Monday, June 26, 2017

"The Infinite Wrench" at The Neo-Futurarium

This week the family is enjoying a few days in Chicago, following a weekend wedding in Aurora, Illinois. The kids haven’t been here since before they can remember and we have a full slate of touristy things planned for them, city walks and museums and so on.

My son is already familiar with the Neo-Futurists. He has listened to the CD recording they produced in the late 1990s of sketches from Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind (an attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes). He became a fan of the work and wistfully remarked he would like to see the show some day, but only if they sell out because he wanted the pizza.

When they sell out, they “order out.” Get it? One large pizza, divided more or less equally among two hundred audience members.

Following the election, I was surprised to read that Neo-Futurists founder Greg Allen had announced he was pulling the rights to Too Much Light (TML) with plans to create a new version designed specifically to "combat the tyranny of censorship and oppression." I posted something on Facebook about the announcement, ignorant of the larger story at play.

I assumed he was disbanding the current troupe of Neo-Futurists, unaware that he left the company several years ago. He doesn’t own the rights to the name Neo-Futurists, in fact there are permanent companies in New York and San Francisco, he only owns the rights to the name “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind” and licenses the concept to these companies and any others who wish to create their own version of the show. He had pulled the rights to perform TML from the Chicago branch only.

Long story short and without getting into any more details, the NY and SF troupes dropped TML in solidarity with the Chicago troupe and worked to create a new framing concept which is called The Infinite Wrench. That is the name of the show we saw last night.

And it’s virtually the same as TML in all the ways that matter.

Twenty-five years ago my colleagues and I contacted the Neo-Futurists to speak with them about their work and to let them know we were hard at work on our own late night program of very short plays performed in a random order, inspired by TML. There were a few brief questions.

Q: Do you call the play Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind?
A: No.

Q: Do you call yourselves Neo-Futurists?
A: No.

Q: Are you performing any written work previously written by Neo-Futurists and performed in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind?
A: No.

And that was about it. Our format was reverse engineered from theirs, presented in the style of a TV game show, but how can you copyright the idea of performing short plays, even when presented in a randomly decided order?

So it goes with The Infinite Wrench. They were stripped of the iconic title but otherwise the show functions much as it always has.

I cannot recall the last time I saw them perform, but it was certainly before the children were born. The baton has passed entirely from those members of Generation X who made the core company when I first saw them in 1991 – many who have made their mark far beyond the Neo-Futurists, like Ayun Halliday, Greg Kotis, Spencer Kayden, Lusia Strus – to these Millennials.

The differences are subtle, where they are even apparent. Most striking were the emotional, thematic, substantive similarities. There is a philosophy behind writing for this show, for being a member of this company.

Improv comedy troupes like to promote the idea that improvisation means every show is different, when the exact opposite is true. Just because you have no script does not mean every iteration of Party Quirks doesn’t feel like every other performance of Party Quirks.

Yet there is an inherent spontaneity to the writing of the Neo-Futurists, the fast-paced rolling out of the sketches throws an audience member's expectations off-kilter. Many works I experienced last night have the some loopy vibe as those I saw a quarter-century ago, though much of the issues and events addressed are intimately tied to those today.

And this filled me with an intense personal melancholy, as I realized something I thought I understood before but was finally brought into sharp relief. We tried to bring the spirit of TML into our work in Cleveland, but we had no philosophy. We had rules about content, which is not the same thing.

One of the main tenets of The Neo-Futurists is that they do not imitate life, they present it. They never do impressions, they always perform themselves. This is not strictly accurate, one performer last night was a dog, for example – but this was in the service of telling someone else’s story.

When I was twenty-four and twenty-five years old I wrote some great short plays for our show. Those two years spent writing and writing and writing, thinking about writing when I wasn’t actually writing, I learned and grew in my practice every day, laying the groundwork for my future work. But I was entirely immature and unprepared to tap into the kind of emotional honesty present in any single play I saw in just this one performance of The Infinite Wrench.

Last night’s show was a special show, however. Yesterday was the Chicago Pride Parade, and this was the annual "30 Queer Plays In 60 Straight Minutes" performance. The company does not necessarily discourage parents from bringing younger audience members but also could not promise the content to be “appropriate” for them. Our definition of appropriate is different from most people's and I am much more concerned with all the violence my son perpetrates through his video games than watching a series of silent, brief vignettes which describe one intimate evening in a lesbian relationship.

It might also be pointed out that my children are not unaware of LGBT issues. In fact, issues of inclusion and equality are very important to them. It was all cool.

The Neo-Futurists continue, as relevant and fascinating and fresh as when I first experienced their work. It was an inspiration and a reminder.

Best of all, my son got that pizza.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

A personal reflection for June 25, 2017.

So we returned from Great Britain. I developed a severe migraine headache, as I always do when traveling east to west, across the sea or land. It happened last year when I flew to Alaska. And the very next day I began work in a summer arts camp with no opportunity to relax and contemplate what had just happened.

I did perform I Hate This again, for Cleveland Public Theatre in 2011, and once again a year ago. Two other gentlemen have performed the show, in Manchester and at Hartwick College.

But the tour brought to an end a five-year journey, first developing the show, fringing it, and then sending it around as an educational tool for hospitals and bereavement organizations.

What I decided not to do was to further pursue the piece professionally. I am sure I could have marketed and sold I Hate This, gathering the proper technical equipment, an educational guide written by experts, producing promotional materials, flying around the world to tell this story.

After five years, however, that was not my direction. In fact, ten years ago was when I began my work as a playwright in earnest. That fall I presented a new work at Cleveland Public Theatre’s “Little Box” and by the next year was at work on “the running play” which I took to New York in 2009.

I joined the Cleveland Play House Playwrights’ Unit, received a Creative Workforce Fellowship, and began writing outreach tours for Great Lakes Theater, and later the newly founded Talespinner Children’s Theatre.

I’ve been a director and an actor, but I always wanted to write, and finally I found my voice as a writer and was creating the work. Revisiting these blog entries from ten years ago has been a personal reminder of how much I have had the opportunity to accomplish since then.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Seventeen: London to Cleveland

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

I don't like summing up. Summing up is for the book, the article or the play. A blog is life in motion, and trying to draw any grand conclusions at the end of a long journey is as pointless as trying to draw one at the end of any given day.

Often I do exactly this when composing a blog entry, and I generally find myself simply dropping the last paragraph before publishing.

"Publishing." That's funny. Getting paid is nice, but what the hell, we'll call it publishing.

Non-stop from London to Cleveland. That's my idea of luxury. Once we arrive at Hopkins, My wife will turn around and board a plane for Vermont. It is year two of her work at Goddard College and she has a week on campus in Plainfield, that leaves me alone with the kids until next Monday. Well, alone with my stage manager/childcare specialist, my parents, and anyone else who will help.

Yesterday was a frazzled attempt to bring things to an enjoyable close. I had floated the idea of getting half-price tix to take the girl to see Mary Poppins. While my brother drove most everyone and our bags back to Battersea, My wife, stage manager, and I took a way around Leicester Square - which in the middle of a Saturday afternoon was an insane crush of tourists and opportunists. The lowest ticket price was £32. We called home and said the show was sold out before lingering around some bookstores.

My brother made curry, and we had an amazing relaxed evening around the vicarage, drinking, talking, watching Monsters Inc. (the girl just loves that movie.)

Yesterday morning I took a six o'clock run around Plymouth. Today I rose in London. Tomorrow I get up at dawn in Cleveland Heights, take the kids to school, and embark on an arts camp for city of Cleveland middle school students.

I could really have used a weekend before starting in on that.

Original blog post: June 24, 2007

Friday, June 23, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Sixteen: Plymouth to London

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Mayflower Steps
Today I took a two-mile run around Plymouth. I actually ran up the Mayflower Steps, into the Old World. Maybe that's where I belong.

Actually, I ran up the steps next to the "Mayflower Steps," those were steps that led up from the car park in the marina. And those aren't even the real Mayflower Steps, the atucal stone steps Francis Drake descended on his journey to the New World are reportedly in the women's loo in the pub across the street.

I followed the water around the Barbican, up through the city, and back down the West Hoe (yes) making a full circle. It was a fantasy of mine that I would finish by the lighthouse, run down the steps to the ocean, and take an insane, frigid plunge into the Atlantic.

But the tide was out. That would have been an uncomfortable, long wade. I would have looked not like a man triumphant, but rather someone determined to drown himself.

It was a good, brisk run. Two runs in Britain. Worth bringing the shoes.

Original blog post: June 23, 2007

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Fifteen: Plymouth

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Friday, 22 June 2007 

Salvation Army Hall
The schizophrenic weather of Plymouth kept us on our toes all day. The folks took a lovely boat ride in the harbor, while it intermittently pissed rain and shone bright, warm sun. Meanwhile, My stage manager and I met our contact at the hall for tech.

It's a big room, the Salvation Army meeting hall, and our contact had high expectations. There were twenty seats purchased in advance, there were notices in local papers and he did an interview which was played several times, yesterday and today, on the radio station, Plymouth Sound.

I asked him what the pitch was. He is quite familiar with I Hate This, having seen it last October, and listening to the radio drama several times. Describing it over lunch he made it sound like a gripping, exciting drama, one that anyone could get into. So that sounded great.

They'd set up chairs for maybe two hundred on the main floor, with overflow capacity in the balcony for another fifty. I know he was being cheeky when he suggested we might need all those seats, but I also know he was holding out hope for a large turnout.

You can see where I am going with this. In fact, if you have any previous knowledge about the history of this production, the fact that the house was small shouldn't surprise you. It didn't surprise me, and I was not disappointed by it, It was odd that almost half the people who had made paid reservations did not show up, though there were a few walk-ups.

That included one very tall man who had made a reservation for the Exeter performance, and called the day-of to ask for directions, and was surprised to find only that way that the event had been cancelled. He said he drove like mad to get here tonight.

It was challenging balancing the small crowd (I am thankful they were asked to move to the front of the house) and the large space. There were points where I stepped down off the stage and stood right in front of them.

Following tea and cake, our Q&A was almost like a group session, we treated it as one. My wife and I weren't up on the stage, we were down with everyone, talking about our stories.

That reminds me of an interesting thing ... yesterday, after we'd split into two groups, Our contact and my stage manager and I were wandering through Drake's Circus. She went off to the loo, and he and I were just standing there in the middle of this busy mall.

I just blurted out, "So ... what's your story?"

He blinked, inhaled, and told me. And that was good.

Smeaton's Tower
You know, over the course of the past two weeks, My wife and I took a little time to grow into our role as child loss ambassadors, or whatever you might want to call us. In Carlisle we were a bit too scattered to be as personable, or sensitive as we might have liked. I'm not saying we were impolite, but my interactions with our contact there were very business-like -- I need this, I need that, do you think these things can be taken care of by tomorrow -- and we spent most of the intervening time relaxing, making sure the kids were adjusting, and so on.

We'd even showed up late that first afternoon, because we were enjoying ourselves in Glasgow, and didn't bother to call her to let her know.

It wasn't until after the performance that I had a chance to chat with her husband about their little boy, and then say something to her some time shortly before we departed for the evening. I can make excuses about being wobbly, nervous and uncertain, but I still wish I'd started off better.

And yet, "What's your story?" I don't think I'd ever asked anyone about their child so bluntly in my life. It didn't hurt that our Plymouth contact seems like a guy who you can talk to like that. I also wondered after the fact if it's because I don't usually ask guys about their children, I usually start with the women and the approach is much softer.

The discussion was very warm and everyone was very kind. There were an awful lot of men in that small crowd, and it was good to see them, sitting so stoically in their seats. But when the time came I heard what I am always glad to hear, that this story is like theirs, there is so much in common in my story to theirs.

The wife observed a few days ago that she sometimes feels it is odd, sitting up on a stage, talking about our loss, and having so many people ask us about it, as though our loss is more significant than theirs. I don't see it that way. Maybe I am the guy who stands up publicly to tell his story not because my story is more poignant, it isn't, but it's a story, and I tell it and people can point to it and say, that's my story. Like, it makes their story more poignant, because of the great similarities of emotion and circumstance, and they can share it with friends and say, see, that's what I am going through. That story is my story.

Original blog post: June 22, 2007

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Fourteen: Exeter to Plymouth

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Salvation Army Hall
Our contact met us at the train station in Plymouth. He took our stage manager and I to the Salvation Army Hall, where we will be performing tomorrow night, our final performance ... and for all I know, my final performance of I Hate This. After this, I got nothin'. It is a great space. I'm really looking forward to this.

Plymouth has a mall named after Sir Francis Drake, Drake Circus. I find that entirely bizarre.

As our contact showed our stage manager and I around the town center (we would meet with the others for lunch) it began to piss down rain, which would continue for the rest of the afternoon. Welcome to the coast.

We hit a Virgin Megastore and an HMV where I picked up Calvin Harris' I Created Disco and the soundtrack to Life On Mars, the DVD of which is unfortunately Region 2.

Lunch was had in Dingle's department store.

As promised, the kids were looked after by everyone else, and my wife and I toured the quay, had a few pints, enjoyed fresher than fresh seafood for dinner (where I forgot where I was and hideously overtipped the waiter) and finished up in the hotel bar where my wife confessed her newfound appreciation for Phil Collins.

Original blog pot: June 21, 2007

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Thirteen: Lurgan to Exeter

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007 

Nap time at the Pegasus Guest House in Whipton, outside Exeter, and plenty of time on our hands. I had been apprehensive about this day, the only one that involved travel and a performance on the same day in the entire journey. What if something went wrong? What if we were missing something, something were wrong with the tech, I left something behind ... there would be no time to care of of unseen mishaps.

Well. My wife and I went to the Lurgan Public Library to check email, and received an urgent notice from our contact in London that the Exeter show has been cancelled, due to lack of interest. They had only had confirmed reservations for five.

Disappointed? Sure. Maybe more than I expected. We're here, in Exeter (well, Whipton) with nothing to do.

There was a reason we scheduled travel and performance on the same date; we wanted an extra day in Northern Ireland. It was well spent. Our hosts picked us up around 10:30 AM and we took the scenic route along the coast (the Torr Head route) to Giant's Causeway.

Giant's Causeway is this bizarre, unique rock formation along this one, relatively small area of the northern coast. Where the stones have been worn down, it looks like carefully arranged hexagonal boulders have been neatly fit together. Where they are taller they are like great columns. Each stone section is maybe eighteen inches wide.

At different short levels they make for little thrones to sit in. In one area in particular, where there is this section of great, tall pillars all clustered together by the seaside, they contribute to the legend of Finn MacCool, the giant. There was a great bridge, or causeway, across the sea to Scotland. Finn MacCool set across to defeat a giant on the other side - but when he got there, he found the Scottish giant to be much larger than he, so he ran back across, in fear, to tell his wife.

MacCool's wife told him to calm down, dressed him up in a bonnet and gave him a binky and put him in the baby crib. When the Scottish giant came over to fight MacCool, the giantess said, "He's out right now, but don't wake the baby!"

The Scottish giant took one look at the great, hideous baby in the crib, and thought - if that's the baby, how big is the father! In a panic, he ran back across the causeway, tearing up the stones as he went so the monstrous giant, Finn MacCool, could not get at him.

After almost two weeks of urban living, dining and recreating, this day was a blessed departure. And the weather was perfect - we were warned to bring rain jackets and be prepared for great wind and waves, but the sea was calm, the skies were sunny and clear, and it was quite warm. But not too warm, there was a lot of walking.

On the drive into town my wife and I compared notes on the last two cities we'd been to. Birmingham is a lot like Cleveland. It's not a city with the ancient history a lot of the rest of England does, it's an industry town, only the industry dried up decades ago. A lot of people, including some in N.I. spoke disparagingly about Birmingham, but what I saw is a modern city that is trying very hard to become a center of arts and activity, with a number of new shopping centers and entertainment venues.

According to our host, it's only been five years since things have settled down to what you might call normal in Northern Ireland, especially in and around where we were staying, so close to Belfast. The time we spent there wasn't nearly enough to really take in what effect those decades of war have had on the people's psyche, but it can't have been good for business. Driving on the roads (as opposed to say, taking trains, which we have been doing so much of) watching all the farms, the livestock, the people, the wife was reminded of her home in Appalachia.

Our lives being how they are, it is hard to imagine the circumstances where we would be able to return to N.I. Perhaps we will need to make some up.

Original blog post: June 20, 2007

Monday, June 19, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Twelve: Lurgan

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Lurgan Town Hall
We had a very fine performance at Lurgan Town Hall yesterday. It was the first old-fashioned "stage" I have performed on here; instead of looking up at the audience, or straight out, I actually had to look down at them.

There were some seventy people in attendance. I have grown used to audiences not laughing, at all, at anything, during the performances this week. Maybe it is because of the language barrier. Maybe it is because of my delivery, who knows.

Last night, however, they were laughers. Not huge, belly-laughers, no one does that, it's not that kind of show. But they did laugh appreciatively. I might make some kind of sweeping observation about the Irish knowing something about dark humor, but, well, I guess I just did.

There was this one woman in the front row, she had these great glasses, seated right in front of the phone. She was cracking up at all the muzak. When "Lonely Boy" came on she was my anchor, she thought that was hysterical and I just smiled at her for several seconds before saying, "I love this song."

One of the most interesting questions we received was, "What did you hope to get out of doing this?" One thing that was great was that it was a question we could pass onto our contact, who joined us on stage. He had the chance to share the idea SANDS had for bringing me here, to raise awareness of the issue, and of their organization.

The wife also got to speak about the kind of fact-finding work we have been able to do, hearing other people's stories and making observations about the state of health care in different parts of the country -- ours and theirs.

And for my part, I took it back to the beginning - what did I hope to get out of doing this, meaning writing it. Which was nothing but my own need to tell this story, as a theater artist.

At first, I had no idea that this play would take me to such places. I didn't envision it being used as an educational tool, for nurse and doctors, certainly not to be a touch-point for the parents of other dead children. I wanted to see if I could make my personal story into a good play.

Original blog post: June 19, 2007

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Eleven: Lurgan

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Monday, 18 June 2007

A beautiful view.
Yesterday was a big, big travel day with no internet at the end of it. We left Birmingham via air to Belfast. I am pleased and amazed at how well the seven of us have been coping, shipping from city to city like this.

Our contacts, a lovely couple, met us at the airport and helped us get situated with the Big Red Van we've rented. Yes, a rental. Yes, I am driving on the left, seated on the right, shifting on the left. The 40 minute drive from Belfast to Lurgan, where I will be performing tonight was quite a thrill. Apparently I only almost got us into an accident twice.

We have been put up in cottages for our extended stay. We are taking the risk and traveling and putting on a performance on the same day on Wednesday so I can have a full day to myself tomorrow, touring Northern Ireland.

At present I ham at the local library to check email and write this. Just after lunch we will drive to Belfast for a radio interview (that's an hour's drive each way) and get home in time for dinner, and the show.

I am only slightly disappointed I don't get to see as much as my fellow travelers, but what I do see I will remember. The cottages were a very thoughtful touch. It's fun, you know, staying in a hotel for a short while, but it's also quite constricting. Dining in restaurants for every meal has begun to wear on the children.

Last night my wife and I got some basics from the market, and we all sat about, cooking, drinking, cleaning (I broke a glass) eating and just relaxing. They even have a DVD built into the set, and a small selection of movies available. We started watching Love, Actually, which is utter shit.

Original blog post: June 18, 2007

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A personal reflection for June 17, 2017.

On this date, ten years ago it was Father’s Day. We were traveling from Birmingham to Lurgan, Northern Ireland by air and the journey from hotel to cottage took most of the day. I did not compose a blog entry on that date, only posted this photo of cute pins the children and their mother got for me.

So this seems as good a time as any to reflect briefly on this exercise. Why re-post blog entries? Would anyone truly have an interest in reading them? What is the point, exactly?

I think the idea occurred to me maybe the day before I started. I realized huh, it’s been ten years since the tour, that’s interesting. And since I don’t feel I have anything new to blog about this month, it would provide “content.”

Quickly, however, I began to regret this decision as I was not really happy with the person I was encountering. I found him anxious, and kind of a jerk. Taking text from the I Hate This Blog (which I stop contributing to six years ago) and posting it here became an exercise in editing, which has its merits. I did not want to be dishonest about my feelings, but I have been able to create written entries which are easier to read.

However, as the tour continued, and as this re-posting project has continued, I have been able to appreciate my mood at that time, and how I began to relax into the journey and the work. I was very anxious in Carlisle, and downright despondent in London. These are reflections of my own mental state, and not of any other individual’s actions or behavior.

As the days progressed and I began to take in how my play was being received, I have been much less disappointed in my own thoughts. I am more open to our hosts, and spend more time talking about them, a team of wonderful volunteers and professionals who were dedicating their lives to the same mission I had, as counselors and companions in grief.

That has been my greatest joy in revisiting these journals in this way. I have had an opportunity to meet them again in my memory, and have been surprised as what strong memories wait there. It all went by so fast, and returning to America I had to get right back to work, and had no time to dwell in that experience.

My recollections on the post-show discussions are remarkable, because I am not sure I have truly read these journals for ten years. Yet, the comments made and stories told by audience members are fresh, vibrant and real. This play was a major focus of my creative life for five years, and using it as a tool not only to assist others in their grief but also understanding my own was a great part of the experience. That’s what the aughts were all about for me.

Happy Father’s Day.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Nine: Birmingham

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Post-show discussion.
The weather had turned the day we left London, and continued raining pretty regularly the entire time we were in Lincoln. We took the short train to Nottingham where we discovered our train to Birmingham had been cancelled. All the trains to Birmingham had been cancelled. The tracks had been flooded, or maybe it was just the electric signals. We sat around the station in Nottingham, making calls to our contacts in London and Birmingham, and waiting for the rail situation to change.

We began speculating on a night's stay in Nottingham when they suddenly announced a train would be going through, but by the time we arrived in Birmingham, all other trains had been cancelled. So in that respect, we were lucky. Except the wife had planned on spending the afternoon doing laundry, and now there would be no time, if we could even find a launderette in the city center.

The two main organizers of our Birmingham event joined us at the hotel for some late night libations and I asked if someone couldn't wash my underpants.

The performance today was the end of the local SANDS conference, sharing the new Guidelines. There was a larger percentage of medical health professionals than bereaved parents, or so it seemed, and the Q&A included the first comment I have had on this tour from an offended nurse. She didn't appreciate my presenting only the negative aspects of our time in the hospital. It was a respectful exchange. I think everyone knows my opinion on this subject, the character I am playing the show is who I was at the time, and that's how I felt.

I understand it can be harsh. The play is called I Hate This.

What was unique about this talkback was that not only was my wife joining me, but so was my mother-in-law. As a nurse, as a woman who trains obstetric nurses, and as a bereaved grandparent, she offered a rich point of view to the proceedings.

National SEA LIFE Centre
As a result the discussion with the audience had nothing to do with the history of the play, less to do with our lives since 2001, and so much to do with caregivers, what assistance is available (or not) to parents who have lost children in both the US and the UK, and issues regarding grandparents and other relatives.

It was an intimate gathering, maybe thirty audience members. A lot of them knew each other, and aspects of the discussion were, not so much a debate, but a mutual agreement on certain points regarding patient care and communication. I probably said the least during this talkback than I ever had, and I think that was a very good thing.

In the five-year history of this play, I have never performed it many times in a row. The New York and Minnesota Fringe Festivals were five performances each. And though I have performed this show for hospitals and conferences before, it has never been incorporated something like one help organization's two-week schedule of events.

What this has done for me, and also for my wife, is to really challenge our participation in perinatal bereavement and counseling. The extended dialogue we have participated in through all of these talkbacks has thrown what we have accomplished, and what we still hope to do into some kind of relief. Today was particularly helpful in that regard.

The kids had a good day, we took them to National Sea Life Centre, an aquarium which is so totally geared to kids. There can't be a fish tank without there's a ship's anchor in it, or a statue of a mermaid.

Original blog post: June 16, 2007

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Eight: Lincoln to Birmingham

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Friday, 15 June 2007


While we were riding the London Eye, my sister-in-law and I had an uncomfortable conversation about the movie Children of Men. I think that, among other things, it is about how humans go insane when they can't have children. She says it's a dumb chase movie with a pregnant woman in it, and the guy dies at the end.


I was flabbergasted. I know Children of Men is not everyone's favorite movie,* For those who are unaware, the premise is that people have stopped being able to have children. The last person to survive childbirth was born eighteen years previous. The very first action of the movie is the announcement that this person has been killed.

When Clive Owen's character, Theo, walks into his office, everyone in their little cubicle is watching the news on their computers and quietly (or not quietly) weeping. All of them. And every cubicle, especially the ones of the women, but not exclusively, are festooned with baby figures, ribbons, little mementoes of lost children. They are everywhere.

If director Alfonso Cuarón doesn't have some personal experience with child loss, all I can say is he did his homework. And once that world was set, I could clearly see what a world where no one could have children might look like. I see it in some small, manageable version every time I do this show. It's our experience, without end, times everyone else in the world.

So you will excuse me if I have little patience with someone who doesn't "get" that movie. In fact, I surprise myself at my reaction to people who don't "get" that movie, it makes me feel like they can't "get" us.

But then again, you know, it is just a flick with a lot of stuff blowing up.

Terry O'Toole Theatre
The show went extremely well, from a technical standpoint. It's a great, new black box theater. It's small, maybe two hundred seats, and it's kind of octagonal. The seats angle to the sides. I was thrust out into the audience, looking to my left and right during a lot of it, which was new and different and took some time to get used to.

Tech took a very short period of time, and we even had lights fade in at the beginning and out at the end. It was like a real play!

The performance was just a little difficult. There was virtually no sound from the audience. None. They laughed when I said shit, that was about all. And yet, I knew they didn't hate the show, just that they must be taking it all very personally. This silence no longer affects me in a negative way, only I adjust most "punchlines" to be less of a grasp for laughs, I just say them and move on.

However, this lack of vocal response normally translates into a brief, awkward Q&A. This was not the case in Lincoln. Our post-show discussion lasted maybe a half-hour to forty-five minutes. The questions kept coming, and they were very good questions. A lot of times the questions are about the show, and the show's history, but last night there were so many about the details of child loss - about our own experiences, to be sure, but then also about the experiences of the people in the audience.

A number of new, fascinating questions arose when they learned we have had two subsequent pregnancies. What was it like when you were in labor and giving birth to your first living child? Where do you tell them Calvin is? Have you thought of incorporating the fact that you have subsequent, living children into the play? **

This last was from a very meaningful woman. I had to handle this question with care, because I remember all too well the strong reaction I got from other parents of lost children when it was suggested in a preview article that I had changed the play when my first living child was born. If I understood her correctly, the ending was so painful for her she wanted some kind of release during the play to let her know everything was all right for us. I explained, as well as I could, that I just don't feel like giving anyone that release during the drama, and she accepted that.

Awesome new raincoat.
I have been accused of being dispassionate (or near-dispassionate) in my performance, but when one mother shared that her living children believe their dead sibling is with the Man in the Moon, I almost teared up. It was something their grandmother had told them, and she didn't disabuse them of it. I wouldn't have, either.

We found out more details meeting people face-to-face afterwards. Our contact's mom had made scones, and there were strawberries and coffee and tea, and we stayed in the lobby a long time, talking to so many people.

We took a particular delight in meeting our contact's daughter, who is fifteen, and desperate to be a star. She hung out with us backstage before the performance and we made jokes about American and British accents and asked her about her plans. She's done a lot of theater in the Lincoln area, and will be a featured extra in The Golden Compass with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. She does a very amusing American accent ... and so do I!

Original blog post: June 15, 2007

* Ten years on, "Children of Men" has received a great deal of critical vindication.
** I did incorporate our living children into a performance of "I Hate This" in 2016,

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Seven: Lincoln

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Feedback from the Sands conference on Tuesday!

Out of 98 forms:
Please evaluate, scoring from 4 - 1
( 4 - e x c e l l e n t ; 3 - g o o d ; 2 - f a i r ; 1 - p o o r )

“I hate this” A play without the baby a solo performance – David Hansen
4 - 88.88% 3 - 9.10% 2 - 2.02% 1 - 0%
Comments: Fantastic / Amazing / Awesome/ Inspirational / All nurses should see this/ Unique and exceptional / too intense / too personal

I agree, it is too intense and personal. I'm an intense and personal guy.

In Lincoln, we are staying at the White Hart, which is this ... okay, I have an insufficient vocabulary for things opulent and beautiful. It is enough to say our stage manager refuses to leave tomorrow, and her room is half as nice (and a quarter as large) as ours is.

Lincoln Cathedral
The picture at your right is the view from our window. That's what we get to wake up to and go to be at night looking at.

Last night at dinner at the Wig and Mitre. I noticed a number of photos of Tom Hanks from local papers, laminated and hanging on the wall in the staircase. As I was managing small feet up and down the stairs each time, I didn't read it up close, and just figured Tom Hanks had spent a vacation here.

Well, no. As Westminster Abbey refused to let Ron Howard film the relevant scenes from The Da Vinci Code that take place there in their actual location, the people of Lincoln Cathedral were only too happy to provide theirs as a substitute. And so the entire city played host to a major Hollywood picture for a few days in August, 2005.

This morning the wife and I met with our contact, who took us to the studios of BBC Lincolnshire for a noontime interview. I don't think they were planning to have my wife on the air, but we pressed for it, which I think is a good thing. Like having her participate in the post-show discussions, she provides perspective that I forget ... or have difficulty articulating. I don't know what's happened to me that I have totally lost the ability to answer a simple question in a short period of time.

Our interviewer asked very intelligent and thoughtful questions. I think we got the show over pretty well. There was this amusing exchange where our contact was explaining, quite rightly, that the show is about a serious subject, and that it's not necessarily "night out" material. My wife did her best to also point up that it is still a play, and an entirely appropriate form of entertainment for people who are looking for a good drama.

Our contact got to share with us about her daughter, whom she lost seventeen years ago. She's worked so hard on this mission, has been involved with Sands for many years. One interesting, and potentially helpful anecdote; she had occasion to relocate the meetings she was organizing. They couldn't be at her home, and having them in a church would be problematic. So she hosted it at a restaurant, a kind of a pub. And the attendance of fathers went up dramatically.

She says she believes the possibility of having a drink (to wit; "I'm not going to a support group, I'm having a pint,") was probably what brought them out.

And I think she's right.

Original blog post: June 14, 2007

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Six: London to Lincoln

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Royal College of Physicians
We caught the 5:50 out of King's Cross on our way to Lincoln, and I am writing this on the train.

Yesterday started well enough, with a well-anticipated 5 mile run. Things quickly soured as the getting-out-the-door ritual was unfortunately stressful. I was exhausted and highly anxious about the performance at the Royal College of Physicians. But parenthood took precedence and we took the children to Coram's Fields.

Coram's Field is a lovely playground with expansive sandboxes for the toddlers, a wide variety of climbing contraptions, and even game captains to lead older children in more advanced play. It was formerly the site of the Foundling Hospital. The bad historical ju-ju, coupled with the sight of my own children playing without a care in the world made something inside of me crumble and I just had to sit and stare.

We arrived at the RCP in plenty of time to set everything up ... including a lovely, wooden rocking chair. I didn't want to get into it with anyone, I was about to collapse. I realized I hadn't had anything for lunch, so my stage manager and I breezed into the crowded hall where the food was, avoiding eye contact with absolutely everyone, loaded up a small plate, snatching an apple, a hunk of cheese, and bunch of grapes, and escaping back to the little room to the side of the stage.

There was a couch, some chairs, a table. I ate and whined about my life as my stage manager listened patiently, and then went out to get everything arranged on stage and in the booth.

A large painting, a portrait, of Edward VII hung on the wall. He looked like my Dad, except for the suit.

Panel discussion
I had never been so unsure of myself before a performance. And this wasn't even such an unusual event, but I was so shaken, exhausted, overwhelmed and unhappy, I had no idea how I was going to be able to do this. My wife came backstage and we talked. I just resigned myself to my fate, the show would go on, of course. I just hoped it wasn't terribly awful.

The music started and I stepped out and did something I never did before. The lights were on full, and I took my time walking to my place in the center of the stage. I usually just keep my eye on that spot, move to it, and look at my hands. This day I looked at everything. The table, the phone, the stepladder, I turned to look at the rocking chair. I took in this room of memories. It gave me confidence.

The room was a lecture hall, maybe three hundred seats, with an estimated 170 attendants, but they were spread evenly throughout the seats. The seats were steeply raked. I was mic'ed,  and when the opening music faded, I looked up and said, "WHAT?"

I surprised myself, and everyone else, by the volume. Good start, though.

And it was a good show, craning my neck up to the top, taking in the entire audience. Why has it taken five years to become so comfortable with this play? It's like something new, I am looking at the audience, not over them. I feel I am talking to them, not performing for them.

It was warm in there, some people were slouching a bit in their seats, but I didn't mind. The show was working. There were groans, laughs. The British jokes work.

After a short break for coffee, there was a panel discussion about the entire conference, and Toni participated in that. After we stayed and shook hands with a number of folks, including some young couples - two couples each lost a child just this past November. They all impressed me with the way they had already incorporated their children into their lives, though they all had stories about how difficult some family member was being in acknowledging their lost babies.

The rocking chair thing, it turned out, was simply a last-minute error. The chair that they did in fact have at the SANDS office has recently been picked up, unbeknownst to those who knew they still needed it. Just a miscommunication.

Got my brother a shirt!
For dinner we joined my brother and his family at a Giraffe close to our hotel. I was practically brainless, but the cocktails were scrumptious and I did my best to be personable. However, this five mile-running, nervous breakdown-having, solo performance-acting twit was not through yet. I felt I had earned some joy, and so I left bedtime to the wife, and went out pub-hopping with y stage manager and sister-in-law. The pints were tasty, the conversation was blue, and I went to bed shortly before 1:00 AM.

Today was spent leisurely in Regent's Park. My in-laws set off on their own the explore Westminster Abbey, and the rest of us just strolled through the park, paddled out on the pond to get a closer look at the baby birds, and took a nap under the trees.

Original blog post: June 13, 2007

Monday, June 12, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Five: London

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

We were up last night until about 1 am. There so many reasons not to take a run today, but one too few, apparently.

My route took me down Euston to Regent's Park, down to and around the London Zoo and back. It was lovely and I was in no hurry. I have gotten a bit out of shape, however, and was a little hot and weary.

City running is very odd. But there are an awful lot of runners in central London. I stepped out of my hotel in time to catch a man and a woman going my direction, which was helpful, as I followed their lead down the city street, watching where they looked, and where on the pavement they kept their path. Not that there's much of a science to it, we're all salmon swimming upstream, dodging cars, people and other obstacles until we reach THE PARK. Returning, after seven on a Tuesday, I was like those folks yesterday in St. James, saying "excuse me" and trying not to get struck by a street sweeper.

Last night the children were left in the care of the in-laws so that our stage manager the wife, and I could steal off and see The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare's Globe. I have only seen one other performance there, the "Fancy Dress Party Macbeth" which remains the best production of the Scottish Play I've ever seen.

For this production of Merchant, instead of rationalizing that WS was some kind of forward thinking egalitarian (he wasn't) they chose the other route, which was to make almost everyone else grotesque, too. Shylock is an evil, hunched, bearded, withered old Jew, played by John McEnery, the guy who played Mercutio in Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet the year I was born. The Duke of Morocco was a grinning, strutting, stuffed-codpiece jutting cartoon of an African, the Spaniard an English-mangling braggart, and they even managed to squeeze in a joke at the French where one doesn't exist.

As for the English, Christian characters, the masquing scene featured what could be construed as a Black Mass, though really it was more like a bunch of frat boys dressed as priests and bishops and popes in devils' masks, performing an obscene marriage. They profess Christianity, but flagrantly ridicule its leaders.

They mock the trappings of Christianity - Catholicism, to be precise - but hypocritically espouse a pure love for Christ. One of the funniest moments in the play is when Antonio insists Shylock must be made to convert. To Antonio it isn't a punishment (it wouldn't have been to Shakespeare, nor his audience) but a blessing. However, the look on Shylock's face can't be described. It was hilarious. And that's offensive. And I laughed really loud and I don't feel bad about that.

The one stereotype that remained unsatirised was that of the homosexual Antonio, and his affection for Bassanio. In a play with such obvious mockery, for everyone, that minority alone was treated with subtlety and respect. And that's a double-standard. I found this omission confusing.

I am not suggesting they should have had a mincing Antonio. But if the Duke of Morocco is made to look and behave like a cartoon Muhammad Ali, Antonio seemed like he was in a different production.

Big ups to Kristy Besterman and Pippa Nixon, who had to step up from (respectively) the roles of Nerissa and Jessica to the roles of Portia and Nerissa (with Ms. Nixon doubling in her usual role of Jessica) with book in hand to cover for the woman usually playing Portia. The book-in-hand thing was distracting for about two seconds as Ms. Besterman did know and awful lot of the part and was very good in the role.

God bless the understudies, without them we'd all have to go home.

Original blog posts
I Hate This Blog, June 12, 2007
Daddy Runs Fast, June 12, 2007

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Four: London

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Monday, 11 June 2007

The London Eye
It was a long day yesterday, taking the train from Carlisle to London. We were taking a first class coach, and lucky me, I got the odd single seat a few rows up from everyone else. I read and dozed on and off for four hours. They do have an awful lot of sheep here.

The sheer excitement of being on a train eventually wore off for the kids, and the girl simply could not get comfortable or get to sleep. Hideous breakdown in King's Cross.

The wife, as ever, finds the best places to eat. We took a great early evening walk through Bloomsbury to Abeno, a Japanese place that specializes in egg pancakes called okonomiyaki, which they cook in front of you on the table. Big metal hot plates in front of my kids make me very, very nervous. So I drank a lot of sake.

This morning we led my sister- and mother-in-law on "the basics" tour of London. Yes, there was a ride on a double-decker bus, and a trip around the Eye.

That's my third go-round on the London Eye. I almost pulled a Dad and told the wife they could go, and I'd stick my nose in Foyles for a half-hour, but I didn't. There will be no fourth trip on the London Eye for me, even if someone puts a gun to my head.

A walk past Buckingham to St. James Park, where we got sandwiches and camped by the river where my wife can make those noises she makes when she sees water fowl. The kids got very excited by chasing pigeons, but I didn't think they'd catch one.

St. James Park
Our contact from SANDS met us back at the hotel before three to walk our stage manager and I to the Royal College of Physicians so we could tech the show. The auditorium we will be using is quite big, and they hope it may be two-thirds full. The acoustics are super, but the lights aren't really made for performance, it will be a number overlapping spots. The screen is possibly the biggest I've worked with and that's saying a lot.

I was surprised to hear there wouldn't be a rocking chair. Someone decided we didn't need one, that I could just use an office chair with a sheet thrown over it.

Hmn. Have you seen the show?

I insisted that we need the rocking chair. Any rocking chair, but a real one, one that rocks.

It's a simple show. I don't ask for much. Except the rocking chair.

Original blog post: June 11, 2007

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Three: Carlisle to London

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

The performance at St. Cuthbert's couldn't have gone smoother. I have been touring I Hate This since 2003. To cut down on expenses, I have always requested that each site provide their own rocking chair, even if I bring everything else. As a result, it's always exciting to see what the chair is going to look like. Carlisle set the record for "Shortest Rocking Chair Ever," but it sure was cute.

Friday my biggest concern was the screen. The projector was no problem but there was no blank wall to cast them on. Our contact tried very hard to find one and came up short. I was also concerned that the light fixtures, electric candelabras, were too dim. Lots of bulbs at the "stage" end of the room were burned out.

Well. Night of, our contact arrives with her husband and her sister and a co-group member. My wife was also on hand and between them, the stage manager and I, figured out every concern in short order -- including dinner, which I always forget to eat on performance nights.

The room was set up with about thirty chairs. They succeeded in finding the only screen in Cumbria so we had that to work with, and our contact's husband "pinched" the lights from the fixtures in the back of the room to fill out those in the front.

There were something short of thirty people in attendance. I was feeling surprisingly relaxed in my delivery. My stage manager said she could tell, that whenever I am comfortable I "mess up" a lot of lines, but fuck her, she's just the fucking stage manager, what does she know. Fuck.

The wife joined me for the post-show discussion, and we met some lovely people over tea and cake following that. I almost forgot to ask our contact about her own experience. I sometimes need to remember, when dealing with bereavement groups (as opposed to, say, medical institutions) that many of the people I am working with have also lost children. And even when I do, well, I guess I wait for them to bring it up. Shame on me.

She and her husband lost a boy just shy of one year ago. I had a long talk with him about the boy, and about the way he has dealt with it. Saying our good-byes I wished her a good day on the 28th and that's when the tears started. I felt bad, the way people do, for "bringing it up," which is ridiculous when you think about what I have been doing for the past six years. It also goes to show how ingrained these reactions are.

St. Cuthbert's is a great little church. The sides are lined with old tombstones that, for all appearances, were uprooted from the field next to the building. It's a nice, open space, walled-in. The entire time we were there, all evening, there were young people lying about, eating, drinking, making out, on that space.

I thought it was odd, that they had moved the stones, to make that field. "Why?" my wife asked.

So many of the stones included references to babies that died in infancy. I heard Philip Roth on Terry Gross last week, talking about his book Everyman. The subject was cemeteries, and he noted there how many stones were for children in the old days, and that you don't see that much anymore, because it isn't as much of a problem. I like Philip Roth, but he's been around too long to be that dumb.

Original blog post: June 10, 2007

Friday, June 9, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Two: Carlisle

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Otters in The Lanes
Sitting by the window in our hotel room at the Crown and Mitre, overlooking Greenmarket Square, praying two children take their naps sometime soon. There is a community band playing in the gazebo.

These kids are cracking each other up, each in their own beds. There is also a carousel knocked up in the square, which several family members have indulgently taken them on four times each - and at £2 a pop, too. No wonder they can't get to sleep.

We had an extremely indulgent birthday dinner here at the hotel for my sister-in-law last night, each of us at different intervals struggling to keep our sanity and our lunch as we struggled to fight off jet lag. The wine didn't help in this regard, but it was an excellent meal.

I thought the girl did particularly well, she had convinced herself that she had had a full night's sleep the night before because she slept until the sun came up. But her behavior at dinner, at bit fractious at the beginning, was merely as loopy as the rest of ours by dessert.

The boy did what he usually does, which is eat everything in sight. Especially soup. He really, really loves soup.

My family was in bed by ten. We woke twelve hours later when our company manager came knocking at the door. So much for the complementary breakfast. It was swiftly decided that the wife would join the rest of the women to catch a bus to see Hadrian's Wall, and that the kids and I would skulk about Carlisle.

Hadrian's Wall was the outer edge of the Roman Empire, a great barrier to keep those marauding Scots out. The greatest empire history had ever known, nearing its end, running out of ideas, decided to put up a big old wall.*

I had no idea what to expect from central Carlisle, but we couldn't have picked a better day to spend time out in it. It's warm and sunny, and the place is just crowded, there's lots of shops, and as I mentioned, plenty of outdoor entertainments. There are several arcades and one featured this lovely not-fountain with bronze otters playing in it.

Last night we met our contact for the performance at St. Cuthbert's Church, where we will be performing tonight. The crowd is expected to be small, so we will be in a room roughly the size of the fellowship hall I was in last year in Wandsworth.

As always, I am concerned about tech. There's no screen for the projector, so we will be setting up something like an easel to cast the slides onto. Also, we haven't had to work with an integrated computer system since the music was incorporated into the PowerPoint presentation, so it will be a mystery as to how acceptable the sound will be coming from the projector. But it is, as I said, a small room.

Original blog post: June 9, 2007

*No, seriously. I made this observation ten years ago. - 6/9/2017

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day One: Glasgow

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Friday, 8 June 2007

On the train from Glasgow to Carlisle. The girls are all making "awwww" noises at the nursing sheep on the hillside.

The girl (age 4) had a Trans-Atlantic Freak-Out last night (that's also the name of my new album, Trans-Atlantic Freak-Out!) She'd fallen asleep, but kept waking herself up, kicking my mother-in-law and whining terribly. It lasted maybe twenty minutes, she was just inconsolable until she finally fell asleep.

My wife reminded me that the exact same thing happened a year ago, last spring, when we last made this voyage. Weird. Just too much stress, exhaustion, the adrenaline rush of an anticipated trip winding down, turbulence, cramped space (the seats have gotten smaller for her, you know) and who knows what else.

Arriving was a great relief, and we soon settled into what I hope is a regular part of our journey together, which is this: not rushing to do anything. We sat around, drinking coffee for a while before we set off to catch a bus. There's too many bags and people to dash off anywhere, we almost left my wife's bag on the first bus. Heck, we almost left my passport at home.

The kids are awesome travelers. At least, they are at this age, I hope they don't lose that. We talk about all the things we see, and don't linger over stuff they don't express much interest in.

Today was a walk with death.

Any trip to a British cathedral is a festival of dead people. There are monuments to fallen soldiers, dead bodies under plaques beneath your feet, and tombs all over the place.

But St. Mungo is a very special place. Not only is there there cathedral (featuring Blackadder Aisle, but it's not what you think) but next to it is the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, which we unfortunately did not have time to really explore, though the wife did take a moment to tie a ribbon to the Couty Tree to remember Calvin and to give the tour some good juju.

And then there is the Necropolis, a cemetery that winds up a high hill overlooking Glasgow. Hundreds of prominent Glaswegians are resting there, including the William Miller, the man who wrote Wee-Willie Winkie.

Before we had even begun the trek up the hill, we came upon a small plot dedicated to dead children. The stone reads, "I will not forget you ... I have held you in the palm of my hand." - Isaiah 49:15 and there were a large number of soft animals and other soggy mementoes left there. That was an auspicious sight, and also very sweet.

Original blog post: June 8, 2007

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Crown (TV show)

John Lithgow (right) as Winston Churchill in "The Crown"
The problem with using the stage to make direct and obvious political statement is that the message can be misinterpreted, casually dismissed, or in the case of most local productions, singing to the choir or more often ignored entirely.

The first year of Guerrilla Theater Company our more obvious agitprop was leavened with playful absurdity, but as our more pointed statements we from time to time dismissed out of hand or criticized, we bent the rules of inclusion to force each of the performer-writers to defend the point of each brief vignette. In short order the creators of some of our most popular pieces decided to move on and our audiences dwindled.

When a company decides to present a classic piece of political theater, the language and situation would most likely not most obviously resemble contemporary concerns. When Ensemble Theatre presented Waiting For Lefty six years ago (to take one example) they strove for period accuracy in production in costume and design, but their video projections reflected the very recent Occupy Wall Street uprisings. And yet, the Great Recession was not the Great Depression and the pictures did nothing to change Odets' clumsy words. In spite of using David Bowie in the soundtrack, it was still more museum piece than think piece.

Timing is also important. Bad Epitaph produced Lysistrata in 2000, which was enjoyed as an absurd sex comedy, but as we were not currently engaged in an wars (at least not any we could see) the playwright’s original political intent was beside the point. We came a bit closer to the mark in 2004 when we produced Kirk Wood Bromley’s The American Revolution.

True, we made no obvious references to the present geopolitical situation, the early years of Bush’s war in Iraq, and the Colonial version of occupier and freedom-fighter, but just putting it out there seemed to make its own statement. As Plain Dealer critic Tony Brown put it, we didn’t need to be “ponderously obvious” about it, as that was his job.

“One imagines that if the revolutionaries were to say and do now some of things they said and did then, John Ashcroft probably would have them locked up without lawyers in the prison at Guantanamo Bay on terrorism charges,” said Brown.

Ladies and gentlemen, ponderously obvious.

The Trump era has invited a slew of productions of Julius Caesar, which has been an obvious go-to for those who would warn against tyranny in all it forms, for centuries. In New York this summer you can see a modern-dress production for free at the Delacorte in Central Park, or an Off-Broadway production by Access Theatre featuring an all-female cast and set in an independent, girls’ school.

Orson Welles' "Julius Caesar" (1937)
It is facile to swap out one political leader for another. Arguably when Orson Welles presented this work during the reign of Mussolini, that strongman must have appeared to be a literal incarnation of almighty Caesar. But Donald J. Trump more closely inhabits the strengths and failings of Caesar -- as conceived of by William Shakespeare -- especially in those scenes where he loudly protests his immutability even as he agrees with who ever spoke with him most recently.

But a military genius with an extensive record of victories on the battle-field? Darn that ankle spur.

The question remains whether or not political commentary on stage has any relevance at all. To those of us who are theater practitioners, of course it does. But most people do not see plays, are unaware of plays, are entirely unaffected by plays.

However, the extremity of the actions of and declarations from the Trump Administration have emboldened commercial entities, which would normally avoid controversy and offense. We live in a golden era of men in suits sitting at desks (and one woman standing in slacks) taking the piss out of the president every night of the week.

In fact, the word and actions of the young Trump Administration have been so extreme, and transparently anti-democratic, that any creative expression in regards to totalitarianism and propaganda in the service of such ends can appear to be intentional commentary on the current president.

Yes, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 spiked after the inauguration, but when Audible produced a television ad featuring Zachary Quinto performing an audiobook version, it created controversy. Reading passages from a seventy year-old book is commentary on Donald Trump? Whose fault is that, Audible’s, Orwell’s or Trump’s?

Hulu’s production of The Handmaid’s Tale includes scenes that appear to emulate the January 21, 2017 Women’s March, but production started last year, long before the election. How might this program have been received during a Hillary Clinton Administration? How significant is it a big screen Wonder Woman came out this past weekend and has broken all kinds of records including biggest opening for a female director. Has the disappointment and disillusionment of the past six months actually fed interest in such a vehicle?

Last week I started watching the Netflix series The Crown, which debuted four days before this past election. I like Peter Morgan, loved The Queen, The Audience. I’m an Anglophile, and my interest in the monarchy reaches beyond what is necessary to comprehend Shakespeare’s history plays.

With this series, dramatising the first months of the reign of Elizabeth II, Morgan seems to be a bit more heavy-handed with the exposition than with other treatises on Elizabeth Windsor, as though he assumes most of his audience will be American - or at the very least, not British. The idea of having to explain to the new queen that she chooses her royal name (her father George VI was born Albert, for example) is ridiculous, she knows that.

I’m loving John Lithgow as Winston Churchill, the first time I have seen any actor embody the character without doing a Churchill impression. Episode four, "Act of God," felt as though it too were mocking the new American President for his behavior, even though that episode, like the entire season, were all released on the same date, November 4, 2016.

The Great Smog of 1952
The Great Smog of 1952 was a bizarre weather event, an “anticyclone” which trapped air pollution - mostly the result of the use of coal for electricity and heat - over the Greater London area for several days. It was catastrophic, resulting in thousands or by some estimates over one hundred thousand deaths, due to either accidents due to low visibility or illness due to inhalation. These facts are a matter of historical record.

"Act of God" suggests Churchill, the Prime Minister, intentionally ignored scientific studies which made plain the health risks related to the coal-based power infrastructure and even reports that such a freak weather event were possible.

That I watched this episode on the very day President Trump announced the United States was withdrawing from the Paris Agreement wasn’t even the most alarmingly prescient element of this episode. That came when, in the midst of a national calamity, the Prime Minister was determined, during a cabinet meeting, on ranting about whether the Queen’s consort, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, should be allowed to train for a pilot’s license.

The comparison is ponderously obvious.

Freedom Rings With An Edge in “American Revolution” by Tony Brown, The Plain Dealer, 6/23/2004
Great Smog of London, Wikipedia