Thursday, January 30, 2014

Christine Howey, playwright

Old Portelaine

Last June, six playwrights and I gathered to discuss the possibility of creating a new play inspired by Jacques' "seven ages of man" speech from Shakespeare's As You Like It for the Great Lakes Theater 2014 free outreach tour.

I laid down a few ground rules, deciding which characters would be available to them, and in what time period it was to be set. These four characters would use each other to tell tales inspired by (but not restricted to) one of each of these ages: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon and advanced old age.

Assigning each age was no big deal, everyone negotiated and came to an agreement. Area critic, playwright, poet and performer Christine Howey chose "second childhood and mere oblivion" or senescence, as the Bard describes, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Exact Change

Christine is having a good year, and it's not even February. Last weekend she wrapped up a three-week, sold out run of her new solo performance Exact Change at Cleveland Public Theatre. She was recently announced as a 2014 Creative Workforce Fellow, provided by the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture and funded by Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. And of course, she's a playwright for Seven Ages.

Interestingly, we could have booked Exact Change and repackaged that as Seven Ages and had our tour already in the bag. Chronicling as it does the playwright's own experiences from childhood to these later years using verse, video and startling costume changes to evoke a modern Tiresias.

Christine's tale opens our septameron -- beginning where we all conclude -- pitting old Portelaine, a man nearing the end of his days against those who would "cheer him up" or "put a smile on his face". It is a role and responsibility which has struck home to me on numerous recent occasions (including past outreach tours which have visited certain assisted care and nursing facilities) and one which I am still coming to terms with for this piece.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pete Seeger

An early draft of what became the second act of These Are The Times included many scenes taken directly from transcripts from the House Committee on Un-American Activities. One such scene featured Peter "Pete" Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014) who sat before the committee, gladly exposed his interrogators as fools, and stood tall as he always did against Fascism.

Joyce Brabner produced a staged reading of what was then called This Is The Times at the Unitarian Universalist Church on December 12, 2008. Seeger was performed in that reading by Dan McElhaney and he really got the smile right.

This scene is my edited version of the historical transcript.
Pete Seeger’s testimony before the House Unamerican Activities Committee on August 18, 1955

Please identify yourself, sir, by name and occupation.

My name is Pete Seeger. I was born in New York in 1919.

What is your profession or occupation?

It is hard to call it a profession. I kind of drifted into it and I never intended to be a musician, and I am glad I am one now, and it is a very honorable profession, but when I started out actually I wanted to be a newspaperman, and when I left school --

Will you answer the question, please?

I have to explain that it really wasn't my profession, I picked up a little change in it.

The Committee has obtained information indicating that, over a period of time you took part in numerous entertainment features. I have before me a photostatic copy of the June 20, 1947, issue of the Daily Worker. (reads) "Tonight-Bronx, hear Peter Seeger and his guitar, at Allerton Section housewarming." May I ask you whether or not the Allerton Section was a section of the Communist Party?

Sir, I refuse to answer that question whether it was a quote from the New York Times or the Vegetarian Journal.

I don't believe there is any more authoritative document in regard to the Communist Party than its official organ, the Daily Worker.  I direct you to answer.

I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious or political beliefs, or any of these private affairs. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.

I have before me a photostatic copy of the April 30, 1948, issue of the Daily Worker.  (reads) "May Day Rally: For Peace, Security and Democracy. Are you in a fighting mood? Then attend the May Day rally."  And then follows a statement, "Entertainment by Pete Seeger." Did you lend your talent to the Essex County Communist Party on this occasion?

I believe I have already answered this question.

What is your answer?

I resent very deeply the implication that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.

Why don't you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?

I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.

I don't want to hear about it. I direct you to answer that question.

I have already given you my answer, sir. However, if you want to question me about any songs, I would be glad to tell you, sir.

Did you participate in a program at Wingdale Lodge in the State of New York, on the weekend of July Fourth of this year?

I will be glad to tell what songs I have ever sung, because singing is my business. But I decline to say who has ever listened to them, who has written them, or other people who have sung them.

Did you sing the song "Now Is the Time," at Wingdale Lodge on the weekend of July Fourth?

I don't know any song by that name. I know a song called "Wasn't That a Time." Is that the song?

Did you sing that song?

I can sing it. I don't know how well I can do it without my banjo.

I said, did you sing it on that occasion?

I have sung that song.  I have sung it many places.

Did you sing it on this particular occasion?

Again my answer is the same.

You said that you would tell us about it.

I will tell you about the songs, I am not going to go into where I have sung them.

I direct you to answer the question. Did you sing this particular song on the Fourth of July at Wingdale Lodge in New York?

I am sorry you are not interested in the song. It is a good song.

I want to know whether or not you were entertaining for the benefit of Communist fronts at these features.

I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line.

Did you sing at functions of the Communist Party, at Communist Party requests?

I believe, sir, that a good twenty minutes ago, I gave my answer to this whole line of questioning.

Have you been a member of the Communist Party since 1947?

It is like Jesus Christ when asked by Pontius Pilate, "Are you king of the Jews?"

Stop that.

I would be curious to know what you think of a song like this very great Negro spiritual, "I'm Gonna Lay Down My Sword and Shield, Down by the Riverside."

The witness is excused.

-- end of scene --

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Seven Ages: Sets

Fourth day of rehearsal was like Christmas, with scenic designer Terry Martin playing the role of Santa, leaving us not only lovely presents, but a fire to place them near.

The action of Seven Ages transpires within the truck of a thousand year-old oak tree in the forest of Arden. Terry's set was inspired by the stained glass window of the the seven ages of man from the Folger Library in Washington D.C., and also the work of Maxfield Parrish. Each of seven frames depict a tree at a different stage of growth, during a different season of the year.

We also discovered a box full of fabulous props, and worked through several scenes last night utilizing them, and arranging and re-arranging the various "mossy and water-damaged" blocks and cases.

Late last night I discovered that Daniel had posted something on Facebook, a picture from four years earlier when we began rehearsing On The Dark Side of Twilight in a much smaller office in the Bulkey Building.

Monday, January 27, 2014


At rehearsal last week, Bobby noted that the small notebook I was using reminded him of when we taught summer arts camp together back in 2008.

We were part of Smart In The City, a Cleveland-wide camp at several locations, ours on the West Side in the former St. Mel School space. Bobby was our music instructor, and I was the creative writing instructor.

I felt that each student should have a notebook that they might want to actually keep. At the art supply store I was introduced to Moleskine, they do make such neat little books.

Some kids did keep theirs, others had no interest in writing and were unimpressed by the books and there were several left over.

Bobby was correct, the notebook I have been using in rehearsal for Seven Ages is, in fact, the exact same book I used during Smart camp, participating in the same writing exercises I was assigning to the campers.

That was six years ago, so obviously I have not used it a lot, usually as a travel notebook, when I remember to bring it with me. A quick inventory reveals:

  • Exercises from Smart In The City
  • To Do Lists
  • Ideas for various plays
  • The formative idea for the play I am writing right now
  • Rumination on a workshop from Kirk Wood Bromley
  • Notes taken in the Performing Arts Library, NYC
  • Notes taken in the Cleveland Public Library
  • Titles of books I have since read
  • Code keys
  • Directions to the Highline
  • Ideas for plays I hope to eventually write
  • Notes from a symposium at Cleveland Public Theatre
  • Crossed out items that were accomplished
  • Notes from a meeting about "Slumberland"
  • Song list from GLT's 80s "Shrew"
  • Notes for a Belgian accent
  • Copious noites on "These Are The Times"
  • Financial planning
  • Residency notes
  • Notes on a driving trip to Maine
  • Grocery lists
  • Notes from a tour of the Maltz Museum
  • Recent creative writing
  • License plate game
  • Free-writing for "Seven Ages"

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Seven Ages: Music

Three weeks of rehearsal provide little time to waste time. After two nights of table reading, the tables have been pushed back and we are already on our feet.

This is not to the first time I have been engaged in a project that involves several playwrights writing on a common theme, and then striving through rehearsal to find their unifying threads. The Gulf certainly comes to mind.

Once we had written our tale, and decided upon their order (they are not chronological) each Seven Ages playwright was tasked with writing interstitial material, leading one story into the next. In this way, the in-between stuff is more interesting than if I had provided each of the segues.

However, it was inevitable that certain transitions appear too stark or abrupt. In each of these cases, the pleasing lubrication of music will help us slide from one fable to another. Our Touchstone, Bobby, has plenty of experience with the tunes from As You Like It, having played Amiens for the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival -- twice.

I am looking forward to how we three, Annie, Emily and myself, may compliment his compositions ... if compliment is the right word.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Seven Ages: Commencement

Rehearsals for Great Lakes Theater’s 2014 free outreach tour, Seven Ages have begun. Inspired by Jacques rumination on the seven ages of man in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, seven northeast Ohio playwrights were tasked to write a story or fable about one of seven phases of human life.

We gathered in the Hanna Building rehearsal hall, four actors, director Lisa, stage manager Diana and as a special surprise, our amazing costume designer Esther!

The company includes Emily and Annie, two fresh faces familiar to those who followed Double Heart last year (oh, and my face, also) and a welcome new addition in Bobby Williams, for who this is his first outreach tour with us, which I find incredible as he has worked with virtually everyone, everywhere.

This guy.

Esther began by sharing her designs, which for a change are Elizabethan. Four characters from As You Like It gather for shelter and safety in a thousand year-old tree, and pass the time telling stories. As it is Shakespeare’s tale, Esther chose Shakespeare’s time.

Last year the costume changes were a pretty big deal, especially for me. For this production, as we are all playing characters intentionally going in and out of characters for each others' tales, there promises to be more piling on interesting certain pieces -- or as Esther put it, "Anything can be a hat!"

It’s going to be a playful piece of work, the show is about the telling of tales, and while the flavor of each differs, most are humorous. The darkest piece, without any surprise to anyone, is the one I have written.