Thursday, July 23, 2015

Bright Young Things

The headline in The Onion ran;  4 Hours Scrolling Through Facebook Before Bed Referred To As ‘Winding Down’ (July 22, 2015) As is often the case, even now, twenty years on, their style of satire - which often consists of just saying true things pushed to logical extreme in flat, journalistic prose - exposing an Emperor who is already entirely exposed.

Last week I asked my wife to lock me out of Facebook, changing my password occasionally so I am denied access, like locking up the liquor cabinet.

I would prefer to have the wherewithal not to procrastinate, and to do the things I am meant to do. This summer I have been much more successful at reading, putting away three novels in the past month. Some has been research, but also fiction. Currently I am on my fourth summer novel, fiction which is also research; Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh.

Totally, odd ... I had asked my father for his copy and he forgot to bring it last weekend, but then as I was searching for a book for the girl to read I found his copy on one of our shelves at our house. I have no idea how that happened.

After a brief bit of confusion I have become entirely immersed in this tale of the "bright young people" in 1920s England. The picture of the Roaring Twenties from the other side of the Atlantic has similarities to that found in America, but like looking the wrong way through a telescope.

Young adults in Great Britain, for example, were the survivors of a generation slaughtered in the fields of France and Belgium during the Great War. Privation had taken a great toll on the established class system. They all just went a little nuts, drinking, taking drugs, throwing outrageous parties, pushing the boundaries of socially acceptable behavior.

I mean, America's "Lost" Generation was also behaving this way, only we seem so depressed and decadent, the British to be entirely disaffected and possibly demented.

As I continue my exploration of Agatha Christie's second novel The Secret Adversary, there are a few important elements which are drawing into focus. In the extremely helpful tome The Detective Novels of Agatha Christie by James Zemboy (MacFarland & Co., Inc., 2008), the author notes:
... unlike (her first novel) "The Mysterious Affair at Styles", ("The Secret Adversary's") characters are interesting and fun to read about ... the reader is treated right from the beginning to two loveable young people full of life and spirit ... (p.22)
Not monied as many of those real-life contemporaries written about by folks like Waugh and Nancy Mitford, Tommy was a soldier wounded in the war and now desperate for some kind of work, Also broke and with few prospects, Tuppence could return home to her family but as a modern young woman she would rather do absolutely anything else.

The manner in which they enter their business arrangement, which at first blush is practically an extortion scheme, retains the kind of disaffected pose that is so prominent in literature about young adults at that time. Christie herself was barely into her 30s when she wrote it and her dialogue is much more breezy and hip in this book than in her first.

There's also an awful lot of attention given to their eating, whenever possible, as thought they are constantly hungry, tearing into bread and tea when they have nothing, taking the opportunity for a meal whenever possible, and Tommy in particular obsessing about the time between feeding.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Boy Camp 2015

The summer has been eventful, so eventful, so full of activity that I have not had the time nor energy to report upon BOY CAMP. (For details see 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.)

The boy and I have had many opportunities, even this summer, for time on our own. The women in the family have already had one away camp (Blue Lake outside Muskegon, MI) but this weekend has for six years carried special significance for the boy and I since the wife and daughter first headed out to Girl Camp in 2010. As the boy is now ten, it is only fitting that our relationship to the weekend changed significantly this summer.

After making an afternoon maternity ward visit to friends with brand new twins, we decided to heard directly to the bowling alley. Bowling was the original, signature event way back in 2010 and so it was imperative. However, it was not satisfying as he struggled to make do without bumpers, perhaps for the first time. I was as positive as possible, and tried to guide him to improve his play, without much success. We made a plan for the rest of the weekend to look up from there.

We had the bowl early – if at all – because he his baseball team was in the playoffs. The season had stretched on much longer than scheduled, as many games had been cancelled due to all the rain. We lost the game, but it was hard fought. (His team had been undefeated until the playoffs, only to lose twice in double elimination in the final to this same team later in the week.)

For dinner in manly style we had hotdogs and cole slaw while watching The Terminator. Yes, we watched The Terminator. I was concerned it might be too violent – and it is – but not much more so than what he already takes in on network TV. The boy said it was excited but very smart, and I have to agree with him. Everything is so fast these days, fast and loud and active, the boy was very intrigued by the mystery of the story. That’s the problem with sequels, there’s no mystery to them, you know the world, you know the situation. There may be surprises, but surprise and mystery are not the same thing.

Saturday was given over to rock and roll. The entire day. He had his private lesson at noon at School of Rock and then a ninety-minute rehearsal with the band. They are working on a complete set of Joan Jett numbers for September, but would be debuting a small number of them at the Cain Park Arts Festival. The boy was extremely nervous about playing the Evans which is a very large space, but the crowd was small compared to the size of the venue, folks coming and going giving it a laid back vibe. He played very well after a false start, he keeps a rock steady beat (he's the drummer) and I am proud of him.

That night we stayed up and watched This Is Spinal Tap. He’s seen a number of rock music documentaries and films so I thought he’d “get it” and he did so far as it goes. What I underestimated was his appreciation of the many levels in which it is satirical (the Lick My Love Pump gag went clear over his head) and exactly how its improvisational elements are so amazing.

So, uh. So there. Wheep whomp.

Sunday morning was not one for lying in, however. I am training for a marathon and wanted to get in a ten mile but I did not want to leave him at home to watch videos of ADHD Millennials comment on Minecraft. So he biked and I ran, through Lakeview Cemetery and the Uptown neighborhood (i.e. CWRU environs) down to the Cultural Gardens. Two and a half hours of leisurely running, biking, walking and talking.

Finally, and this is a fine tradition, we visited the Lantern Theatre in the Big Red Barn, taking in another original theatrical event focusing on local history. This year it was Eric Schmiedl’s Johnny Appleseed featuring himself, his son Arthur, the surprisingly versatile Bill Hoffman and the always delightful Valerie C. Kilmer.

The boy and I do get to spend a good deal of time together, alone in each others' company. And he’s constantly challenging me, constantly debating me. We have great conversations and even some intense arguments. But we have a really good thing going.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Rose Café

The phone rings twice as a pre-dawn wake-up call which is enough to pull him off the couch, the couch made as a bed, his bed, to rouse him into another day of possibility, or chance.

He doesn't think, really, not even to process his dreams, just strips the sheets, folds them up to tuck them away until this evening. He swiftly dresses and shaves, within minutes striding across the cul-de-sac to his companion's idling car, heading off for the daily ritual, to hike to the peak of the Santa Monica Mountains and dash down the other side.

That accomplished, they retire to The Rose for strong, strong coffee.

The Rose - on Rose, of course - is another comfort, a place to reassure him that things are happening. It's a coffee shop, to be sure, a place to relax, but no one is relaxed his companion points out. Everyone is writing the screenplay (longhand - this is 1991) or pitching the screenplay, talking the good game.

Everyone has a project, she says. She's made a game out of it, walk up to a stranger, pretend like you know them, ask them how "the project" is going and they'll tell you, they'll tell you all about it.

In walks that b-level actor, he's been in some dumb movies, and more recently a supporting player on last year's hot TV show which may or may not have ceased production. He's someone or no one but his mere presence - a guy like that - validates the joint as a place for those who work, who make it happen.

Our man has a banana nut muffin. She, his companion, told him bananas contain potassium, which naturally alleviates anxiety, and though he would be much better served eating an actual banana, this moist, delicious treat has become his defacto power breakfast. It goes much better with coffee. He can justify the caloric intake by skipping lunch, daily.

No one is fat in L.A.

He never smoked in L.A. Never took drugs in L.A. He only drank when out, never in the apartment. Never cut his hair, either, which was a mistake. Wrote a postcard daily to his ex-girlfriend back home which was also a mistake.

The act of happening is happening. Doing the work. Sending the work. It helps if the work is good, but does it matter? Why not create the work and set it aside? Why publish? Why publish! Publication is reality. Publication is fact. Publication says I am here.

This evening they will skulk film shoots, walk the beach, hit Tower Records, it's all part of the work. She's having a reading for a script for Roseanne she's working on. He's never seen it, there's one line that doesn't make sense to him why it's funny. She says it's because he needs to hear John Goodman say it.

He is working on a newsletter, Notes From L.A., a collection of essays and cartoons about how lost and disillusioned he is with the the city. Matt Groening got started this way. He will print it and send it home and that will mean that it is all happening for a reason, that he is happening.

Pungent, black coffee. An empty muffin cup. Bright sunlight. Job interview at Friday's at 1:30 PM. That's in four hours. Writing can wait, time to hit the beach.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Station Eleven (book)

Reminiscent of The World Without Us
It is well-understood that watching emergency room dramas can be very frustrating for actual medical professionals. Lawyers are the first people who can tell you how unrealistic courtroom dramas are, and nobody has ever talked the way they do on The West Wing.

Writers have not only to write compelling stories, but they have the burden of accuracy. Even when writing a piece of historical fiction like The Great Globe Itself, I needed to know the facts before I could satirize them. Even when we are making things up there can be a desire to fact-check, but fact-checking only goes so far.

When writing The Vampyres I invited an actual goth rock band to a table reading, and they were entirely dismissive of the characters I had created. On the night in question, a certain local professional cartoonist and non-professional social critic also happened to be in attendance, and he thought their reaction was hilarious. He said, “No, actually, guys like you are exactly like that.”

So, uh. So there.

Fortunately for theater artists, no one really writes about our craft for popular media very much so there is little to be nitpick. One of the reasons the Canadian TV program Slings and Arrows is so popular among theater people is not for its accurate portrayal of “The Life” but more because we’re all squeally like – “OMG, they’re talking about us!!!!!!’

Shortly after college my father recommended that I might be interested in Light Thickens by Ngaio Marsh, a mystery where the murder takes place during a production of Macbeth. At that point my professional experience was not very deep, but I was immediately put-off by the director, whose opening comments about each character, delivered to each actor sitting around for the first read-through, were, I felt, horribly prescriptive. Add to that several actors expressed their strong difference of opinion, right off the bat, and engaged in a heated debate with the director, who insisted on the correctness of his opinion.

Of course, there are directors who come forcefully at their company like this, right at the start, though I am hard pressed to imagine the kind of counter-argument emerging from the acting company in response, at least not at the first blinking read-through. It just struck me as terribly false.

Let's read this corpse.
When in the first season of Slings and Arrows the avante-garde Darren Nichols begins his first rehearsal of Hamlet by pronouncing, “This play is dead,” it is hilarious because this is a comedy, and his is an extreme character. An extreme character much like directors we have known or worked with, perhaps, but still. Suspension of belief works differently for comedy than drama.

Recently, my wife checked out Emily St. John Mandel’s recent novel Station Eleven from the library, for us each to read. I had actually taken the book to North Carolina and back but was absorbed in other reading and actually didn’t get to it until our final night on the road, the night of the women’s final against Japan.

Looking into a vast, bright and shimmering television screen, transmitting images of a game of football being played entirely by women nearly three thousand miles away – the actual game itself attended by over fifty thousand people, an unimaginable number to be all in one place – myself lying between clean sheets in a hotel buzzing with people resting in safety and comfort, without weapons, twinkling ice in my plastic cup, drinking impossibly sweet and cool soda pop, the room alive with electricity and light after nightfall, the internet magically passing around us and through us, well-fed with warm pizza and fresh, green salads brought right to our room first by way of a gasoline powered vehicle and then the elevator. After a long day driving in a car, one cooled by air that just poured out a vent in spite of the eighty plus degrees outside, with clean water in a bottle, still cool, recently filled from a tap, available to all, and watching an exciting game, I read one page of this new work and promptly fell into a comfortable sleep, without care.

Read the book? You get it. Anyway.

This tale follows a caravan of actors and musicians, The Traveling Symphony, who roam a post-apocalyptic wasteland, making their living by playing and performing the works of Shakespeare.

They’re talking about us!!!!!!

I was most tickled by the different philosophies expressed by company members of the troupe, and how even after the end of everything actors and artists will be having the exact same debates about Shakespeare.

One player is confident in the idea that Shakespeare transcends time, and that more recent scripts are ground deep in a past that make them no longer comprehensible - let alone relevant - and that their decision to perform only his works, to the exclusion of all other texts, is the best artistic decision to make.

Another artist privately believes quite the opposite, that the works of Shakespeare are far too limited in their scope of human experience and besides she hates Shakespeare but will keep her opinion to herself because (ta-da) she works for a Shakespearean theater company.

There is also that age-old debate regarding costumes. Shouldn't the actors dress as their audiences do, in the decades-old, well-worn everyday wear of the past century? The thinking goes that if you perform Shakespeare’s text in contemporary dress, you bring the work closer to your audience. I have heard this argument. I have made this argument.

Other characters believe theater is a unique occasion, an opportunity to be transported to a different time and place, to see something special. As such, when the opportunity presents itself to ransack a long-abandoned home or school, to forage for any useful supplies, a useless dress or a disregarded men’s suit – unnecessary for survival –  is to them a valuable treasure.

John Wood, Alex Kingston
RSC 1990
One note, however, near the very beginning of the book struck me as entirely wrong. Departing a rather eventful performance of King Lear, just prior to that thing which makes the rest of the book happen, our narrator makes note of the poster, high above the Toronto streets. An image not unfamiliar to those who have ever seen this play; the bereft, ageing king, cradling his dead, grown daughter Cordelia.

I was shocked just to read it. I mean, uh, spoiler alert, Cordelia dies at the end of King Lear. Most know this and if you didn’t, well, so does Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Timon of Athens, Hamlet (and practically everyone he touches) as well as Julius Caesar, they all die.  Caesar doesn't even wait to the end, he dies in the third act.

But which fictional marketing director gave the green light to putting that image on the poster? Your main promotional image is the great tragedy at the very end of the play?

As our marketing department at Great Lakes has been conceiving of the season image for our Fall 2015 production, I have had the opportunity to take in dozens of other images from professional productions dating back a few decades.

Most are a dark, static depiction of an old man. I saw John Wood play Lear in 1990, the graphic was of the king prancing in madness, with a laurel of flowers on his head. A few include the Fool. Others are abstract; when we saw Ian Holm play the role in 1997 the image was of an eclipse of the sun.

The GLT season image for King Lear will not be released for a month or so, but they did principal photography last week. Here is an intriguing preview:

Via Facebook. What will happen?

UPDATE: "Station Eleven" is now a series on HBO Max.