Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition

The other night I presented a reading for the Playwrights Unit, something I have been working on, on and off, all year. At the moment it’s brief, the reading took a little over a half hour, a collection of folk tales adapted for the present time. Not like, say, Thurber’s Fables For Our Time, but actual Grimm’s fairy tales, re-imagined for the present.

Not the most original concept, I’ll grant you. My own discoveries, just fucking with these bizarre stories is what has kept me interested. For Christmas I received a copy of the newly translated first edition of Grimm’s tales … what most of us know as Grimm’s Fairy Tales are actually an edition that the brothers – who were sociologists, not writers – had published after forty years of cultural anthropology and editing. What you might call bowdlerizing.

For example, in the later Rapunzel, she accidentally tells the witch about the Prince’s visits. In the original version, the witch doesn’t know what’s happening until Rapunzel becomes visibly pregnant.

Many of these original drafts make no sense, stuff just happens. Transgressing children get their comeuppance, except when they don’t. Justice is arbitrary. Kind of like life, I guess, but what is the point?

Having several talented actors read the six scenes I have created (to date) was extremely valuable for two main reasons: I was heartened to know how funny the funny parts are, and also how horrible the horrible parts are.

One notable observation was how urban legends are our modern folk tales. There’s really only one lesson: Fear. Fear everything. Fear travel, fear strangers, fear your food, fear your government, fear Bill Cosby.

But folk tales have the same basic message. Reach above your station, you will suffer. Disobey any small part of what your parents tell you, you will get pregnant and die. Actions may arbitrarily be rewarded with treasure of slow, painful, grotesque punishment. Stay home. Keep your head down. Don’t make waves.

The play, such as it is, is currently a jumble. With more stories, it will become more coherent. But even this brief, enjoyable read inspired some challenging discussions. Folks were generally troubled with the scene about rape, as well they should be. But they were debating what it meant, and what is the truth, and while there were some who felt the mood went far-afield from the general sense of silliness that was prevalent in other stories, that just reassured me I was on the right track.

I do not know where that track will lead but I may follow it where it takes me.</metaphor>

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Lorain County Community College Playwriting Contest (2015)

The Sisters Mourn
This evening, two award-winning Lorain County Community College student playwrights, their peers and members of their family gathered in the Cirigliano Stocker Arts Center Studio Theatre for a script-in-hand performance of their ten-minute plays.

Actors from the Great Lakes Theater school residency program and outreach tour performed The Party Guest by Billy Hopp and The Sisters Mourn by KHR Capizzi, which were the Second and First Place winners (respectively) for the 2015 Lorain County Community College Playwriting Contest.

The Party Guest
This event was the culmination of Dr. Daniel Cleary’s ENGL/THTR 168: Playwriting for Stage and Screen Course, incorporating themes from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

In The Party Guest, several close friends reveal deeply held secrets and celebrate new freedom after the arrival of an unannounced stranger. The Sisters Mourn details the effect their mother's death has on three sisters, and how their sorrow affects each differently. Each piece reflected themes of deception and loss present in Shakespeare’s timeless work.

Acting company with playwrights KHR Capizzi and Billy Hopp (seated in chairs)
GLT performers included Luke Brett, Chelsea Cannon, Roderick Cardwell, Katelyn Cornelius, Chenelle Bryant-Harris, Tim Keo, Shaun O'Neill, and Michael Silverstein. Special thanks to Jeremy K. Benjamin, LCCC Director of Theatre.

The LCCC Playwriting Contest is part of GLT’s Surround series of free events presented across Northeast Ohio. On Thursday, April 16, six ten-minute plays were read by student actors from Professor Dave Cotton’s Acting for Theater classes, and evaluated by Northeast Ohio playwrights Christopher Johnston, Margaret Lynch, Eric Schmiedl, Michael Oatman and myself, GLT Educational Outreach Associate David Hansen.

Lorain County Community College Playwriting Contest (2014)

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Timon of Athens: The Beginning

The Life of Timon of Athens
Three years ago I directed Henry VIII for the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival. While audience attendance for that production could not compare with that of its companion piece, As You Like It, the show had gotten positive reviews and was attracting healthy audiences to this modern dress, iPhone wielding production of a late-era Shakespeare play few had ever seen.

Following the conclusion of a performance at the Shaker Heights Colonnade, as satisfied patrons were making their donations and wandering away, I approached CSF artistic Director Tyson Rand and asked, "What am I doing next?"

He said, "Timon of Athens?"

This was, as I said, in 2012. I have checked in with Tyson annually to ask, "Now?" Finally, last year, he said that it was time. So I finally read it.

At a baseball game for my son last summer, I asked my friend and colleague Kelly E. what she knew about Timon and she said it was her favorite primarily due to the eye-popping number of insults. I found the text to be composed primarily of insults, and when not engaging in outright offense, is merely creating a pretext to be offended.

Coupled with CleveShakes other 2015 summer production, The Merchant of Venice, I have decided to call this season "Summer of Assholes."

Prior to auditions, a few weeks back, I observed that I would be directing a play no one has ever seen. A number of friends disagreed, stating they had seen many fine production of Timon of Athens. Well, not a number of friends, only two or three said that and they were all professional Shakespearean actors. But still.

National Theatre
A recent, acclaimed production starred Simon Russell Beale, the greatest British actor of my generation, little known in the States - he was the Baker's Father in the film version of Into the Woods, even there a major role reduced to 10 seconds of screen time. A brief consultation with the internet shows this was, like my Henry VIII, a modern dress production complete with very fine suits.

The story is simple. Lord Timon believes his wealth is without end and is lavish and spendthrift with all his friends, who are many. Finding himself at long last in debt, he learns too late his friends are false and won't help him. He abandons society to die in the wilderness.

A subplot involving a vindictive general comes to the fore as Athens realizes too late Timon was the only man who could have prevented the general from invading their city. End of play.

Timon is meant to be a lord, one of some age and history at the outset. For the production I will direct he will be young, a man from a monied background, in a position of influence based solely on his charm and trust fund. He will be a fraternity president at a state university in a city called Athens.

Rehearsals for The Life of Timon of Athens begin in one week.

Monday, April 20, 2015


Where are we now?
Where are we now?
The moment you know
You know you know.
- David Bowie, Where Are We Now
The year 2014 was a highly productive one for me. In my previous assessment, almost a year and a half ago, I reported my intent to do two very important things; read before sleep, and to write upon waking. And this I did, every single day. And there were dividends.

I wrote a play. I wrote another play. I wrote a few more things which may or may become things we might call plays. This became a ritual, and a very healthy one. My wife brought me coffee and I wrote for a half-hour, every morning. At the least.

Then, just after Thanksgiving I injured my back. To alleviate the pain, I was prescribed stretches. These took a half-hour every night, and again every morning. I lost my time. I spent far too much time online, and none writing. None, or rarely any.

But I was also directing my own play, and I had another in production. The Great Globe Itself was a success, a performance which received many positive comments:
I brought my 14 yr old daughter and she loved it. This is exactly the best kind of
outreach to bring theater/Shakespeare to the young.

- Audience member at Cleveland Heights-University Heights Main Library

Cool beans! Kudos to the writer! this play must have taken lots of research and
time. It was grand
- Audience member at Lakewood Public Library

As someone who only partially enjoys Shakespeare, I found this play to be a delight.
- Audience member at University of Akron
Also, this.
However, directing the work was very stressful for me. I do not enjoy directing my own work, you will notice I do not attempt that very often. Directing is a skill I admire in others. Especially when that person is Alison Garrigan, who directed Rosalynde & The Falcon at Talespinner, which closed yesterday.

Rosalynde & Rusty
Sitting in the audience for this one was such a joy, listening to children and their parents and grandparents all laughing at different things, and also at the same things. I have been blessed to have had many wonderful productions of my writing, but I don't think I have seen a show from one of my scripts that so successfully incorporated a unity of movement and music, costumes and masks, and the set painting and structures, with a company working so hard and fluidly for such an extended period. It was just everything, and I could not make note of a single weak note.

Last week was crowned by a special announcement, that I have had a second play published. YouthPLAYS is an online distributor of play scripts intended either to be performed by young performers, or by adult actors for young audiences. I am delighted to announce that they will be managing the rights for Double Heart (The Courtship of Beatrice and Benedick).

Beatrice & Benedick
This makes me happy for a number of reasons. All the plays are special, but this one is more special than others. The response we received was very emotional, it goes places I have rarely gone in my work. The idea of a high school Thespian troupe performing this work is thrilling to me.

 Also, in spite of its being inspired by a preexisting work (and one by Shakespeare, at that) it is original, it tells a unique story, I wrote it in verse, it is mine. The also-published Agatha Christie piece is also certainly mine, but I have to admit I feel validated for having something truly original in my name in print, and available for production.

And suddenly, without really noticing it happened, my back is noticeably free of pain. I stopped doing the exercises about a week ago, a little over a week ago, and just forgot to do them. Because nothing was reminding me to do so. At the same time, I had renewed my resolve to read and to write, every day. Next week I have a reading of something at unit. Can't really say what it is yet. Awful folk tales. And by horrible, I mean terrible.

But there it is. Writing. Something I still do.

Monday, April 6, 2015

On Direction

We close, we do not end.
Our final two performance of The Great Globe Itself were not public performances, they were held at Elyria High School and Firestone High in Akron. Each crowd was very enjoyable for our men to perform for and the post-show discussions were some of the best we'd had the entire tour.

The discussions themselves are always a challenge for these tours, at least at the beginning. We have a list of potential questions, but we never know how an audience will respond. Some public audiences don't want to be asked questions following the performance, and as moderator I have to take care not to be too pedantic. I mean, I have to be a little pedantic. I am a pedant.

Me and Ted.
Several weeks ago - feels like months - my high school drama coach, Ted Siller, attended a performance in Oberlin. That was a complete surprise, and a happy one. He did this once before, when I was performing I Hate This at Dobama Theatre in advance of the Minnesota Fringe Festival. That was in 2003. 

Ted turns me into Death.
It's hard to reacquaint yourself with the mentors of your youth, you start sounding like a teenager. Regardless, he had very supportive comments following the show, this show I have directed, and it got me thinking of my journey as a director and what I have and have not learned.

My first production was in Kindergarten. Seriously, I told my teacher I wanted to do a play and she asked me what I wanted to do and what I described to her was Stan Freberg's Little Blue Riding Hood. The rest of the afternoon was spent casting the play and my providing lines for everyone and ... I'm not making this up, this really happened.

But my first real attempt at directing was part of an evening of one acts my sophomore year. Sobczak and I performed Woody Allen's Death Knocks. I didn't think much about it during our "process" which at this point consisted mostly of memorization and not much blocking. The day of the first performance, when people had made "wallies" for us for people to sign in the main hall, and everyone was talking up the event, I was struck by a sudden, urgent philosophical quandary:

Who said I was allowed to do this?

It was the first of many times I would be struck by my own completely blind arrogance. For I was not merely director in this case, I was also kind of the producer - I made this happen. You act in a play, and it blows, you can blame everyone, the director, the playwright, the other actors. You direct it, you own it, baby.

At school, there were as many opportunities to direct as act or do anything else. I took a course in Directing 101 (I am sure it was not called that) which was remarkable only in that it further emphasized my ability at that time to do as little serious work as humanly possible. The course was further complicated by the fact that the grad student conducting the course was also herself directing me in her thesis production and I was falling short there as well.

Later that same year I directed my own script, Breaking Point, based on the daily comic strip I had published in the college paper. As a result of that experience - directing my own play - I have entirely avoided directing my own work for over twenty-five years.

It is easy for me to judge myself harshly (and it's on video so I can confirm this) it is neither a very good script nor particularly inspired directing. At that point in the game I would have been much more richly served by doing one or the other. There was little opportunity to edit, though I am glad I took time to rewrite the entire ending, due to the kind, persuasive advice of my stage manager. If I could have sat back and watched, I would have rewritten quite a bit more.

It was several years before I would write another full-length script to be produced - The Vampyres - and at that time I took great delight in editing. Delight is the wrong word, what I mean is it was like having someone reach down my throat and yank at my stomach, but having been told, "This opening monologue doesn't work, rewrite it" at least I was able to concentrate on doing that and it was better. Even better when the piece was a remounted several years later, I cut the monologues altogether and that was much better.

The first time directing Shakespeare was a precarious moment in Guerrilla Theater Co. history and I had to do some convincing and spent a lot of cigarette time bringing people into my camp, into believing that a production of Romeo and Juliet was something I really should do. Once it was agreed upon, I was struck by a sudden, urgent philosophical quandary:

Who said I was allowed to do this?

There was no reason to believe I could DIRECT SHAKESPEARE, it was pure arrogance on my part which is really the only way to attempt anything. Jumping off the high dive is arrogance, submersion is antithetical to being a mammal, who do you think you are?

This production marked my directing phase, as I moved from Guerrilla to Night Kitchen to Bad Epitaph, in ten years time I directed around a dozen productions, without guidance, without mentorship, no one said I was allowed to do this. Some of it worked, some didn't, who cares. My attentions moved to arts education and writing. I found it much more satisfying and a lot less stressful.

I think what I could never enjoy was thinking of directing as a gig. Since 2004 my directing jobs have been by choice, and not assignment. Directing Henry VIII for CleveShakes in 2012 was a gas because there were no expectations, none at all.

This is the thing - I have had to make up everything as I go along. I have learned from directors I have worked with as an actor, but not as an assistant to a director, nor as a stage manager. When the time came to edit Romeo and Juliet, I started with the cutting from a production I had performed in in college - adding bits back I missed and removing others that did not interest me.

When I directed Hamlet in 1999, I started by watching a video of Richard Burton's Broadway production from 1964, making cuts based upon that before then deciding upon my own. It felt like cheating each time, as though I were some Shakespeare fraud, that I didn't really know what I was doing.

What I was really afraid of was removing something someone else would think were important. That in my ignorance I would excise the most important piece from the show, and that it would be apparent to all.

By the time Henry VIII came along, I wasn't afraid any more. I just cut what did not interest me, that didn't tell the story the way I wanted to tell it, end stop.

... I'll come in again.

The Great Globe Itself was the first play I have directed for the outreach tour.  I found it an intense experience, working for three hours (with one short break) with three guys - two of whom I'd never worked with before - to tackle a dense but ridiculous script, telling a somewhat oblique story that spanned four centuries and played fast and loose with true history.

It's what I do.

My script, my direction. At least this time I was able to step back, at least somewhat, to perform some judicious cutting at the outset, once I heard it repeated a small number of times. There were even more cuts after we had opened, one or two lines which offended. With their absence, those complaints stopped. It is a process, and better to make adjustments than to say "it opened, it's out of my hands."

Living Together
Which brings me back to Mr. Siller. He was always extremely accommodating to those who wanted to produce special projects - like an improv show or an evening of one acts. My brother was super involved in Thespians, acting, participating in competition, even directing Alan Ayckbourn's Table Manners (one part of the Norman Conquests trilogy) his senior year, a full-length production between the fall comedy and the spring musical.

When I was a senior, I decided I wanted to attempt everything he had, if I could even going so far as to direct another play in Ayckbourn's trilogy, Living Together - because I do not have the capacity for original thought or ideas.

This wasn't for a grade or extra credit, it was for bragging rights more than anything else, but Siller did request I create a rehearsal journal, which, much like my journal for Directing 101 a few years later, was largely perfunctory. It was the basis for my application to Macalester where I pretty much said, I did this thing and therefore I am qualified. You will notice I do not have a degree from Macalester.

The Great Globe Itself
Learning to direct has by and large been a process of learning how to work with other people. To make plans in collaboration with others, but also to have big ideas and to be excited about bringing them to fruition. For me it has always been a matter of wanting to see something on stage and then doing everything I can to make that happen.

Working with Arthur, James and Rod on The Great Globe Itself was a unique experience, and I will miss the time we spent collaborating on this production. They were each of them focused on their performances, and I am incredibly grateful for the talent and intelligence they each brought to this new work, helping me make it into the production I wanted to see. Collaboration in effect.