Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Times: Boy Howdy!

Meanwhile, this is happening.

Noble Sissle and his Syncopated Sizzlers!

The Double Heart tour ventured to Fairview Park Library last night, and onto the Akron Public Library - NW Branch this afternoon. However, this does not mean I get a "night off", rather I will head back to Lakewood for my first experience seeing a complete run-through of These Are The Times.

Technical rehearsals begin for this Big Box show (as with every other Big Box show) on Sunday, four nights jam-packed with activity, incorporating video, lights and costumes into what is already a frenetic, wide-ranging piece. I haven't counted all of the different characters represented by these nine actors, but there are at least fifty.

I have no idea how long the play runs. That's part of what this entire shin-dig is about, having the opportunity to see what it is. Is the first act even close to one hour? No idea, there is just no idea to clock this thing without standing it up and moving it around. The decision not to include any additional sound cues at all is, I feel, a good one, because I want to be aware of every pause. Recorded music between moments would only serve to make things take more time.

Tomorrow will be the final rehearsal in the rehearsal space, before loading out for CPT. Of course, I will miss that, Double Heart will be playing the Nordonia Library. As playwright, I am haunted by the words of Sinclair Lewis:
I haven’t slept for weeks! Nobody can say I haven’t given everything to the Federal Theatre, now it is all terrible. Come to New York and postpone the play a week. It is all terrible. It is all a failure.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Double Heart: Workshop Players

There is nothing to compare to Workshop Players. Not only do they provide a staff which helps us load-in, set-up, knock-down and drag out, not only does Dawn provide tasty, hot soup, but the audience, for four years running, have laughed harder, louder and longer, cooed and awed, a near-exploded at everything we have brought them.

A good reason for this is the intimacy of the space, 90 seats on three sides of a deep, tiny stage, a stage which challenges our blocking and makes us rethink the show, first as we adapt the set and entrances prior to the show, and then making up new moves as we go, to best use the entire space provided.

In addition are the devoted WP audiences, who as so in touch with the work and ready for a good time ... I mean, the space has no lobby, so the theater doesn't even open until forty-five minutes prior to curtain, and with it the house, but all the seats were full shortly after doors opened, so they were happily chatting and enjoying themselves for a full forty-five minutes before we began. For an hour-long show!

Marion L. Steele High Drama Club

Finally, there is the fact that a large contingent of the drama club from Marion Steele High School always attends, many of them about the embark on their spring production -- which this year is MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING -- dressed up for an evening out, and full of youth and excitement.

One problem, however, is that James seems to have hurt his hand pretty badly during the load-out. He had a nasty cut before he left, but then I saw this on Facebook when I got home:

Oh, dear. Glad that isn't his swordfighting hand.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Double Heart: Costume Quick Change

Yesterday we performed at Cleveland Heights-University Heights Main Public Library. Want to know how we get in and out of those costumes so fast? This is how we do it.

Tomorrow we perform at the Fairview Park Public Library at 7 PM. Please join us.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Double Heart: Cuyahoga Valley Art Center

We play large spaces, we play very intimate spaces. Cuyahoga Valley Art Center holds perhaps 40, as does the Nordonia Branch of the Akron Public Library, where we will appear next Thursday.

Thanks to Elizabeth Fry for these photos. Tomorrow we travel to Cleveland Heights-University Heights Main Library, performance at 2:00 PM. Please join us.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Double Heart: Firestone High School

Cuyahoga Valley Art Center

From Lakewood Library, to Cuyahoga Valley Art Center to Firestone High School -- three very different performances spaces with three very different crowds, in size, in age, but not in appreciation. Things continue to go very well for the tour. A gentleman last night said it was the most stimulating live performance he'd ever seen.

And then there was the person from an earlier venue who thought the entire first scene is about masturbation. I feel it is my responsibility to inform everyone at this time that I would never send a play into a high school or retirement community that makes reference to masturbation.

The entire first scene is about piss.

One person near the beginning of the run stated he didn't care for the politics of the play. I was stymied. What politics? I would never make a political statement in any of my plays, in fact I think theater an entirely inappropriate place to discuss anything of substance at all.

We go to the theater to make jokes about piss.

In general the praise has been high, and warm. Today at Firestone High -- normally our final date on the tour, but not so this year, and I regret that -- was another great audience. They have a strong theater arts program there, and every year I can expect not only attentive and well-read students, but that they also have a lot of interesting questions about the design, the process of writing, and how to pursue a future in the arts.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Double Heart: The Kendal

Kendal at Oberlin is one of my favorite stops on the tour. For one, I get to see old family friends. Joanne and Don took us "out" for dinner ... as it happened, all four of us arrived, without even discussing it, an full hour before call. So we had time to set up, and then relax, prior to the performance. As I was saying, Joanne was right there waiting for us when we arrived, she and my mother grew up together as little girls in Lakewood and it is a treat having family to receive you after a long drive.

One other thing I like about touring there is that this is Oberlin. There's a certain tribe that congregates in that community, and the residents at the Kendal are well-educated, many of them big fans of Shakespeare ... and they are opinionated. People can comment on the script all they want, and I am ordinarily prepared, I have confidence in the work. Here I am often caught off-guard.

The feedback in general, was not just high, but extraordinarily so. Men who profess to adore Shakespeare were very happy with the words and the meter, and told us so. There was a general appreciation for all of the fun, the action, the passion present in the play ... the mentioned passion on Sunday at Clague, too. Not sure I can take credit for that, the most of the really intense bits have few words, it's up to Emily and James to sell it.

But hey, there was that one kid who came up to us after the performance while we were packing the van at ECHS who had to ask if that kiss was for real. Because it looked real. Like they really meant it. I had to excuse myself and leave James on his own to sheepishly mutter it out.

One woman last night, asked why I chose to provide all the "low" characters with working class English accents, and wasn't I making some negative comment about class. She called Pene a "dirty old man" and I hate myself now for not protesting that "he's very clean." I also regret not mentioning Spartacus. I regret a lot of things. I did say, "Some of my best friends are English," but immediately regretted it.

Lisa has been beginning the discussions by asking whether or not Double Heart works as a believable prequel to Much Ado, which is all well can good when the answer is a resounding "yes."  But I could see one attendee shaking her head quite resolutely. When asked why she did not believe so, she said that the Beatrice in my play is certainly not the Beatrice from Shakespeare, however, she refused to elaborate.

I can guess why. Emily is not sure she agrees with me. My wife is absolutely sure I am correct. You will have to come see a performance and decide for yourself.

Tonight we travel to Lakewood Public Library, performance at 7:00 PM. Please join us.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Double Heart: Clague Playhouse

Once I played a priest.

My sophomore year at college we did Christopher Durang's The Marriage of Bette and Boo, an hilarious semi-autobiographic comedy about family, alcoholism, stillbirth and Catholicism.

There's this hilarious bit near the beginning when the entire family is gathered around in eager expectation of Bette's first-born child. The doctor walks to the center of the stage with a small bundle, turns the audience and drops it on the floor.

"It's dead," the doctor says. "The baby's dead."

Opening night, the Studio Theatre packed with well-dressed, half-tight students of the school of theater, broke into great, giddy guffaws. Outrageous!

The show opened on parents weekend, and for the second performance of the run, the auditorium was filled, rather than with kids in their very-late teens and early twenties, with the parents of these same students. The moment came.

"It's dead," he says. "The baby's dead."

Gasps, and then hushed silence.

Amazed, I asked the director, one of our professors, about why they had that reaction. He shrugged.

"Maybe after having a little more life experience, there are things you also won't find so amusing."


This afternoon we brought the tour to Clague Playhouse, which was entirely full. On Friday night we visited East Park Retirement Community in Brook Park. Though the audience was not strictly of-a-certain-age as was our friends at East Park, life experience was greater there than say, our fans at Elyria Catholic High. And while the high level of approval has been constant, the reaction to different parts of the production can vary greatly, and I feel largely based on this particular demographic.

In the original draft, the clown Pene disappears partway through, you know, like the Fool in Lear. Daniel told me we needed to see him again, and this should have been obvious -- he acts as comic relief near the end of the show, we need to see him again. However, though he drops no children, though the tragedy is not his fault, sometimes pee and puke jokes just can't bring about a smile to an audience who finds the course of events to have been a little near the knuckle.

Talkback at Eastpark Retirement Community
(Thanks, Vern!)

The post-show discussions have been really interesting, a lot of personal reactions to the decisions the characters make. One of my favorite today, however, was when Margaret asked me to share some of the allusions to other works from Shakespeare. I threw out a few, but I couldn't remember all of them ... so here's a (partial) list:
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Henry V
  • Othello
  • Julius Caesar
  • Macbeth 
  • Several others which inspired a word or phrase, that I can't even recall.
... also, too: Molly Ivins, the Firesign Theatre, Groucho Marx, Gilbert and Sullivan, The Tall Guy and Radiohead.

Tomorrow we travel to Kendal at Oberlin, performance at 7:15 PM. Please join us.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Double Heart: Elyria Catholic High School

Permission, sir ... Oi mus' evacuate.

Today was our first performance in front of an audience made almost entirely of teenagers. How would they react to potty humor, sexual innuendo, and ass-slicing?

It took roughly three minutes for them to "get" it. Lisa warned them they were about to hear verse, and I thought, "Oh great." And when the man with the balls on his hat came out, the rumblings lasted a few, long moments. But I just made eye-contact, delivered the opening piece with confidence and we were on our way.

The complete degenerate horribleness that is Pene caught them off-guard. There's no way he means is that he has to pee, right? That couldn't be part of this play. But of course, it is. Once they appreciated the rules, the students entirely opened up, it was magnificent.

Annie and I are backstage, waiting for our next scenes while Beatrice and Benedick are on-stage falling love during the dance, and we listened while the kids groaned in waves of frustration as our lovers almost kiss ... and then don't. Just awesome.

The discussion afterwards was by far the most enjoyable I believe I have ever had at Elyria Catholic following an outreach tour performance. Lisa asked, "What do you think about the decisions our two main characters make by the end of the play?" and it was all over, with boys and girls taking different sides about what was the right thing to do. It was heartfelt and hilarious conversation.

Tomorrow night we take Double Heart to the Eastpark Retirement Community in Brook Park for a 6:30 PM performance. This event is free and open to the public. Please join us.

Are we not beautiful?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Double Heart: The Alcazar

Happy company!

Double Heart opened at The Alcazar last night to a capacity crowd, there were over 100 people and not enough chairs to go around. Fortunately the grand ballroom has some comfortable window seats where the overflow crowd was able to find a good place to sit, while others were content to stand. Thank you, Cleveland Heights. You are my city.

Sigh no more.

Reaction from the opening night audience was very positive, we were called out for a second curtain call and I do not remember that happening at any tour I have participated in. While the audience at tonight's performance at Lorain County Community College was not as large as last year's, it was still a marked improvement in attendance over previous years. Word continues to build about these annual performances, and I guess the word is good!

Remember the page.

Both evenings there was at least once audience member who were outspoken enough to take issue with the actions of certain characters in the story, but I was looking forward to that and we have been able to turn them into some great, open discussions. On Tuesday night there was a question as to whether I (as playwright) wasn't belittling a tragic situation by having one of my characters behave selfishly. It was my position that creating a character who acts in his emotional self interest is not the same thing as endorsing that behavior.

Tonight one found it hard to believe that certain characters could enter into a Shakespearean comedy (Much Ado About Nothing) weighted with the kind of emotional baggage created in Double Heart. My question is, what was the capacity for forgiveness? Are there things that cannot be forgiven, ever? Can time, in fact, be a healer?

I mention these two examples because I like the criticism. But I also like all the praise which has been provided to the script. They like it, they like the poetry. You would imagine that trying to write a play in iambic pentameter, modeled on Shakespeare, would be considered presumptuous and arrogant, but mostly I think people are just impressed and enjoy the effort.

Tomorrow we have a private performance at a local high school. A Catholic high school. Very curious as to how all the dirty jokes are going to be received.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Double Heart: Final Dress

Annie runs lines backstage.

Yesterday was long and full and strangely relaxing. We loaded out the entire set in a half-hour, and loaded it into The Alcazar in roughly fifteen minutes. There isn't a single piece of the set that cannot be carried by one individual. Those familiar with previous tours (say, Mysterious Affair at Styles) would be astonished, and perhaps burn with rage and jealousy.

That's the entire set. That's it.

Our final dress was witnessed by the Great Lakes Theater Shakespeare Society, and a more supportive crowd we could not find. It was reassuring to witness the reactions from an audience before we open. Is the funny funny? Well, apparently, yes. Yes, it is. And it moves. Many remarked after how much we managed to pack into one hour.

GLT Artistic Director Charlie Fee was on hand, and had much to say about the historical basis for the play, especially as it relates to the sea wars between the Ottoman Empire and Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Much Ado About Nothing is not specific about which wars Benedick and his fellow soldiers are returning from ... but I do.

In fact, it was a comment from director Lisa's ten year-old niece (who watched a double run-through on Sunday) that the play gave her quite an education in the Civil War, which she is studying in school right now. They describe battles and laws, but they don't get into the details of what happens to individuals or the general populace when war breaks out ... but I do.

Tonight we open at The Alcazar at 8 PM, the performance is free and open to the public. Please join us.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Double Heart: Scenes from a Tech Rehearsal

Sound designer Richard and director Lisa hammer out sound cues.

 Costume designer Esther and performer Annie work on hair.

Rehearsal stage manager Diana and rehearsal assistant Ellen keep track of everything.

A playwright learns his lines.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Double Heart: On Collaboration

“F---ing synonyms.” - James Alexander Rankin

Notes on a Wednesday evening rehearsal:

Why I love this collaborative work, and having experience creating theater so many talented, wonderful friends. There’s a four-line gag between Benedick and his disgusting companion Pene. It is the drinking song I mentioned yesterday, the soon-to-be-legendary Privvy Song.

James and I have been messing with it, in fact Carli worked with us on choreography last week. But I wasn’t happy with the tune. I mean, it shouldn’t really be a tune, not really, but our ditty sounded tuneless and arbitrary. I wanted some guidance from someone who knows something about music. And drinking. So I called Ali.

She sent me an mp3 last night, she sang it herself. It’s perfect, just what I wanted. Ali is so awesome. James and I worked the choreography again with this new version last night and it is so much better.

Yesterday afternoon Daniel and I visited the Alcazar to conduct our annual pre-show presentation and discussion with interested residents. How will audiences react to this new “prequel” to a familiar and much-loved old play? If our theater fans there are any indication, they are excited about it!

Following each performance during the tour we conduct a brief takback with the audience. I provided Daniel some sample questions yesterday, dealing with the content of the work. Why do people find it so difficult to be honest about their feelings? Do men and women handle their feelings differently, and if so in what way? How do you cope with tragedy?  I would like to have the chance to talk about these things with people who come to see the show, and less about my creative process in writing it. I like talking about the work I have done, but then then discussions all become about that. There’s a lot of personal investment in the content, and I am curious about what audiences will find in it.

We run lines prior to rehearsal, there are so many freaking words, and paraphrasing may be an issue. But with the playwright present at all times, it is hard to get away with that. As with Shakespeare's verse, if you have the meter it usually comes out right.

Meanwhile, I am still trying to get all my silly voices straight.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Times: Youth Culture

These are "The Times"

Elia Kazan said that 90% of directing is casting. Maybe John Huston said it. Who knows? The point is, it is true. By the same turn, it can be said that 90% of producing is choosing the right director. By this turn, there is an 180% chance of Times being a very good show, indeed.

Last night I attended my second rehearsal for this Big Box production, and as scheduled it was a rehearsal of the second act ("The Times") and not the first ("Centennial"). As much as I am looking forward to seeing all of the great work I have been hearing about from that act, the great thing about last night was seeing how far the four main central characters have come in only one week.

Tonight we resume rehearsals for Double Heart, and I will not have another opportunity to attend rehearsal until Valentine's Day.  Yesterday, Eric posted on Facebook that it is a month before The Times opens. A month? Bags of time!

The great thing about writing plays that feature young characters (Times, Double Heart) is that you get to work with young performers. The great thing about being surrounded by young performers, if that you can fool yourself into thinking you are also young.

 Your eyes, they make me INSANE.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Double Heart: Countdown

One week from tonight Double Heart (The Courtship of Beatrice and Benedick) will open at The Alcazar in Cleveland Heights. As Daniel says, The Alcazar must hold a record for the most world premiere plays in Cleveland ... at least during the 21st Century.

Pretty ladies in pretty dresses.

We have a dance, a fight and a drinking song ... well, it's not a "drinking" song, per se ... in fact, it's the opposite of a drinking song, if you follow me. There are many beautiful sights and sounds, and some not so beautiful, in fact, the opposite of beautiful -- but we all look very good. And ideally, we will sound good. The text has been frustrating me the past two days. I have been striving to pick up the pace and not eat too much of the scenery. Good luck, as the kids say, with that.

But it is very sweet. We have a night off this evening, I will be visiting the folks at These Are The Times. I am counting on much of the text to drop in so, and have a great final run-up to opening. I am definitely looking forward to moving into a new space where making quick changes will not be quite so challenging. Did I mention I am playing four different characters?

Why, yes. Yes, I am.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

I Hate This @ Big Box (2003)

August 2002 the people at Dobama Theatre were kind enough to let me use their theater on Coventry for a staged reading of a new, autobiographic work I had written about my experience losing our first child to pre-eclampsia and stillbirth. Titled I Hate This (the play without the baby) what the people saw that night wasn't very different from the finished product, with me slouching about the stage tell our story ... I didn't have the piece memorized, there were various music stands about on which to balance the script as necessary. I was even wearing the green sweater.

The audience was invitation-only, but I did invite a lot of people. Friends and family, yes, but also a large number of theater people, writers, actors, directors, producers, from around town. I have never felt the need to create an "event" like this for a new script before, and I probably never will again. I was forgiven for my grandeur, everyone knew what had happened, though sure most didn't know these details, they wanted to support me and my wife, and to be a part of it.

One of the attendants was (then) CPT artistic director Randy Rollison. As it happens, his company was already in discussion to cancel the second half of their previously announced 2002-2003 season because of financial difficulties and to create a plan for the future -- which, for anyone who has been paying attention, was a decision which has worked out for them extremely well -- and was formulating an idea of still satisfying their mission for the rest of the season of providing exciting new work.

Having witnessed this reading, he asked if I wouldn't be interested in participating in a series of new works which they would call "Big Box" which that year meant inviting artists already in process of a new project, giving them a couple hundred bucks and use of the space. I said yes, absolutely.

The final weekend of February 2003, a scant one month from the birth of my first living child, we put this show on its feet. Following each performance we provided a talkback, where the audience would get to ask us very personal questions -- my wife participated in these -- and pop the lock on prenatal demise.

Post-Show Talkback
Saturday, March 1, 2003
Sorry the audio is so poor.

The day before the show opened, the Plain Dealer ran a piece by Tony Brown -- a preview piece. The show hadn't opened, so he couldn't review it, but he had read the script and talked to me (I remember the interview, I was on break between classes presenting the residency program at Bay High School, hanging on the phone in the English Lit. office) and produced an article which felt like an actual review. It helped a great deal in getting the word out, and encouraging people to take the risk on seeing the show, and I have always been grateful to him for that.

It also meant that folks heard about the show who do not live here. I received a letter from a man who lives in North Carolina, who had read the piece online, and wanted to thank me for sharing this story which had much in common with his own. He and his ex-wife had lost a boy at 30 weeks. Our sons even shared first names, only he lost his boy in 1987. He told me a story of planning a lunch at his son's grave that last September when he would have been fifteen. At the last minute he impulsively bought a stuffed animal to have a present to leave at the site. (We do those things.)

As he placed the gift on the stone, he thought he heard a fifteen year-old boy say, "Dad! That is such an age-inappropriate gift." It was reading that letter that I understood, maybe for the first time, even after coping with this for almost two years, that it would always be this way. This will never end.

My correspondent did add, however, "Life is good."

My daughter just turned ten. My first-born child will soon be twelve. And life is good.