Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Machine Stops (radio drama)

Senior year in high school, Mr. Knapp assigned E.M. Forster's short story The Machine Stops. What seemed charmingly prescient in 1986 has become alarmingly so in the almost thirty years that have passed.

In brief. two hundred years into the future (the year 2109, according to Forster, best known for novels like Howard's End, A Room With a View and Passage to India) humanity will have destroyed the surface of the planet, and created a self-exiled under the surface of the planet where every individual human lives their existence in single room where all necessities are provided by The Machine.

No one desires to come into direct contact with anyone else, all communication is conducted through The Machine. They spend all leisure time (which is to say, all non-resting or feeding time) staring into the screen, through which they communicate and receive thoughts, messages and "ideas".

To my teenage mind, this was a remarkable turn-of-the-century concept of television. I had no idea of how computers and what we would later call the Internet would occupy our potential for expression or communication, and the similarity between Forster's world and this is much more accurate than that of Wells or even Bradbury.

However, let us return to 1986. Mr. Knapp asked what contemporary event came to mind when reading this story. A recent (two weeks ago) return to my alma mater reminded me of how reticent my contemporaries are to volunteering responses. So I do not believe my memory is too inaccurate when I suggest that a fat second or two went by, no one answered, and I finally put my hand up to suggest, "Chernobyl?"

Yes, that is exactly what he was suggesting. The Chernobyl disaster occurred on April 26. (Side note, at Prom that year we were served Chicken Kiev, which made for a number of tasteless jokes.) Since that time, the threat of and benign disinterest in global climate change suggests that it will not take any specific "accident" to drive us underground.

Also, too ... in reference to our capacity for viewing as a solitary intellectual endeavor, our English teacher inquired about any or all solitary activities, and whether they were not in and of themselves, selfish activities, even if they were arguably healthful. He was and is a marathon runner. Hours and hours on the road, away from his growing children, wasn't that inherently self-involved, even if it didn't render him on of Forster's pale, formless blobs of humanity?

This was an element I made reference to in my solo performance And Then You Die (How I Ran A Marathon in 26.2 Years). Since that time I have questioned my pursuit of running and how much time it takes from my family. I have since reconciled that fact that every minute I spent exercising gives back two that may be lost to a sedentary lifestyle.

In any event, this was one of the formative works of my youth. In my 30s, I thought occasionally of adapting a play from this material. Fortunately for me, Eric Coble did it first.

Commissioned by the Hiram College Center for Literature, Medicine and the Biomedical Humanities, Eric wrote a one-act stage play, which was presented at a symposium at Hiram and later at the Ingenuity Festival in Cleveland in 2005. I missed those productions, but asked Eric if I could read it. Centering as it does on two protagonists, Vashti and her son Kuno, with a dozen or more voices coming through The Machine, I felt it would make an excellent radio drama.

Following the success of our radio version of I Hate This in late 2005, WCPN producer Dave DeOreo asked, and now, what next? I suggested The Machine Stops. Then I asked Eric.

Creating this show was a particular delight, involving as it did some of my favorite voice talents (Jazmin Corona, Tim Keo, Nick Koesters, RaSheryl McCreary, Dawn Youngs) and giving Dennis Yurich the chance to create some truly delicious themes and sound effects. In particular, the subtle, throbbing humming of The Machine was unsettling in the extreme.

Also, we employed a number of Foley effects, executed by Kelly Elliott, inspired by the works of Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and Terry Gilliam (Brazil), among others.

Be sure to listen to the Q&A with playwright Eric Coble at the end of the broadcast. The reference to MySpace may startle you.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Seven Ages: Stage Combat

Let the beatings begin.

For seven of the past eight years, I have performed in the annual, free outreach tour for Great Lakes Theater. Seven Ages will be my eighth.

Traditionally, we begin rehearsal in January, open in February and close in March. And that's it. As I was invited to write a tour or two in the past several years, my process began in August, and then in April -- I wrote Double Heart in April 2012.

Our combat choreographer staged the sword fight in September of that year. We began rehearsal proper in January, and before we closed found that we would be taking the show to New York City. Over a year with this one show on my mind, it felt odd to be meeting with Emily to begin rehearsal on this new show.

A little background; Seven Ages consists of seven short tales written by seven Cleveland playwrights, based on each of Jacques "seven ages of man" from As You Like It. Mine was inspired by the schoolboy, and is rather literal. What was it like to go to school in 16th century England? One fact I learned was that the odds were very good you were going to be struck by your teacher.
Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books,
But love from love toward school with heavy looks.
- Romeo & Juliet, II.ii
Yeah, no shit Romeo. Especially when your drunken proctor is in a bad mood.

In one particularly nasty moment, the teacher (me) strikes his pupil (Emily, as a boy) from behind and without warning. December 17 our Kelly was in town to work with the actor-teachers, and we brought Emily in to stage the fight. The video here details the extent of the beating. You can see clearly from the second two angles that I am hesitant to get too close to striking her back. I think the way I am holding the stick will make a different, angled more severely it should hide the blow.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

DDT-V (1983-86)

From 1983 and 1986 a number of Bay High School students (and a few graduates who never really got away) produced a half-hour comedy program for our public access station. At the time we thought of our work as mediocre, but looking back is it surprising how much we were able to accomplish with so little. 

Most of the bits trod well-covered ground, obviously emulating Saturday Night Live, SCTV and Not Necessarily The News, featuring fake news segments, advertisements and public service announcements. But at least the writing was original and we were able to exploit our suburban surroundings to our best advantage.

We produced two "Christmas" episodes in 1984 and 1985. We had been working on one in 1983, but someone in production rewired the editing facility and got us banned from the studio for about a year.

In the year 1985 alone the company made six shows, but after producing two more the following spring and summer, a large number of cast members graduated from high school and that was apparently that.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Simple Gifts (1977)

New York at Night, 1979

R. O. Blechman (born Oscar Robert Blechman, 1930) is an illustrator and animator, you probably recognize his work. He made a name for himself creating sequential editorial cartoons for the Village Voice in the 1970s, later for The New York Times and plentiful covers for The New Yorker.

DID YOU KNOW ..? Like all great men, R. O. Blechman graduated from Oberlin College.

Without actually doing any research on the subject, I imagine the artist he is most closely compared to is Jules Feiffer, because of the shaky line. However, whereas Feiffer's people have detailed faces of angst and giddy nervous energy, Blechman's characters visages are so glyphic they are almost childlike, often succumbed by wonder.


His most-seen animation is probably something like the Alka-Seltzer commercial (1967) in which a man has an argument with his own stomach. My favorite work, however, was when he produced an hour-long holiday program for PBS called Simple Gifts. Seven animators presented works on the theme of Christmas.

Blechman's own piece, No Room at the Inn, retells the story of the Nativity with social commentary familiar to those who treasure his work. This acknowledgement of economic disparity and the plight of the poor is also reflected in Maurice Sendak's Introduction where a shoeless, miserable boy sacrifices his life to become a tree that brings joy to others.

Artist Chwast gives life to a bizarre tale from the bizarre novel Orlando by the bizarre Virgina Wool, and there is an silly Toonerville Trolley cartoon. Three pieces, however, are biographical, and summon up Christmases from America in the 1860s (rich future President Teddy Roosevelt's My Christmas) and in the 1910s (poor future playwright Moss Hart's A Memory of Christmas)
and the tale most haunting, that of the "Christmas Truce" of 1914. story told in this letter from by Sir Edward Hulse was only one example of soldiers, largely British and Canadian, emerging from their trenches to meet and greet Germans (there are far fewer records of any French participating) in no-man's land. First they arranged to retrieve their dead, which led to the singing of hymns, then carols, the sharing of family photos and stories and finally playing soccer and exchanging of gifts.

The afterward to this animation, that Sir Hulse perished in the trenches, doesn't make the story any more poignant, if you are familiar with the wholesale carnage of the Great War. He died on a godforsaken field in France. Of course he did.

Following this dangerous breach of continual murderous violence, those at the top mandated that strict punishments would be meted out if there were any further peaceful gestures made toward the enemy. And once poison gas was introduced in 1915, most Christian amity was successfully broken.

A commercially produced video for Simple Gifts was last released commercial in 1993, and is currently available on VHS for around $130. It has never been released on DVD.

Happy Christmas.
Talespinner Children's Theatre presents Adventures In Slumberland by David Hansen, Nov. 30 - Dec. 22, 2013.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Pogo (comic strip)

Okay, in the past three days I have experienced as many shouts out to Walter Crawford Kelly, Jr. (August 26, 1913 – October 18, 1973). The documentary Dear Mr. Watterson (Joel Allen Schroeder, Director 2013) is playing at the Cedar-Lee, and so my son, who loves Calvin & Hobbes, wanted to see the trailer, which includes this brief comment from Berke Breathed:
My initial impression when I saw him was, the guy's making it harder for the rest of us. Because he's setting ridiculous standards of excellence that hadn't been seen since the 'Pogo' years. he was right. Like many comic strips, Breathed's Bloom County was facile and derivative and a complete rip-off of everything that had come before. Calvin & Hobbes may in fact be in the top 5 greatest comic strips ever made, but Breathed's unnecessary use of the word "ridiculous" before the phrase "standards of excellence" only serve to undercut the compliment, and betray a certain well-deserved shame for his own limp work.

What are the 5 greatest comic strips of all time? Well, before Calvin & Hobbes began its run a Pogo collection was released (The Best of Pogo, Fireside 1982) and foreworded by Doonesbury scribe Gary B. Trudeau, who described Pogo creator Walt Kelly this way:
In my opinion, Walt Kelly had only two peers in the pantheon department, Winsor McCay and George Herriman ('Krazy Kat'), and of the two, only Herrimann could write as well as he could draw ... Kelly, however, was a triple threat; 'Pogo' was beautifully drawn, exquisitely written, and enormously popular.
McCay's weakness as a writer would later be echoed by Bill Watterson himself, though I find it difficult to separate McCay's unfathomable inventiveness from the process of writing. His dialogue can seem less than sophisticated, but as I described in my interview with Dee Perry last week, since most of his work is a representation of dreams, it only makes sense that the dialogue is broken up and non-linear, like snatches of what you heard the day before being processed by your subconscious.

Then again, if you ever read any of his personal correspondence, you would also know that Winsor McCay possessed poor grammar and used what can respectfully be called creative spelling.

To sum up, however, this morning I came across this status update from my university movement professor:

I called him on his Pogo reference, but then my eight year-old told me it is actually Pogo possum's friend Churchy the turtle who is triskaidekaphobic.

For the record, I echo Mr. Trudeau's suggestion that if there is a "pantheon" of cartoonists, it should include Herrimann, McCay and Kelly, but also Watterson and inevitably Schulz, whose writing and popularity are unquestionable, and whose drawing skills are deceptively masterful.

But three Walt Kelly references in as many days, just as I have been introducing my son to his work is a little unsettling, and also thrilling, especially when the comparison is made to Winsor McCay. If there is one character who would slip easily into the Okefenokee Swamp it would be that of Flip Flap, whose slangy American vernacular echoes that of Kelly's band of swamp critturs. 

Talespinner Children's Theatre presents Adventures In Slumberland by David Hansen, Nov. 30 - Dec. 22, 2013.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Adventures In Slumberland (performance)

Steve Wagner Photography

Adventures In Slumberland opened a week ago, on Saturday, November 30. The houses have been well-attended, the response from children (and adults) has been very positive. And we have gotten some great attention in local media.
Director Ali Garrigan and I had a lovely conversation with Dee Perry at IdeaStream this week. I get a bit tongue-tied by Ali keeps things pretty grounded as we discuss the psychology of Slumberland. Excuse me for saying so, but listening to this interview really makes me want to see this show.

Also, we never mention that fish. Also, too, we remember to mention Santa. You forget what kind of impression he makes, but children have been spotted leaning forward, wide-eyed when the man with the bag makes his brief appearance.
"If you have kids, you need to check this out." - Sarah Valek

In her warm and enthusiastic review, Ms. Valek does point out that this Talespinner show (and she has seen all of them) "doesn’t have as strong as a storyline as past performances." I can't disagree with this, and excuse me for saying I meant to do that but that was one of my plans for Slumberland, that it resembles the episodic nature of a comic strip while also, eventually, getting somewhere.

Rave and Pan
"It's quite a treat." - Christine Howey
Christine Howey mentions that Imp "speaks in a non-identifiable foreign tongue," and that was thrilling to me, because (and I believe Ms. Howey actually got this) Imp was a character I was most concerned about. McCay's original version is a grotesque racial stereotype, but while most adaptors have chosen to just leave him out, I thought he filled a necessary role as third. Third Marx Brother, third Stooge, or my case, third child.

Lauren B. Smith as Imp

Imp exists to embody the strange, unfamiliar nature of Slumberland, but that also means to know things that the outsider (Nemo) cannot know, and to comment on things without being understood. The children understand Imp, without actually understanding the words. Lauren is so marvelous with the character, and communicating Imp's language, it is flattering that Howey refers to it as a "foreign tongue" when all it is is entire sentences in English written backwards.