Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The New York International Fringe Festival

Excellent news! Double Heart (The Courtship of Beatrice and Benedick) has been accepted into the 2013 New York International Fringe Festival. Just received news over the weekend, and have been waiting for the right time to tell everyone.

Finding out whether or not we would be reviving the show this summer, or if we would simply be junking the set and packing away the costumes is something that has been occupying my mind for most of the spring. Like, a lot of my mind. However, getting in was easy, getting there will be challenging. We will need funding. Funding from you. But asking for it comes later, first a lot of planning and plotting and organizing, and also, too: being excited.

This will be my fourth foray into the NY Fringe. The first was easy, if the timing was odd, we brought my wife's play Angst:84 to Lower Manhattan in August 2001. I was running sound -- on a minidisc player. Weren't those the days.

 In 2004 our space was a basement apartment in the West Village (40 seats.)
Oh my God! That's Caroline V. McGraw!!!

Twice since I have produced solo productions there, I Hate This in 2004 and And Then You Die in 2009. Each time, though I was delighted with the experience, I was less-than-satisfied with attendance, attracting maybe a dozen people for each show. It wasn't for lack of good word-of-mouth, or stellar reviews, maybe it was just the entirely-too-personal-stillbirth stuff.

Good thing there's none of that in this show.

I am exhilarated to bring a play, with music and brightly-colored costumes, and a set and a company of awesome fellow actors for a change. I think that will make a big difference. Last time my wife was unable to even make the trip, in spite of my incredible support team, it felt like quite a 'solo' show.

 In 2009 we were in a professional dance theater, across from the Public.

Most of all, I am so delighted that Double Heart has a life which continues. Some great shows I am more than happy to pack up and say farewell to, because they said what they needed to say, people saw it, everyone was happy, it's time for the next thing. But we have a good thing going with this show, and it deserves a longer life, and a wider audience. A New York audience! And it will have one.

O hey, I bought a domain name: doubleheart.info. Cost = $3.00. Awesome.

 In 2013, I will bring a costume.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Every Man Out of His Humour (1599)

Traditionally, I would read a book or a play before commenting on it. These days I am pressed for time and instead believe it would be more efficient to offer an opinion and provide historical background, and then take my time with the manuscript.

Currently I am reading four books at once. I look forward to finishing any one of them.

Every Man Out of His Humour is a comedy by Ben Jonson which was first performed in 1599. There has been speculation throughout the subsequent years as to whether or not this work (which is not to be confused with Jonson's 1598 hit comedy Every Man In His Humour) includes elements composed specifically to mock Williams Shakespeare's latest work, As You Like It -- also first performed in 1599 -- or whether Shakespeare was mocking Ben Jonson when he wrote As You Like It -- actually, possibly first performed in 1600.

It is at times like this we really wish Shakespeare had kept better records.

In Every Man Out of His Humour, Jonson features an introductory character who pedantically sets out the rules for all comedy. The play then goes about strictly following this set of rules, finally issuing his own critique of the play; By God, 'tis good, and if you like't, you may.

Shakespeare then writes one of his most-beloved and oft-performed romantic comedies, its title ripped straight from this challenge. Reminds me of when John Lennon ridiculed Paul McCartney for only writing silly love songs, and then McCartney wrote a number-one single called Silly Love Songs.

In fact, the character of Jacques from AYLI may have been a caricature of Jonson. He speaks mostly to himself, and no one really cares about his philosophy, if they are even listening to it. While Jacques' rumination on the seven ages of man is unarguably a legendary piece of work, no one around him has anything to say about it.

For his EMO Jonson created a vainglorious social-climber named Sogliardo who, like Shakespeare, spent time, cash and special favor to gain for himself and his family a coat-of-arms. While Shakespeare's read Not Without Right, Sogliardo's reads Not Without Mustard.

The difference is, I needed to explain that joke to you while the melancholy Jacques is one of the most beloved figures in "the canon". EMO was a popular failure, a fact German poet and translator Ludwig Tieck speculated, "greatly irritated its author."

Happy birthday, William Shakespeare. You win again.

As You Like It (A New Variorum Edition, 1890)
As You Like It: A Guide to the Play by Stephen Lynch
As You Like It (Arden Edition)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Alchemist (2001)

I blame myself.

When the decision was made to produce Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, I was thinking that I would direct it. My wife's grandfather was an English professor at O.U. and one of his pets joys was the works of Jonson. After a shaky start I was growing to appreciate the old man, and his sense of humor (grandfather Calvin G., not Ben Jonson) and he was trying to make inroads to my affection by engaging me in conversation about classic works of drama. He had given me an one hundred year-old copy of this particular play and in reading it, I found the play utterly hilarious.

Me. I did. I had an idea of how to create a modern-dress version and that it would work. However, events came together in such a way that my wife and I were to expect our first child within a month of the opening. I was pretending to be the artistic director of a theater company, so I did what I thought anyone would do, I handed to project off to someone else.

When our child was stillborn, I lost all interest in everything, including and especially this project. I think I attended auditions, but maybe not, I have no memory of that. I attended production meetings, I approved of the design, loved the cast (it had a great cast) though I was not pleased with the length. It was going to be three acts, but so was Hamlet, two years earlier, you can do three acts if they are swift and exciting and compel people to see how it all turns out.

Attending the first dress rehearsal, I gave some basic notes to the director. There wasn't much I could do at that point. There was a lot of schtick which substituted for wit -- a bit about choosing a name for an apothecary's shop, which is funny out loud, became this elaborate gag that involved making rebuses which took away from the humor. However, the bit where they constructed a bong out of scientific tools was outright hilarious.

My one significant note involved volume. Everyone was yelling every single line. Every line had an exclamation point. I told the director to bring it down, it's unbearable. That was it, my signal contribution to Bad Epitaph's production of The Alchemist.

Thes note, however, was never shared with any single member of the company. Quite the opposite, in fact. On opening night the director gave the company this stunning, astonishing, jaw-dropping directive:

"Go twice as big as you have ever gone in your life."

The main character of Subtle was played by Nick Koesters. Our director told Nick Koesters to go twice as big as he had ever gone in his life. But it wasn't just Nick, Allen Branstein was given this note, too. "Twice as big."

As my man Bob Golthwait used to say, "Who gave the gun to the baby?"

Now, I am not going to suggest that opening night of Bad Epitaph Theater Company's production of The Alchemist was a howling, over-the-top crackfest. Heavens, no. Instead I will quote the critics:

"A disappointing torment of incoherent yelling." - James Damico

"It had audiences dropping like flies." - Keith Joseph

"I left after two hours." - Roy Berko

However, there was this generous observation from Linda Eisenstein in the Plain Dealer:

"Throughout the evening you can watch the alchemy of the comedy come and go as the revved up players slam about, chewing scenery, then suddenly snap into focus with an exquisitely choreographed bit of business."

I know she's referring to the bong.

If I were to isolate one major error in this production, it would be its length. The verse plays I have directed have succeeded or failed depending upon how much dedication I made to cutting the script, making sensible internal cuts to the verse line, and lots of them. The cast included some of my favorite people I have ever gotten to work with, the design was kooky and inspired, and many of the gags were truly hysterical. But in the desperate attempt to finish the piece in something close to three hours, they were going terribly fast, which contributed to be being terribly loud, and pushing very, very hard. Regardless of whatever else had been going on in my life prior to March 20, I should have cut the script myself.

To promote the show, we got airtime on the WKYC Channel 3 morning show. Most of these TV promotions feature the actors in the background, with the host and producer of whatever program is being featured chatting in the foreground, you barely hear the actors at all. We decided, therefore, to present some of the most visual scenes.

I blame myself.

UPDATE: Sending that video around the Facebook, several company members had the opportunity to comment upon how much worse the stage combat looks with a camera right in Nick's face.

Director Larry Nehring:
"If you show the faces in slapstick combat it looks serious. I remember wanting to grab the cameraman and pull him back to the audience POV. It's hard to answer a stupid question when your soul is yelling, 'stop saying its not funny when you aren't seeing it right!'"
Yes, it looks pretty ugly close-up. However, we did tell them that this scene was going to feature "stage combat" -- the host leads off the segment warning that a fight is about the happen. Then he suddenly gets the vapors and demands to know just what the hell is going on. That was awkward.

So, did it look more funny from the "audience point-of-view"? So glad you asked. Harris was in town for our son's memorial service, and he was on hand to record all of the recording. We dredge up odd bits of video, you decide: 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Double Heart: University of Akron

Hey! The old gang's back together!

By special request, we took the set out of storage (and the glorious people in costumes freshened up the wigs) for a one-day-only revival of Double Heart for the good people in the English department at the University of Akron.

In the space of one day, I got a van, we loaded the van, drove to Akron, did the show -- ripped it down in RECORD time -- brought everything back and into the rehearsal space, and returned the van. It was a big day, but I will say it was worth it.

Someone made a video. I would like a copy of that video.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Double Heart: Brush-Up

"These bristles have I cultivated nigh these eighteen days."

Several years ago, one of the stops for the Great Lakes Outreach touring production of Daniel Hahn's Before The Storm was at the University of Akron, as part of their annual Shakespeare In The Spring celebration. Though I was not a performer in that production, I was present as the company representative, to introduce the piece and lead the post-show discussion.

Just as this year's tour was winding down, we were contacted by the folks at U of A and asked if we wouldn't again join them with one of our touring performances. I wasn't sure how the rest of the Double Heart company would feel, but when I polled them each gave and enthusiastic thumbs-up, so we stored the set and costumes, and here we were, one day shy of a month since we closed, walking through the blocking, going over lines, and rememberizing all of the sound cues.

The performance will be this Thursday, April 11 at 3:30 PM on the University of Akron campus in Martin University Center (complete schedule) and this performance is free and open to the public. Who gets another chance to see a play that has closed? That's right, you do. Please join us.

Monday, April 1, 2013

One Step Beyond (1997)

One Step Beyond
Photo: Tony Gray

April fools’ day. Back in the day, urban legends were all the rage. The TV program The X-Files wove them through their storylines, and that was great fun. The 90s was cottage industry for the telling and retelling of classic tales of fiancees sold into white slavery, bugs found in food products, and celebrities helping (or snubbing) helpless motorists.

The vast majority of these tales are patently false. As Thomas Edison once said, “if something sounds unbelievable, it probably is.” Actually, Edison didn’t say that, but saying that he did makes the quote sound better. When we told these stories at camp, or hiking in the dump behind the train tracks, or spelunking under the elementary school, they added a sense of rich history of weirdness to our care-free, suburban lives.

Around the time the internet went mainstream, Barbara and David Mikkelson started their urban legends database, snopes.com. I found it in 1996 and for reasons I cannot remember, but they involved searching for horrible events which have occured in Disney theme parks. What made Snopes.com unique, and endearing it to me, was not that it perpetuated urban legends, but that they researched them and stove to determine their veracity.

For the 1997-98 season of Dobama's Night Kitchen (my third) we decided to revisit the long-form improvisation scenario developed our first season. Our first attempt was The Realistic World, which was more like an onstage soap opera than "reality TV". The company developed stock Gen-X characters who bounced off of each other in a common setting, with the result more often insult humor than say romance or drama, and no real plot to speak of.

 Unexplained Phenomenon

This new endeavor, One Step Beyond, would be inspired by (ta-da) urban legends, part X-Files, part Twilight Zone. Each hour long scenario was based on (and around) one urban legend or bizarre historical news event -- the molepeople, suicide cults -- with a few recurring characters which gave anyone paying attention (was anyone paying attention?) the idea that everything was interconnected like some Illuminati/Gray Alien conspiracy. There was more plot, but also more opportunities for humor, than  in The Realistic World. We scoured the internet for source material, much of it from snopes.

I have been visiting snopes.com for so many years now, that I trust it, and like many, use it to put the lie to certain vicious internet rumors which circulate from time to time. Because with the internet, urban legends have gone from tales of collective spoken myth, into outright lies told simply through infographics posted on Facebook. In this way, “a lie gets halfway round the world before the truth can check its inbox,” as Mary Todd Lincoln once told William Seward. At a party. A friend of my brother heard her say it.

The other day I saw (again) a graphic explaining how wearing pants that sag halfway down your ass so that your boxers show is an old prison trick, to show how available and interested you are to engage in sodomy in exchange for safety. There’s another term for this, but you know what that is.

This “urban legend” has rubbed me the wrong way for some time. People from certain walks of life hate the sagging pants thing. They aren’t racist or anything, but why can’t those boys pull up their pants, it’s ridiculous. The fact that a cultural thing that so irritates certain people would have what is obviously supposed to be a humiliating origin story seemed far too convenient.

Checking snopes I found that this fashion does in fact originate from prison life. Prison togs are often the wrong size, so ex-cons began wearing pants that were too big, and that need to be hiked up every couple of steps. And so became a fashion trend. End of story.

But why perpetuate the man-on-man sex myth?

Or more to the point, what are you saying when you “SHARE” this particular item on Facebook?
That if you wear pants that sag, what you are really saying is that you are gay?

That if you wear pants that sag, you are really saying is that you want a man to fuck you up the ass?

Is that what you are saying? Is it? That you're gay? You're gay right now? Are you?

In the case of this particular legend, the "f-word" lurks next to the “n-word” in the expression of disgust or contempt generated by the person who shares/tells it. Because you can’t attempt to shame someone out of a certain behavior without making judgement about that behavior.

In a week that my Facebook page has been covered from top to bottom with messages of support for Marriage Equality, and pictures of happy, gay couples, receiving this other kind of message, one which expresses open contempt for and fear of sexual activity between men (mocking, inarguably, one certain race of men - infographic of a Caucasian notwithstanding) was jarring and disappointing.

"Gone Bad"

Near the end of our first, tumultuous year producing and performing You Have The Right To Remain Silent, one of the new guys wrote a piece which I assumed was true, because he had heard it somewhere, and we performed it. It was a very funny piece, where I played a down-and-out member of the Little Rascals trying to mug a young couple, but the crime falls apart because they recognize me and feel sorry for me. Seems Bill Cosby had bought the rights to all the old Little Rascals shorts and wouldn't let anyone see them anymore because of its negative depiction of African-Americans.

It's a trope that comes around every now and again, how some member of some minority group who has attained a certain amount of wealth or power has made things sad for everyone else due to some politically correct action on their part.

These stories are rarely true, subtly or in some cases obviously racist or sexist, though what they convey is not obvious. But they are based in fear, or hate, or certainly disrespect. I have always hated the fact that I participated in that sketch and helped perpetuate this kind of lie.

(Click here to purchase The Little Rascals: The Complete Collection, because it is a shame Bill Cosby owns the rights and won't let anyone see them anymore.)