Monday, March 31, 2014

Lombardo (10-minute play)

"Lombardo" at the Fine Arts Association
Kathy Sandham, photographer

I prefer history, biography, non-fiction. I like to know how things happened, how people worked together in the process of creation. While I am leery of the great-man theory, I do like reading about individuals who were motivated to effect their surroundings, to make a difference. Even an evil difference.

Books are great, especially a well-researched tome, even one with an agenda. But just the facts, please, not the facts as you would like to see them.

Historical films are dodgy, though I accept those for what they are, entertainment inspired by fact.

But the plays are killing me.

The recent past has introduced countless plays based on historic figures. The reason for this is purely financial. It’s certainly not artistic.

Any theater has a core of supporters who will see whatever you do, be they subscribers or people who like theater and buy single tickets for a variety of plays at a variety of houses.

For a play to truly succeed at the box office, especially in regional theater, it must attract those in the community who do not normally choose theater as something to do. How do you do that? You have to be very clear about what it is they are going to see.

Recent developments in play production include the Book-On-Stage: adaptations of classic (i.e., public domain) works, vastly abridged, with as few characters as possible so as not to inflate the budget. I want to say that some of these make for great theater, but I can’t think of one.

The biographic drama provides greater freedom of imagination, because instead of sticking to the proscribed plot of a novel, the playwright can focus on a pivotal moment in one famous person’s life and can be imaginative in telling it. Facts are important, true … but not too important, especially when the facts themselves have morphed into legend. The playwright can either print the legend, or subversively champion the actual truth.

Or, you know, the truth as they see it.

Sometimes you get a pretty good play, like John Logan’s Red. Sometimes you get a very bad play, like Eric Simonson’s Lombardi. The former is a rumination on art and commerce that happens to utilize the painter Mark Rothko, the latter a recitation of facts about Vince Lombardi designed to appeal to people who are really into Vince Lombardi.

Like many bio-dramas, these both use a completely non-distracting fictional character as a sounding board for the actor playing the great man at the center of the work to create their iconic performance of this historical figure.

The difference is, the young cipher in Red is an aspiring artist, one who can learn from the master. It is also a very well-written play, exciting to watch in each of the productions I have seen. The playwright attempts to include backstory for this young artist in the form of a tale of his parents’ murder. It feels like an attempt to make the play not just about Rothko … but why?

The interlocutor in Lombardi is a reporter. A REPORTER. Someone whose job it is to ask questions. I mean, Jesus. Really. That’s all I have to say about that.

Except, it’s not. Shortly after watching the show (my seven year-old most liked to video projections of actual football games) I sat down and wrote a ten-minute play called LOMBARDO. The exercise was to see if I could write a short play about a pivotal moment in the life of Guy Lombardo based entirely on information I could find on Wikipedia.

It was not my intention to have it produced, but when I saw the Fine Arts Association put out a call for plays for their bi-annual short plays festival, I just sent it. I never even revised it. I was so pleased when it was chosen, one of only two works from the Cleveland area represented in the eleven brief scenes. The whole family went to see it opening night.

Written as it was in a fit of complete ass-holery, I was still concerned about how Lombardo would be received. Knowing absolutely nothing about the company who would produce it, I was unaware of my special brand of dry, absurdist satire was comprehensible, or whether it would be well-executed.

I am very happy to report that my slight piece of snark was played straight and swift. Afterwards, Ray Griesmer (Guy Lombardo) told me about his challenges in creating the character, searching for recordings of Lombardo on YouTube for him to emulate, and his disappointment in Guy Lombardo’s complete non-presence as a person. He chose instead to be irascible and boisterous, which is how I had actually written him. I was thinking in the voice of Vince Lombardi when I wrote it, anyway.

From the moment the lights came up on our charming, personality-free narrator with his horn-rimmed glasses and ready steno pad, I knew and appreciated the time and detail director Ann Hedger and her crew had put into my little work. Thanks, folks!

The Fine Arts Association 18th Annual One Act Festival Hot from the Oven: Smörgåsbord

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Shakespeare's Globe

If there is one overriding theme in Barry Day’s This Wooden ‘O’, one which is made early and repeated ad nauseum, it is that not only did it take an American to build a fully-functioning Elizabethan Globe theater on old Bankside, but that only an American wanted to.

It is true that other replica “Globes” already existed prior to Shakespeare’s Globe, all over the world, even as far away as Japan, but to put one right there, in that place, was anathema to post-war British thinking. Valuable river-side property was to be used for offices, factories or public housing. End stop.

Besides, as described by the author, and easily understood if you think about it, it was a dumb idea and one which never should have worked. The first time I visited Southwark was in 1990, as a student.

A troop of us were taking a whirlwind, seven-day tour of London and Stratford. We took a walking tour of Surrey at an important period of transition in the project. The place looked a great deal as it did for Sam Wanamaker when he first skulked bankside and found the legendary, blackened plaque-on-the-side-of-a-brewery, that which was the sole indication that the playhouse for which Shakespeare wrote his plays had, at one time been … around here ... somewhere.

We saw the exact same plaque. But we also saw the construction area where they had recently discovered the remains of the Globe’s main competitor (for three years, anyway) Henslowe’s Rose Theatre.

Tearing down one factory in order to construct a new office block, they had expected to find evidence of the The Rose, but not with its foundations so well-preserved. The decision was yet to be made, in December 1990, as to what the fate of The Rose would be.

Meanwhile, the Globe was as yet a great muddy pit. We stared into the hole, and it stared back. Perhaps Wanamaker, who had not yet received the diagnoses of prostate cancer from which he would die in less than three years, stared at us through the windows of the nearby Shakespeare's Globe Trust, but that’s ridiculous.

The question, even then, as recounted by our tour guide, was why build this theater? They have so many great commercial theaters in the West End, new drama created for the Royal Court among so many others, and the National Theatre for the classics. What on earth would a replica Elizabethan theater provide? What if the work is just, you know, Shakespeare? You can get that absolutely anywhere in the world.

My next visit was on June 12, 1997 with my (then) girlfriend Toni. What we did not realize was that ours was the final tour through the completed Shakespeare’s Globe on the afternoon of the Royal Grand Opening. Seriously.

They had had a workshop season in the space the summer of 1995, and another in 1996. For two summers artistic director Mark Rylance and his company had been working the space, when the stage was still plywood, and the pit for the groundlings unfinished, testing the space for best use. How far apart should the posts supporting the stage be, how far from the edge of the stage? Are the doors to the tiring house working? There was time to correct these things, and best to do it prior to the office commencement of this new theater.

We received our tour, it all looked really good, but I never got to see a show there that summer. We were scheduled to leave in another two days and all the opening weekend performances were sold. After our tour we had tea in the adjacent restaurant, and as we relaxed the place began to fill with very important people in tuxedos and dresses.

Jesus, is that Michael Maloney? I stared at him for a moment as he talked to someone and he did a double-take at me, staring, and I looked away. Yeah, that was Michael Maloney. Later I saw him head into the loo and thought of cornering him to apologize but then I thought, wow, right, that would make the world such a better place, and didn’t do that.

If we had stayed any longer we would have been chased out, the Queen was coming. Seriously.

Visiting the theater, as built, made me want to experience a show there in a way that it had not when it was merely a theory or a dream. That opportunity did not come until 2001, and even then it was to see one of the few non-period productions from Rylance’s first few years, the much-maligned fancy dress party Macbeth.

This was actually an excellently performed production, featuring Eve Best as the best Lady M. I have ever seen. It was a thoughtful, cerebral production, performed entirely in tuxedoes, except for Ms. Best.
“The real horror is that this production has been allowed to reach the public in this state.The real horror is that this production has been allowed to reach the public in this state.” - The Guardian
The script was cut in a truly magnificent way, and did, in fact, highlight the special advantages of the Globe stage. One example I love to give when working with the residency actors, is how Act IV was collapsed into one scene, cutting back and forth between the Weird Sisters' apparitions, the murder of Macduff's family, and the scene between Malcolm and Macdfuff where he learns of their fate.

All three scenes climax, one after the other, making what would otherwise seem drawn out and obvious into a highly immediate event.

 There is a story here. I can't remember what it is.

My brother served as a steward at Shakespeare’s Globe for a time, what we might call a “Red Coat”. As such, he was able to get us into one of the less-offered Heaven and Hell tours of the Globe when we returned in 2006. As might be guessed, the “heavens” is the house above the stage, and Hell below. We also got to experience everything inbetween, including standing on the stage, which was a new, exciting experience.

By this time, Rylance had stepped down from his directorship, leaving it in the hands of the more traditional Dominic Dromgoole. Rylance raised a few eyebrows when he announced he was uncertain as to whether the “Stratford Man’ had in fact written the plays, Dromgoole stomped those eyebrows right down again, a committed Stratford champion.

Kelly and I attended The Merchant of Venice on 2007. You can read my thoughts here. In brief it was well-done, enjoyable … except I was troubled by the amount of “set” which had been added, including a platform set into the groundlings area, accessible from a short bridge, evocative of the canals of Venice. There was a great deal of set dressing, around the columns, the front of the tiring house, which I found distracting and not very pleasant to look at.

My brother has described to me the truly remarkable works presented at the Globe in its brief history, I am sorry not to have ever seen Rylance perform there, or any of the works he has directed - not even in New York, where he recently remounted his all-male productions of Twelfth Night, the hallmark of his career at the Globe.

Regardless, even with the mere two productions I have seen performed there, it was evident the unique relationship Shakespeare's words have with his stage, illuminating them in a manner which is challenging on a proscenium stage, and producing them with a greater accessibility to and relationship with the audience.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

This Wooden "O" (book)

Finally completed Barry Day’s This Wooden ‘O’ a book which is at once very interesting but also unsatisfying to read. This book remains as the only document of the struggles of Sam Wanamaker to have built what is now known as Shakespeare’s Globe, and as such was necessary reading.

Unfortunately, like many who write tales tangential to the works of Shakespeare, he indulges in a great many wearying verbal flourishes, and punctuates every page with quotes from the canon which are sometimes barely evocative of the subject at hand e.g.: the description of a minor 1970s city council appearance, juxtaposed with some obscure reference from Henry VI, presumably relevant because it has something to do with battle.

A couple years ago I expressed my frustration with the short shrift this author lends to Wanamaker’s experiences at the Great Lakes Exposition of 1936. As with much of the narrative, Day imagines what Wanamaker was thinking at any given moment in his life. There are very few quotes attributed Wanamaker, those evident are from available records. In other words (or, as Day would inevitably have written, “to wit;”) the author never met or spoke with his subject.

Sam Wanamaker (1936)
So he makes stuff up, as he did when denigrating Wanamaker’s Olde Globe Theatre experience in Cleveland. Day suggests that Wanamaker’s imagination was captured by the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, which the Chicago native may have attended. However, upon witnessing a model Globe he had commission to promote the project back in 1964, Wanamaker was quoted as saying, “The years rolled back and I was that kid again in Cleveland.” (emphasis mine)

The quest to build the Globe began in Cleveland, not Chicago. He said so.

Recently, we took the kids to see Mr. Peabody & Sherman. While I was surprised by the sheer volume of poop jokes, what surprised and delighted me was Sherman’s use of the word apocryphal. That tales you learn in school - in school, from teachers - might actually be entirely false, is something most are unaware of.

Perhaps these tales were originally devised to teach some valuable lesson about honesty or integrity (the example in the film is Washington chopping down a cherry tree) but that they are not shared as tales is irresponsible and even dangerous. That’s how religions get started.

It did not surprise me that Day would flog the old saw about Queen Elizabeth loving the character of Falstaff so much in the Henry IV plays that she requested Shakespeare write a new tale for him, one of “Falstaff in love” and so he penned The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Never mind the fact that if your Queen asked for a story of Falstaff-in-love and you gave her a story of Falstaff-as-lascivious-scheming-would-be-multiple-rapist ... Well, that would be rude. The cold fact is Nicholas Rowe first pulled this story of his ass in 1709, it’s fanciful nonsense, like so many other references to Shakespeare I found in This Wooden ‘O’.

What is truly disappointing is that the exact same story is recounted as truth in Players, a book which otherwise toils valiantly to dispel precious legends of Shakespeare.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Players (book)

The Great Lakes Theater outreach tour Seven Ages closes tomorrow at the Quirk Cultural Center in Cuyahoga Falls. Thank you for playing.

The ride has been eventful, not of the offstage-antic variety, its just been exciting feeling the show grow and solidify after what was, to me, a shaky start. Finding the throughline to a collaborative show like this one - as an actor - was most challenging. We were ready for opening, but as my confidence has grown, so too, the work. That's acting, I guess.

A week ago Monday we performed at Workshop Players in Amherst I totally love this site, there are often dozens of high school students there from Amherst Steele High School, but it is a much different experience than performing for students who have been called to the auditorium for an assembly. This is a night out! They dress up, they've put on their grown-up faces.

These kids are the theater crowd, too, so they are in their element, and impressed by good work. The post-show discussion is always very enjoyable.

After the show last week, one girl hung back as we were striking to ask, "What is your writing process?" What a question! Real writers have an answer for that, but I never do. But maybe I do, maybe now. Because I have been playing with a process which pleases me.

This is what doesn't work -- setting aside several hours, once a week. Or once a month. Or once never. The pressure to create something significant in say, an hour or two. I can't do that. The very idea of having to produce something in that time, that expanse of lonely time, that comes so rarely, it's pointless.

Writing a little, every morning, longhand. Every single morning, longhand, a little bit. Those are the single steps which make up the proverbial journey. And that is my process.

Also, when I am unhappy with a word, I put parentheses around it, and in doing so give myself permission to move on. I will come back to that word and change it later. You have to go forward to go back. Better press on.

Just finished re-reading Bertram Field's Players, a book on the authorship question which was not nearly as enjoyable the second time through. I guess that's because I knew how it was going to end. Seriously, however. It was for research, some ideas I wanted freshly rolling around my head.

In a nutshell, it makes as much sense to say "William Shaksper of Stratford" wrote the works of Shakespeare as much as any other candidate, which is to say not much. We don't know who wrote them, which is not the same thing as saying he didn't write them, but doubt in and of itself is offensive to a lot of people. In that way, Shakespeare is a lot like Jesus.

I digress.

What makes Fields' work unique is the theory of collaboration, that if it does not seem likely that the works of Shakespeare were created by any one person, perhaps it was written by more than one person. Stratfordian purists had to give way to this argument a long time ago, it is accepted for example that John Fletcher wrote a great deal of Henry VIII.

Why do we have to assume then that Shaksper wrote most of what is attributed to him with minor additions from others, and not the other way around? If the works were largely created by one who had no reason to be public, and edited and produced by Shaksper, doesn't it make sense they were one day printed in a large booking bearing something like (though not exactly like) his own name and likeness?

Whatever. He wrote the work, he didn't write the work, what I believe for sure is that Shakespeare never for a moment thought his writing would last for centuries (grandiose allusions to 'immortality' in the Sonnets notwithstanding) and that the process of creating scripts for the purpose of producing performances was the primary reason for their having been created in the first place.

And as any modern playwright worth working with understands, theater is collaborating, writing is rewriting, we're all in this together or it simply doesn't happen. Doesn't matter if you're the Earl of Oxford, if you are an uncompromising dilettante, no one will want to work with you.