Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Twenty-Twenty

"About a Ghoul"
(Talespinner Children's Theatre, 2019)
Where did twenty years go? How did we sail blithely from marriage and plans for a productive and beautiful future to find ourselves gray and so very, very troubled?

Certainly, I blame the children. The child we lost, and those we have, those bright, living children who engage and surprise us every day.

This weekend we’re seeing Damn Yankees at the high school, and both kids are in the pit orchestra, that’s a first. I performed that show at my own high school, thirty-four years ago. The show was dated then, but today the D.C.team is actually in the World Series. How odd.

The past year has had its professional achievements,  including the “world premiere” of The Way I Danced With You, a West Coast production of Rosalynde & The Falcon that was a delightful success, as was the opening of About a Ghoul at Talespinner Children's Theatre, and the publication of Red Onion White Garlic.

Looking to the New Year, however, there are great and challenging plans “afoot” (as the man says) including the new children’s touring play Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street, to be directed by Lisa Ortenzi for Great Lakes Theater, and for which we now have a cast, a tremendous company of artists.

Also, my new play The Witches will have a workshop production in April, part of the Test Flight series at Cleveland Public Theatre. The text is still in pieces-parts, but we’re having a private reading in November and I am very excited to hear what we have aloud.

Finally, and I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but announcing something can make it true, I have applied for graduate school, which I have forestalled for over twenty years.

The truth is, though I have always assumed I would eventually seek a Masters degree, it never fit into whatever lifestyle I was pursuing at the time, but that of producer, director, actor, playwright, and also actor-teacher, education arts administrator, father of two.

And it won’t fit now. It will never fit. Because nothing fits. You just keep shoving more pieces in there.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Cloud 9 (2000)

"(It'll Be Fine When You Reach) Cloud Nine"
From left: Diane Mull, Tracey Field, Nick Koesters, Alison Garrigan, self

“I hear you are considering Cloud 9.”

This was James Mango, Artistic Director of Charenton Theater Company. The other new theater start-up, creating professional work in funky urban spaces.

We were at an event at Fadó, an Irish-themed bistro in the Flats. It was late Spring, 2000. Standing out on the boardwalk, on the banks of the Cuyahoga. The weather was perfect, the city was on the rise. The Millennium had begun (don’t argue with me about numerology) and everything was possible.

James told me Charenton was also considering that title, and proposed a co-production. I was suspicious. Not skeptical, I was suspicious.

He told me that with their management and promotional skills, the show could be a blockbuster. I asked him, what does Bad Epitaph have to offer?

He said, “The best talent in Cleveland.”

Diane Mull as Edward
Photo by Anthony Gray
Well played. He flattered me, he came to me and made a generous suggestion. I told him I’d think about it, and immediately went into overdrive, figuring out how soon we could announce the Bad Epitaph 2000-01 Season, and to secure the rights to produce Cloud 9. On our own.

Why? Arrogance, I imagine. I was thirty-two. My company was a hot property. I didn’t want to dilute it. Co-productions were not yet a thing, but they would be and very soon. James was thinking outside the box. I was being territorial. That was my first mistake.

Most of our core company was involved in the production of Cloud 9, and I will say it was the best in Cleveland. Roger Truesdell was tapped to direct. He had helmed Sin the previous fall, presented at Inside Gallery (now the site of the Bourbon Street Barrel Room) a temporary forty-seat space which sold out every performance.

Most of the spaces we had already engaged were either unavailable or defunct for that fall. I can’t tell you how many interesting spaces we had considered for Lysistrata, including the Paris Art Theatre on West 25th Street, an abandoned pornographic film house.

We could have had the Studio Theatre at Cleveland Play House, an intimate thrust space. Just a few years later Dobama would often use the space before they found their present location in Cleveland Heights.

But I got it into my head we must have a proscenium, and we found one. A sweetheart deal with the folks at Tri-C East, in Highland Heights. They had a new, state of the art facility and wanted to draw attention to it. It was a six hundred seat auditorium.

"Come Gather Sons of England"
Company from "Cloud 9"
(Bad Epitaph Theater Company, 2000)
Well, that’s very big,isn't it. But I had high hopes for attendance. All of our productions caught fire and attracted large audiences -- Hamlet, Sin, Santaland, Lysistrata, they were all selling out shortly after opening.

Also, we were generating great press! Our new was nominated for a Northern Ohio Live “Award of Achievement” for Lysistrata, and in the awards issue was a feature written by Christopher Johnston, about the company, and me in particular. Surely, Bad Epitaph was ascendant. This production would attract even greater audiences.

From the beginning, however, my best instincts told me that all of our productions should be produced within the city of Cleveland. The original mission clearly stated we would be presenting classics and important contemporary drama in an urban setting. Now, we were moving into a cavernous space, way out at the intersection of Interstates 271 and 480. That was my second mistake.

The acting company included regulars Nick Koesters, Tom Cullinan, Alison Garrigan, Chris Bohan, myself, were joined by actors new to Bad Epitaph, Diane Mull and Tracey Field. A raked set was designed by Don McBride, spectacular light effects were created by Greg Owen-Houk, and our house composer, Dennis Yurich, created original music.

The production was set in both 1880 and 1980, nice round numbers. What had originally been a contemporary second act was now itself a period piece, which began with a news report on a London pop station (Sarah Morton as the DJ) and a brief snatch of the title song as though interpreted by XTC.

Our version of the complete song, sung by the company, was much more wistful. It begins with Gerry (Nick) singing the first verse solo, before being joined by Lin (Alison), then myself and Diane -- the Edwards -- and the song builds and builds until everyone is on stage, singing. During the climax we are all dancing, but we are each dancing by ourselves.


Roger created a beautiful picture postcard, exactly what I hoped the production would be. It closed with a signature Truesdell moment, with glitter and confetti showering onto Betty 1980 (Tracey) and Betty 1880 (Nick) as she has finally found herself.

And the reviews were positive, pointing up the strengths of our production, and also its failings. Tony Brown for the Plain Dealer commented that the “too-large theater ... dilutes the intimacy.” Imagine if we staged this at the Studio, or in another welcoming art gallery. Brown also called our production “a perverse sort of children’s theater for adults.” I’m not sure he meant that as a compliment, but I will take it as one.

The critics agreed that this script had come into focus into the intervening twenty years. Free Times critic James Damico claimed Churchill’s text, “never convincingly coheres or evolves dramatically … held together solely by the consistency of its anti-establishment criticisms." But he also said that time and our “resourceful and energetic production” had considerably “considerably depoliticize[d] and clarif[ied] the play’s properties.”

Which is another way of saying we took the rough edges off. The headline for the PD review was “Strong message is sugared in 'Cloud Nine'.” Indeed.

Now, and I can’t remember why I thought this was a good idea … we had a pre-opening night preview. That is not unique. However, there was no admission, In fact it was promoted as FREE. A free performance, the night before we opened!

Tracey Field, Nick Koesters
This is all well and good if you are only telling friends and family. But we promoted it. Because I felt we needed strong word-of-mouth, and what better way than to paper the preview? And people came! Our free preview was a big hit, all our friends and family came! It was the largest house we had for the entire run.

What the fuck? What was I thinking? Am I some kind of Communist? We had an entire weekend of previews for Lysistrata (I was terrified it would suck and I wanted time to make massive changes, which it turns out I did not have to do) but still we charged admission for them.

There were over fifty people there for the preview, their number dwarfed by a sea of seats. We didn’t even ask for a donation on the way out. This was my third and final mistake.

I loved this play, I wanted to return to a text that had so inspired me as I began my journey as a theater artist. And we did it just right. And audience size varied widely ... between ten and fifteen people.

One night, after another inspiring and poorly-attended performance, I drove to Cleveland Heights to catch the last half of Angst:84, a new play by my wife, Toni K. Thayer, at my old haunt, Dobama’s Night Kitchen.

I snuck into a seat in the back row on the far left side of the house, which was nearly sold out. An audience composed largely of teenagers and young adults, exactly the demographic for which I had created this project five years earlier. But I’d never produced such a popular show for the Night Kitchen.

I was happy for her. I was jealous. I was sad. I missed this. I was an adult, soon to be a father (or so I thought) and I had moved onto adult projects. But I still wanted to be back here, in the basement, in a great neighborhood, making exciting art for a young audience.

And yet, and you will have to take my word on this, over the years several have told me they did see our production of Cloud 9, and how much it meant to them. I get those comments about this show more than anything else Bad Epitaph produced.

Sources:
Strong Message is sugared in 'Cloud Nine' by Tony Brown, The Plain Dealer, 10/23/2000
Clearing the Clouds; Bad Epitaph works wonders with 'Cloud 9' by James Damico, The Free Times, 11/1-7/2000

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Cloud 9 (1986)

"Cloud 9" by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Deborah Nitzberg
Set Design by Fred Duer
(Ohio University School of Theater, 1986)
Recently, my wife noticed that I sometimes do not include my role as Artistic Director of Bad Epitaph Theater Company in my biography. Bad Epitaph operated (more or less) from 1999 until 2004. We had many great artistic triumphs, and a few failures. I feel my work as titular head of the company to be its Achilles' heel, and am therefore loathe to cite that responsibility as a credit.

Take for example our production of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 in the year 2000. A fine production, from an artistic standpoint; the direction, performers, all elements of design including original music and sound. Exactly the attention to detail we had been striving for in the eighteen months we had been working together as a team.

And audiences stayed away and we lost all the profits we had raked in from our acclaimed production Lysistrata. What happened?

To answer that question, I need to go back to my first semester at college.

For every theater artist there’s that show you saw that changed everything, that made you realize the full potential of what theater could be, and why it is an art form unique from all others. For me, that was Cloud 9.

First produced at the Royal Court in 1979, with a Broadway run in 1981 at the Theatre de Lys, (now the Lucille Lortel) Churchill’s work was part of the 1986-87 Season at the Ohio University School of Theatre. It was produced in repertory with Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.

Now get this: I was a freshman. I had decided to pursue a degree in acting. As a child my parents had taken me to plays and to musicals, which each seemed very different to me. I liked musicals and found a lot of plays to be boring. Not necessarily unenjoyable, just not exiting. And yet I wanted to perform in them.

Today I love watching plays, and do not find performing in them to be enjoyable. We change.

Of course, my knowledge of what a play is was quite limited. So many of the works I had seen at local theaters or performed in at high school were not new. You Can’t Take It With You. Blithe Spirit. The Importance of Being Earnest. The works of Shakespeare. To my mind, that was the majority of work an actor would do, the canon.

From left: Matthew Glave, Kevin McCarty, Alana Beth Lipp
Costume Design by William Anderson
All incoming freshman were required to take Introduction to Theatre Criticism, led at that time by the legendary Al Kaufman. A very important course, especially for a callow youth like myself, we learned the language of artistic evaluation. You like it (or you don’t) but can you articulate why?

We were told to read Cat On a Hot Tin Roof before attending the performance, but not to read Cloud 9. How does reading a play beforehand color your reception of the work? How does coming to the work without expectations?

Like a lot of my classmates, we were disheartened by this production of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. It wasn’t very good. Some performances were downright awful. Was that all right? Could we say that? Al assured us that we could.

I became concernedabout the next four years. Is that what this school has to offer?

Then I saw Cloud 9. And my head burst open.

In brief, this play is a satire on British colonialism and mores and how the past is never past. Churchill plays with form, setting the first act in 1880s in Africa, and the second act in 1979 in London … but to the characters, members of one British family and those in their community, it has only been twenty-five years.

This gap in time is not explained. It just is, and no one questions it.

It begins as some kind of British farce, the gender reversals (mother played by a man, the young son played by a woman) easily dismissed as a kind of funny panto. That is, until the highly-anticipated arrival of a famous explorer breaks the thin veneer of gentility. He attempts to seduce the mother, then the son, and finally gains his satisfaction with the African servant Joshua.

“Shall we go into the barn and fuck?” asks the explorer, and they bound off, hand-in-hand. It was hilarious, and shocking, and a release. And my idea of what theater could be changed forever.

I was stunned by the play’s frank use of language, and how it addresses issues of homosexuality, feminism, domestic abuse, drag, pedophilia, incest. But the play also created in me a deep sense of longing, desire, and disappointment. If the first act was arch comedy, the second act was more troubling, as the now-adult children, freed from Victorian restrictions, struggle to understand who they are.

What did it all mean? I did not have the words, the experience to express the feelings this production aroused in me. It was 1986. I was just eighteen years old.

From left: Kevin McCarty, Cynthia Collins
Alana Beth Lipp, Joseph Hulser
In the middle of the second act, the company breaks the fourth wall to sing to the audience, a song called "Cloud 9." In this production, the lyrics were in a capella harmony, like a street corner, doo-wop melody.
The wife lover’s children
And my lover’s wife
Cooking in my kitchen
Confusing my life
And it’s upside down when you reach Cloud Nine.
It was a sexy-sassy rendition, and I was jealous. I wanted to be them. The actors, I mean, I wanted to be performing in a show like that.

More troubling to me now are the many difficult turns my personal life was about to take and I wonder if I missed the lesson of the story, that liberation does not necessarily make us happy.

In the New York Times, Frank Rich called Cloud 9 “sentimental agitprop,” and while he didn’t mean that kindly, I wish I had had those words to include in my essay for Dr. Kaufman. As a playwright, I have become a champion of sentimental agitprop. It's what I do.

Moving ahead twelve years, I developed a desire to direct a production of Hamlet with all those artists I had met and grown close to during the previous several years. And maybe someday I will write about that production.

In brief, it was a success. We decided to produce a new play, Sin by Wendy MacLeod, and also the first Cleveland production of The Santaland Diaries, both successes. Finally, in spring 2000 we produced Lysistrata, which was a huge success.

I was happy to skip from production to production under the banner of Bad Epitaph, after Hamlet’s warning not to offend actors; “After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.” It was a moniker which invited abuse and I was all for it.

From left: Raeleen McMillion, Cynthia Collins
Kevin McCarty, Alana Beth Lipp
We were compelled to create a season. I say “we” because I am almost sure I would rather not have done so, better to just produce a play when there’s a play you want to produce. It had worked so far. But suddenly we were in competition -- or perceived that we were -- by another upstart company, Charenton Theater Company, a name even more pretentious than our own.

Charenton’s first few offerings were mid-to-mid-late twentieth century classics like Waiting for Godot and American Buffalo. Works that say, “I haven’t read a play since college.”

And what did I do? I chose to kick off Bad Epitaph’s first full season with the most memorable play I had seen in college, Cloud 9.

To be continued.

Photos courtesy of Alana Byington

Source: Sexual Confusion On ‘Cloud 9’ by Frank Rich, The New York Times, 5/20/1981

Monday, October 7, 2019

Tyrant, Shakespeare On Politics (book)

Angela Merkel, on vacation, reading "Tyrant."
Stephen Greenblatt, American author of the acclaimed Will In the World, was apparently so entirely disturbed by the election of Donald J, Trump that he swiftly produced a brief examination of Shakespeare’s villains (189 pages) and how they each compare to the current occupant of the White House.

Tyrant, Shakespeare on Politics, was released on May 8, 2018, and even at that point it was easy to see what kind of President Trump was going to be, as if that were not previously evident. Though he never names the President, his thesis is clear, with every chapter and every would-be emperor described, accurately for the most part, with precisely the same language many have used to describe Trump.

He calls Jack Cade, leader of a populist uprising in Henry VI Part 2, a “loud-mouthed demagogue” possessing an “indifference to the truth, shamelessness, and hyperinflated self-confidence.”

Shakespeare's Richard III “divides the world into winners and losers” and “is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it … because it gets in his way.”

Macbeth has “a compulsive need to prove his manhood, dread of impotence … a fear of failure.” These psychological cues explain his “penchant for bullying, the vicious misogyny” and “explosive violence.”

Surprisingly, Greenblatt spends few words on the character of Julius Caesar, who, of all of Shakespeare’s monarchs, has been the one most often directly compared to Trump, for all of each man's vanity, poor health, and weakness for flattery at the same time ferociously protesting their own god-like inability to be manipulated.

Instead, this author focuses, as the play does, on the character of Brutus, and his desire to preempt disaster and assassinate Caesar before he attains absolute rule. Shakespeare’s lesson, it is clear, is that violent overthrow, no matter how pure the intent, is never pure, and impossible by design; an oxymoron in action.

“Real-world actions grounded on noble ideals,” Greenblatt suggests, “may have unforeseen and ironic consequences.”

Carole Healey as Julius Caesar
Photo: Roger Mastroianni
(Great Lakes Theater, 2019)
Published almost a year before the release of the Mueller Report, Greenblatt also provides a warning; that, though investigation and the possibility of impeachment is not a violent act, subverting the will of the electorate will always be suspect, and probably futile, even if you believe it would be the poorer choice to do nothing at all.
“The attempt to avert a possible Constitutional crisis, were Caesar to decide to assume tyrannical powers, precipitates the collapse of the state. The very act that was meant to save the republic turns out to destroy it. Caesar is dead, but by the end of the play Caesarism is triumphant.”
As it happened, the Mueller investigation came to a close without touching Trump nearer, finding that while a foreign power certainly offered Citizen Trump political assistance during the 2016 election, there was not definitive proof that he accepted it.

It should surprise no one who has been paying attention that we are now mired in a nearly identical circumstance, with definitive proof that President Trump himself has solicited political assistance from (at least) one foreign power for the 2020 election.

Impeachment now increasingly likely, looking into the works of Shakespeare may be a direful predictor of future events.

Great Lakes Theater presents "Julius Caesar" directed by Sara Bruner at the Hanna Theatre through November 3, 2019

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

"I'm Alive You Bastards And I Always Will Be" produced by Nightbloom Theatre Company

Photo: Steve Wagner
Tonight I am going to see the premiere production of a new Cleveland theater company, I’m Alive You Bastards And I Always Will Be, written by Roxie Perkins and presented by Nightbloom Theatre Company. And I’m scared. And I’m thrilled.

The company promises risk-taking work but doesn’t everyone promise risk-taking work? However, this production promises adult themes, strong language, violence, and references to sexual violence.

Most stage violence I have experienced of late is either cartoon gore (your B-movie musicals, for example) or a couple of dickheads punching each other stupid in this month’s toxically masculine, “kick ass” play. None of them inspire anything close to actual fear. Neither, for that matter, does Sleep No More.

The most popular example of shock theatre is the Grand Guignol. Before the advent of splatter films (also, World War II) middle class French audiences got a kick out Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris, where on any given evening they could expect to see half a dozen short plays utilizing grotesque and realistic stage effects to portray short dramas of torture, crime, and madness -- there were comedies, too, primarily on the subject of cuckolding.

It has been a long time since I have experienced anything truly creepy, weird or startling. I witnessed Die Hanswurst Klown present Prick Us And We'll Burst in Chicago almost twenty-five years ago, an evil clown show developed by a troupe of improvisers. The program was designed in such a way as to make you believe this was a real troupe of East German clowns, only the very last sentence of the performer bios suggested who the actor actually was.

From my journal, July 9, 1995:
Unbelievable. Helmut Voelker, with the big forehead, unwavering, glassy-eyed stare and gaped mouth, piercing high laugh, he couldn’t break eggs except on his head, he was so frightening and pitiful, REMEMBER HIM … like a wild animal. He frightened me. And when his hand was hit by a mallet or his penis was cut off, or his gift of a rose was refused, he howled and cried so pitifully, it made me feel terrible ...
Die Hanswurst Klown
Yeah, one of the other clowns severed Helmut’s penis ... while he was having sexual relations with a pumpkin. Blood spurted into the air.
Standing on a ladder, he made a solo, mournful, articulate soliloquy to the moon. This one expression of love was the only time he spoke during the entire show.

And it was in German.
Late during the history of Guerrilla, I had proposed reconfiguring the entire concept. In spite of our “game show” structure of introducing short plays, the whole endeavor still felt (to me) like a Too Much Light knock-off. What if we made an actual set, evoking a demented cabaret, with each of us developing alter-egos which we would maintain week after week, and that it would be these performers presenting the short plays?

From my proposal, June 1993:
“Maison de Foux” ... I picture a dinner theater trying to stay open after the city has been carpet bombed. Charred doorways, curtains askew, a big sign of lights proclaiming the name of the show, with a few bulbs missing or burned out … walls adorned with water damaged posters of rock stars, politicians and movies ...

While the audience is still meant to feel as though they are an integral part of what goes on, they are no longer encouraged to believe they own the place.
Nothing came of that idea, at least not at Guerrilla. The concept was revived in a somewhat different form for Night Kitchen.

Backstage with "The Gaslight Guignol"
Erin Meyers, Mike Schmidt, self
Jenna Weiss, Toni K. Thayer
This Vicious Cabaret was my attempt at an evil clown show, a post-apocalyptic comic nightmare in which a band of roving performers acted danced and sang for their supper (we literally accepted non-perishable food items in lieu of payment). Global warming had led to massive water shortages and the collapse of civilization as we know it.

The evening culminated with an audience member being chosen to join the company, but also having to choose which member of the original company would have to be killed to maintain balance. My character, Serious George, the most horrible of our quintet, was prepared with a knife to slit the throat of whoever was chosen. In case it was me, Mister Alfred (Mike Schmidt) would sneak up behind, grab my knife hand and do the deed.

I had palmed a blood packet, so the knife wound was particularly ghastly, a fine conclusion to a dark evening. Sometimes the packet would “pop” and blood would shoot across the stage.

Tonight, Nightbloom Theatre Co. has promised such effects as extreme, prolonged stage violence, punching, kicking, head trauma, eye gouging and gouts of blood. The play I’m Alive You Bastards is a feminist warning or threat: What will happen when the lid finally blows off of women’s collective efforts to suppress rage and anger? What happens when women transform into their monsters they have held inside?

The wake of the #meToo Movement has brought to the fore a new genre of unapologetically and aggressively feminist plays, like Mathile Dratwa’s A Play about David Mamet Writing a Play about Harvey Weinstein and Sharai Bohannon’s Punching Neil LaBute project. These are exciting creative developments.

So when I say I am scared to attend this show, it’s not really the stage violence I am afraid of. We know that’s fake. A surprise is titillating, that’s why we go to haunted houses. It’s the ideas, and the expression of those ideas which fill me with anticipatory dread.

Nightbloom Theatre Co. presents "I'm Alive You Bastards And I Always Will Be" at Maelstrom Collective Arts through Sunday, October 6, 2019



Happy birthday, Alice Bluegown. We remember.

Source: Crash Course Theatre #35: The Horrors of the Grand Guignol