Thursday, January 31, 2013

Double Heart: Dance Call

 Soldiers, we!

Tonight was a big, exciting night! There were racks of costumes waiting for us, and we tried on everything. Also, too: this show is a romance, yes it is. And that means dancing. Choreographer Carli Taylor-Miluk arrived and we spent the night merrily learning folk dance moves and creating our the saturnalia gay to celebrate the soldiers, or what have you, does there really need to be a reason for a party?

"Double Heart (The Courtship of Beatrice and Benedick)" is available from YouthPLAYS.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Double Heart: Love → Building on Fire

Big day for fires in downtown Cleveland today. First at the West Side Market, then this afternoon in the basement of the Hanna Building. I didn't see it, I was bent over my desk all afternoon constructing a budget. But that was the news, and the place evacuated late enough that this evening's rehearsal was relocated to the GLT board room.

You can rehearse anywhere, really.

There are some truly beautiful, rude and romantic moments being created here. There's a wordy, clever package which includes as many classroom-appropriate allusions to sexual contact as I could muster. Soon after, gears switch, there's play and tenderness and honesty. The boys will howl, the girls will swoon. Or so I dearly hope.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Times: Revelation

No, this is new. I cannot remember having two plays in production at the exact same time. While Double Heart rehearsals continue in a vacant office downtown, rehearsals for These Are The Times are happening in a vacant office in Lakewood.

I would love to be in two places at once. Hell, I would love to be in ten places at once. Did I mention my daughter turns 10 tomorrow? Yes, I am all over the places. In my head. But I cannot attend many Times rehearsals.

Tonight, however, I was able to join them. And good Lord, when was the last time I was a playwright just sitting and watching and listening and thinking? Not also directing, or more likely acting, but just getting to witness my own piece?

Oh, wow. I just got that. I am going to have to watch this one. I mean, I get to, but I also have to, I won’t be distracted by also being on the stage. It’s been a long time. It’s scary. It’s exciting.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Double Heart: In Verse

Our lively company.

Lisa had us on our feet last night. Two days of table work and now we're blocking. Yes! Welcome to the outreach tour. We open in seventeen days.

Verse is a game. I don't know much about poetry, and am hardly any kind of Shakepearean scholar, I just know what comes naturally to someone who like Shakespeare, reads it, reads about it, directs it and has occasionally performed it over the course of two decades. But that doesn't make me a scholar, those people are nuts.

When Stephen Sondheim released the first part of his two-volume work on his work, Finishing the Hat, I heard and saw him on Terri Gross and Stephen Colbert to talk up the book. When asked how he writes lyrics, the first thing he said -- before getting into how he thinks, or what he feels, or what it means -- he said he uses a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary. 

This was a revelation to me! Even now, knowing what I do about writing, I assume that it's all supposed to spring fully-formed from your forehead. Using a dictionary? That's like cheating or something, you're supposed to already have all those words in your head already.

Sondheim said he also uses alcohol, but that doesn't work for me, it makes me go to sleep.

And so, for three weeks last April, I had my thesaurus, my rhyming dictionary, the history of human endeavor, and ten fingers to which to count da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM.

Of course, I would never have thought I could even attempt to write a play, even a short one, entirely in imabic pentameter if it were not for the work of Kirk Wood Bromley. During the 1990s and early 21st Century he and his company Inverse Theater created acclaimed modern verse plays with such awesome titles as Lost Labors' Loved, The Bangers Flopera, Want's Unwisht Work and The Death of Don Flagrante Delicto

Ray McNiece is Johnny Freeman.

Bad Epitaph produced his great history play The American Revolution in 2004, a work which takes the towering figure of George Washington off his pedestal to show him as a real person. References in this work alone include nods to Henry V, Othello, Macbeth, and every clown in Shakespeare crossed with Zonker Harris in the character of Johnny Freeman; coward, super-patriot.

I am not saying my work compares with Bromley's, because it does not. What I am saying is, his audacious example said to me, Please proceed, Gov'nor.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Double Heart: Commencement

We have arrived!

Throughout the holidays and on into the sudden bright harsh winter cold, I feel as though I have been in a creative holding pattern. The last several days, all three projects of the new year have opened themselves up, like a pale, fragile bloom pushing through deepest snow.

You like that? I am a writer.

Rehearsals for Double Heart began on Wednesday night, and yes it's true: I enjoy listening to people talk about my work as though I were Shakespeare. Just yesterday afternoon, set designer Terry Martin called me into the rehearsal hall to share the set he and his team just assembled there, and to describe to me exactly how it will come apart to pack into the van for the tour.

We are in Messina!

The set is elegant, simple, highly attractive, and will be perhaps the lightest, simplest to pack and move of any set we have used since 2009 when the Chekhov plays utilized the pipe and drape and four pieces of furniture.

Rehearsals for These Are The Times have resumed in earnest. The Big Box series began last weekend, and our historical Cleveland pageant is the final weekend, but that still seems awful close with so much to do ... until I think I need to rehearse an entire other play, tour it and wrap it up before Times even opens. That puts things in perspective. At least it does for me.  

More wonderful still, I threw out eleven pages of Slumberland to be read aloud during Playwrights Unit on Wednesday. Not such a big thing in the large picture, to have a few odd pages read, but there is something warm and reassuring about knowing what you wrote -- especially when it is packed with dream-shifting nonsense -- is something people can follow, holds their interest, even makes them laugh, and wanting to hear more.

So far it is, as Eric S. put it, "True to its own world." I think that is something I am good at.

"I am afraid of this performance."

We had a brief discussion about plot, and how plot can or cannot work within a dream. The first stage things are just "happening" with little rhyme or reason, though there is a goal, a basic goal, not an all-encompassing goal, but something to be accomplished before we can move forward. But is Nemo aware of that, or is he just be taken along for a ride? And is that all right?

We commence. We proceed. We move forward, in this and in all things.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Hall of Presidents

One of them.

New Year's 2011 my family and my folks took a vacation at Disney World. The girl was almost eight, the boy was five and a half. They are each, by nature or nurture, cautious. The boy has a healthy streak of self-preservation; when he senses danger (from perhaps an ominous musical cue) he will choose to remove himself from a situation to avoid being scared. These things have changed recently, as they each are exposed to the thrills of fantastic literature or movies with a lot of action.

So, it was not a weekend of thrill-rides or anything even approaching a roller-coaster. Even one look at Goofy's Barnstormer was enough to make the girl shake her head and walk away.

We were meeting my parents for lunch at the Liberty Tree Tavern (an 18th century-inspired family dining experience no doubt refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants) and had time beforehand to experience what Liberty Square had to offer. Somewhere along the line, however, my wife decided it would be fun for she and the girl to take in the Haunted Mansion.

There was no question that the boy was too young for that. Instead, we chose to explore the Hall of Presidents. Now, I had visited WDW three times before (really? that many?) in 1982, 1990 and 2000. Previously, the idea of watching an animatronic pageant of our white male chief executives struck me as only slightly more interesting than sitting in on a board meeting at British Petroleum.

Roll call of Presidents, early 2008.
Notice the cheers and boos around 2:49

But the boy loves history, like his father. Like his grandfather. And there would be life-size robot puppets. After spinning in teacups and the horror that is woozles (aaugghh ... the woozles ...) sitting in a dark room to watch sounded like the right thing at the right time.

Now, it has been suggested that Walt Disney World is attended largely by white people and international tourists. I am not going to get into any urban legends as to why this might be the case. Perhaps it is enough to say that, upon observation, I did feel that the percentage of people of color attending the parks, at that time, to my unscientific eye, represented something less than the national average, How's that?

However, upon entering the oval-shaped waiting hall for the exhibit, I was immediately struck by something blatantly obvious. The room was full of people, and with African-American and other people of color representing at least half of the crowd. Having never stepped into this exhibit before, I cannot vouch for how popular it usually is. But it was still morning on New Year's Day and the park was not yet at teeming capacity. Was it usually this popular, among a diverse crowd? Or was there something ... different?

Oh, yeah. That happened.

I am not going to make any sweeping generalizations about why this president is different, those are obvious, some might say irrelevant. Our visit was in the middle of Obama's first term, perhaps at the nadir of his popularity (actually, that would come later, in August when it reached something like 38%) and one must be judged on their accomplishments, or their perceived accomplishments, anyway. As the man whose day we celebrate today once said, it's character not color, stupid.

However, when you are being taught the history of America, and at the top of the list of special people whose names you must memorize there are 43 men who look an awful lot alike, and with few exceptions come from backgrounds of privilege, to wit; money, well there are a large number of people who may feel that they have little or no interest in that. Not in general, certainly not on vacation.

But when that small minority or minorities who do make the pilgrimage to Buena Vista, Florida all make a point to see the same attraction, you have to wonder whether or not they are saying, with their feet, this is important. This means something. It's not about him. It's about us.

And they, and me, and so many others, said it again on November 6. Happy Inauguration Day, America.

One footnote ... the Haunted Mansion broke down, stuck in the middle of horrifying exhibits which keep repeating and repeating and repeating. My daughter was traumatized. But it could have been worse. It could have been on It's A Small World After All.

I snorted milk through my nose.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Double Heart: Costume Fitting

Pene: hideous dogsbody

Costumes for Double Heart are designed by Great Lakes Theater costume shop manager Esther Haberlen, who is all kinds of totally damnright awesome. Let me tell the story again, for those not paying attention ...

We first collaborated for the tour of On the Dark Side of Twilight, which had a cast of three actors who, over the course of one hour, play twelve characters. The story spans 200 years, and so the challenge was to create a wide variety of historical looks, that in many cases looked expensive and chic, and could be thrown on and off in a manner of seconds, with or without assistance.

From "On the Dark Side of Twilight"
The Count, upstaged by a dress.

I'm not even going to mention how incredible the wigs are. Esther has designed every tour since, including last year's Mysterious Affair at Styles, though I did grow and maintain my own mustache.

For Double Heart, our two protagonists, Beatrice and Benedick, wear (mostly) the same thing throughout. However, I have the dubious honor of playing four characters, and in some cases I must walk off as one and right back on as another. My pain is Esther's pain.

Who wrote this thing?

Don Pedro: upstanding officer

Did I mention the hats? The hats are just outstanding. I get to wear that hat!

Just a little background ... Double Heart, as written, takes place in the mid-16th century, some fifteen years or so before the events of Much Ado About Nothing. At that time, Italy was still largely a number of city-states, and had recently gone from French "protectorate" to that of Spain. Part of the story involves a large and successful sea battle against the Ottoman empire, part of  series of military events which lead, eventually, to the idea of Italy as a single nation.

However, as Esther informed me, the dress at that time was a great deal less colorful, and for the purposes of our production she moved her design two hundred years later. Part of that inspiration came from Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film version, which is also modeled on Italy of the 18th century.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Avenue As It Used To Be

 Company for "Bummer" - Dobama's Night Kitchen, 1995

Last night I had an hour-long conversation with a young man who is writing  book about the Coventry neighborhood, and how it is no longer cool the way it was when he was a teenager in the late 1990s. Over the course of this discussion, I was reminded of an article I had written in honor of Dobama Theatre's eviction from their former basement home.

There Goes the Neighborhood
by David Hansen
First published in Cleveland Magazine, June 2005

Coventry loses Dobama Theatre this month, but what does it gain?

The year 1968 was auspicious in Cleveland theater history for two big reasons: I was born, and Dobama Theatre opened its doors on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights. In the intervening 37 years, we have each changed a lot, Dobama and I, together and apart, for better and for worse.

Our playgrounds could not have been more different back then. Somewhere between the eras of Marilyn Sheppard and Amy Mihaljevic, I could toddle around unmonitored in the front yard of my Wolf Road home in Bay Village with little fear of being snatched . . . or maybe my parents' "Ice Storm" generation really was kind of slow.

Coventry, meanwhile, was cementing its reputation, one that persists to this day, as a hangout for an "edgy" crowd. It was an inexpensive place to live and was an attractive spot for a lot of intellectuals, teachers and otherwise unsavory, forward-thinking pinkos to live, drink and presumably take a lot of drugs.

Founding artistic director Donald Bianchi signed the lease on the basement space at 1846 Coventry — then a bowling alley — in 1964. The landlord offered them (if you can believe this) free rent until their first show opened. The owner was obviously a communist. Even so, no one imagined then that it would take four years to get the space into shape.

When Dobama opened its first play on Coventry, Lorrainne Hansberry's "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window," an examination of race relations between blacks and Jews, there was a real-live biker bar across the street. Oooh, scary — big, hairy bikers!

This is funny because my father-in-law is a big, hairy biker, who owns a real-live biker bar in Athens, Ohio. But I digress.

Following a rather cushy upbringing and putting in the requisite five years at Ohio University, I came to Cleveland Heights in the early 1990s. It was the end of an era . . . and apparently the beginning of a new one. It still had a hippie-dippy vibe. Hang-abouts were still smoking cigarettes and playing Pente at all hours in the Arabica on the corner. My friends and I performed at open-mic nights in what they used to call The Yard out in front of that coffeehouse, a big open plaza where kids played hackey-sack and there was even more smoking.

It was also a depressed time. A friend who came to visit got his car broken into in the middle of the afternoon and has never been back. I was consistently hit up by a guy named Benny. Nice guy. He got most of my change, back when I still gave people change.

My introduction to Dobama was when I went to see "Nebraska" by Keith Reddin, a play about the effects of stress upon the men and women who work in nuclear weapons silos. Then as now, Dobama Theatre has been dedicated to plays with strong, left-leaning social messages.

The early '90s was also when Joyce Casey began her tenure as artistic director. Since then she has worked to maintain the theater's reputation for progressive-thinking plays, to reward her artists with pay (the performers, directors and artisans from the Age of Aquarius did it all for love, the amateurs) and to attract young, new audiences.

That's where I came in. In 1995 I was asked to create a late-night theater project — shows that would go up after the curtain came down on the mainstage shows — specifically to get teenagers and young adults into the seats. I also worked as the public relations director, to justify a paycheck.

Before I left Dobama in 1998, I developed a strong attachment to that theater. At that time, it was practically the only theater in town presenting the best modern plays to Cleveland audiences. "Angels In America," "Wit," the works of Suzan-Lori Parks and Paula Vogel — if you had seen the Cleveland premiere of a Pulitzer Prize- or Tony Award-winning play, or last year's great Off-Broadway or West End hit, the odds were very good you saw it at Dobama.

Their dedication to local playwrights is unequaled in Cleveland, presenting one world premiere a season. Eric Coble, Sarah Morton, Faye Sholiton, and, yes, even I have had new works presented for the first time either as part of the mainstage or Night Kitchen productions.

There have been detractors. Even I thought Joyce was high when she chose to produce Mart Crowley's "For Reasons That Remain Unclear" in 1997. A two-person, one-set drama featuring Mitchell Fields as a pedophile priest and Scott Plate as one of his now-grown victims who confronts him — in Rome! I thought it would be hooted off the stage. And I had to sell it.

Crowley, best known for the groundbreaking and gay-stereotype-setting "The Boys in the Band," had had one ill-received production of "For Reasons" in Washington a few years earlier. The Dobama production seemed sure to be its second.

It was a big, big hit for Dobama. The show's run was extended an additional weekend, which afforded the playwright, with his L.A. entourage (Crowley does a lot of writing for television), the opportunity to come to Cleveland and see his latest work be vindicated. I will never forget when Joyce announced the playwright's presence in the audience following curtain call. We could all hear Scott in the dressing room; he yelped like a little girl. It was yet another touching, transcendent moment in the history of this little theater.

Meanwhile, time was not kind to the glazed, white terra cotta building Dobama has called home. One morning I was working in the office, alone, when I heard someone turn on the shower in the men's room lobby — which has no shower. I stood in mute horror as the entire lobby flooded in a matter of minutes. Quite often I have watched in pain as productions would include actual rain, onstage. Conditions for producing professional theater became incrementally intolerable.

When the Winking Lizard restaurant moved in upstairs in 1998, the sounds of chairs scraping across the floor and newly installed toilets flushing directly over the audience's heads became a commonplace occurrence. Intimate, quiet productions have become almost impossible to consider for production, and Dobama has lost subscribers because of this, as well as all of the other inconveniences.

Meanwhile, the Coventry neighborhood has been evolving around this liberal bastion of free expression and authority-questioning drama. While the stalwart, funky and fun emporiums of the past (Tommy's Restaurant, High Tide-Rock Bottom, Mac's Back Paperbacks and Record Revolution among others) have held back corporate encroachment by consolidating into one co-operatively owned block in the middle of the street, new landlords at the extremes have done their best to maximize profit and lower the common denominator.

In the neighborhood where I used to get my eyeglass prescription filled, take tai chi lessons, get my groceries and ply my trade as a theater artist, I can now buy pizza, hoagies, sushi, burritos and ice cream. For every independent boutique that can't cut it, we get another place to stuff your face.

Worse still, it's like Coventry is eating itself. The chain coffee shop put the old Arabica out of business in 2001. The chain burrito place went up after the success of the locally owned Que Tal up the street, and Strickland's and Goodie's ice cream shops opened almost simultaneously to much consternation. The new sub shop will no doubt do damage to the long-established Grum's, and now there's a third pizza place.

The business model seems to be: You have clientele? I want it. No imagination, no plan for the future; it's just business.

Now, I have no illusion about the bohemian era for which Coventry is so celebrated. It's like Derf put it in one of his cartoons: "Coventry — it's just like Greenwich Village!!! (Only smaller and duller.)"

But it was once a neighborhood where I would go and stay, and not just to work. On a beautiful day, you could even walk up to The Yard and see who was there. No one does that anymore, either — the powers that be put giant, hideous planters there several years ago as part of some forgotten beautification plan. Now there isn't any room for people to play guitar or skateboard or attract any kind of crowd.

Dobama has been looking for a new home for some time, someplace warm and dry, where it can afford the rent, which has been rising exponentially up and down the street. The theater has been promised a new space in the old YMCA building across the street from the Cleveland Heights Main Library on Lee Road. And a proud new sign hangs on the building that reads "Future Home of Dobama Theatre."

Unfortunately, that place won't be ready until 2006. And J. Scott Scheel, Dobama's landlord since March 2003, gave management a "notice to vacate premises" in November 2004. It was only through a last-minute intervention by the city of Cleveland Heights that the theater could keep operating on Coventry through the conclusion of the 2004-2005 season.

For the next year — and hopefully only for the next year — Dobama will go "on tour," producing plays under the Dobama name at other venues around the city.

With Dobama gone, the moneymaking can really begin in that basement space. That is, once its spongelike ceiling is taken care of and an elevator is installed to take care of the problem that no one with a wheelchair or a heart condition can get down those steps. Scheel told me he is looking forward to putting "a comedy club, other live theater, a jazz club, a pool hall . . . or a restaurant" down there. He quickly added that a restaurant "is not our preference."

The last three retail stores to leave his iced wedding cake of a building have been replaced with places to eat. This is me holding my breath.

I feel Coventry is at a painful and difficult juncture. Perhaps the large crowds currently drawn to the sports bar and the other sports bar and the other sports bar don't really care that Dobama is leaving — or don't even know it's there, which is more likely. What troubles me is that I used to go to Coventry not just to work, but to see what was happening, to run into people, and to, you know, have a life.

If Coventry is going to win back any of its reputation as a cool place to be, it needs someplace like Dobama, if not the place itself. A place where folks from diverse backgrounds — bikers and bankers, punks and preps, white, black, straight, gay, Jew, gentile — come together for a communal experience. Not merely to consume, but to participate in some time-honored ritual. Entertaining, edifying, affordable and something uniquely Cleveland.

After 40 years, Coventry needs a new bowling alley.
 Join Death of the Cool: Decline of Coventry Village's Counter-Culture Scene Facebook Page.

"The Avenue As It Used To Be" is a play by Donald A. Bianchi (1976)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Comedian

The comedian and I first met in early 1992. A mutual friend knew him from Los Angeles, when he was trying to make a go of things and living out of his car. After two very successful appearances on Johnny Carson, he was fast becoming one of the most famous people from Cleveland, even more than Trent Reznor or Tom Hanks or other famous Clevelanders who aren’t actually from here. His  sold-out appearances at The Improv at the Powerhouse were like the return of a conquering hero. We weren't there merely to laugh, but to celebrate his success along with him.

The comedian came to see You Have The Right to Remain Silent in January, 1993. His appearance went largely unrecognized by the rest of the audience, his debut as a supporting character on a short-lived ABC sit-com was only then in the works, and his eponymous hit show still a few years off. He looked like everyone else in his jeans and Indians jacket, only the trademark glasses and buzz cut set him apart.

Following the performance, while the Guerrillas mingled among the audience, he pulled me down into a chair to show me his program. There were pencil marks all over it.

"I hope you don't mind," he said, "I took the liberty of grading the show."

"Hey," I said. "Cool."

"You'll have to help me out here," he said, "these are all out of order 'cause of the show, and I can't remember which are which -- this one here, this is the one with the guitar?"


"Very funny, folk singer humor, very good. Now which was the one with the two guys with the guns, the John Woo thing --"

"Torque wrote that one."

"Brilliant, I was howling. I got it, too, it’s like an arms treaty thing, right?"


He continued. "Now this one, the one with the guy with the telephone, who gets mugged, right?"

"Yeah. That's one of mine."

"Pretty gross," he said, "not my thing, not too funny."

"Yeah, but, it wasn't supposed to be funny," I said.

He looked at me like I was an ungracious little turd.
"I know that," he said. "I'm telling you what's funny."