Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Resolutions for 2015

Ten Resolutions for the New Year
  1. Read more plays. You know how many I plays I own that I have left unread? A lot. Plus - shorter than books.
  2. Write more plays. I wrote a lot in 2014. I mean, really, Good boy. And yet, it was really not enough, not close.
  3. Submit more plays. Also did a lot of this in 2014. There are countless opportunities out there. Find them and pursue them.
  4. Attend more plays. Harder than it sounds. I have a lot more responsibility at work and also we take co-parenting very seriously. Bonus - as they get older I can take them to more stuff (another reason I don't miss the baby part.)
  5. Less screentime. Pick up a play to read or something. 
  6. Continue to conquer the house. It has taken twenty years but is slowly bending into your (communal) image.
  7. Game night doesn't have to be a thing. Game time does.
  8. Eat the right food, drink the right drink. Work out.
  9. More good things. Less bad things.
  10. Bet on the Cubs over Miami in the World Series.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Free For All (book)

"I could have killed Clive Barnes if I'd seen him in person ... there are times you feel that way. You would actually commit an atrocity because the feelings are so intense."
- Joseph Papp, Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told
On one occasion, when New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes gave a thoroughly negative and condescending review of the Public Theater's world premiere production of David Rabe's In the Boom Boom Room ("Oh dear. Let us hope that the Shakespeare Festival will have better luck next time.") artistic director Joe Papp phoned him at home after midnight to tear him a new one.

This is a fact which is corroborated by each party in Kenneth Turan's fascinating account of Papp's tenure as the creator and driving force of the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater, Free For All (2009).

Let's parse that. Imagine you are a writer. You love theater, that's why you have made your career watching it. You eat, breathe and sleep theater, the way others immerse themselves in commerce, or construction, or craft. In fact, you are fortunate enough to see all theater available to you. You aren't some suburban academic who had a sideline making a couple bucks writing theater reviews for a local paper with a subscription of a couple thousand. You see everything, everywhere, around the world.

In the privacy of your home, the phone rings in the dead of night. That's the time when I expect either a wrong number or to find a close relative has died. Instead, in your torpor, the producer of one play you reviewed needs very badly to insult you at length, to in fact threaten you with violence.

After all, it wasn't as though Papp hadn't already lost his shit on Barnes. By his own admission, Joe Papp put Clive Barnes against a wall once. So what if he was Joe Papp, admired by hundreds of artists and thousands and thousands of New York audiences. Does he have the right to harm a writer for doing his job?

We now will speak in defense of critics.

Theater critics are people who write articles for publication about theater. Sometimes they are critical evaluations of theatrical performance, or news items about same. These essays can be published in a print publication, or online, or both.

Like them or not, like how well-written they are or not, like what their artistic point of view is or not, these are the writers who, by choice or design, professional or amateur, write about live theater. No one else does that.

Without their efforts, no one outside of the theater world would know live theater still exists. These are the people who report on theater.

You might think, what right do they have to criticize the work? Well, none, actually, there is no right to criticize. But they do it, anyway. Some are educated, some are not. Some are pretentious, but so are you.

Some have a deep history of theater knowledge - and of local theater knowledge, which is much more irritating - while others do not. Artists pick and choose whether or not this is a blessing or a vice, depending on what has just been said about them.

We have our favorites, and there are those we make fun of on Facebook. Often. One in particular, he's a clown, but seriously. Without these few, these miserable few, there would be absolutely no one writing about the work we do.

We cannot ask for better because there is no better. We have several fine, thoughtful, opinionated, clever, diligent theater critics in our struggling metropolis. There are also a few cranks, but believe me, I have read many Cleveland area theater reviews, in the Plain Dealer and the Press and the News, dating back decades and decades, that were as bad as those written today.

It is my opinion that it is unnecessary to write to a letter to the editor of a paper with a daily circulation of 45,000 to demand the head of the theater critic. You sound like an idiot.

It is unwise for a member of a small budget theater company to place a private phone call to the editor-in-chief of a weekly tabloid to complain about one article written by the theater critic. The editor will only tell the critic about the call and they will laugh at you.

It is unimaginable to picture an artistic director - even one as important as Joe Papp - physically assaulting a theater critic.

Okay, not that is not actually unimaginable, not in Cleveland, but still.

I just read an entire book about this man, one of the most important figures in the history of American theater, and that's what stuck with me. To this reader, that is his epitaph.

They are critics. They are writers. They have no agenda, and they also have no power. They ain't your marketing department, they don't work for you. They cannot make your show live or die, certainly not today, not in Cleveland. That's your job.

So get back to work.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Great Globe Itself: Two Holes and a Plaque

Shakespeare might have been born in Stratford, died in Stratford ... but he really lived here in London. - tour guide, 1990
Twenty-four years ago as a young student taking a holiday university tour to England, on a rainy December morning, I witnessed a most unimpressive sight. A sooty plaque on the wall of a post-war factory building, indicating that the Globe Theatre, the very stage for which William Shakespeare had written his plays, was at one point in history around here, somewhere.

At that moment in time, there was also located nearby two large holes in the ground. Pits, really. One was the excavation site of the Globe's smaller competitor, the foundation of the recently-unearthed Rose Theatre.

And perhaps more significantly, another short walk down the south bank of the Thames, was a great muddy, vacant mouth, the groundwork for the as-yet unbuilt Shakespeare's Globe. Whether it ever would be built was even then uncertain. There were many at that time who found such a building project elitist and in fact entirely unnecessary.

Regardless, what they found at the Rose was auspiciously timed to excited the imagination about this new Globe, and also to provide valuable data on original construction. And if there is thing I hope to show in my new work The Great Globe Itself is the trajectory from Cleveland to that plaque to that sloppy hole in the ground.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Inventing Meaning for "The Tempest"

There is a strong resemblance.
Now my charms are all o’erthrown

And what strength I have’s my own.

- Prospero, The Tempest (Epilogue)
Writing is like magic.

Picture the aging William Shakespeare, summoning to him the spirit of creativity, a tricksy spirit which reveals to him the true story of a shipwreck I the recently “discovered” Bermudas.

Shakespeare sees himself as master of this island, drawing to it this doomed vessel. Aboard, lords and gentlemen who have shown disrespect for his writing, but also a fine husband for his younger daughter (already 26 and without prospects).

At that same time, he struggles with his Bête Noire, that which inhibits his creation; lust, anger, drink, vulgarity, struggles to keep this Devil down in the hole. He plays with the nobility, terrifying them with monsters, treating them as toys.

Finally he composes a great play for his child and her man, forgives his ignorant enemies and critics, sets down his pen and paper (“staff” and “book”) and chooses to retire from writing.

Wouldn’t that make a good play?

Friday, December 26, 2014

Into The Woods (musical)

ONCE UPON A TIME … Ohio University was on a quarter schedule and the college more or less shut down between Thanksgiving an New Year’s. Six weeks to work, lie about, or travel.

December 1990 the school of theater arranged a trip for England which included tours and shows in London, followed by several days of workshops and shows in Stratford-Upon-Avon with members of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Our first night in we had reservations for some West End show, reservations which we lost for some reason, and our ticket broker gave the tour a choice of two alternatives - Man of the Moment by Alan Ayckbourn, or the original London production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

Ayckbourn’s work I was familiar with, and enjoyed. Of Sondheim, I knew nothing. If you do not count West Side Story, I had never seen or heard any of his work. Please forgive me, I was only 22, and by the age of 22 I had pretty much lost interest in musical theater entirely.

And yet, I chose to see that, in large part because like everyone else in the company I was suffering from jet lag, having been awake for over 24 hours straight. I thought a musical would more successfully keep me awake.

Nigel Planer as Neil in "The Young Ones"
 Note: I missed the chance to see Nigel Planer live onstage in "Man of the Moment", though I did eventually see him in "Feelgood" (for better or worse) ten or so years later.

Into the Woods in its original London production was very odd. The New York premiere (1987) featured legit Broadway talent such as Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason. In the West End the cast was composed of several famous television personalities, like presenter Nicholas Parsons as the Narrator and Julia McKenzie as the Witch who, though an experienced stage performer (and recognizable as today’s version of TV’s Miss Marple) did not look much changed when stripped of her witchy old-age make-up.

Yes, I am ashamed to have written that. But there it is.

Just appearing on stage these actors received applause. The problem was (and the soundtrack recording gives proof of this) many of them could not sing.

However, I did find the music infectious, as Sondheim’s work invariably is (“There's not a tune you can hum.” my ass.) It was colorful and interesting, and very funny. All these folk tales wrapped up rather neatly, and the title song reprise made it clear, after almost ninety minutes and no intermission, that the show was over. Except for the Narrator adding To Be Continued and the lack of any curtain call.

As you know, if you are familiar with the work, “Happy ever after!” is not how the show ends, and I soon discovered there was, in fact, a second act. This second part was confusing, disorienting, ill befalling absolutely everyone, their mistakes magnified. I did not understand the point of this second act, which I felt was maudlin, mawkish, somnambulant (literally so, I pinched the soft parts of my own hands very painfully to stay awake) and a tale or two too far.

But it kept with me. Later, I got the Broadway cast recording, still later the West End disc (Rapunzel’s Prince has the most bizarre accent) and even recorded the Great Performances production onto VHS, which I still have.

Listening to the albums I grew to appreciate the emotional ambiguity of the second act. Also, on Mandy Patinkin’s eponymous album (1989) he does a heart-wrenching cover of No More.

Tom Ford and Jodi Dominick (center) as the Baker and his wife.
In 2008, Great Lakes Theater inaugurated the “Re-Imagined” Hanna Theatre with a repertory of Macbeth and Into the Woods. I had children of my own by then, aged 5 and 3, and already they enjoyed love theater. We brought them to opening night, but left at intermission - by design. I felt the ending was too upsetting from a child. All the characters they loved were made unhappy (or always were) some would be killed, and horribly, the songs more complicated about complicated, adult issues. There would be a time for such challenging stuff, but not yet.
“Stay a child while you can be a child.”
The Great Lakes production was excellent (the Wall Street Journal called it a “tour de force”) introducing CLE audiences to performers who would develop long-standing relationships with the company (Jodi Dominick as the Baker’s Wife stands out in my memory) and gorgeous turns by returning actors whose work at GLT are becoming legendary (Tom Ford who played the Baker would go on to create a truly bizarre Sweeney Todd at the Hanna as well as a show stealing Monsieur Thénardier in this season’s record-breaking Les Miz).

It was disappointing to know my kids would only receive half of this particular production, and never have the opportunity to see the entire thing. I didn’t see the entire GLT production myself until it was almost closed.

Isn't it nice to know a lot?
Fall 2008 I had used vacation time to canvas in Beachwood, convincing elderly voters that Obama was not, in fact, a Muslim. The day before Election Day, I walked about neighborhoods in Euclid, encouraging likely voters to get out and vote. It looked as though every other house in what was otherwise a well-kept neighborhood was for sale, foreclosed, or abandoned.

November 4, Election Day itself, I was an emotional wreck, despondent in my fear that someone as willfully uneducated as Sarah Palin could attain high office, and demoralized by the fear-mongering and purely racist rumors. The economy was in free-fall that warm, bright fall day, and I did not know what kind of world these children would be left.

I could not even think that day, so I attended a student matinee of Into the Woods.

The second act clicked into place for me. The path from The Last Midnight to No More to No One Is Alone was a map of the psyche of a doubt-ridden parent. I sat in the front row on the balcony (there were fortunately no students in the balcony that morning) and tears, many tears, streamed down my face.

I’ll just come out and say it, Into the Woods doesn’t make sense if you have never had children. Tell me I’m wrong, that’s fine. Sondheim doesn’t have children. My argument can’t be substantiated.

However, just today on Facebook, colleagues far and wide, in speculating upon their decision to attend a showing of the new Disney film adaptation, have remarked upon the original version’s “eeeeendless, repetitive second act” (thank you for that, Henson.) Those who have shared this opinion, within my sphere, are uniformly child-free.

Conversely, my wife says she was always emotionally affected by the entirety of Into the Woods, even before having children. I would argue this is because she has very troubling issues relating to her father. I was never introspective about about my relationship to my own parents, my father was just this guy. I thought myself a solitary man, until the impending birth of and subsequent loss of my first child, a son.

So, allow me to rephrase my original statement … Into the Woods didn’t make sense to me until I had children.

For Christmas we went to see this new film adaptation, which was very enjoyable and arguably the most successful adaptation of a musical from stage to screen ever made. That that is a very low bar to hurdle does not render my praise in any manner faint.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Great Globe Itself: Photo Shoot

Imagine Arthur is holding a Globe Theatre, and not a roll of tape.
Theater is a collaboration between artists. Creating a promotional photo is a collaboration between at least as many artists plus a lot of other people coming together for a brief moment in time to get something right to promote something that hasn't even been created yet.

I mean, the production is being created, as we speak. Yesterday, we had a production meeting where Esther revealed renderings ...

There are no less than fifteen distinct looks in this show.
... and Terry created a model. As you can see (below) there are a great many entrance and exit areas to play with. We decided to go with a theme of architectural renderings, rather than flats painted to look like walls in the Globe. Besides, which Globe? I am satisfied that this suggests the historic building without being too literal, and will have a sense of timelessness.

Esther was also present today today to help get our three actors into the looks she chose specifically for the shoot, each from one of the three time periods represented in the play - Kyle as Burbage (1613), James as Sam (1936) and Arthur as Clement (2005). Many thanks also to Kylee, who gave James a Clark Gable mustache that he wanted to keep.

Remember, this is what we were going for.
Todd and I and the team at TRG Reality tossed around ideas regarding the skyline. They had already put together a great mock-up that went from Jacobean England to Depression era-Cleveland to modern day London, and there were many questions as to what was most recognizable and how much or little would be seen behind each man.

See the Millennium Bridge? Do you know the Millennium Bridge?
The gentlemen from TRG put together a mock-up before our actors arrived to give Todd and I a sense of what the final image might look like. We also have to factor in the use of text in the final version.

It was a long afternoon, but a very successful afternoon. I was thrilled with how our actors looked, and surprised at how close to the original concept I think the finished product is going to appear.

I mustache you a question ...

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Recording A Christmas Carol Writing Contest

During the Great Education Department Realignment of 2013, one responsibility that I had earned was to shepherd the quarter-century established "A Christmas Carol" Writing Contest. Middle school aged city of Cleveland school kids are invited to write poems, stories and essays, inspired by themes present in Charles Dickens' classic work.

Great Lakes Theater collaborates with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District to provide all participating students free tickets and transportation to attend a matinee performance of A Christmas Carol, and students whose work was singled out by their teachers are called on stage, by name, receive commemorative T-shirts, get to meet actors from the company, and receive applause and the supportive cheers of their classmates.

It is a pretty sweet event. And it means that beginning in August, I have already started thinking of the holidays, contacting every single CMSD middle school English language arts teacher to encourage their participation in the event.

In case you are wondering, that is almost seventy schools. I have a pretty decent system going now, making phone calls, sending PDFs by email, and more often than not, communicating by fax. Yes, I know.

There are also six grand prize winners, who receive special gifts, a booklet including their work, and a special evening for they, their parents and teachers to attend an evening performance. These students' work is chosen from all of the school winners from a panel of judges composed of members of the GLT education staff, and close supporters of the company.

Laura Welsh Berg
Last year, we added a new component to the contest. In collaboration with Great Lakes, WCPN 90.3 FM ideastream produced a special holiday broadcast of Sound of Applause, one in which host Dee Perry interviews the students and actors from the A Christmas Carol company read their stories.

Now, some of the stories these kids write are really very good, and last year I was loath to edit them for time. This was a mistake, as recording the stories took several recording sessions spread out over a couple afternoons. Our actors just came off two solid weeks of rehearsal and the last thing I wanted to do was tax them on their first week after opening the show.

Having said that, they were incredible generous and excited about this new program, and the reaction from the students, hearing these talented performs interpret their work, was that of complete delight.

This year I was a bit more aggressive in editing. This was not an easy thing to do, as these middle school writers' creative, original and expressive use of language is a large part of what makes the work so exciting to read. But a booklet of their unabridged works will be available to read on the Great Lakes Theater website soon, and I do feel I was able to cut the work without sacrificing each student's unique voice.

We recorded one story two weeks ago. Today we recorded the other five in about an hour, total. Many deeply felt thanks to Aled, Betsy, Jodi, Laura, Lynn, M.A. and Sara for their time and great talent. The broadcast will be next Monday at 2 pm and 10 pm on WCPN 90.3 FM. Check back for links and more info.