Saturday, January 23, 2016

"Incendiaries" at Cleveland Public Theatre

Google Maps
This holiday season, WVIZ ideastream broadcast a program called The Way We Shopped. Because I had time on my hands and had a nostalgic impulse, I decided to watch it. I have an interest in Cleveland history, don’t you know, and as I watch my children grow I am reminded of those moments I experienced when I was their ages.

Cosmic Comics in the Colonial Arcade. Visiting Mr. Jingeling at Halle's, when he was portrayed by Earl Keyes. Staying up late to watch Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman because you knew you were in the middle of a blizzard and there was going to be no school the next day and that guy was going to read that day’s edition of the comic strip version of Howard the Duck out loud from the Plain Dealer when the show was over.

However, something struck me as I watched The Way We Shopped, and that was that it was not recently made. The way each of these individuals described their experiences downtown, dressing up to go with their parents to experience the capitalistic glories of Euclid Avenue … these people were not the right age to have been children in the 1940s and 50s.

Most striking was the account of H.W. Beattie and Sons. People of a certain age can recall the window displays at Beattie’s, which included mosaics of loose gems. According this program (which was actually produced in 2000) this legendary store is still in business at 1117 Euclid Avenue, one of the enduring legacies of old downtown.

Of course, it’s not. I walk past that empty storefront every time I walk from my office towards Public Square, be it to shop at the new Heinen’s or meet a friend for lunch on East Fourth. In fact, not only is Beattie’s closed, but the engraved stone facade which bears it’s name - prominently featured in the TV program - has begun to deteriorate.

It was at that moment, this past December, that I finally realized something very important. That city is gone. Not as in the Pretenders song. My city isn’t gone, because that was never my city, or if it part of it had been, it has been gone so long it is as though it never was. Cleveland may be on the rise, but what it is now has little or nothing to do with what it was then.

Ageing Baby Boomers and members of the Silent Generation lament the loss of the May Company, Halle’s and Higbee’s. But why? They were department stores. Who shops like that anymore? Who has the time or the money? I can’t be bothered to miss a fucking store. I believe I am done with this kind of nostalgia.

Last night I was standing in the lobby of the Gordon Square Theatre, having a (free) beer following a Cleveland Public Theatre performance, engaging in small-to-big talk with two guys in their late 20s I had just met. One was raised in Lyndhurst but now lives in Ohio City, the other from Connecticut but had recently moved to town and lives just up Detroit from the theater. I am of course from Bay Village, but have lived my entire adult life in Cleveland Heights.

The space in which we were standing was, some twenty years ago, an appliance warehouse. Cleveland Public Theatre was still only renting the single black box space which is now named the James Levin Theatre. The Gordon Square District was called the Detroit Shoreway and I recall there being not much there there. It was a neighborhood, a depressed Cleveland neighborhood with a two-lane highway running through it. You can debate whether gentrification has been a good thing or a bad thing. All I know is that there were two theater spaces playing to near-capacity in that complex last night, and the bars and restaurants were filled with people.

And the movie theater. And the pinball emporium. And the bookstore, the ice cream parlor, and all of the additional bars and restaurants.

Incendiaries (Photo: Steve Wagner)
The play we were talking about was Incendiaries, created by Pandora Robertson and produced in collaboration between CPT and Ohio City Theatre Project. That was my kind of show, an emotional, hour-long, research-based, ensemble performance piece about a significant moment in Cleveland history.

The subject is Hough. Call it a riot, call it a disturbance, call it an uprising. Fifty years ago this summer the Hough neighborhood burned. In this blog I have written about 1936, 1954 and even for a brief moment 1976, neatly leap-frogging over the 1960s, that decade which culminated in the largely symbolic fire on the Cuyahoga.

What I knew about Hough was from the outside. Even Mark Winegarder in his historical fiction Crooked River Burning failed to adequately tell the story. Most of that book successfully tells the story of the Cleveland's decline from 1948 to 1969 from the inside, his fictional protagonists in the same room for important events and crossing paths with historical figures with great detail and realism.

When it comes to matters of race, however, the story takes a big step back, holding some of the most consequential events in Cleveland history at arms length. The Hough disturbance is told dispassionately, as an essay for a newspaper, perhaps. From the outside. Carl Stokes has a chapter which has no bearing on the main plot of the novel. It’s a subplot which any editor would have suggested be cut, except its absence would of course be historically conspicuous.

Incendiaries is chaotic, and it took me some time to catch up with the dialog it flew so fast. When it did I was entirely engaged and distressed. So many overlapping narratives, but clearly defined, never repetitious. Fascinating characters. It made me want to get back into the library and look up the articles listed in the program.

Also, too: I have been making plans to return to some of my unrealized historical work. There will be time for that. None of it has the fierce urgency of now, not like this piece. During the fifteen minute post-show discussion several, including some young men from Hough, who heard these stories from their parents and grandparents, were very open in their comments, their happiness that this story was being told in this kind of forum. They also lamented that little has changed.

Because they're right. While Halle's may be gone, systematic racism is not.

The Crucible (Photo: Roger Mastroianni)
The audience was majority white, because anywhere I go the audience usually will be. But only a slight majority. Because this is an American fact: we like to see ourselves on stage. This is why non-traditional casting of Shakespeare irritates some people. This is why I had an interesting exchange with a guy in a lobby downtown about the recent Cleveland Play House production of The Crucible, in which he took issue with the fact that John Proctor was played by a black man.

“I have looked it up,” he said, “and the historical John Proctor did not look like that.”

“The historical John Proctor,” I said, “was 70 years old in 1692, and Abigail Williams was 11, would you prefer to see that production of The Crucible? Because that's creepy.”

“The whole second act was about a black man arguing with a white man,” he said. “I am sure that is not what Arthur Miller intended.”

I cannot recall Arthur Miller ever writing any roles for people of color (except Tituba, of course) so I couldn’t argue that specific point. But this guy insisted the play was about religious persecution, and I said it was about persecution in general, and we agreed to disagree.

However, it is not enough to cast productions based on the content of a performer’s talent, rather than the color of their skin, though I entirely support doing that. Everyone wants and needs to hear their own stories told from the stage. Black stories matter.

As we see today, white people feel threatened by the increasing advancement of narrative from non-white peoples. And non-white, non-male peoples. We see it in backlash to the #OscarsSoWhite movement, I see it in Facebook groups for playwrights. White dudes hate being criticized for being white dudes.

Me, I am not troubled by this controversy. I will keep writing what I write and if it's good enough, I'll find a home for it. I am not threatened by a deeper talent pool. Meantime, I am engaged in absorbing as much of the conversation as possible, because that is where the future is and I for one would prefer to be part of it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Realistic World

When asked what made him qualified to criticize theater, former Plain Dealer theater critic Tony Brown was fond of saying, “I got the job.”

If you were to ask what made me feel qualified to create a long-form improv comedy, when I had received little to no training in the artform, I could have said much the same thing. I took two courses in college, and I had seen a few club and long-form improv shows.

I shared a detailed history of my education learning through trial and error in a post last summer.

Following the inaugural Dobama’s Night Kitchen production, Bummer, we went straight into rehearsals for The Realistic World.

In 1995 the first so-called “reality” show, MTV’s The Real World had wrapped up its London season, and after four years of throwing seven young people together to show “what happens” (nothing did) the producers were about to begin forcing things to happen. They stopped casting normal people who possessed things like dignity and shame, and started dragging in sluts and assholes.

Impressed as I was with the narratives of the early seasons, especially San Francisco which featured six very likeable people and one dickface who the rest immediately kicked out of the apartment, because that’s what you do. The idea of our performance would be for seven actors to assume alter-egos which they would carry from performance to performance, week after week. A few additional actors (we called them “ringers”) would play pizza guys, waiters, family members or boyfriends, whatever was suddenly called for.

Meet Christine
This first iteration, The Realistic World 1, featured Amanda, Christine, Dan, Erin, Jeff, Marty and Tia - their real names. The setting was a fictional rental house in Tremont (this was confusing, some audience members wanted to know where in Tremont we were performing) and we would use some word association and ask the audience some questions at the start of the show to act as subject matter for the story.

Yes. The very first performance, as host, I asked an audience member to share the worst thing that had happened to him recently and he said he came straight to the theater from his uncle’s funeral. I was literally speechless. I have it on video, I couldn’t say anything. That was AMAZING.

We kept the framework basic, each performance started with a house meeting where all seven actors would share issues inspired by the audience suggestions, and then break into two or three person “give-and-take” scenes (we called them "Change Ups") cutting from one scene to another, and the action (ideally) would build.

Finally the first half of the performance would end with the “Miracle Scene” which took place in one agreed upon space, and into which an unlimited number of actors could appear. In this scene, it was very important for actors on the stage to give-and-take focus, so though you did not necessarily leave, only one conversation was happening audibly at any one time.

It was called the “Miracle” scene after that New Yorker cartoon by Sidney Harris where there’s this chalkboard with an elaborate equation and a blank space just before the solution which reads, “... then a miracle occurs.”

Then we’d do it again, change ups followed by a “miracle” scene. There would also be "confessionals" in which a character would sit on a stool and improvised a monologue about their feelings.

An entire episode was book-ended by a house meeting, during which everyone would toss out grievances or personal news which would be fodder for the show, and we would conclude with house dinner. Each episode someone would be responsible for making “dinner.”
DAN: (incredulous) You made dinner?
TIA: Tacos.
ERIN: Did you make any without meat?
TIA: Yes.
ERIN: (surprised and delighted) Really?
TIA: Yes.
TIA: They’re the ones with nothing in them.
The second iteration, The Realistic World 2, debuted twenty years ago tonight, on January 20, 1996. There were only seven "episodes" of The Realistic World 1, and seven for The Realistic World 2, which was directed by Erin Cameron. The cast consisted of myself, another Dave (our names the source of many varied nicknames) Sarah, Trish, Tom, Haley, and Anne.

The first run was an interesting experiment with some wonderful moments, but Erin was able to shape the scenario into a much more polished performance, and we had all learned an awful lot from the first go round. Each member of the original cast was a ringer for this one, and they had the opportunity to create recurring characters within this new neighborhood.

TRW2 was set in an apartment on Coventry, which was much less confusing for everyone and we were able to make reference to many venues on the street with which everyone was familiar.

Haley & David
Living inside of it myself was a bit heady. I created an Über-David, an insecure stock trader with a sharp tongue, I had the opportunity to be the kind of bust-out asshole you might know me as if you only know me through Facebook. However, the fact that I was the oldest of the house members (at 27 almost ten years older than Haley, our youngest at 18) made me the butt of many age-related jokes.

Really. I have been dealing with this shit for a long time.

Anyway, it was exciting to craft an alternate personality and to see how much he might change over the course of seven episodes. The agenda that my character had often bumped up against those of other characters creating some true friction which didn’t always remain on stage.

Critical response to our little experiment was mixed. The Free Times accused us of wanting it both ways; improv comedy laughs and compelling personal involvement, which "this callow troupe isn't up to delivering." Scene said "something this young and hip is a boon to any city which boasts a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," though they may merely been baiting the Free Times.

We knew we had made some kind of impact when the new "club" improv troupe in town, Cabaret Dada, made reference to us during one of their performances. Asking the audience to suggest emotions, one called out, "Ennui!" Host Jeff Blanchard made one of his iconic skeptical faces and said, "Ennui? What do you think this is, The Realistic World?"

Night Kitchen developed other long-form improvs (One Step Beyond, Soap Scum) which succeeded in providing a definite story structure (urban legends, soap operas) but also relied a bit too heavily on tropes and types. I think what I love most about The Realistic World was the same thing I enjoyed about the first few seasons of The Real World, watching real young people figure out real life situations realistically, with real emotions on the line -- happiness, embarrassment, affection, humor -- everyone reaching to achieve their own personal success or failure. It's what people in their twenties do.

Recently I uncovered our Trivial Pursuit - 90s Edition. Yes, there is such a thing. It came in a silver, metal box with the legend, The most trivial of decades. Indeed, as Carl Jung once said, “May you live in interesting times.” I wish our times were as dull and introspective as they were twenty years ago.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Secret Adversary: Adaptation

I am trying to write an essay on adaptation. Perhaps you have heard this apocryphal story, attributed to Michelangelo.

The apprentice asked how the master was able to take a formless marble slab and transform it into something as soul-touchingly beautiful as David.

Michelangelo took a drag on his cigarette and said, "Chip away anything that doesn't look like David."

With The Secret Adversary I have had a second opportunity to tell the story of an entire novel with one set and five actors. Writing the script I tried not to concern myself with the set - at all - but I did need to think about the players, and how many would be able to appear on stage at the same time.

Surprisingly, this book was much more challenging that The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in spite of the fact that I had limited two of my actors (myself and James) to play one character each, James as the narrator Hastings, who barely leaves the stage, and myself as Poirot. One actor played the other three other male characters.

left to right: Ray Caspio as Boris Stepanov, Brittni Shambaugh as Rita Vandermeyer, James Rankin as Mister Carter
Design by Esther Haberlen

But Adversary just has so many characters, it was challenging to narrow it down. Putting the pieces together, I tried not to think very much about how fast the actors would need to change behind the set. In fact, I was so negligent that up until today I still had a scene in which Ray would enter with a gun in Ray's ribs.

The thing about Styles is that if there are too few characters, there are too few suspects. I like to think I struck a decent balance there, and was able to maintain Christie's mystery until the last few moments.

Adversary isn't really a mystery, though there is a major reveal, though for most of the tale it is pretty obvious that if "Mister Brown" exists, he is one, the other (or both?) of two characters. The story is an international thriller, with the protagonists getting into and out of scrapes, flying entirely by their wits.

I had to chip away anything that wasn't a one-hour play, but not too much that it was no longer The Secret Adversary.

Thankfully, we once again have the great joy of working with Esther, who not only has a great love of the period (England "between the wars") but also a tremendous talent at creating fabulous looks actors can slip in and out of with great speed.

British Intelligence, Member of Parliament, ageing socialite, American millionaire, Russian royalty, German Bolshevik, Cockney thug ... and that's maybe half of them.

Rehearsals begin in ten days.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Theater of War (book)

The past week was spent at Elyria Catholic High School. Each January the actor-teachers from the GLT Residency program test out the new lesson plans they have learned over the holidays, working with students in a relaxed atmosphere in which they are free to consult Lisa and myself, even during the class period, though they never do. Everything generally works out the way it is supposed to and we provide notes and feedback and they get to move into this next part of the school year confident that they are conducting the lesson plans correctly.

Yesterday an article appeared in the Morning Journal in which Lisa described our work succinctly, “The teachers have taught the curriculum, but we’re here to enhance the curriculum.” That’s what we do. We “illuminate” these classic texts, to figuratively shine a light on them, to bring certain aspects into focus which might otherwise be lost.

Our people perform scenes, but also coach the students in performing scenes, and also conduct exercises and improvisations, and then debrief with discussions which often relate to personal matters. One of our teachers said, “It allows (my students) to put themselves in the characters.”

Many discussion prompts are tried and true, but many have to change as time goes by, depending on current events, the personality of the actor-teacher asking the question, or even their supervisors’ point of view. The Julius Caesar residency took on a different tone after 9/11, for example. But how much can Romeo and Juliet change? Quite a bit, actually. Girls and boys today find Romeo to be much more of a creepy, obsessive stalker than they did fifteen years ago.

But still, Caesar is about friendship and personal belief and R&J is about love and hate. They get the politics, they get the emotions. But what of Macbeth, what of Hamlet? How best to connect teenagers and not only teenagers but our actors who work with them to the outsized feelings of ambition and horrible acts of violence inherent in these works? It is far too easy to hold the titular characters at arm’s length.

For Christmas my mother-in-law gave me a copy of The Theater of War (What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us About Today) by Bryan Doerries. His youthful intention was to become a classicist, studying at Kenyon College to learn Ancient Greek, Latin and Hebrew. For his senior thesis he produced a performance of his own translation of Euripides' Bacchae, transforming a hillside in Gambier, Ohio into a makeshift amphitheater. What followed mutated into an interactive bacchanal which drifted late into the night in the manner you would expect. Text became flesh, and this young man felt he had discovered the power of theatrical performance.

Yes, we have all had that evening it all came together into an amazing you-had-to-be-there performance event. However, it was only when the author had experienced tragedy in his own life that Doerries began to developed his theory for the powerful uses of theatrical performance. He entered into a relationship with a woman with cystic fibrosis. She taught him a great deal about stoicism in the face of anguish, but also how to embrace everything relevant in life and discard all that simply isn’t important.

Her death was on March 20, 2003, the vernal equinox. On that date, my wife and I were celebrating the second birthday of our stillborn son, Calvin. The year before we held that celebration alone, this time with a six-week old baby girl. Something else was new that day, the Iraq War had begun mere hours before. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end, am I right?

Doerries theorizes that classic Greek tragedy was not created as entertainment, but as something more significant. Having endured long years of war with the Spartans, dramatists like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were most likely themselves soldiers, writing for soldiers to perform, for an audience of soldiers to view.

We today have come to believe that Greek tragedy are cautionary tales, stories of how great men are brought low by something called “fate” and their own “fatal flaw” and we are meant to judge them and learn from their mistakes.

Doerries believes this view to be misguided, and narrow. He states that “tragedy (is) a powerful tool for positive change, one whose vast and untapped potential for propagating healthy responses to stress remains wholly underestimated.”

These soldier audiences watched as figures who had endured trials much like their own make painful, difficult decisions, decisions for which there are often few choices, all of them unhappy. These men were not meant to judge the heroes performed on stage, not even to feel “there but for the grace of the gods go I.” They saw these figures and thought that is me. I have that same pain. I have been tried and I have made those decisions and I a trying to learn how to continue.

“Tragedy … aims to arouse then purify emotions … of their toxic qualities,” the author says.

His company, Outside the Wire presents staged readings of these tragedies for select audiences, followed by open discussion. Ajax tells the story of a maddened and suicidal soldier and has been performed for Iraq and Afghanistan War vets coping with post-traumatic stress, and Prometheus Bound for guards in corrections facilities including Guantanamo Bay.

The Women of Trachis includes scenes of Heracles, horribly suffering from a curse, begging his son for death. This last addresses issues of assisted suicide, and in the book Doerries recounts a controversy which arose when a hospital on Cape Cod commissioned a public performance and then got cold feet when their ethics committee feared such a performance would be a tacit endorsement of euthanasia.

I was reminded of an event from ten years ago I had entirely forgotten about. I was booked to perform I Hate This at a hospital on Long Island, and two months before the event the head of OB/GYN announced the event would require his approval and insisted the read the script. He found it threatening and the performance was cancelled. This wasn’t the first time I had offended the medical community, one performance before nurses in Akron was a complete disaster. It was the end of a long day, and the air conditioning was on the fritz … and yet I could definitely feel a chill in the air as I opened the floor for questions.

Someone eventually raised their hand. “Well. What are we supposed to do?” The way she asked, it was obviously meant to be rhetorical.

It’s brave work Doerries has been doing. He enters spaces where no one is ever meant to question the decisions. Theater is all about questioning decisions. But how do my young actors and their teenager students question the decision to murder, I mean it’s obvious … don’t do it, right?

But how do we look past the “fatal flaw” idea, and see in characters like Macbeth our own decisions. What constitutes betrayal? Can you break trust with someone you love and respect and ever be the same person again? Can you accept your own transgressions and successfully move past them?

We believe our time unique in its obfuscation and callousness, but what about Hamlet? Is there another play of Shakespeare’s more rife with broken promises, discarded tradition, and repeated, casual deception? How do you live in a world like that and maintain your integrity?

Friday, January 1, 2016

New LIFE HACKS for 2016!

Have you ever felt like there was a better way to accomplish something you already have to do every single day? I do, I always feel like this, all of the time. Recently however, I have discovered some valuable, little-known, secret LIFE HACKS which have made my daily existence much, much simpler and enjoyable!

Detergent: You know how the box of laundry detergent instructs you to use a certain amount of detergent for a certain size load? Ignore that, use as little as possible, laundry detergent is strong stuff. Use, like, a teaspoon maybe for a medium size load. Your box of detergent will last a long time and believe me, no one will notice.

Carry a Notebook: Do you ever have a great idea but then forget to write it down, or worse use the "take a note" feature on your phone? If you're like me, you usually completely forget there's all these notes you've dictated into your phone. It's ridiculous! Just carry a small notebook in your pocket or jacket at all time - and don't forget a pen. When you think of something brilliant, write that down!

Shave Your Scalp: (for bald people only) For a while after losing my hair I would keep it all short and neat, but there would be all these little hairs on top of my head. Just use ordinary shaving cream and shave those suckers off! No one wants to see those pathetic, tiny hairs on your big, bald head.

Butter: What is this, the 1970s? Cook in butter, cook everything in butter. Saute onions and garlic in butter and then cook your vegetables in that. Then all your vegetables will taste great!

Aren't these great ideas? Now let us never use the term "life hack" ever again.