Tuesday, January 29, 2019

About A Ghoul: First Reading

Photo: Bryce Evan Lewis
Here we go! Last night we held the first read-through of About A Ghoul at Talespinner Children’s Theatre, which opens March 9.

It was only the other day that I realized that, unlike every other script I have ever written, this is the first one I simply handed off to a theater company before holding at least one informal reading. I had never heard this script read aloud until last night!

If last night was in indication, though, I can be confident in its success. There were many laughs, most of them (I believe) intentional.

This is my fourth script for TCT, and it will kick off their eighth season of original plays for child audiences. Usually I am familiar with most of the performers cast in each of these productions, in this case three out of six are new to me!

Absent from this first read was my collaborator, Abdelghani Kitab. He will join us at the first rehearsal. A Moroccan actor and musician, I first saw Abdelghani in I Call My Brothers at Cleveland Public Theatre. He made a wonderful impression in that show (Cleveland Scene called him “absolutely endearing”) and I was so glad when TCT artistic director Alison Garrigan introduced us for this project.

Much of the plot for About A Ghoul comes from the Moroccan folk tale Haina, which Abdelghani translated for me from the French. And in this production he will perform and conduct the music.

I will drop by rehearsal from time to time. But the script, as is traditional for TCT shows, is not set in stone. As I described it last night, “it is still clay, it is meant to be shaped!” Shepherding this company is my colleagues, and former actor-teacher, Katelyn Cornelius, who previously brought Red Onion, White Garlic to dazzling life.

Listening to the actors read the script, which consists of tales told by a wise man -- tales which turn out to be true -- I was content that the action was clear enough to be comprehended by children.

I am also confident that this company will be able to take a story about a ghoul and keep it light and amusing. It is grotesque in places (it would have to be) but they will manage it with a gentle touch.

But goodness, I am quite the thief. There are laugh lines stolen from Aaron Sorkin’s SportsNight, the movie Risky Business, and even a retelling of Portia’s “Quality of Mercy” speech from The Merchant of Venice.

I am shameless, but unapologetic.

"About A Ghoul" at Talespinner Children's Theatre opens March 9, 2019.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Who Owns the Story? (panel discussion)

From left: Bobgan, Ortiz, Coble & Salter
My friend and colleague Eric Coble sat charmingly tilted to one side between playwrights Milta Ortiz and Nikkole Salter during last Saturday’s panel discussion on appropriation and authenticity, Who Owns the Story?

Presented as part of Cleveland Public Theatre’s Entry Point weekend of new works, and produced in association with the Dramatists Guild and HowlRound, the event was moderated by CPT artistic director Raymond Bobgan.

Ortiz is Outreach Director for Borderlands Theater in Tuscon, AZ, and a playwright whose work-in-progress Water (co-created by Marc David Pinate, a co-production between Borderlands and CPT) was presented in part at Entry Point this year, one of the plays for which I helped facilitate post-show discussion. I have also read her powerful and timely work Más on New Play Exchange.

Salter is an Obie Award-winning writer and Pulitzer finalist (Continuum) who is currently working on a commission from CPT and the National New Play Network titled Breakout Session, a play inspired by the Cleveland Police Department consent decree from the U.S. Justice Center.

The topic was who owns the story. But the real question is who tells the story. Ortiz, a Salvadoran American, and Salter, an African American, told several nuanced, relevant stories about their experiences with appropriation, including those where they themselves were the appropriators; which is to say, where and when they were telling someone else’s story.

I myself have appropriated. I mean, anyone who has a retold a told has appropriated. Right? Like Eric I sat charmingly tilted to one side.

Further, the more important question may be not who owns the story, but who gets to tell it. Today, if a white man tells a story, any story, it is much more likely to get produced -- and to get attention -- than that from a person of color. So if a white person chooses to tell the story of another race, walk, culture, or so on, you must ask not only why they are telling the story, but why isn’t a person from that race, walk, culture the one telling it?

It is, as Salter pointed out, about the power dynamics in our nation. As writers, we must ask ourselves, "why am I writing this?"

Take the recently-announced Academy Award nominations, which include Black Panther and Green Book. The first is an Afro-Futurist adventure created prominently by Africa-descended artists, the other a story of segregation created by a white director and screenwriters which has been criticized for being a typical “white savior” movie.

More people came out to see Black Panther, but Green Book has already won a best drama award at the Golden Globes.

Does that mean that one is limited to writing only characters from their own ethnic, racial, cultural background? I don’t know. Maybe? Why are you writing that character?

Coble wrote the outrageous satire Fairfield, about the worst Black History Month pageant ever, to examine issues of race in the American middle-class, and by his own account his first draft was criticized by African American readers as being too kind to the black characters, that he needed to be an equal opportunity offender.

This is my basic criticism with Clybourne Park, the acclaimed, unauthorized sequel to A Raisin In the Sun. It is ostensibly about race (for which its white playwright received a Pulitzer Prize) but the script is peopled with terrible white people who talk too much and blameless black people who talk very little.

I would like to write about the world around me, and include all the people in it, be they black, white, Latinx, gay, straight, trans, Muslim, atheist -- everyone. So, how does a playwright like myself know when what we are writing is appropriate or appropriating?

“Are you asking for a rule book?” Bobgan deadpanned, which got a laugh. Because it’s true. We want guidance and permission. We want a rule book. And we can’t have one. Why should we? How is it someone else’s responsibility to train me in sensitivity, to tell me it’s okay, or worse yet, to do the work to fix my play?

It is the white playwright’s responsibility, any playwright’s responsibility, to know their job, to know what they are doing, to be in the world and to be aware of what it is they are writing, and why.

Watch the entire panel discussion here:

Monday, January 21, 2019

Guerrilla Theater Radio Hour (three)

"It's another dreary and miserable day in Cleaverston Heights, and just the perfect weather for a little social unrest."
- The Raghouse, Episode Four
In light of a recent event, one in which a young man in a MAGA hat leered at a Native American Vietnam Vet at the Lincoln Memorial, several took to Twitter to shame those who were outraged, to wit; "Oh, this outrages you?"

They would go on to delineate several, previous examples of human rights violations against native people that presumably have not aroused outrage, not to the extent this viral image has.

This public shaming of those who are selectively outraged -- why? What is the point? The moment itself is outrageous enough, what does calling the reaction to the moment into question do but create confusion?

Like some right-wing website announcing the TRUTH of this HOAX by providing the UNEDITED VIDEO, which no one is actually meant to watch because if they did they would see the same thing, it’s the headline that counts.

But as to this idea of selective outrage -- oh, now you’re outraged? No, I am not outraged now. I’m not some middle-aged white liberal guy who just cuts and pastes sad stories, playing into Big Media’s lazy narrative.

I’ve been outraged for twenty-eight years, twenty-eight years this week, in fact. Ever since I saw the outpouring of glee on behalf of a large and loud segment of the students at my school burst into celebration the evening the Persian Gulf War began, January 17, 2001.

For three nights they took to the streets -- took over the streets! To celebrate a war. I had been on the fence in the past, but that night I became an activist, and even though I do not spend as much energy as others on liberal causes, I have striven to remain educated, aware and vocal.

Revisiting the Guerrilla Theater Radio Hour has been an ear-opening experience. I forgot we talked like that. Sure, we spent plenty of time criticizing popular television and complaining about parking tickets, but there were also discussions about rBGH, air pollution and yes, even twenty-five years ago, the use of excessive deadly force against African-American males by the Cleveland Police Department.

The best script I wrote for the program was the fourth episode of The Raghouse (see link, above.) That series was set in and around a coffee house, frequented by an array of then twenty-something Generation X stereotypes. The stories were often just an attempt to cram as many hip, early 90s buzzwords into fifteen minutes as possible.

For this episode, however, I took the focus off the main character, Biggles Malone (just as well, too, as you can tell I had lost my voice when we recorded this episode) and handed it to Satch, who carried the narrative into the realm of social justice and activism. What this episode has to say about what white people choose to get outraged over -- and what they do not -- has unfortunately withstood the test of time.

Not to ring my bell too loud, the episode also included an ugly racial stereotype, a one-off joke that I thought was pretty funny at the time, but am now entirely ashamed to have written and broadcast. It has been edited out of this sound file.

Have a good Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Entry Point (2019)

Writing down the words.
For the third year, Cleveland Public Theatre has produced Entry Point, a kind of weekend fringe festival where you can experience anywhere from one full length to maybe five, fifteen minutes vignettes in the course of a single evening.

These are all new works, or work in development, staged simply but professionally, and an important part of each of the three nights (Thursday through Saturday) are the tightly curated and brief post-performances feedback sessions.

Two years ago I was an actor at Entry Point, in someone else’s piece. Last year I wrote a piece with Chennelle. This year I was invited to facilitate a couple evenings of post-show discussion.

The post-show talkback, for better or worse, has become a modern theatre event, or perhaps I should say add-on, or thing. The pre-show discussion (usually more like a lecture than a chat) is a staple at companies like Cleveland Play House, Great Lakes Theater and Dobama, providing context and knowledge for the show. These are quite popular even though they can turn a three-hour evening into a four-hour one.

The post-show talkback is for the die-hard theatergoer (one who would could to sit some more rather than immediately grab a drink, which is what I usually need to do) to discuss the issues raised in the production, or in the case of a new work, to provide a response which the creator may find useful.

The post-performance discussions I managed on Thursday and Friday evenings were very different experiences. There were fewer folks in general on Thursday night, and the moment I stepped out to begin at least half of the audience got up to dash onto the next thing, which is fine, you can do that, but I was left reaching for a response from a small number of people.

I’m okay with silence. My job is teaching actors how to lead discussions with reluctant or disinterested children. But I was taken aback by the large number of those who did not even choose to remain.

(Full disclosure: I, too, will dash from post-show discussions, especially when the audience is mostly white; confirmation bias is a thing and I don’t need to sit among a bunch of middle-aged Caucasians affirming their own personal goodness. But, I digress.)

Because this is a creative process, and a creative evening, which Raymond, the artistic director, makes very clear at the beginning of the evening with an opening speech in the lounge which has become a delightful tradition. The audience is here to bear witness. It’s why you drove in this weather to get here.

Friday was much different, with full houses, and even at those performances at the end of the evening that had fewer attendants (folks were ready to get that drink on) they stayed and responded with enthusiasm and spirit. There’s a part where the facilitator is to write down words that the piece inspires (see photo, above) and I could barely keep up, they just kept coming at me. The playwrights must have been delighted.

The biggest challenge for me was the taking in of commentary without offering my own viewpoint. In the residency program we engaged the comment, and then play devil's advocate, pressing for alternate viewpoints of challenging assumptions. The job here was to encourage thought, field response, and move on. I deeply hope these post-performance events were helpful to these artists.

Yesterday afternoon Cleveland Public, in association with Howlround and the Dramatists Guild presented a brace of panel discussion in the James Levin Theatre, and it was exciting to see how full the audience was, especially with the impending storm.

Next up: Who Owns The Story?

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Guerrilla Theater Radio Hour (two)

We recorded Sunday mornings.
My last post describes how the Guerrilla Theater Radio Hour came to be. The drama series we produced for the program include: 

The Abnormal Doctor Boomer by Torque 

Dr. Frank Litigious Boomer is a disgusting, drooling, perverted old scientist, and the hero of these tales.

Most of the action involves his sycophantic assistant, Daniel Quick, getting into situations where he can test formulas developed by The Doctor that are meant to cure society of ills such as abortion, homosexuality, political dissent and Spanish.

The Raghouse by Tower

Biggles Malone, a member of “The 13th Generation” is a slacker and a nobody. He and his erstwhile “love interest” Malekha and his best "acquaintance" Satch insult each other and sit around and waste time at The Raghouse, a local coffee emporium.

The Adventures of Annie Gordon by Beemer 

Annie Gordon is a sensitive, young, professional woman, working as a manager at Harlow’s Department Store in Manhattan. Annie serves as a model for the right way to behave as a mature adult, whether dealing with her back-biting co-worker Stacey Petrillo, her gay co-worker Steve, her bigoted boss Mr. Harlow -- or falling in love with DJ Paul Travis.

Digit, Torque, and that amazing door.
There were also these three introductory episodes, produced near the end of our history:

Lucy Bontelle, Private Eye by Gooch, a classic, hard-boiled detective story set in a fictional past where women are aggressively dominant and the men aren’t. Lucy Bontelle is a hard-drinking, fast-loving private dick who falls for Donneyboy, a gangster’s moll.

I expanded on an old comic strip I’d created in college, and produced The Turtleneck, which was going to be a fast-paced and very short piece (ten minutes an episode, tops) about Maxwell Peavey who, through a circumstance (unfortunately similar to the one John Ritter found himself in in Hero At Large) becomes a reluctant costumed avenger.

Finally, Torque wrote The Plight of Mister Martin, an amazing Brechtian homage. In it Mr. Martin stands up to the Corporate Manager and loses his job -- but for entirely selfish reasons. His destitute wife June  leaves him to grovel with the Whore and takes up Martin’s sledgehammer.

With original music by Torque, hand-made sound effects created by Torque and myself during a fun afternoon in the ‘RUW studio, highly-stylized and tightly-written satire, Mr. Martin was inarguably the best piece we ever made. And, regrettably, the last.

Many thanks to Thom Cechowski for loaning me his Kenwood cassette deck to make these recordings possible!

Next up: The Raghouse!

Friday, January 11, 2019

Guerrilla Theater Radio Hour (one)

Torque & Gooch in "The Shower"
This year marks several notable twenty-five year anniversaries, a lot of stuff happened in 1994.

I directed my first Shakespeare, my wife and I began dating. And on January 28, 1994, the Guerrilla Theater Radio Hour debuted on WRUW 91.1 FM.

We were still producing a weekly political revue in Tremont with (‘ud’s me) four performances every Friday and Saturday, but we had also started messing around with some brief radio dramas for the station during the past year and requested a slot. We got the thirty-minute slot on Friday nights at seven, hence the name.

Any particular episode would be recorded earlier the same week, consisting of a produced episode penned by a member of the company, and gab about recent events. We pretended it was live, despite the fact that we would remind the audience that we would be there at The Actors’ Gym to open the doors for Mind Your Own Business pretty much exactly when the radio show concluded.

No one asked us about it. Maybe they thought we were broadcasting from The Actors’ Gym. Maybe nobody listened.

In order to save time editing we would mix the entire thing in one take. As a result, if something went terribly wrong (like if someone said “shit” like Gooch often did when she was in the booth) we would have to start again from the beginning.

I managed the board, acting as host and basically ‘directing’ the show, partly because I had previous experience working in a radio studio, and also because I am a complete control freak.

Sound Engineer Digit
What is pretty incredible about the dramas themselves is that they sound as good as they do. Torque and I each wrote and produced three (each) at the beginning of 1993, in the Professor Street Theater, using a cassette four-track machine.

We put down the dialog, and mixed in sound effects, inventing some pretty clever noises along the way. Skulls were cracked open, people urinated on the floor, and we created a wonderful homo-erotic dream sequence that took place during an aerial dogfight.

Finally, we were able to experiment with some of the techniques we'd learned working with David Ossman!

In addition to these six episodes, we created nine more the second year, at The Actors’ Gym. These were produced in The Shower, literally one of the gang showers in the basement, with mats hung on the walls and ceiling to soak up echo and a big, ugly, amazing Frankenstein of a door, hand-crafted by Torque. He also composed and performed many original themes..

During this second year I did most of the post-production, which was more out of a desire to get them done very fast than anything else. Torque was disappointed with how I started using sound effects CDs instead of creating our own sounds. I will not disagree that the hand-made sound effects always did sound better than the pre-recorded ones.

Next up: The Episodes!