Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Love In Pieces (play)

Love In Pieces is a short play, written by Sarah Morton. When Cleveland Public Theatre had a new plays festival, it won the top prize, the Chilcote Award, in 1997. With this honor came a full production the following season, and premiered at Cleveland Public Theatre in February, 1998. I was an actor in the company.

This 40-minute work consists of four scenes, depicting famous couples from mythology and literature: Antony & Cleopatra, Laertes & Ophelia, Orpheus & Eurydice and Cupid & Psyche. Each scene departs from its traditional narrative to paint original portraits of love in crisis.

The playwright makes clear in her stage directions that these are not four separate plays. For example, the set should remain simple, each scene resembling the other, to create what she calls a "dreamlike fluidity." Also, though she concedes the play could be performed by eight actors, or "two very versatile ones," she believes the play works best with four actors playing each of the younger and older roles.

So it was in 1998, where I and Triste Crawford played the first and third scenes, and Doug Rossi and Michelle Pristash the second and fourth scenes. Cleveland Public Theatre promoted the work as an (odd) choice with which to celebrate Valentine's Day. Our costumes and Oliver Sohngen's set were largely white, with red accents, the set like a wedding cake, or more like a bisected cheese wheel.

Doug Rossi (Laetres) & Michelle Pristash (Ophelia)

Critical response to Sarah's work was strong, the Free Times calling the show "both post-modern and old fashioned" and "smart and sweet." The Plain Dealer praised her for having "a gift for using both the visual and verbal elements of theater to create complex, striking work."

Scene Magazine spared little restraint, and with this work sincerely called Sarah Morton, "a nascent playwriting genius."

Each performer received uniformly positive notices ... with one interesting exception. Plain Dealer critic Marianne Evett noted that "David Hansen does not have enough presence and command as the old warrior Antony." Cleveland Public Theater made the mistake in 1995, when I was not yet twenty-seven, to cast me (in a different production) as a fifty year-old former Marine. Only twenty-nine, I agree that I made a young and scrawny Antony. More on that later.

Suffice it to say, the show was successfully produced, and I was very happy to be part of that.

Poster, CPT (1998)
As for Love In Pieces, it was produced one more time, produced by a third party for the 2002 New York International Fringe Festival. The best that can be said about this version is that recognized strength in Morton's writing, but that there were serious issues with the director who cast herself in all four female roles, acting against a single male partner. These actors had apparently little chemistry and the performance included breathtakingly long scene breaks.

Shooting bull in the rehearsal hall last fall (continuing yesterday's post) I remembered this play. Four scenes, two set in bedrooms, one in a bathroom, the fourth one the road out of the Underworld. The CPT production was presented in the cavernous former ballroom that is the Levin Theatre. True, it was in the round, which was exciting, but hardly intimate.

Each scene a two-hander, three couples and one set of siblings. Impotence, abuse, disappointment, doubt. You can make these feelings span the distance between character and witness, but what if you closed that gap, made the audience need to lean in, to listen carefully, or make them truly feel they are walking in on something they shouldn't be seeing?

These are the personal moments we all feel in every relationship, that we desperately work to keep secret. Set them in their natural habitat ... what would that be like?

Except for the road out of Hell. That would take some imagination.

Anyway, that was my proposal. I offered it to the company. You want to put on a show, this is the show I am offering, because then I would believe in it. And they all jumped on board.

Tomorrow: Love In Pieces (execution)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Love In Pieces (concept)

It is a common refrain among actor-teachers in the residency program, the suggestion that we put on a show!

"We should stage a showcase," one suggested my first year, like it's the most natural thing in the world. They are young, and energetic, with no children, no need to sleep, nor any previous experience producing any kind of event.

I have been a producer, in my fashion, and I hate slap-dash amateur shit. You can do good work on the cheap, but that's the point - the work has to be good. All of it, from the moment your guests enters until after they depart. Expectations raised must be expectations exceeded, and so on.

I never rose to seriously consider any of these calls to "put on a show". When I was an actor-teacher, I knew I had to concentrate on that work, and had time for little else. As their supervisor, I know they need to concentrate on their work, and have time for little else.

And yet, for the past thirteen years, the same refrain. "Let's put on a show!" Mickey Rooney is dead, get back to work.

This past fall, however ... we were taking a break from rehearsal and Andrew says, "We should put on a show." Ugh. Come on, man? What? Where? Be specific. You don't put on a show for its own sake, you have to believe in it.

After Sleep No More, Emily, James and I had dinner in Chelsea. The subject came up - we should do an immersive show. That would be so much fun. Sure. So is Disneyland. I put it out there - okay, what would we do?

That was the stumper, where it all fell down. Everything each of us suggested would really just be a site-specific play, no different from any number of shows staged at CPT or the 78th Street Studios. The audience might stand, or be guided from one space to another. But it would still be: We, actors. You, audience. In a theater, even if it was some kind of non-traditional one.

The most non-traditional space perhaps, more unusual than a cemetery or an abandoned hotel, is a private residence. Some person's home or apartment or condo, into which strangers (or near-strangers) have been invited. Especially when the expectation has been raised that this will be some kind of special event. Not something informal. A house, but not a house. A performance space.

In the past several years I had been fortunate enough to experience performances of I Dreamed of Rats and It Was a Set-Up in a single room of a private residence with a limited audience. You felt you were part of something special, that you receiving a gift.

Andrew said, "we have a house." Of course, he doesn't have a house, three actor-teachers have been renting a place on the Near West Side. A small house, not a large house. Not even as large as my house, and my house is not that large.

Questions to be answered; What is the point in performing a play that close to a tiny audience, if the story you tell is mundane? If it is private, it must be personal. If it is close, it must be intimate.

And then I remembered Sarah Morton's Love In Pieces.

Tomorrow: Love In Pieces (play)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Summer of 2004

Any given year can be packed with exciting events, personal and professional. The right song can send me spiraling into memory of summers where nothing significant happened at all.

However, the summer of 2004 went from strength to strength, each successive event more startling than the last.  


Late spring, we visited my grandfather Henrik in Florida, for his 100th birthday. A fragile, dribbling old man. He'd made it, though. Mind intact. Counting down, he had previously announced he was five! (when he was 95.) He was two! (when he was 98.) Now he was zero. As the man said, second childishness. But not oblivion. Not yet. Never oblivion. He also had all his teeth.

At around the same time, we lost Toni's grandfather Calvin, our first child's namesake. Diagnosed with cancer, he was gearing up to fight it, but that fight never came. Awaiting chemo, a blood clot lodged in his heart and he was gone.

We had prepared for a long good-bye, and were stunned by no good-bye at all. We were grateful he had the chance to meet the girl, who delighted him. No funeral, not a religious man, a memorial was planned for the end of the summer.

Spencer Tunick in Cleveland

Our daughter was fifteen months old.

This was also the summer experiental artist Spencer Tunick came to Cleveland and encouraged us all to get naked in public. Having tried and failed to find an indoor site for  a January shoot, they bumped the date to late June after securing the assistance of the city of Cleveland to stage what was (at that time) the largest mass-nude photo shoot in North America.

 There was confusion.

The photograph itself is almost beside the point, Tunick was at that time bringing with him a lot of attention, often raising interesting social questions simply by arranging these unusual events. The experience itself was an artistic event, with euphoric highs and irritating lows. Listen to this audio diary my wife and I created with the folks at WCPN, documenting the event for Around Noon, and you will understand what I mean.

This event fell neatly on our fifth wedding anniversary - June 26th.

Radio K

There are moments in time when I become suddenly very interested in new music. Obsessed, really. This year two things came into play which made it urgent to discover the hot new dance music. 1) This is the year I became a fanatically dedicated runner because of 2) The iPod.

Receiving an iPod for my birthday meant successfully being able to take music with me on runs, without requiring a cassette player, which is like running holding a brick that is tethered to your head.

My brother introduced me to the University of Minnesota’s Radio K back in 1999, but using the “radio” feature on iTunes I was able to play it in my house all the time, and with the music store could spontaneously purchase whatever it was I heard that I never knew I lived without. Music by The Streets, Felix da Housecat, and of course, I Am The World Trade Center.

In a good and decent universe, this is the number one pop song of all time.

Mr. Shakespeare

This summer, and for only two seasons, my employer experimented with resuming a summer season (as opposed to fall-through-spring). One effort in raising awareness was imagined by Andrew May, who was impressed by a serendipitous promotional event that occurred when he was a young man in Chicago.

A performer on break from a Shakespeare festival downtown was reading a newspaper on a park bench in his compete, Elizabethan costume. A photographer happened to catch a passerby in the very second of an expressive double-take, and the picture made the front page of the Trib.

This is how I came to be Mr. Shakespeare, and my job was to be seen all summer, at a variety of arts festivals and public events. The Rib Burn-Off, an Indians game, the Cain Park Arts Festival -- I wasn’t handing out advertisements, I wasn’t putting on an act, I was just this guy who claimed to be William Shakespeare.

One day in early summer (and unfortunately before our costume shop had finished tailoring my beautiful, GLT-branded “plum” outfit) Andrew took me around Cleveland for a few preliminary, promotional shots.

The American Revolution

During its final year, Bad Epitaph Theater presented and I directed the Midwestern premiere of Kirk Wood Bromley’s The American Revolution. Written entirely in verse, Mr. B. cast the story of the War for American Independence in the style of a Shakespearean tragedy along the lines of Henry V or Othello.

George Washington, traditionally depicted as an unknowable American god, is here a troubled and sympathetic general, finding his footing as general and becoming the man who would be First President. However, it is Benedict Arnold and his wife Peggy Shippen who provided an intimate dramatic tension, like Macbeth and Lady M., full of jealousy and scheming.

Our production was presented out-of-doors, on Wade Oval in University Circle, with bright costumes taking the place of any kind of set. Challenges included creating interesting stage combat with rifles and bayonets rather than swords, but interesting they were with swirling flags and the dramatic (though not frightening) sound of heavy wooden sticks beat against plastic garbage cans, which sound enough like guns and cannons without alarming the police.

Bromley’s clowns, the Rebel Mess (led by Ray McNiece as Appalachian beatnik Johnny Freeman) sang songs and hid from battle and lost limbs. It was awesome. Unfortunately, it was a very cool June that year which kept crowds low until the end of the run … and our final performance on Independence Day was washed out due to a sudden flash flood minutes after call time.

Highlight of the run was when the playwright and members of Inverse Theatre, who originated the work, made a trip to enjoy the performance. We feted them in grand Cleveland style at Nick’s place in Tremont.

As if we were not busy enough, there was a road trip to Maine.

I Hate This @ FringeNYC

That August was the first time I went solo at the New York International Fringe Festival, performing I Hate This (a play without the baby) in a 40-seat walkdown way out on Eighth Avenue.

Famous playwright in the house. Can you spot her?

While it was thrilling to share this work on a national stage, I learned some hard truths on that journey. I do not know how to handle being alone. Also, that a glowing review in The New York Times won’t do a thing for box office when no one wants to see a show about stillbirth.


However, it was that review which led a number of health and/or bereavement organizations across the Midwest to contact me and created the opportunity to carry Calvin's story far and wide and eventually across the Atlantic.

We ride the Central Park carousel with a bunch of phonies.


This year I became a runner. I had been an itinerant runner since I was an adolescent. Sometimes I would make a serious effort to maintain some kind of regimen -- ten years earlier, in 1994, I kept it up for several months.

But with one technological advance, I became a committed runner and have never stopped. As previously stated, that device would be The iPod.

For the first time, AIDSWALK included a 5K run, starting at Edgewater Beach. Running a race using the iPod (which I no longer do) gave me some kind of superhuman burst of energy and I broke twenty minutes for the first and possibly last time ever. That included that hill, by the way.

The girl was only a year and half, this was her first race. At first she was excited by all of the runners, starting all at the same time. But when we just kept going, running, running away and not coming back, and me with them, she started crying.

However, in 19 minutes and so many seconds I was back and when she saw me she smiled and shouted, DADDY RUNS FAST!

Summer's End

This epic summer closed with Calvin G.'s memorial, a glorious event where the extended family came together for a beautiful celebration of memory and music - and someone ripped off our diaper bag, and with it two pair prescription sunglasses, my camera and her wallet. Instead of enjoying the celebration, I was choking down anger, on the phone with the Athens Police Department.

Coupled with a different theft in NYC a month earlier, I fell into a prolonged period of anxiety and fear. How can I care for a little girl when I cannot look after myself?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Playhouse Square

Playhouse Square, circa 2006

This picture is truly surprising. Taken eight years ago for the Great Lakes Theater season brochure, the theme was "re-imagining a classic" and so here is Mr. Shakespeare holding the V-J Day nurse (Elizabeth A. Davis) only it's not Times Square, it's Euclid Avenue.

Full color people, black and white photo -- black and white like the Eisenstaedt photo, but today it just looks like another gray day in Cleveland. This is what Playhouse Square looked like when I began working out of the GLT office in the Bulkley Building.

Only eight years ago, and Playhouse Square was still pretty vacant. But that was about to change.

This picture was taken before the RTA HealthLine and accompanying street and sidewalk renovations. Before the IdeaCenter, Cleveland State University and Zack Bruell moved into all the empty space between my office and East 13th Street. Before we were joined by Cleveland Play House, and Great Lakes' move to the Hanna Theatre.

For years, it seemed the coffee shop on the ground floor was changing management every few months. MOKO has been there for five years. And all this change was well before the residences in the Hanna opened, and every day more and more signage and branding is being erected all over  Playhouse Square in anticipation of Dazzle the District on May 2, 2014. 

Playhouse Square, April 11, 2014

The "dead zone" between East 13th and East 9th Street continues to shrink, with pockets of new business and housing, and I hold out hope that one day we will once again have a vibrant Euclid Avenue which stretches from Cleveland State to Public Square without interruption.

For now, Cleveland's Playhouse Square theater district is a place I am very proud to say I work.