Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Blackout of 2019

Blackout sunset down West 47th Street
Just returned from “vacation” which I state in ironic quotes because it was all too brief, arriving and departing on subsequent Sundays, a good thirty-six hours spent fretting about whether and in what shape my wife, daughter and mother-in-law would arrive in the cove. Their Monday night flight our of LaGuardia had been cancelled and they spent the evening in a hotel room in Queens.

I drove to Maine with my son (my daughter had obligations at home until Monday, hence the flight) and then drove her home by way of Providence, Rhode Island. My wife is currently still on vacation with our son. I do not mind having driven both ways, as plane travel is something I have (like my father, like my father-in-law) grown to absolutely despise.

We were visiting colleges; Brown, then RISD. I have now visited five schools with the girl, feeling more like a responsible, attentive parent than I have in years. Last month we toured schools in New York City.

For her sixteenth birthday I promised her a father/daughter visit to Manhattan. Originally I was thinking maybe we would camp out all night to get tickets to SNL, which she is devoted to, but summer, the off-season, seemed much more practical. And, anyway. Schools.

Times Square
Friday, July 11

We arrived at LGA early on a week day, the flight delayed just enough that we would be unable to stop at the Airbnb to drop off our bags first. Fortunately, and by design, we each had only one bag, backpacks, which we carried for most of the day.

NYU was the first stop, which impressed her especially with each of its satellite campuses. We had not signed up to tour the studio art school, unfortunately. We did, however, have a moment to slip into Caffè Reggio on MacDougal Street for coffee and salads. I asked if it were possible to charge my phone and was politely informed that the place was so old there were no outlets except behind the bar.

I have fond memories of relaxing here during the NY Fringe in 2004, where I would run lines for I Hate This. My performance venue at that time was a walk-down, way over by 11th Avenue. There was no modern development there at the time, the forty-seat site is gone, now part of the mammoth Hudson Yards development.

We then visited Parsons School of Design. I’m such a dork my only knowledge of the place is Project Runway. At the conclusion of our tours we jumped the C train to Morningside Heights. Our host was a lovely, accommodating woman named Ruth, whose apartment was decked with independent movie posters from the 70s, and for Broadway shows starring the young Al Pacino and signed by the entire company. She is a classic New York gal.

My wife and I would no doubt have headed out for some night life, but my date was a teenager and it had been a long day, so the plan was dinner and an early start on Saturday. The sun was not yet about to set and it was hot, but hit the patio at Harlem Tavern and it was refreshing and delightful.

Mount Rushmore of Art, Eduardo Kobra
Saturday, July 12

I rose early that morning, around six, and set out to get coffee, which was surprisingly difficult. All the cafes were closed and the bodegas I checked out were not accommodating. I had to settle for Dunkin’, a street person reclining out front asked for a Boston Cream, so I got him that and also a banana for which he was much appreciative.

The girl and I then set out on a three-mile run. We were just a few blocks from Central Park, and I’d never been to the Northwest quadrant. Even when I ran the marathon in 2006 we passed the statue of Duke Ellington on the east side. Here we entered the park by the statue of Frederick Douglass and did a couple laps before heading back, freshening up and stopping by Caféine for caffeine and sandwiches.

We headed downtown to attend the Whitney Biennial. I let my daughter set the pace, and we took our time on every floor. Three hours in one art museum, viewing, taking time for coffee and water, all dictated by her interest. It was amazing. We had some fascinating conversations about the work, and about art in general. She is such an insightful young woman.

The High Line, 2012
By the time we exited it was very hot, as we mounted the steps to the High Line. The family had last visited this place in 2012, when we were attending a cousin’s Central Park wedding, so the children were much younger but she had happy memories of the place. It was much more crowded on this day, and sunny and warm.

She and I are alike in our physiology, our endurance, but I still needed to check in, make sure it wasn’t all too exhausting. We came down off the trestle to find some lunch and the folks at Don Giovanni were a joy. We had a relaxing meal, checked out a gallery, and then walked to Times Square to attend a reading at the New York Musical Festival.

Not just any reading, mind you. We were there to catch a 6 PM performance of Everything is Okay (And Other Helpful Lies) written by Melissa T. Crum and Caitlin Lewins. The first thing the girl noticed was that she recognized one of the actors from The Bold Type.

“How can she be doing that, and also doing this?” she wanted to know. I told her that’s what New York actors do.

This was the final of three shows for Everything is Okay, and it was as though the entire administrative staff from Cleveland Public Theatre was there, which was pretty cool.

"I have no mind, I'm the village idiot."
During the performance the lights dimmed dramatically, but just as swiftly came back up. Following the performance we learned the power was out on the west side. The elevators were no working and the lights were out in the stairwell. It wasn’t until we made our way to the street and we passed the enormous crowd out in front of Aladdin that I realized what this all meant -- Broadway shows were being cancelled for the evening.

The girl had wanted to do some shopping around the square, but the stores were now closed and the sidewalks were crammed with tourists and New Yorkers going, where exactly?

The trains on the west side were down, so we walked across town. I tried hailing a cab, but they were all full. We finally made it to the 6 express train, which was packed, and took us past our stop all the way to 125th Street. So, more walking, just my daughter and I strolling through Harlem on a hot Saturday night.

We weren’t sure if restaurants in the neighborhood would be open by the time we got there, and besides, she was exhausted (her FitBit reported we walked twelve miles that day) and just wanted to collapse in our room, so she picked up carry-out at the Whole Foods at West 125th and Malcolm X Boulevard.

My wife took classes at CCNY in the early 1990s and just the phrase “the Whole Foods at 125th and Malcolm X Boulevard” made her laugh. It is a different city.

It took over two hours to get to where we were staying. A real New York experience. The kitchen was in fact closed at Silvana, a Middle Eastern place I was really hoping to try -- but the folks there did serve me dolmathes to go, for which I was especially grateful. I really love New Yorkers.

Central Park Carousel, 2004
Sunday, July 13

I’m training for a marathon, and my schedule dictated a ten mile run, which I took. All through Central Park, as far south as Bethesda Terrace and including several laps around the reservoir.

The girl slept until eight, which was only proper. We had a leisurely breakfast as Les Ambassades before heading back up the the train at 125th. On our way we noticed a film shoot between Manhattan and St. Nicholas Avenues. It appeared to be a period shoot, and by the cars and costumes, I guessed it took place in the late 50s.

Later we learned it was for the new West Side Story.

Anyway, the plan was to see a Broadway show, whatever was available at TKTS. I described each show as fairly as possible, only vetoing one or two I had absolutely no interest in. I assumed she would choose a musical, but once I had described The Play That Goes Wrong as Noises Off on steroids (I had no idea if this was true, but that’s pretty much accurate) that was at the top of her list. She played Poppy in a high school production of Noises Off her freshman year.

While we waited for the matinee, we did some shopping, and took a walk through Central Park. We took a ride on the carousel … which we had last done together in 2004. Can you imagine?

Fort Tryon Park
Also, The Play That Goes Wrong is fucking hilarious.

After the show, we took the train all the way uptown, had noodles at Tampopo, and took a stroll Fort Tryon Park, just before dusk. It’s a very special place for my wife, and now it is for me, as well. Someday I look forward to taking the girl to the Cloisters. Both of the kids, actually.

Monday, July 14

We packed up to go, having one last coffee at Caféine and taking our things into a cab for Brooklyn and a tour of the Pratt Institute before flying home.

It was a delightful journey, I hope to take my son on a similar one in two years. Maybe to NYC, maybe Chicago. He really likes Chicago. I'm not trying to sell the kids on cities other than Cleveland as a place to go to school or to live and work. I just want them to know there are other cities, and that they can go where they choose.

Tomorrow, the first of August, my daughter begins soccer practice for the new school year. While the summer isn’t exactly over, it has begun to end. And we’re ready for that, too.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

On Waiting

"Ten percent is putting paint onto the canvas. The rest is waiting."
- John Logan, Red
Down East Writing Desk
My preliminary draft of The Bully of Baker Street was written over the course of three, eight-hour days ("'Banker's hours,'" also from Red.) If this is an ordinary accomplishment, I do not know. Like sex, I only know how I do it (I do not know who I am quoting there.) But it was the fastest I have ever created a rough first draft.

Except it's not. Not really. Because I have been writing it in my head for months, writing about it, in journals, on notepads, in discussion with others. I made notes, mapped the plot, turned characters this way and that in my mind, created lists.

Then, when the opportunity presented itself to write, write dialogue, I merely had to follow the plot and plan I had set out for myself. Easy-peasy.

But not complete. Because there are plot holes, there are missing scenes. There are songs to be sung, and puzzles to be crafted.

And we require simplicity. We demand clarity. And these will come. There will be an informal reading August 23. The "official" first read, September 23. Plenty of time.

Currently, we are on vacation. But the work continues. I have written no less than four plays in this location, though it's a bit challenging this year, as there are ten people staying in the cabin. In spite of anyone's best intentions, there are meals to be made, cuts to be cleaned and bandaged, errands to run, loved ones to be served sandwiches, drinks and attention.

Yet, provided a window of opportunity to consider, to edit and to revise, I see today the front porch, these children, these elders, all reading. And I am inspired to read myself.

I pick up Mr. Logan's script.

To be continued.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Musical Roadtrip

Buffalo, New York
There’s an Onion article people like to post on my Facebook page with the headline, Cool Dad Raising Daughter On Media That Will Put Her Entirely Out Of Touch With Her Generation. It came out eight years ago, folks think that just because I like to lecture them about how stupid their taste in music is that I am the kind of parent who schools his own children on what’s hip.

This is not true. My children have their own taste and quite often they are educating me. My friends on Facebook, however, have wasted their pathetic lives on garbage music, and I am doing what friends do. I am trying to help them.

As schedules panned out this summer, I would be driving one child up while my wife flies with the other. Then we switch -- children, that is. I will drive the other and she will fly.

Do I mind driving both ways? Heavens, no. I have developed a healthy aversion to air travel and really like to road. And hotels and dining in unique, interesting restaurants.

The boy, age fourteen, likes music. He plays the drums and bass (stand up, and electric) and listens to his phone. When he hears a song that interests him on the radio, he will look it up on Spotify and add it to a massive playlist of all of his favorite songs.

And that’s the thing. Like a lot of kids his age (though certainly not all) he doesn’t own copies of music. He has no CD player, he has a speaker for his phone, though he prefers earbuds. He does not subscribe to a premium channel, so when he does listen to playlists they are broken up with ads, and when he listens to “albums” he’s actually hearing it shuffled up, often with other “related” songs dropped in. And more ads.

So, my plan was to pull together a collection of CDs to listen on the trip -- entire albums, played all the way through. He gave me a list to get from the library, I chose several from my collections, and we would go back and forth, choosing albums.

The trip was much more exciting, if somewhat disturbing in places, and he rarely looked at his phone the entire trip, which I take as a major victory.

In every single case, whether we were listening to his choice or mine, these were albums he had never listened to all the way through before. Here they are, presented in the order we listened to them, accompanied by brief commentary. He’s O, I am D.

Saturday, Cleveland to Syracuse

The Cure: Disintegration
O: Funky, psychedelic jam band. Weird. There were few lyrics, leaving more space for music.

Pup: Morbid Stuff
D: Surprised it was such much about relationships. Triumphal, yet aggressively emotional.

De La Soul: De La Soul Is Dead
O: Inspired, they had so much to say about the people who misunderstood them.

System of a Down (eponymous)
D: Intense, tight, and dramatic. Old school pun and metal.
O: The first five songs are bangers.

Barenaked Ladies: Gordon
O: They seem like funny guys.
D: Some day I need to write a paper about this album. It won’t be pretty.

Soul Coughing: Ruby Vroom
O: It’s weird and funky and the drum beats are cool and it’s very musical and the bass is fantastic.

Sunday, Syracuse to Friendship

Ben Folds Five: Whatever and Ever Amen
O: The guy who wrote Dear Evan Hansen listened to a lot of Ben Folds.

Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP
O: He straight up says what he doesn’t like about things.

Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
D: This is where my education began.
O: My dad grew up in Bay Village.

Rage Against the Machine (eponymous)
D: Still painfully relevant. Paul Ryan is a chump.
O: Really good debut album right up there with Pup’s.

Elvis Costello & the Attractions: Trust
O: This is like all the music I like. I like the band, I like him.

Beastie Boys: Ill Communication
O: Shows their punk background. Really embracing that distorted microphone.

The Police: Zenyatta Mondatta
O: The whole album is a greatest hits collection.

Mike Doughty performs Ruby Vroom at the Beachland Ballroom on Friday, October 25, 2019.

Friday, July 19, 2019

The Women of Baker Street

Irene Adler
Five years ago courts concluded (and not for the first time) that the stories and characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle written prior to 1923 are in the public domain, freely available for any artist to write about or interpret without fear of copyright infringement.

(The Doyle estate did go on to press the creators of the 2015 film Mr. Holmes that they had used details about Sherlock’s retirement referred to in stories written after 1923, which illustrates how legal issues continue.)

I could adapt almost any of the classic Sherlock Holmes adventures. I have chosen instead to create an entirely new mystery, one which will, ideally, fit neatly into the established timeline of events as set down by the original author.

Why a new adventure? Simply put -- women. The only recurring female character in Sherlock Holmes is Mrs. Hudson, the landlady at 221B Baker Street.

Contemporary adaptations, like the BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and the two Guy Ritchie films, chose to inflate the character of Irene Adler into that of Holmes’ romantic opposite, though she appears in only one Doyle story and the characters have no such relationship.

Today we expect, in fact require, strong female characters. This is not a matter of political correctness, it is merely a fact. My daughter never held any interest in the Star Wars films until Rey was introduced. I never told her which books to enjoy, she always gravitated toward compelling women (Hunger Games) and has entirely avoided weak ones (Twilight).

"Treasure Island"
Great Lakes Theater (2019)
Our last two outreach tours, freely adapted by Eric Schmiedl from the classic novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Treasure Island, illustrate the challenge in finding compelling female models in 19th century adventure tales. You can cast women to play Huck and Jim Hawkins to great effect (and we did), but the actual women characters in these stories are only docile mothers and silly girls.

Having decided to create compelling women for this Holmes play, the question was how to do this and still maintain the authentic structure and feel of a Sherlock Holmes narrative. Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, Moriarty, Mycroft -- principals characters all. In order to introduce new characters, most would need to be absent, to make way. How to do that without losing what is intrinsic to the legend?

Of course, what is most iconic is the man himself. But could we create a female narrator -- not a women playing Watson (as Lucy Liu does in the successful, modern American TV adaptation) but a new character entirely? How will that work?

And who is the bully of Baker Street?

To be continued.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Cat and the Canary (film)

I have adapted Agatha Christie mysteries for the stage, The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Secret Adversary. However, it was my older brother Henrik who was mystery-obsessive. It was he who introduced me to Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen, and he was quite an expert on Sherlock Holmes.

I say he “introduced” me because though throughout my childhood these tales were in the atmosphere, I didn’t take an interest. I wasn’t into puzzles and plotting, and to be honest, mysteries scared me. Someone’s dead -- and we don’t know why or how it happened? The unknown is horrifying to me.

I understand that it is the solution to mysteries than many find so reassuring, they bring order to chaos, and suggest that every problem has an answer, that all loose ends will eventually be tied. These people are also probably have religion for the same reason.

I always flash back to that moment when the victim is dying, perhaps violently, shocked, and afraid and alone. The tragedy itself is not made softer by there existing an explanation. Perhaps I am an atheist for the same reason.

My brother took me to this film once -- twice, actually. He would have been fourteen, I was only ten. We went twice on two different days, probably over a weekend. Maybe we took the bus, maybe my parents dropped us at the mall, can’t remember, I was ten. The film was Cat and the Canary, a stylish, period remake of a film made famous as a Bob Hope picture in the 30s. This 1978 version was considerably more bloody. Grisly. It was the seventies.

Cat and the Canary is one of those "bumped-off-one-at-a-time" mysteries in which the house itself is the murder weapon. I was fascinated by the twists and turns, the disappearances, the horrible, clever ways people were separated from each other, and then craftily dispatched. I was also horrified. I was unable to sleep. I was terrified someone would come through my window or stab me through the bed.

My brother was scolded for taking me to see it, to see it twice. I protested that I had asked him to take me to see it again, and so attention was turned to me. I was made to feel foolish. “If it scared you so, why would you want to see it again?”

I carried this with me as I became an adolescent and we moved into the era of the slasher film -- and cable TV. From Michael Myers to Jason Voorhees to Freddy Kruger, I abstained. I just didn’t watch them.

Now, slasher movies aren’t necessarily mysteries, but mysteries can be slasher films (see: Psycho) and I have watched each, but it is the moments of isolation and despair which frighten me the most. The Vanishing comes to mind. Never seen it, know how it ends, that’s enough to keep me awake at night.

So when it came time to adapt a Sherlock Holmes mystery into a play for children, there was more than one reason to avoid plots featuring violent crimes -- or any violence at all. When we produced Jabberwocky three years ago, there is a scene where a child confronts a bully the wrong way, by hitting back. With a stick.

It was meant to be an example of making a bad choice. And yet, talkback after talkback, this was the kids’ favorite part. It was what they best remembered, it elicited the most joyful reaction. They loved seeing that one kids hit the other kids with a stick -- and they hadn’t even seen it! The beating took place off stage, with one child character chasing the other behind a curtain and then hearing the bully cry out in pain.

Now, many of Doyle’s mysteries are murder mysteries, so it couldn’t be any of those. There are a few thefts in his tales, but none presented situations that interested me -- or more importantly, supporting characters that would interest children.

The education department brainstorm non-violent crimes, which included theft, extortion, vandalism, fraud, embezzlement, forgery, pickpocketing, arson, the receipt of stolen goods, and counterfeiting.

For the past several months, these ideas have been simmering, and I have been making notes, and reading story after story, and stringing together original ideas for a brand new mystery of my own.

Because there was one very important element lacking in all of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, and it was that which would not only set this story apart, but satisfying a great many details of the upcoming outreach tour.

Strong female characters.

To be continued.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

"Sherlock Holmes and the Bullies of Baker Street"

Plotting down the bones.
The assignment was basic, yet complex. To write a play for children, one that would engage their imaginations and also entertain, to teach empathy and important lessons in positive social behavior (to wit; an anti-bullying message), one based in literature in keeping with the education department’s mission of fostering a life-long interest in the classics.

And why not a mystery? The professional wing of our company has in recent years produced one mystery a year. We would employ a familiar character -- one in the public domain -- perhaps the most famous detective of all.

This concept was still in the “what-if” phase when my supervisor, Lisa, blurted out a fanciful title; Sherlock Holmes and the Bullies of Baker Street!

It was supposed to be a joke. There is an entire cottage industry in “bully” plays, with titles like “Bullybeard the Pirate” and “How I Stopped the Bully” or even “The Bullying Bullies of Bullyville.” I made those up, just now, off the top of my head, but search them. They may exist.

The motivation behind these works is not unwarranted. Our educators are always seeking new ways to teach empathy and stem youth violence and intimidation. But could we create a play for children which satisfies a socially conscious mission and also provide an entry point to works of classic literature?

Lisa’s title sounded iconic, and yet entirely original. Whereas I was unsure of my ability to pull so many threads into one fifty minute show -- intended for children aged five to ten -- suddenly I was imbued with interest and enthusiasm. The game, you might say, was afoot!

(“The game’s afoot,” by the way, a line now commonly associated with Doyle’s legendary consulting detective, originates as all great English writing does, from Shakespeare. It’s from Henry V, a fact I was reminded of this summer when I saw an outdoor production in Public Square.)

Shortly before the deadline to announce the tour, I decided to tweak the title a bit, to Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street.

Many Holmes mysteries state a detail of the story for the title (The Sign of the Four, The Red-Headed League) or begin “The Adventure of …” (The Adventure of the Speckled Band, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches).

With this new title, the star is up front, the verb meets (rather than the passive conjunction and) evokes thrilling early 20th century action films, and the single bully is a mystery all its own -- Who is the Bully of Baker Street?

To be continued.

Friday, July 12, 2019

"Everything is Okay (And Other Helpful Lies)" at the New York Musical Festival

For my daughter’s sixteenth birthday I promised her a weekend getaway to New York. We travel, our family travels a little, but she’s halfway through her high school years and I am not getting any younger. Taking a special trip, just the two of us, it seemed like something I would later regret not having done.

We have a freewheeling itinerary, which includes visiting schools, art museums and galleries up and down Manhattan, conditioning runs in Central Park (she for the soccer season, me for the Chicago Marathon) and who knows, maybe a show or two.

Saturday evening we’re going to Playwrights Horizons in Times Square to attend reading of Everything Is Okay (And Other Helpful Lies) by Melissa T. Crum and Caitlin Lewins, presented as part of the New York Musical Festival (NYMF).

This is particularly exciting to me, to get the opportunity to see this work. Missy and Caitlin are good friends and colleagues, Cleveland artists, and talented, rising playwrights. I have had the chance to watch this piece grow and grow at Cleveland Public Theatre, where they teamed up as Nord Family Playwright Fellows to first create this works as song cycle at Pandemonium and Entry Point, further develop it at Test Flight (I missed that one) and then receive a full production on the mainstage last fall.

Everything is Okay is a Millennial musical, chronicling two days (or nights?) in the lives of a cohort of twenty-somethings, slouching towards thirty, trying their damnedest to smile bravely through disillusionment, disappointment, and death, armed with wit, attitude, and a lot of alcohol.

What is truly impressive is how they’ve continued to shape and develop this musical. Everything is Okay has the potential for great things; it’s an urgent, contemporary work which speaks directly to the young adult generation with candor, understanding, and a great deal of humor. And the music is really good!

Having raised the necessary cash through a highly successful Kickstarter campaign and other individual donors and investors, they created a professional demo for the application to NYMF, and for their efforts received a space with nine other musicals to receive readings, directed, musical directed and performed by Equity members. For ten days, Caitlin and Missy have been present for rehearsals but also spending a great deal of time revising the work and providing daily updates to the company.

“It is crazy and beautiful and eye-opening just being writers,” Missy said. For each previous step of this journey, she and Caitlin had doubled as performers. Now they get to take it in.

I talked to them by phone Thursday morning, after they had each slept in for the first time since before Independence Day. Their first performance was Wednesday afternoon, and they unwound that night at Marie’s Crisis, a piano bar where musical theater fans gather and spend the night singing showtunes together.

“It’s like hanging out with your old high school friends,” said Missy, and I can dig it.

Just getting them on the line I had to make an appointment, as they have been rushing about, from rehearsal space to their Airbnb to various writing warrens and back again.

Caitlin, who has been to New York before and has acted as navigator and tour guide for Melissa, who hasn’t. Making their way to the rehearsal space in Times Square in ninety degree heat can dizzying and exhausting, but Caitlin has kept reminding Missy to look up. “Look! It’s Waitress!” she says.

They are intensely grateful for all of the support they have received, at home, from CPT, from all of the artists they are working with this week, especially Chloe Treat (director), Dan Garmon (musical director), Olivia Mancini (stage manager) and all the performers, with their “talented, amazing, incredible voices.” (That’s both of them saying all of that.)

One of the most significant things they have heard this week was from NYMF (pronounced “nymph”) Artistic Director, West Hyler. He remarked that Caitlin and Missy have made a musical that feels like a documentary. It’s a comment which struck them significantly, and which they carry with them. They’re in a unique position, having already had a full production, and getting to break it down and build it up again.

They have already received feedback from Wednesday’s performance, much of it supportive and helpful, though there remains this unfortunate generational divide over the content. They received such criticism in Cleveland. Christine Howey went on a tear in Scene Magazine, accusing the production of “taking navel-gazing to new heights,” wildly mixing metaphors as she bemoaned the kids these days and their focus on personal issues rather than more important things like school shootings and plastic waste in the sea.

This, from the generation who gave us The Big Chill. And plastic waste in the sea. They said the same things about we Gen Xers twenty years ago, and we’re still trying to figure it out.

“Superficial,” came one piece of written feedback from the other night. “That’s me!” said another.

Musicals with heart and empathy like Everything is Okay help us all feel less alone. And that, my friends, is the opposite of selfish.

The New York Musical Festival presents "Everything is Okay (and Other Helpful Lies)" at Playwrights Horizons in NYC through Saturday, July 13, 2019.

(Photos courtesy of Caitlin & Missy.)

Friday, July 5, 2019

"Rosalynde & The Falcon" at Culver City Public Theatre

Thieves enjoy some tasty soup.
(Photo: Nic Henry)
For the few months I spent squatting with some friends in Venice Beach, all those long years ago, I never imagined I would one day have a play I had written performed in a park, a mere twenty minute drive away.

Culver City is a bucolic oasis of calm in the midst of the Los Angeles megalopolis, the former home to MGM headquarters the city is tied to the history of American film. Hughes Aircraft was based here, today you will find Sony Pictures, NPR West, and Amazon.

This small city, incorporated independent from the city of L.A. (which surrounds it) is also the site of the Dr. Paul Carlson Memorial Park. It’s one of those one block, city parks, serving a modest residential neighborhood, the park surrounded by one-story homes, many dating back to the 1940s.

For over twenty years, Culver City Public Theatre has presented shows for child and family audiences in Carlson Park, free of charge. This summer that production is my play, Rosalynde & The Falcon.

Rosalynde & The Falcon is a mash-up of several folk tales, notably those that focus on a damsel or princess driven out of the kingdom in fear for her life and finding her way through unfamiliar surroundings. This is the basis for Snow White, but also Shakespeare’s As You Like It. There are also elements of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Little Red Riding Hood ... and a wide variety of other sources.

Originally commissioned and produced by Talespinner Children’s Theatre, this is only the second production Rosalynde has received, and my first children’s play to be remounted anywhere. And because it is such a fanciful tale, I was intensely curious about how it’s all coming together.

Rose Leisner (Rosalynde) & Ryan Hardge (Roland) rehearse.
I had a delightful conversation with director Marina Tidwell yesterday, who was not only able to share with me some of the design concepts, but also to give me a nice sense of what it’s like to attend one of CCPT’s outdoor productions.

With an uncomplicated set, meant for use in the out-of-doors for an audience of children seated on the ground and close, costumes are a significant part of communicating the story. Rosalynde is a goofy satire (in verse) and the folks at CCPT are leaning into the classic animated Disney character of Snow White; the princess Rosalynde (Rose Leisner) dressed in blue and yellow -- with a red hair bow -- when she first identifies as female, and then maintaining those signature colors when she becomes the male-presenting “Falcon.”

The script was written to accommodate a company of no fewer than six players, though so few performers requires double-casting several roles. Tidwell brought on two powerful singers to perform the several songs and to assume supernumerary roles.

When I wrote the play I included song lyrics, leaving the music up to the individual companies to create. In addition to playing the role of Rusty, Susan Stangl is the music director and has composed original tunes inspired by classic Disney songsmith Leigh Harline (“When You Wish Upon a Star”) and even an homage to Claude-Michael Schönberg (“Les Misérables”).

You know I love creating theater for the community, offered free of charge, presented out of doors on a beautiful summer’s day, and I’m just tickled to think of all the kids -- and parents -- who are going to hear my words on a warm summer afternoon in Culver City. It’s my West Coast premiere!

Culver City Public Theatre presents “Rosalynde and the Falcon” in Carlson Park, July 13 - August 4, 2019

Monday, July 1, 2019

This Band of Brothers

"What is this castle call'd?"
The transformation of Public Square has been remarkable. For four summers (the redesign officially opened in time for the 2016 Republican National Convention) folks have been playing in the fountain, dining in the shadow of the Terminal Tower, and attending performances -- and protests -- on the lawn. It’s a far cry from when the square was largely pavement and planters and nowhere to really hang out.

My friend Jeff (he who recently played The Fool in King Lear at Beck Center) and I once entertained the idea of staging free Shakespeare in Public Square. This was some fifteen or so years ago, when you would find very few establishments open in the vicinity of the Terminal Tower after four pm, any day of the week. The plan was to perform one act from some Shakespeare play every day at lunchtime. Five acts, five days. People would come back day after day to see what happens next!

People who put on plays by Shakespeare think like that.

Things downtown have changed, Public Square has changed, and I very much hoped my friends at the touring Cleveland Shakespeare Festival would add this site to their roster of performance sites. They wasted no time. Since 2017 they have produced free Shakespeare in spitting distance from the site of long-lost, 19th century Cleveland theaters such as the Lyceum and the Euclid Avenue Opera House.

Why yes, even my own production of Troilus and Cressida played there last summer, though I was out of town at the time.

Immediately following the closing, matinee performance of the aforementioned Lear (and after a farewell toast with the company; I must recount my experiences in this production soon) I hightailed it downtown to finally catch a CSF show on Public Square.

On Sunday, that performance was Henry V, in a production conceived by Kelly Elliott, the first such production of that play that CSF has attempted since their second season, twenty years ago in 1999.

Her choice to cast all women in this production is not only in keeping with adaptations in American and England and elsewhere, but a call to action to all young, male-identified performers everywhere.

In her director’s notes Kelly explains, “I did not set out thinking I was going to cast this production of Henry V with all women. But I did.” She goes on to describe a scenario I am all too familiar with; too many skilled and eager women at auditions, too few men, and those who deigned to offer their services all too confident of their inclusion in a play written for a large cast with only four named (and minor) female roles.

"Strip his sleeve and show his scars!"
HENRY V, IV, iii
So fuck it. She cast those who, apparent to me and the audience, were best suited to each role and to the ensemble. Of this there is no question. They’re great, starting with the bold, and might I say fierce, Shley Snider as young King Harry on down.

Let me mention a few things I loved about Kelly’s work on this production, her first directing for CSF, and if I am dissing all previous directors of their work that includes me, so, you know. Get over it.

PROJECTION. The show starts with the Chorus (Jenny Hoppes) beginning the performance from the back of the stage. The mics only pick up the actors onstage, she began bellowing “O, For a Muse of Fire” from the rear of the “house” and her voice carried through the crowd until she reached the front and did not need to try so hard -- though she and all other company members remembered throughout they were working al fresco and we were never at a loss for their text.

I recall a free a performance of Much Ado About Nothing in Fort Tryon Park in NYC that my wife and I saw way back in 2002, produced by Gorilla Rep. No mics. They just shouted for two hours. It was amazing. The sun went down (the show started at 8:00 PM) and the acting company used flashlights to keep each other lit. That shit was bargain basement but it was raw, it was big. They didn’t need no stinking sound system.

CSF has a sound system, but these girls were BIG, and by that I mean they filled that space.

REGARDING SOUND. The sound check alone, before the performance took some time. Kelly brought the tiring tents close, and used a curtain between them to create a close backdrop. The show was close, which hard to accomplish in an open space. And they made sure the sound system worked for the actors and the audience, that neither they nor we had to compromise.

That’s sound and also set, for those keeping track. Kelly created a tiny set, with instant entrances, the timing was excellent. I was in the middle of a wide open space and yet my focus was contained. And, as the old people like to bray, I could hear every word!

HUMOR. Jesus God. These women were funny. A playwright friend of mine made a jape recently on social media about how it’s not really Shakespeare without at least one crotch grab. We had one of those in Lear (sorry, Jeff) but they didn’t need one in Henry V. Instead, we were treated to a racy conversation from the French nobles about the merits of horse-riding which could only have been imagined by women.

It may be the best CSF production I have ever seen, and I directed Timon of Athens, which was legendary. You owe it to yourself to get out next week, and to see one of the final three performances. I recommend Tremont this Saturday because I would.

Cleveland Shakespeare Festival presents "Henry V" directed by Kelly Elliott, at various locations through July 7, 2019.