most recently written, had workshopped, and I was sending it everywhere, for prizes and for production. Strictly speaking, this play does not satisfy the criteria of the Relentless Award, which seeks new work that exhibits “fearlessness, passion and truth.”

My script is passionate and, I believe, truthful. But is it fearless? No, I can honestly state that it is not. But I was on a submission kick, and so out it went. In hindsight, I should not have done so. I have not applied since.

But why? Why prejudge my own work, why not leave it for others to decide? It’s a waste of the adjudicators’ time, for one thing. I generally follow submission guidelines closely, and suit the script to the sub. I convinced myself that it might qualify. It’s a symptom of privilege, that my work might be good enough, when what is demanded is daring, craft, and above all, originality.

Dance Nation is one such work, just in terms of casting. The script demands that the team of thirteen year-old dancers be performed by an all-adult and varied age company, from twenty to senior citizens.

The script addresses numerous issues, of age, gender and race, and does so in a manner which is inherently, ultimately theatrical, which is to say it must be performed on a stage, for a live audience, and can be executed nowhere else. It’s vibrant, physical, transgressive, dark and powerful.

When I write a play that could not work as a radio drama (The Way I Danced With You would make a fine audio play), or as a film (I have thought of this, too) but could only be performed live on stage to be appreciated and understood, then I might be comfortable submitting for such an award again.

Submissions for the 2022 National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center open tomorrow, October 4, 2021.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Process XXXIX

Lindsay Buckingham
An Effective Play, by August Strindberg c. 1900
Translation by Evert Sprinchorn

An effective play should contain or make use of:
  • Hints and intimation.
  • A secret made known to the audience either at the beginning or toward the end. If the spectator, but not the actors, knows the secret, the spectator enjoys their game of blindman's buff. If the spectator is not in on the secret, his curiosity is aroused and his attention held.
  • An outburst of emotion, rage, indignation
  • A reversal, well-prepared
  • A discovery
  • A punishment (nemesis), a humiliation
  • A careful resolution, either with or without a reconciliation
  • A quiproquo (ed.: “misunderstanding”)
  • A parallelism
  • A reversal (revirement), an upset, a well-prepared surprise.
I have been enjoying the assigned essays of Strindberg, in the same way that I enjoyed David Mamet’s book True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor. Each writes with the unapologetically bellicose certainty of a white, cishet man, but in this case each is expressing their abusively confident assertions in the service of the performing arts, which is kind of adorable.

Strindberg provides this brief list of items necessary to make an effective play, and while that’s just like his opinion, man, I find them to be instructive in retrospect rather than construction.

To wit; I am writing a play for class. I am daunted by whether or not it is any good, but fortunately that is not really the goal. The goal is completion, someone else can work about whether or not it is any good. But it should be well-constructed, and while I am putting all the pieces-parts together, I can check this list to see how well I am doing.
  • Are there hints and intimation? All over the place.
  • Is there a secret? Yes, a big secret.
  • An outburst? No, not yet. That is a necessary ingredient to this particular play.
  • A reversal? Also important, I will work on that.
  • A discovery? Yes! A punishment? Unfortunately, yes!
  • A humiliation? Not enough to my satisfaction, but we’re getting there.
  • A careful resolution? There had better be.
  • A misunderstanding? Totally.
  • A parallelism? I think so?
  • A reversal, an upset, a really big surprise? Yes, that comes with the careful resolution.
It's a mystery.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

School Residency Program: Twenty Years On


This fall marks twenty years since I began my work with the Great Lakes Theater School Residency Program. This work has become my life, and as with any endeavor you engage in for an extended period of time might ask yourself, why do I continue? Do I continue to execute my responsibilities to the best of my ability? Would the program benefit from a new instructor? Do I still enjoy this work, is my accumulated knowledge and understanding of value? Or am I merely repeating myself? 

Murder Arc with Alicia Kahn (2003)
Every September, we rise early to attend rehearsal. Long days of instruction and review, culminating in a week of classes, all eight actor teachers together at one school, a tryout in which the actor-teachers get to succeed or fail gloriously with the support of their peers and supervisors before they are sent out as partnerships of two to schools across the region.

This month can be very exhausting for me, especially as I have aged, from my early thirties to my early forties. The actor-teachers I have worked with have gone from people not much younger than myself to Millennials and now, Gen Z. Some of these folks are not even five years older than my eldest living child.

The same lesson plans, the same scene work, the same discussion questions. The actors bring something new, to be sure. But it is a well-established machine, this program. It works. And it doesn’t change.

Until March 2020, when this program, like everything else, was put in stasis. Schools were closed. Education went online. We had to let our actor-teachers go, and go they did, to graduate schools and other work, sometimes relocating as necessary.

This time last year our team was in the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, creating performance videos for schools to provide to Cleveland city schools, and any other schools who thought they would be useful. A skeleton crew of staff conducted online residencies for schools who just couldn’t do without the program.

With the creation and production of successful vaccines, which resulted in a significant drop in infection and death, this past spring we began to discuss the possibility of returning to in-person instruction. Even then, there were a host of considerations, not only in creation of safety protocols in the classroom, but how we could even rehearse new teams of actor-teachers in a responsible and safe manner.

Avery & Noelle in rehearsal (2021)
Wipes were purchased in bulk to keep the rehearsal rooms disinfected, we knew we would be rehearsing with masks. Windows were open as often as possible, fans kept the air circulating. Four actors contracted, instead of eight. We would only be working in high schools, as children have not yet been vaccinated.

Even so, there was no guarantee the teenage students we would be working with were vaccinated, because freedom. We instituted our own protocols. If you want the program, students must be masked. All props handled by students must be wiped down after every class.

And how would that go? Without actors' mouths covered, how would scene work be received? We weren’t even providing costumes for the students. Would that be a bummer?

Two teams conducted classes in Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and The Crucible at Berea-Midpark High School. It has been two years since we have done so, and like some kind of unusual anniversary gift we were presented with their brand new school building, which comes complete with a vast auditorium space where we were able to conduct our work with a great deal of space. Students who were not masked were provided one (GLT has purchased a metric ton of masks for this purpose) no one complained about having to wear one, perhaps because they were grateful to be receiving special instruction.

And it all went very well. Our folks were able to perform their scenes wearing masks, and having adjusted to them in so many arenas of contemporary life they did not seem strange at all. In rehearsal one of our performers took a sip from a chalice (which was empty) during a scene, absentmindedly “drinking” through their mask. I suggested we accept that our characters not ignore the reality of their wearing a mask, that a mask should be lowered to drink and that was agreed upon.

Our final day I recommended the final day for Macbeth be conducted outside. It was a beautiful fall afternoon, the temperature in the mid-sixties. From time to time we conduct class outside but usually not until spring, as new actor-teachers are processing a great deal of material, and outside instruction can be taxing on the voice.

Berea-Midpark High School
But as a society we have been doing so much more outdoors, dining and performing and celebrating. It’s just safer. If nice weather continues, I wanted them to feel comfortable suggesting a class or two outdoors — because it meant they could remove their masks. For a brief moment, our people could be seen. And it was a glorious battle.

There were moments this week, when I was about to cry. If I thought too hard about it, I would have. Remembering what it was like to see my own children, attending school from home. The deadening effect it had on them. They were more stoic than I. 

I fear how this generation will be affected by this experience. Reality is a joke to them, a vicious moron can become president, our forests are burning, every rainstorm brings catastrophe, and when struck with a global pandemic, legions of citizens would rather deny, harrass and argue than band together and literally take their medicine.

But for now, we are back, working with students, one our feet, performing scenes, playing games, and having lively, engaged discussions. It was a horrific and unnecessary kick in the pants, but I am grateful to have been reminded of exactly why this is the path I have chosen.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Process XXXVIII

Great Lakes Theater
School Residency Program
First day back in schools since March 2020
Masks suck. But I am so glad to be in a classroom with the professor and other students. 

On Monday the class read the first chunk of my new script, and the feedback was helpful. I mean, remarkably helpful. The professor is understandably concerned about the lack of structure, as it does not yet have one.

The structure, as it currently exists, is to drop clues for the tragedy which is about to occur. It’s funny, one of my colleagues is working on a straight up murder mystery, and when I said (after reading) that mine is also a murder mystery, they thought I was kidding … because it doesn’t appear in any way to be one!

But it is. Or rather, as I elaborated, it is a manslaughter mystery. And yeah, that’s why I am calling it from here on out. It is an Involuntary Manslaughter Mystery.

Here’s a question, though. What is the playwright’s responsibility to be timeless? My last play takes place when it was written, late 2020. This play, that I am writing now, takes place now. Right now. Mid-pandemic (let’s not kid ourselves) in a restaurant at a time when staff is short. In fact, that is an important part of the plot. How concerned should I be that it may be dated very soon?

When does Romeo and Juliet take place? We’re not really sure. It’s a question.

Meantime, I met with Melissa, who will be directing The Witches for Test Flight. A damp equinox evening, discussing women, wiccans, Black Tudors, Black Masses, Second Wave Feminism, and other roadside attractions. Questions were asked, and I will endeavor to answer them.

Also: I am indifferent to Sarah Kane. Don't love her work, don't hate it. Apparently that makes me unusual.