Friday, November 27, 2015

Nineteen Eighty-Nine

It is only correct that Taylor Swift was born during the greatest year in music history.

The longest period I ever lived alone, in my entire life, was for seven months during the year 1989.

I learned how to be calm in silence, to not speak, to enjoy thinking for thinking's sake, sitting on low stone wall in the outskirts of Lugo, Spain. I won't go into details, but I was there for perhaps four hours. It was maddening at first, but the weather was perfect and then I eventually realized that my best company could actually be myself.

It is not an opinion I hold by nature. It is not one I hold at the moment.

The summer of 1989 I turned twenty-one. My mother sent me a blender for my birthday, as a celebration of my first solely occupied apartment. I made frozen daiquiris at noon.

In that time I smoked, a lot - more than ever before or since. It was the only time I had ever bought a carton of cigarettes. And I wrote and I drew cartoons and I watched movies by myself. I couldn't really cook but I had learned one or two things (really, one, maybe two) living the past school year with two roommates who could and gave those a try.

And I listened to music, all the time. When I was napping or dining or creating. Earlier in the year when I was working on my first play there were stretches when I was on my own in the Little Theatre working on the set design, I would listen to albums on cassette, over and over again.

Were they really great albums? Was this actually a significant moment in time? Or was it just me?

Disintegration - The Cure.  Finding it hard to believe this was only The Cure's eighth studio album as I already had dozens of CDs and pieces of vinyl from this group. It discovered them my senior year in high school with Head On The Door (largely thanks to Night Flight) and by the end of freshman year was dyeing my hair, wearing eyeliner and dressing like a goth clown.

Still, my entire Cure-thing always felt like I'd joined a party that had been over for a long time. Head On The Door was the poppiest LP they'd created, and the over-long Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me was really an imitation of everything they'd already done. I couldn't imagine they would release another album that would interest me.

So when the first single from Disintegration was released, Fascination Street, with the lyric so let's move to the beat like we know that it's over, I felt a twinge of instant nostalgia. I'd never heard a song from them that felt so self-aware. The record includes their most sincere songs, far from the arch pose of most of their previous tracks.

Personally, I was a point where I had brought most of my horribly tangled romantic relationships to some kind of conclusion, for better or worse, and was left with a kind of resigned longing which was satisfied by songs like Lovesong and Pictures of You.

They were my love songs for no one.

Passion - Peter Gabriel So was released weeks before I graduated from high school. His next album of pop songs, Us, wouldn't be released until the year we started Guerrilla Theater Company. In between he composed this soundtrack for the Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation of Christ, inspired by authentic Middle Eastern rhythms and his usual drumming and howling.

Passion became a necessary component for every single dance recital performed anywhere for the next five years. The night before the Persian Gulf War was engaged in early 1991 many of us participated in an anti-war performance piece on the college green. Of course, the director and choreographer used a lot of music from Passion. It was 1991. I was disappointed, but hardly surprised.

I was very interested in seeing the movie, a movie which was controversial at the time. People protested this retelling of the life of Jesus, emphasizing his humanity. I was not a believer, though I had been. I knew the Gospels. I was not then nor am I now an atheist. I believed what I had been taught as a child, I had a sequence of girlfriends in high school with whom I engaged in passive aggressive, Christian guilt-and-shame babble, and by the time I was eighteen, it just wasn't there, like it never had been there.

But I have a deep interest in myths, fables and legends. On a cool August night, shortly after the movie was available on VHS, I walked to the video store, picked up some Chinese take away, and sat in my basement apartment to watch a movie with the windows open. I was probably drinking Southern Comfort. I know I was smoking.

I found Last Temptation very long, surprisingly witty, and even moving. As the tape rewound - not making this up - my mother called to inform me that my grandfather had died. He'd been suffering for almost a year. I was relieved to know that, for him, at long last, it was finished.

Paul’s Boutique - Beastie Boys Their arrival was perfectly timed. As a mullet-headed, hanky-headed, dickhead freshman, Licensed to Ill was an ideal soundtrack for playing Ultimate by day and learning exactly what my limits for drinking Johnny Walker Red were at night. The only time I saw the Beastie Boys live was over spring break at the Public Hall in 1987. It was unforgettably stupid but also AWESOME (did I mention the opening act was Fishbone?) and I entered my first mosh pit.

In the time it took for them to go through all those things we now know they went through to create a second album, like a lot of people I had moved on. It was hard to be taken seriously as an someone with taste and admit you liked the Beastie Boys. I mean, I still did. But I wouldn’t play it back at the apartment, my roommates wouldn’t have it.

However, I was excited when there was a poster in the window announcing THE HIATUS IS OVER and immediately picked up this bizarre-looking, yellow cassette with the black, 70s era label. The entire summer I kept it running on auto-repeat in the boombox sitting in the passenger seat of my car.

We were right. We knew we were right. There was something special about these guys which transcended the knuckleheaded bullshit of their first album. I was soundly mocked by the company at summer theater for indulging in this funky masterpiece, and wrote out the lyrics for Hey Ladies so that the few of us who got it could rap along - real loud - while we were catcalled by our cast mates.

The whole retro-funk sound of Paul’s Boutique laid the groundwork for all that Gen X nostalgia pop of the mid-90s. And now they’re in the Rock Hall. You see? I have never been wrong about anything.

To be continued.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Secret Adversary: Photo Shoot

Tommy & Tuppence in Playhouse Square

Creating The Secret Adversary tour image created a special challenge. Great Lakes Theater Marketing Director Todd K., and I wanted to create a sense of motion, the impression of urgency. Our young detectives are working against the clock to stop an international criminal mastermind.

First, of course, we needed some charming young detectives, and found them in the persons of Devon Turchan and Deborah Cluts. Shortly after being cast they met with production costume designer Esther Haberlen, who created these c. 1920 looks expressly for the promotional shoot. She will be designing different looks for the tour.

Having decided upon an action shot, we needed to figure out where they were rushing to, and why. It had to be intriguing without any necessary knowledge of the story or characters involved.

A few guide images we shared were those of intrepid journalist Tintin and of course, the Doctor, (who has somehow been referenced somewhere in the past four outreach tours) both of whom have awesome coats.

We met with the design team at TRG Reality and threw ideas around. It was decided that to suggest action, our protagonists had to be on their way from somewhere to somewhere else. So the background could not be abstract, but we also wanted to avoid anything very complicated. Something that could be happening in the story, not some detail-laden plot point, but more exciting than, say, a city street or sidewalk.

At the start of the story they met at the top of the stairs at a stop on the London Underground. One afternoon, Todd and I skulked each of the Playhouse Square theatres (built in the early 1920s) in search of stairwells which could stand in for "the tube."

These stairs lead to the original balcony of the Allen Theatre, just off the grand rotunda. As they are no longer useful for accessing the theatre balcony (the Allen has been foreshortened by the Cleveland Play House) the stairs remain something of a hidden treasure, with those striking lights features crowning the rail posts.

The folks at TRG moved in and we all worked together to instruct Debbie and Devon to dash up the stairs ... again, and again, and again. We needed them to concentrate on numerous thoughts at once; Debbie spotted something at the top of the stairs, Devon is focused on her. He's trying to catch up with her, with a hand on her shoulder, and also to check his pocket watch. Also, we desperately did not want them to trip and fall.

Unedited rough image.

We had time to go over the unedited images back at the office and several staff members weighed in with their opinions (thanks, Kelly and Stephanie!) and this was roundly agreed to be the best picture of Debbie (thanks, also, to Dresden, who was our stylist that day). However, these are days of perfection and fantasy and we had suggestions for how to make the place look more like a subway ... and also whether or not we wanted to incorporate a different image for Devon.

The carpet (seen above left in the rough image) would be out of place in a public space like a subway. Also, some signage would better suggest the fact that they were even in a subway, and we looked over several images, like the one directly above, of the London Underground.

If possible, we wanted to keep Devon's hand, but chose a different one of his torso shots, so he would be more visible - especially wearing that awesome coat. Finally, we just wanted to whole thing flipped so the post was up left instead of right for the purposes of future cropping and typography for the poster.

The day before Thanksgiving we received this final promo image for The Secret Adversary. I am thankful to work with so many talented and thoughtful artists, at Great Lakes Theater and TRG Reality!

Final image - TRG Reality

Monday, November 9, 2015

Brian Chandler Cook performs "I Hate This"

"I Hate This" at Hartwick College
Friday I took a day off work to drive seven hours to Oneonta, New York. Once I got out of the car I spent less time than that being out and about before retiring to my hotel for the night. I certainly didn't get seven hours of sleep before rising to drive the seven hours back home.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. I'd do it again.

Recap: Brian Cook asked to produce I Hate This for his senior thesis at Hartwick College. In addition to his normal course load, he's spent all semester eating, breathing and sleeping our story.

When a college senior says he wants to direct your solo performance for this thesis production, you say yes. Because this is about their education, not my opportunity. If a young man considers several different hour-long monodramas for men, and decides what he really wants to do is present the worst year in one father's life, you have to assume that was a decision he did not take lightly.

For the most part my hands were entirely off. I left in invitation open for questions, but figured it was best I didn't press it. Brian was creating a play, not working to recreate reality. We never even spoke on the phone, which was probably a good thing, he could decide who this "David" would be based on the words I had written.

I dearly wish I could have seen the production in Manchester last fall. At least then there was a review providing at least one person's impression of what was presented. I wouldn't expect that for a one weekend college production in a small town. Witnessing this performance could be a validation of my work, and I had to see that.

Brian staged the production in a black box space in Bresee Hall. The audience was seated on two sides, facing each other - an alley configuration (also: traverse or corridor) with about twenty-five seats on each side. Friday night was sold out, not technically "sold" because admission was free, but they took reservations and several students had to be turned away.

Speaking of students, this was one of the more bizarre elements of my experience. I've never performed I Hate This for so many young people. But then, the youth of my interlocutor made this relationship between subject and audience much less odd than if I had been playing it for them.

His engagement with the audience was delightful. One of the most significant differences between Brian's interpretation and my own is the visible depth of feeling. My performance has been called "near-dispassionate" which is something you would never accuse Brian of being. It is true, I hold my audience at arms length, but Brian moved into the house to deliver the memorial, he sat next to an audience member to play mother, took someone by the hand to lead them about the stage like my niece leading me into her room to play market. He handed out pieces of red, handmade paper.

I may someday be stealing these ideas.

During the final moments of the play, when it is not unusual to hear a few sniffles, we the audience could see each other, weeping. We were all together, in the birthing room. I wish Toni could have been there. In a way we were no longer alone.

How to make a hospital room into The Cloisters in 5 seconds.

Our original production design, created by director Tom Cullinan, included a stool, step ladder with paint-splattered dropcloth, a rocking chair, a small table with phone (and coffee cup with water) and a screen at the rear of the proscenium stage for the slides - which in 2003 were cast from an honest-to-God slide projector.

The bed was a rectangular light which came in when necessary and went away when it was not.

The intimacy of Brian's production, and the alley staging made it possible for there to be a bed - though not an actual sized bed, one that was built for the production, a clever optical illusion. Bits of paper lined the floor and ran up the wall to a blank spaces where the slides were cast to match the other writing. Paper also grew up from the floor to wrap around the base of the rocking chair, the bed, the table.

Each projected caption was accompanied by the sound of a pencil scratching, which was necessary to draw the audience's attention to the wall. When slides changed right behind me, the audience saw that happen, here there needed to be a sound cue or most would miss them, their eyes away from the wall on Brian.

After the performance a number of theater students gathered at Roots Brewing Co. (wait, I asked, can you people drink?) and I had the chance to talk to Brian and his colleagues about their work, this production, and share my stories about the production history. I also got to meet Nathan, who designed and composed sound and music as well as the poster and promotional video, his stage manager and assistant director Joanna, who Brian praised as critical to keep the production and himself together.

Beers at Roots Brewing Co.
One thing which has become apparent, especially watching a much younger man tell this story, are those elements which have become fixed in time. He was very good at properly representing this, in the old school cordless phone with built-in answering machine (not voice mail) and even down his his wardrobe, which he called very late 1990s-2000, like something you'd see on a late-era episode of Friends.

It's become a period piece. To the audience, which as I have described is a generation younger than I, watching the year progress, month by month (April 2001 ... May 2001) we are all moving toward a fixed point in history which unlike another other significant moment in history has no other name apart from the date upon which it happened.

These students were in second grade on 9/11, and I told them the story about one in my writing group objected to making that part of the narrative. This was in mid-2002 and it was the event was so raw. He found it jarring to move suddenly from such a personal world into the larger one. Some fourteen years later these audience members thought it was a very strong image, contrasting intimate grief onto a global event. With distance, perhaps, it now even more effective than before.

Driving home felt much faster than driving there, into the unknown. I had an open mind about the production going in, and was greatly impressed by what I experienced. But there was the emotional anxiety, the apprehension of watching something I so completely possess managed by another, especially one so young, and presumably unfamiliar with the particular feelings involved; pregnancy and childbirth and death.

I should not have worried. We are theater artists and this is what we do, interpreting tales which have been passed to us. As playwrights there is a time to let go of your work and trust that you wrote it down it correctly. And if you're lucky, as I feel I am, someone talented and impassioned enough, someone like Brian, will choose to tell your story.

Special thanks to Ken Golden, Director of Theatre Arts at Hartwick College, who was a warm and welcoming host during my brief stay, and a man who has made a tremendous, positive impact on the team of young theater artists I met there. We will pad thai again.

"I Hate This" is available now as a play script or ebook from Amazon.

Friday, November 6, 2015

"White Rabbit Red Rabbit" at Cleveland Public Theatre

Spoiler Alert: This is a thing that happened.
This story begins last July at the annual Cleveland Public Theatre artists' meeting.

CPT Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan delivered an informal state of the theater address, describing a vision for the coming year, a layman's overview of the present financial state of the theater, and previewed the coming season.

To kick off the artists' meeting with a spirit of positive energy, everyone in attendance was asked to recall a strong memory from the past season. As fate would have it, I was seated far to one side and asked to go first.

As I stood and without thinking, reaching for something to say and came out with, "Does it have to be a moment in this theater?" which I realized as the words left my mouth (and from the general reaction from like, everybody in the room) was an entirely dick thing to say and entirely not what I meant.

The unhappy fact is that I had neither done nor seen anything at all at CPT in 2014-15, which is not a sin in itself, it's just a damn shame. I love this theater, I cannot imagine what state Cleveland would presently be in without it. It's a vital component of our city's character; rugged, dogged, earthy, earnest, open-hearted, and deeply weird. There's always new, challenging work happening there and I have missed being a part of it.

For example, one of the first elements of the new season Raymond shared was a play written in 2010 called White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour and that that was pretty much all he could say about it, except there would be a different actor every night receiving a script they had never read nor seen before to then read for an audience. No director, no rehearsal. A cold reading performance.

He went on to say that if that sounds gimmicky, well surely it is, but it's also a great piece of writing and they wouldn't bother presenting it if it weren't. In addition to Mr. Burns - A Post-Electric Play and the revival of Holly Holsinger's Frankenstein's Wake (which remains the best adaptation of Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley's work I have ever experienced) I made a mental note to catch White Rabbit Red Rabbit. This year, I promised, I would see more plays.

What happened next was this ... when the first press release announcing the names of all of the performers for White Rabbit Red Rabbit (which ran Oct. 8 - 25) it included an impressive list of performers and notable non-performers. Actress and Mamai Theatre co-founder Derdriu Ring, for example, and also Councilman Joe Cimperman. However, there were three dates that said TBA.

I sent a quick email asking, "Do you need actors?" which was greeted by the swift rejoinder, "Why, are you offering?" Soon I was receiving a formal invitation from the company and hey presto, I would be performing the last weekend, on Saturday, October 24.

I hear you are having a party.
I was momentarily a little self-conscious, I felt like someone who had invited themselves to a party. Whatever, People do that.

Preparation was simple, if not necessarily easy. Do not learn anything about this play. Don't look it up online, don't google the playwright.

Not googling the playwright was very easy, because apart from hearing Raymond say his name once back in July, I didn't know the name of the person who wrote this play.

One thing that disappointed me right away was the fact that once I had performed the work I would have exactly one opportunity to watch it from the audience, the final performance on October 25. Anne McEvoy would be playing. Poor Anne, she wouldn't get to see anyone.

And so the weeks passed and I didn't think about it, or when I did I told myself not to think about it. If my responsibility was to read a script cold in front of an audience, that's fine, that's one of my strengths. I am confident reading out loud in front of others.

Also, I was not worried the text would embarrass or compromise me or my beliefs or make me look like an asshole in public or anything. Would CPT conspire to humiliate founder Jim Levin or comedian Mike Polk? Of course not. Besides, Raymond had said at the artists' meeting that though he could not describe the content of the script, he believed it was very, very good, and I like the things that he likes. So there's that, too.

No, it was only when I received the requisite email message from the playwright twenty-four hours prior to the performance did I become nervous. It included a few additional instructions, which in and of themselves were not challenging, but suddenly I developed the belief that there were things I could get wrong. If there is something you are supposed to do, and you don't know what that is, there must therefore have an opportunity to fuck that up.

In brief: It happened. I showed up, and the performance happened. If you want to know what that means you can look it up somewhere else. What I can say is this; I spent the next almost twenty-four hours believing I had done poorly. Not that I had performed poorly, but that I had performed too much. Or too little. I had no idea. I wasn't happy.

Previously, I didn't believe I had time to make Anne's closing performance, there's been so much going on at home and work. Now I had a neurotic need to experience it, preferably sitting all the way in the back. This I did, and I am very glad that I did, for several reasons.

For one thing, I realized there was much of the play I did not even remember. I mean, she performance reminded me of what I had done which I had promptly forgotten in the mental maze of performing the thing.

Also, so many of her choices validated my choices and so I felt less self-conscious about what I had done. She was delightful, by the way, though her energy and mood was quite different. We are different people.

I was also very grateful for the post-show discussions. As CPT is currently restoring the Levin Theatre, which may have otherwise been the site of a show like White Rabbit Red Rabbit, instead it was produced in the Parish Hall, and then interested audience members were asked to relocated to post-show to the church for the discussion - an entirely different building, some 100 feet away - which afforded those who wished not to participate the opportunity to just walk to their cars or XYZ and be done with it. You had to choose to join the post-show discussion.

And both nights I was present I would say more than half the audience did! That by itself started the discussion off on a strong foot, I felt. We all wanted to be there. And there was much to discuss.

Now here's a minor spoiler if you wish to turn away.

Much of the discussion the final night, the night I watched, not performed, was about the relationship between the writer and actor, and whether or not the actor was being manipulated by the writer, having agreed to read words written by an unknown other, one living (or not) in a foreign land from a different time - the time at which they had written, a time before now. Were we, and by proxy the audience, being manipulated?

Brian Cook in "I Hate This"
But then, we debated, isn't that the nature of all theatrical performance? Isn't Shakespeare, cold and dead, still fucking with us with his words, words we feel some strange compulsion to read and speak in spite of their distance in time and the bizarre things he makes us do? Do not all playwrights cast a spell on others to perform their bidding, to their their stories, even from the grave?

This evening I had the peculiar opportunity to watch a young man speak my words, to tell a story so deeply my own they could be no one else's. And yet he was there on the stage and everyone was watching and listening to him, and I was in my seat and I knew every word and yet it was like experiencing some different man tell his story, not mine.

Today I drove seven hours to Oneonta, New York to witness Brian Cook perform I Hate This at Hartwick College.

To be continued.