Thursday, December 31, 2020

DDT-V (revisited)

The DDT-V All-Stars
(Can you spot Doug Dieken?)

Fred kept us honest. Any expression of ego was roundly mocked. We were kids, making a cheap comedy show. 

DDT-V (“Lethal Television”) was created by high school and college students, and broadcast intermittently on our community access channel from 1983 to 1986. It was a collection of sketches, fake news shows, and a lot of commercial parodies.

Fred was the driving force, no matter what any of the rest of us thought. He wrote most of the sketches, did so many of the voice-overs, even appeared in front of the camera a couple times.

After he died from a heart attack two years ago (on my fiftieth birthday, as it happened, thanks, Fred) I came into possession of the archive of our work.

Some of it holds up surprisingly well. And even where the humor is a bit obtuse, at least it has style. We used every square foot of the studio building, went all over Bay Village, hosted an entire episode from a booth in the North Olmsted Denny’s, did a location shot outside Cleveland Municipal Stadium downtown. 

When we held a charity baseball game against the high school faculty to raise funds for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, our team had a ringer in the recently retired Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Doug Dieken.

Cartoon, The Bay Window
March, 1986
Watching these episodes I am able to track my development from a self-conscious freshman to a cocksure senior, which is a blessing and a curse. The one big regret I have, looking back, is that I never wrote anything for the show. That’s not true, I wrote one sketch that was recorded and aired. It’s not great.

I was intimidated. I didn’t know how it was done. Most significantly, I had nothing, at last, to say. I still believe that, at that age, I actually did not have anything of value to say. Or I did not know if I did. Most of what I did write and put out into the world, in the form of op-eds for the weekly high school paper, took the form of snark and grievance.

My editorial cartoons weren’t bad, however. They improved by the year. I suppose there is a lesson in that, that if I had tried to write, at that time, I would eventually come up with something worth being produced.

I guess that is exactly what I have been doing ever since. 

Wishing you creativity and happiness in 2021!

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Christmas This Year

We have a modest house. Three small bedrooms, one and a half bath. Some would call it a “starter home” but I have lived here since I was 24 and I believe I will some day die here. I hope so, to be honest, if I had to choose between that and somewhere else. 

And yet, this was the very first year I have ever had Thanksgiving dinner in my own home. Always at my parents’ house -- including last year -- on the other side of town. Or at my wife's folk's place. Never here. That changed this year, for obvious reasons. And the only Christmas morning I have spent here was in 2002, when my wife was expecting our January-born daughter.

So. A modest home. I love it here. But it’s not very big. And this year many of the things that would otherwise happen elsewhere are happening here. And it's taking up space.

We often wrap presents at my mother-in-law's house, to be doled out to nieces and nephews and other relations in person on Christmas Day. Our dining room has become not only this year’s wrapping central, but also the site for packing boxes for shipping, most of which has thankfully already been completed.

Normally, those presents that wrapped pre-travel would be stashed away somewhere, waiting to be stacked into our car. This year they are crowded under our usually present-free tree. They are stacked high, off to one side of the tree, or we would not be able to navigate the fireplace and the furniture of our living room.

There is also a cache of snack sized bags of chips and mini cans of coke and water and bars to put out for the delivery workers, postal workers, UPS, FedEx, Amazon, who stop by two, three, four times a day, working overtime to ship things which otherwise might be shopped for or brought personally to their destination.

The snack table has become an anthropological experiment. Given the choice of only Coke or water, most choose Coke. Chips over Nutrigrain bars. Doritos over potato chips. If I was delivering packages, these would be my choices, too.

Already one of our available downstairs tables has served as my quarantine office, there is little additional space to spare. The crèche of my childhood, recovered earlier this year from my mother’s house, is for the first time on display here, featured on the piano. I do not know its provenance. Norway? 

The child is made of wax, it has been kept cool and dry and has lasted I do not know how long. There is no longer anyone for me to ask. 

So here we are, we four. There is no one else I would more prefer to have in my company. We plan to rise late, open presents, Zoom with uncles and aunts and cousins and the grandmother. We will watch movies plays games, and dine on Chinese food. We have it good.

And the weather report is for a winter storm over the next three days. We may, indeed, have a white Christmas.

A COVID Christmas Carol
One of the grand prize winners of the Great Lakes Theater
"A Christmas Carol" Writing Contest (2020)

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (2006)

The past two weekends some friends have been meeting on Zoom to read Edarwad Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

There has been a running gag among the actor-teachers that someday Lisa and I should play Martha and George, and so we did. We made it a drinking game. 

Drink whenever:
  1. Martha or George make an ageist comment to Nick or Honey
  2. Martha mentions her father
  3. anyone mentions George and Martha's son
  4. someone sings the "Virginia Woolf" song
  5. anyone mentions alcohol
DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. You will die.

This will probably be the only time I have the opportunity to channel the person of George, and it was a pleasure. I was particualrly inspired by the perfomance Bill Irwin gave, almost fifteen years ago and which I was fortunate enough to catch in the West End.

At that time I made note of it in the blog I kept for performances of I Hate This, which, in addition to visiting my brother's family, was another reason I was in London at that time. I was struck at that time about the theme of childlessness. 

Here are my thoughts from the time, note the appearance of a young David Harbour who has since achieved fame as Sheriff Hopper in Stranger Things.

I Hate This Blog: March 30, 2006

After a quick meal of fish and chips, Henrik and I took off to see the recent revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" with Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner at the Apollo. Okay, not British, not the playwright, not the actors, but who cares? Couldn't see it in New York, thrilled to be able to see it in London. Besides, Henrik has never seen or read it, ever, so I knew it would be a kick for him.

Martha & George
It is as good as they say. I was on my guard for an understudy notice to be up when we arrived, but it wasn't. I knew the entire cast had gotten nominated for Tonys. Henrik tells me Ms. Turner missed a few performances a month ago, and when she opened her mouth last night I almost wished for her sake she'd taken the night off, her classic, dusky voice just sounded very, very tired. Big, but tired.

The event began a bit symbolically, as we took our seats, the folks from Chicago sitting next to us were being harangued by a red-headed drunk. Apparently he had been sitting on one side of them, and then the actual owner of that seat arrived, and then he had been in our seat, on the other side. He started talking to them politely, and then got loud and insulting, "You Americans think you're big shots, but your just fucking middle class," and like that. There were about a dozen people gesticulating wildly at the ushers and he was eventually escorted out.

Our aisle mates and we chatted for a bit, Henrik reporting that was the first time he had ever seen something like that happen in a dozen years of British theater-going. We concluded being verbally assaulted by an alcoholic wasn't exactly an inappropriate way to begin that night's performance.


I was probably supposed to read Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in college, but I didn't. I know I haven't seen the Mike Nichols film, and some say that's for the best. In any case, the only other time I've seen it was (surprise) at Great Lakes Theater Festival, about ten years ago. I really enjoyed that production. In fact, having never even read it before, I was shocked at how great the first act was, and equally amused to hear another audience member heading for the lobby during the first intermission saying loudly, "This is terrible, there's nothing to like about any of these people!" Great drama, very funny, and it was still pissing people off after 35 years! That's theater.

What I did not get ten years ago was the whole "no son" thing. Thought it was symbolic. Maybe there was a son, but he's gay or something so they don't want to talk about him. Or it was just a game. The kind of game that people don't want to have children play, those kinds of people. Intellectuals.

Except it's stated pretty clearly at the end, they cannot have children. Cannot. In the days of my ignorance, the idea that people cannot have children was a very simple concept. Intercourse, but no conception. You cannot have children.
NICK: (to George, quietly) You couldn't have ... any?
GEORGE: We couldn't.
MARTHA: (a hint of communion in this) We couldn't.
What I did not know at that time was that means trying to have children. A lot. Hoping for children. Having miscarriages, maybe a lot of them. Stillbirths. Not so simple.

Honey & Nick
The play takes place on the advent of the 21st birthday of this imaginary son. A private ritual, George and Martha make up a life for their son, and on this night she breaks the rules and tells someone else. And on this night, George kills him. It's over. He's dead.

So he was never imaginary. Was there a boy? A small boy, a stillborn boy, or a boy who died shortly after birth? He was real.

"There's nothing to like about any of these people." Maybe not. It's ugly in its hysterical-ness. It's a play about failure, so many different kinds of failure, for everyone in the room. The younger couple have much in common with the older one. Nick and Honey can't have children, either. Hmn. Another take on the word "hysterical."

The performances were uniformly brilliant, but I simply adored Bill Irwin. A monument to passive aggression. But I was also struck by Mireille Enos' Honey. Never gave her character much notice before, I think I had the least sympathy for her in the past. But she was heartbreaking. Oh yes, mousy and yet so, so sympathetic. So vulnerable.

It was a great show. Capped by a migraine. Ah well.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Twenty Twenty-One

Eight years ago I began a tradition of writing a post of my expectations for the coming year. The first time I did this, I knew I had two productions and one workshop in my future. Some years are not nearly so fertile, but I have been posting them, anyway.

My expectations for 2020 were modest; a production, a workshop, and the commencement of grad school. And here we are, and no one can be blamed for their lack of clairvoyance. We had no idea what was going to hit us next.

The next year will be even more a mystery. There’s a vaccine! There are a couple of them! What will happen next? Will we be protected, are we safe, if not now, then soon? What will happen? 

I mean. My daughter will graduate from high school. That is something I am pretty sure of.

We will continue to work and protect and care and create. That is for certain. I wrote a new script, and I will be slinging that to anyone who will read it. The publication of one of my scripts is in the works, more on that when it is announced.

Also, great news -- Savory Taṇhā will receive a remount at Cleveland Public Theatre!

And the schoolwork will continue. I did very well this semester. I hope to maintain my GPA.

The year 2021 marks an auspicious anniversary in our family, the twenty year birth anniversary of our first child, born on March 20, 2001. I have no idea where we will be in three months time, or how we will celebrating this birthday. If it’s anything like last year, our family will be out of doors together, experiencing whatever the world has to offer.

But there’s also a new production of I Hate This (a play without the baby) in the works, and this time we will be able to share it with everyone.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Ten Recommended Posts from 2020

Joshua McElroy, Khaki Hermann
"Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street"
(Great Lakes Theater, 2020)
Ten years on, what is this blog? It is a journal. It is a promotional tool. It is self-aggrandizing but also keeps me honest. It is a record of my progress as a playwright. And it is also an opportunity to research and record past events and tie them to the current moment.

These ten blog posts from 2020 may not have attracted as much attention, But hey, I took the time to research and write them and I recommend another look because they're pretty good.

On Procrastination

Accepting the opportunity to moderate a playwright’s panel at CPT while you are fresh in grief and trying to comprehend your mother’s eulogy is just another thing that has to get done.

The Bully of Baker Street: Week Three

Reflections on a tour in progress, and how gratifying it is to learn that adults find your educational play for elementary school children progressive and a challenge to their political beliefs.

The Short Play Project: Humiliation Series

There are about a dozen short play “collection” blog posts, but this one is my favorite. Three short play videos that beg the question: AITA?

"Residency On Demand"
(Great Lakes Theater, 2020)
Documenting Cleveland, Tuesday, May 12, 2020

We all think of ourselves as Samuel Pepys, diarists of extraordinary times. But the records of the Pandemic of 2020-21(?) are so grossly extensive. What have you, on May 12, Literary Cleveland in conjunction with Scene Magazine produced an exhaustive document of the city from one end to the other, and I was glad to be a participant.

Our Midwest Journey (1995)

Our first road trip was a test of our relationship, and in a way defined our future together. A rumination on our mutual love of the highway, tourist traps, and funky theater. 

Savory Taṇhā in Performance (Thursday)

Thoughts on opening night of a live, Zoom theater event, as part of a nationwide discussion on not merely the value, but the very validity of virtual theater.

The Mirror and the Light (book)

The third part of Hilary Mantel’s “Thomas Cromwell” trilogy was surprisingly affecting, and so politically timely. Back then when you fell out of favor, the monarch had you literally killed.

Our Midwest Journey (1995)
My First Fringe Festival

I had always wanted to dive into my first fringe festival (as audience member) experience, as it so deeply informed my next decade. I was amazed to find as much source material online as I did.

Three Hundred Sixty-Five Days of Practice

Would you like to see exactly what it looks like to write three pages every morning for an entire see?

Dobama ‘96 Trading Cards

I have always loved and been fascinated by package design and marketing. But this is the story of a gig that almost destroyed me.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Ten Most Visited Posts from 2020

I blog about lots of things. And this blog is almost eleven years old. I like to keep track of what people who follow the blog like to read, and how people find the site who have never visited it before.

I have hidden certain posts for the time being, those which aren’t very interesting and yet seem to drive traffic to the site. The one on Chef Boyardee, for example, receives hundred of clocks a year. And the death of Eliot Ness. If that’s why you came here, you might never return.

This is a list of the most popular posts written in the year 2020.

10. On Revision

Final notes before first rehearsal for a new play script. Revision is good!

9. Culver City Public Theatre present “Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street”

A fascinating, pandemic-era return to a script originally written and performed for live audiences of thousands in schools and libraries, now packaged for safely viewing at a distance.

8. Assessment 

From time to time I have provided a self-assessment, where I am in my work. What has been happening in general. How is my mental and physical health. These often drop when I have been away from the blog for a bit.

At this point I was taking a vacation, and reflecting on three hundred days of consecutive writing (I am currently on Day 465) and what had transpired since then, the death of my mother, the pandemic, and even good things, like a show I had written that was about to virtually “open.”

7. Play a Day: John Proctor is the Villain

Each April I read one full-length play from those posted at New Play Exchange. This was one of my favorites, written by Kimberly Belflower, and has been receiving a great deal of deserved attention. The title of this play was actually the inspiration for my most recent full-length; the working title was “John Bender is the Villain,” but I have since changed that. 

It's now titled "Goatfucker".  

6. Fosse, Verdon and all that jazz. 

The recent passing of producer and choreographer Ann Reinking brought me back to this one, an examination of how to break down the “great man” theory of history.

5. Ben Is Dead (magazine)

A nostalgic look at an artifact about nostalgia. Many thanks to the folks at BID for pushing this one up the charts.

4. “Love’s” in the time of COVID-19

A document of the last live, public performance of a play I saw in a theater, the night of Friday, March 13. This melancholy celebration was only appropriate.  

3. Enola Holmes (film)

This one gained traction no doubt because the film had just dropped and folks were interested in that. But it generated a great conversation about adaptation, woman-centered narrative, and modern themes presented in period drama.

2. My mother’s hands.

A brief reflection, written the morning after my mother died.

1. A few bits of wisdom.

A letter from my grandfather to my college-aged mother, posted a few hours before my mother died. It is only just that this was the most visited and shared post of the year. It’s a good letter.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Ten Theater Projects in 2020

"High (short play)"
(Center for Arts Inspired Learning)
2020: The Big Cancel.

Last week WaPo theater critic Peter Marks made the argument for a cabinet level position for the arts, a Secretary of Arts and Culture, if you will. And were not living in a nation which has always been and remains a reactionary, Puritanical society I might hold out hope for such a move, a champion for the millions of arts workers and the hundreds billions of dollars a year that are tied up in the arts.

As things stand, the performing arts are either on hold or online. Even with a vaccine on the horizon, current estimates suggest it will be another year before we are safely congregating in large numbers.

Like so many writers, I had projects in development which were canceled, or postponed. But I was also one of the fortunate creators whose work either went online, turned into something else, or whole new works were developed as a result of the pandemic.

In chronological order:

"The Witches"
Jailyn Sherell Harris, Adrionna Powell Lawrence
Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street (Great Lakes Theater)

We began rehearsals for this year’s outreach touring play a few days after my mother died. Three weeks of rehearsal and fifty performances later, the show closed on March 8. At the end of that week, the office downtown was closed, and it remains so to this day. 

The Witches (Cleveland Public Theatre) 

We had our first read-through of this new play script in late February. It was to be workshopped at Cleveland Public Theatre over one weekend in April. We had to replace one of our actors, and had a single rehearsal with the new team on Tuesday, March 10. 

A couple months later I returned to that space, mask on, disinfectant at the ready, to use for an entirely different project, and the rehearsal table was still there, with additional copies of the rehearsal calendar lying around, one of the actors had left their script. It was all just waiting there for an acting company that never returned, a project abruptly abandoned.

"50 Hamlets"
Chennelle Bryant-Harris
(Great Lakes Theater)
The Short Play Project

What began as a feverish writing project took on a life of its own after the shutdown began, as I put out a call for folks to use my two-to-three page scripts and make short videos out of them, staying within CDC distance guidelines. And they did, over seventy individual, short films, created by artists from all over the county (and even overseas) with imagination and heart. Watch them all here.

50 Hamlets (Great Lakes Theater)

As we were striving to continue offering educational programming to the schools which have come to depend upon it, we were also learning ways we could take advantage of the opportunities presented through modern technology to bridge time and space. Arts educators who have proudly called themselves “actor-teachers” reaching back forty years collaborated to create this unique artifact from the beginning of the shutdown.

The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth (Brave Spirits Theatre)

As we were all learning how best to navigate Zoom recordings, I accepted a role in this live performance produced by Brave Spirits Theatre in Staunton, VA. They had plans to stage a slate of history plays, pre-Shakespearean works, many of which the Bard used as template for his own, more famous plays. They moved production online, and I learned an awful lot about the limitations of the medium, and also its tricks. Brave Spirits announced their dissolution on November 21, another financial casualty of the pandemic.

"Savory Taṇhā"
Hillary Wheelock, Zyrece Montgomery
(Cleveland Public Theatre)
The Way I Danced With You (Culver City Public Theatre)

As we were all learning how best to navigate Zoom recordings, my friends at Culver City Public Theatre were presenting bi-weekly new play readings through the summer, and this romantic two-hander was part of that line-up. 

Savory Taṇhā (Cleveland Public Theatre)

What began as a feverish writing project took on a life of its own when I was asked to curate a selection of short plays to be produced live via Zoom. We were all trying to figure out how best to share the experience of live theater utilizing available technology

Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street (Culver City Public Theatre)

Plans were made for the folks in Culver City to present another one of my works as their annual, free summer offering for families. Instead, they created a lovely, recorded adaptation of the play which started my year.

"Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street"
Richard R. Rosales
(Culver City Public Theatre)
Residency On Demand (Great Lakes Theater)

Like many arts organizations we have been trying to figure out how to reach our students. They are either still working from home, or those schools that are open are not permitting visitors. We rethought our lesson plans and created a makeshift TV studio in our rehearsal space, and have started piloting live classes. I can’t tell you how good it feels to get back into schools, even at a distance.

Untitled Pandemic Play Script (NEOMFA)

All of my doubts and anxieties have been distilled into a play script for two women actors and one set. The comment I am perhaps most grateful for from the workshop reading was, “I am surprised I get into this play so much.” Now it just needs a proper title. I mean, it has one. But I think I have to change it.

Thinking about calling it “Goatfucker.” What do you think?

Source: The culture is ailing. It’s time for a Dr. Fauci for the arts by Peter Marks, Washington Post (12/2/2020)

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Process XII

Okay, I was not expecting my play script to be read in only one hour. I mean, it will probably play at seventy-five minutes, right? Things happen. Cakes are baked, games are played, tables are turned over.

Over last weekend I had a brainstorm in which I was able to incorporate something I wanted to do into the script which was also something I needed to add, all in the same action I cannot tell you how satisfying that was.

It was a release to hear this slightly modified version read by the other members of the program, and their questions and comments were constructive and helpful. As the reading itself drew to a close I was almost, but not quite, in tears. It was cool, the camera was off. But this is my life. These are my fears.

I am a fifty-two year-old man. And yet, I was extremely anxious to see the comments on my flash fiction inspired by the works of Richard Wright. It is amazing how much I have forgotten, or never knew, about writing papers. The comments were supportive. My professor “got” what I was trying to do. And yet, academia is not art, you are supposed to make your point clear. There were many places in my analysis in which I could have been direct, instead of coy.

I was satisfied with my grade.

My first semester draws to a close, all I need to do is complete and upload a fifteen page paper, drafted from twelve weeks of handwritten pages, underlined quotes, and a lifetime spent carefully learning lessons of circumspection and gradual if incomplete awareness.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Pudding Mixes

Ohio University used to break from Thanksgiving to New Year’s leaving those of us without anywhere better to go at home, with or without a job. Home for the holidays my freshman year my girlfriend broke up with me and that was particularly devastating because no one had ever broken up with me before.

She is still the only person who ever has. Yeah, I said it.

Sophomore year, for better or worse, I was much more self-possessed and relaxed into the holidays in a manner I never had before. They were big fun. I was taken by the spirit, the spirit of Christmas, if not of Christ. There were three albums I listened to a lot that season, driving my mother to distraction: George Winston’s December, Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the new compilation to benefit the Special Olympics, A Very Special Christmas.

Since then I have become something of a holiday music nut. I look forward to that time after Thanksgiving when I have permission (in my house) to begin playing holiday music. The house is decorated, I want my mind decorated.

But I don’t like all Christmas music, not just any will do. In the early 90s I made a cassette of my very favorite Christmas songs, C-90 minutes of tunes and that was the soundtrack for me. It was called The Pudding Mix, after the name of the extended version of Wham’s “Last Christmas.”

In 2004 I made a new Pudding Mix CD to share with my colleagues, another in 2007, and again in 2009. But I wasn’t happy with these, because in an effort to fill them out I added songs I didn’t really care about.

I made this fan video of the Firesign Theatre bit "Toad Away" ten years ago.

But anyway, who listens to cassettes or CDs anymore? A few years ago some folks who worked on Bad Epitaph’s production of The Santaland Diaries asked for a playlist of the songs we used, and so I obliged. It is a great collection of songs. And it’s only an hour, perfect length.

When I played "Crumpet the Elf" three years ago I was inspired to make a collection of songs that I think of as holiday records, but really aren’t.

This year I received a passing request for a new "Pudding Mix" (it was from Daniel) and I was torn. Was I just going to throw together more Christmas songs, without a theme? Just to do it? I decided if I had an hour’s worth of music I could listen to more than once, by December 1, then I would share it. And surprise, I did.

I don’t need to explain too deeply just how to make a mixtape or playlist, Nick Horby has already done this much better than I. It’s not just about clustering a bunch of songs together, they need to sound like they belong together. And there are a number that I have been enjoying listening to recently -- and a few surprise covers I want to point up, cover versions of strange holiday favorites I’d never heard before.

The Closing of the Year: First performed by Wendy & Lisa (formerly of The Revolution) for the holiday bomb Toys, starring Robin Williams. Written by producer Trevor Horn, in its original version it is appropriately sentimental late 80s pop, but in the late 1990s he created a totally bonkers orchestral version featuring Plácido Domingo and Sarah Brightman.

Christmastime in Painesville: In the early 90s this novelty song by the band Slack Jaw was a favorite on WENZ. More recently the song’s composer John Koury joined former deadboys bassist Frank Secich to form The Deadbeat Poets, and it’s their version which is available for streaming. It’s more polished than the original, but then, they are older. And aren’t we all?

Even a Miracle Needs a Hand: In 1974 the Rankin Bass factory produced the cartoon (not stopmotion) special Twas the Night Before Christmas, in which an inventor has created a special clock to welcome Santa on Christmas Eve. However, when it is broken (we don’t need to get into this) a family of mice work to repair the damage. That explains this song’s lyrics … but I must tell you, I did not actually expect to find it when I searched on Spotify. Imagine my utter Christmas joy to discover this beautiful, retrofuturistic rendition, recorded only last year by soundcape hipster Sonntag (Zach Johnston).

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Red Hot + Blue (album)

Use your mentality. Wake up to reality.

Thirty years ago, on Saturday, December 1, 1990, the Red Hot + Blue special debuted on ABC. This was an hour-long collection of videos from the Cole Porter tribute album (of the same name) which was a major fundraiser for the Red Hot Organization, dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDS through music, pop culture and art. 
“Cole Porter was one of America’s greatest songwriters, and his music spoke about love and sex and experimentation with intelligence -- and that’s what you want when dealing with an AIDS benefit.” - Leigh Blake, "Red Hot" project co-director
It is difficult to communicate how controversial it was to discuss HIV/AIDS on television. It is shameful to think. This televised special of music videos of Cole Porter songs was aired at 10:00 PM on World AIDS Day, after a particularly disturbing episode of Twin Peaks in which Agent Cooper finally captures the murderer of Laura Palmer (no spoilers.)

The home video recording included the bumpers and intros to each music video that had been originally created for the broadcast, including Richard Gere's suggestion that people use condoms or not share needles, to prevent infection. These bits were cut at the last minute as a result of pressure, and fear, from the network, and replaced with inoffensive tributes to composer Cole Porter.

However, several of the videos that were broadcast were embedded with activist messaging, inlcuding Erasure's ACT UP inspired Too Darn Hot and  k.d. lang's devastating take on So In Love which includes imagery of one caring for her ill partner.

These covers sang to the pseudo-sophisticate in me. Several of them are faithful renditions of Cole Porter classics (Sinead O'Connor's You Do Something To Me, Lisa Stansfield's Down In the Depths, the aforemention k.d. lang track) as they emulate big band or cocktail lounge piano stylings.

The Thompson Twins Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? is an 80s pop throwback, but several tracks look to the future, original hip-hop singles which only use Porter titles for the hook or chorus. The plaintive piano breakdown at 2:27 on Neneh Cherry's I've Got You Under My Skin was a loop I sampled and used on several amateur audio projects as I diddled around with nascent computer sound programs. It even showed up in my design for The Gulf at Dobama's Night Kitchen, ten years later.

We played this album often, and the music reminds me of so much from an intense and fleeting moment in my (very) early adulthood; it was heard in shops in England during a university trip that December, and was part of our soundtrack during the winter run-up to the Persian Gulf War, my final quarter at school. The subject of the album itself was emotionally confusing, mournful and celebratory all at once.

I had one foot out the door, ready to graduate and head I did not know where.

And, of course, HIV is still with us. The COVID-19 epidemic has shown us - again - how social inequity, intolerance, and plain ignorance contribute to the human cost of any transmittable human infection. The theme for this year's World AIDS Day is “Global solidarity, shared responsibility."


Saturday, November 28, 2020

Dobama '96 Trading Cards

Twenty-five years ago I was working as the public relations director at Dobama Theatre. This was an accident. That summer I had been tapped to create the Night Kitchen, a series of late night theater programs for “the kids.” It wasn’t a salaried position, so when the recently-hired p.r. director suddenly quit, the artistic director looked to me and asked if I wanted a job.

I have been into marketing my entire life. When I was a kid I made greeting cards, and designed boxes of cereal. During the Guerrilla years I was responsible for contacting the media and read up to learn how to properly create a press release, where to find contact information for the papers and stations, who to call and when and what to say and how to say it.

My first big assignment was the holiday ask. You know how every non-profit contacts you around this time of year to hit you up for the annual fund. It’s a time of giving, it’s all the last month you can get those tax-deductible donations in.

"City of Terror" Trading Cards
Mark Beyer
(Raw #2 1980)
This year, my first in this new position, I had a brilliant idea -- brilliant in that I stole it from Françoise Mouly, Art Spiegeman and the crew at RAW Magazine. An alternative comics anthology from the 1980s, in one edition they included “City of Terror” baseball-type trading cards, complete with bubble gum. Each copy of the magazine included only one card, artist Mark Beyer had only created eight different cards but they were numbered as high as #76 to give the impression there were many more.

I proposed we include Dobama Trading Cards with the annual fund request. I would design a sheet of nine cards (“Collect all 60! Trade with your friends!”) each would feature one production photo from the theater’s history on the front, with data about that production on the back, even including a small note about what was featured on the next card, a card which did not actually exist.

Clever me, I even made one of the cards an ad for our upcoming show in the Night Kitchen, the improvised Realistic World.

This was my first big mailing job, and the most intricate use of Photoshop I had attempted to date (that’s PhotoShop 2.0) Our technology was very basic in those days, we only had PCs in the office, so I was designing this on my Mac at home, then driving to the Kinko’s in University Circle to use their laser printers. When I messed something up I would have to go home to edit it, then drive back out to Kinko’s to see if I had gotten it right. 

These things weren't even in color. It was a nightmare. I had a nervous breakdown. Joyce was extremely supportive. She also had to press me to complete the job on time because it was only the single most important mailing of the year. And we did, we got it out. 

I never proposed anything as irresponsibly clever for the rest of my tenure.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Process XI

What has ever come out of Luxembourg? - from “Synchronicity”

Also, painted that lamppost.
Last weekend I banged out my second "dark fiction" short story. Most of my assignments for the semester are complete, except for the big one. It is good that I can spend the next week largely concentrating only on that. 

Also, we watched a few streaming theater pieces. “Is it theater?” they ask. You know what? Who cares. First, we saw the Baldwin-Wallace Musical Theater Program production of Spring Awakening which was neither live theater nor a movie, and yet, it was entertainment unto itself, even incorporating the pandemic into its concept.

So, too, Irish Repertory Theatre’s On Beckett/In Screen, an adaptation of his solo rumination and interpretation of the works of Samuel Beckett created and performed by legendary clown Bill Irwin, also including a nod to the current moment.

I would not or could not have seen either of these without their having been presented online, and I would have missed out on a larger discussion. The productions were not live. But I, as an audience member. I was live.

Monday my playwriting workshop will read a version of my new script that is slightly different from the one I shared with friends last month. First I need to read the thing again, I don’t know.

"On Beckett/In Screen"
(Irish Repertory Theatre, 2020)
And we decorate. A couple years ago I began putting our artificial tree outside, and getting a real tree to put inside. Setting up the outdoor tree on Tuesday, I thought that must be the earliest I had ever put up a tree. But then I remembered that I put up that tree the Tuesday before Thanksgiving last year because my entire family was in town because mom was not doing well and we thought this might be our last holiday with her.

We had Thanksgiving at her house last year, but everyone came here the night before. This year it was just the four of us. My first Thanksgiving dinner in my own house.

Odd. I told myself that on Thanksgiving I should do nothing that was not related to spending time with the wife and kids. No writing, no running, no additional housework. And yet by the end of a day spent playing trivia games and watching movies, I was entirely run down.

But the big good news is that the wife has completed the manuscript for a novel which is now making the rounds among her colleagues, and that includes me.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Process X

In the room.
This week I ran out of writing prompts.

On a whim last fall I looked up “writing prompts” and found 365 Creative Writing Prompts at They weren’t super involved, many of them focusing on one or two words. “Dancing” or “First Kiss”.

I found these to be much more liberating and inspiring. Many prompt books or online lists are too detailed. “Write about a time you disappointed someone.” Well, that makes it specifically about me, doesn’t it? I mean, it doesn’t have to be, but that’s where the mind first goes.

“Write about your virtual plans for the Thanksgiving holiday.” I mean, that’s a journal entry. I guess it’s aspirational, but not really.

Maybe I should start again from the beginning though I would like to try something new. So many of these prompts resulted in short plays, and many of those were turned into videos last Spring, at the beginning of the pandemic. Looking them over, I think of those. Gotta try something new.

This past week, James and I visited labor and delivery at University Hospitals. Next year is the twentieth anniversary of the events which inspired I Hate This (a play without the baby) and plans are afoot to bring that show to a wider audience.

James has never experienced childbirth, not from the outside, anyway, so this was a wonderful opportunity to know the space and to work with the text.

Okay, this is a big weekend. I have two weeks to finish two big assignments, fortunately there are no assignments for either of those specific classes this holiday week. And my full-length (which is not, I feel, full-length, but) is in good shape to be read the following week.

In fact, there were a few notes my advisor gave me that I was able to incorporate. "Breadcrumbs." Moments to keep the audience on their toes, even as the protagonists go on about 1980s teen movies, life ... everything, really.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Process IX

Here’s a thing: if everything were normal, I would be getting up every morning at 5:30 AM. So there’s that. We're all getting more sleep.

Thursday night Chennelle came over, she’d signed up for a playwriting workshop sponsored by The Playwrights Realm in NYC: Writing Impossible Plays In Impossible Times. To remain socially distant, I lit the fire bowl and we had Christmas ale and made smores and collaborated with some fifty or more other theater artists from my laptop, set on a small table.

This is now. Interacting with artists around the country. Spending more time than usual out of doors. The Zoom phenomenon is wearying, but it has made us do, by necessity, things we may have chosen to do before, but did not.

We used to be so tightly focused on here. Without the pandemic I may not have been offered the opportunity in this manner with writers far and wide. Having been offered the opportunity, I may have passed on it. Would I prefer to be delivering a curtain speech at the Hanna, attending a concert at the high school, going out to dinner and a show with my wife? Of course, no question. But it is worth noting what is here, and what we have, and what we have chosen to do in this situation, with this situation.

Asking Julie to participate in my reading, two weeks ago, was dreamlike. I haven’t seen her perform since 1990. Thirty years. It was like a joyful moment from the past, made real. Like no time had passed. So that is something that would not have happened otherwise.

There was a high school which obtained the rights to perform one of my plays. It’s always fun to see the sets and costumes for high school productions of my plays, so I do a little creeping. It’s a school in the Midwest and so I checked out their website and sure enough, they have by all accounts done little to protect their students. Lots of photos of students in class, at social events, holding parades. I think I saw one mask below a student’s chin, like a neck-warmer.

A notice was posted a week ago suggesting the fall play may or may not be live-streamed. It was supposed to open last night, and there was a new notice that it has been postponed. Cases are spiking there. They are spiking everywhere.

Okay homework. I must facilitate a roundtable discussion on an essay by Ralph Ellison. And I will be mapping out my next horror story. As usual, there is too much I want to say with it. I think the challenge is to compose a brief jump scare. Wish me luck.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Process VIII

Every country has a monster
They're afraid of in their nation.
No, I haven’t done any writing this week. Has anyone?

What I have been doing, what has helped me cope with stress while we all waited for the votes to roll in, was a return to live, interactive arts education. In addition to the asynchronous work we have been creating, the education team conducted multi-day residencies in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet with home school students from the new “Studio 1062”.

This cannot be overstated. I haven’t even been a full-time actor-teacher for over fifteen years, I just train them. But having the opportunity to interact in real time with even a half-dozen students, guiding them through classic works, was a tremendously edifying experience.

For “dark fiction” class I will need to write another short story, and this week I realized what the subject of that story would be. I’d like to try an outright monster story, inspired by the land of my ancestors. Not England, not Norway -- no, we discovered shortly after my father died that his family originated in Luxembourg.

He was adopted as a child, and never expressed much interest in his birth parents. But he did relent and provide DNA for a test shortly before he passed, and so I learned that my history is Luxembourgian. Which is interesting because, well. It’s not. There’s nothing interesting about Luxembourg, a tiny, landlocked country that makes Belgium look positively intimidating.

But they do have a monster, as we learned a few years ago on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 in the "Kaiju Rap (Every Country has a Monster)":
Kropermann is a monster from Luxembourg
Who's actually the size of Luxembourg
He crushed the whole country of Luxembourg
Because he is the size of Luxembourg
Kropermann does not actually crush people, Jonah and the bots are simply making a little joke about the relatively diminutive size of Luxembourg, which is really small. The population of the entire country is a little over half a million people. You can spit across Luxembourg.

See? I am allowed to make fun of Luxembourg. But you can’t.

Kropermann is a pretty scary monster, though. And I have an idea for how to bring it to life.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Process VII

Julie Shuttleworth & Sarah Blubaugh

Last weekend, two of my very favorite actors read my new script in its entirety for a small audience. This is my second foray into the two-person play, my first of any length that is composed of entirely one scene, in real time. That it was able to hold the attention of the assembled (in spite of a few technical glitches) says something about the characters, and their story. 

By the middle of the week I was possessed by dull torpor, a malaise engendered, I believe, by the reading. This reading was a beginning, of course, not an end. God knows how the work will develop. But having drawn three intense writing projects to a close, I was in a period of stasis which left me in discomfort.

This is a thing that happens. My brain was very active, sorting through the plot, character and dialogue of three very different stories, for weeks. Suddenly, it’s all on hold, waiting for criticism. It is a melancholy place for me to be.

Also, the election. The dreary weather. And the subject matter of the play itself, which is so closely inspired by the feelings of isolation and helplessness brought on by our present, global calamity. One participant said, “It was lovely to see a play about the pandemic that was not about the pandemic.”

Mid-week the criticism arrived for my dark fiction assignment and I received many helpful comments regarding some of the elements of the story that I had the most concern about. It could be a straightforward tale of a night where you learn everything you thought you knew was wrong, but I was inspired to include a supernatural element which I either need to make bigger, clearer, more apparent, less subtle, or jettison entirely. Not sure which way I want to go with this, yet.

Tonight we hand out candy, safely, to the children who arrive. And we will create our annual ofrenda, to remember and celebrate those who have gone before. My mother will join them for the first time, and I will make her coffee. She truly loved her weak, instant decaf.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Process VI

"It would seem to me the proposition before the House, and I would put it that way, is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro, or the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro. Is the question hideously loaded, and then one’s response to that question – one’s reaction to that question – has to depend on effect and, in effect, where you find yourself in the world, what your sense of reality is, what your system of reality is. That is, it depends on assumptions which we hold so deeply so as to be scarcely aware of them." - James Baldwin (1965)
"Lovecraft Country" (HBO)
Education is the pathway to social justice. It is impossible to expose yourself to the history of human experience without (not to crack the wind of the poor phrase, running it thus*) the arc of your mind bending toward justice. 

Watching the first episode of Lovecraft Country (no spoilers, please) I immediately recognized the voice of James Baldwin as the characters Atticus, Lettie and George drove across the highways of America. This would not have been the case only three months ago. I fantasize myself as an enlightened person, but it is impossible to champion equal rights of POC without an education in and understanding of American history from the point of view of POC.

Every time I learn something new, and there is so much I do not know, I despair over how ignorant white America is to the struggle. It sounds like I am patting myself on the back that I “recognized the voice of James Baldwin” but I am also in awe of how I lived so long without having been able to do so. I am ignorant.

Returning to school has reminded me of the importance of education, of life-long education. My life in theater has been one of auto-didacticism. I failed to make strong connections with my mentors, and as a result have flitted from project to project, choosing how far or how deeply to go into any subject. I know an awful lot about very few things.

I can easily quote Shakespeare (*see above.) I cannot quote Baldwin. Whose words would be more relevant in the current moment?

My dark fiction story will be workshopped by the class this week. I need to turn in my Wright vignette, which is also complete. And just this week I have completed my first draft for the playwriting workshop. I have asked a couple of friends to read it out loud this weekend so I can hear it. This is something which should have a full read in class and maybe it’s overdoing it but I don’t want that to be the very first time I hear the entire thing aloud.

Since my childhood I have pushed to get my work out into the public sphere. Creating art for public consumption. There were a few years when I was in elementary school I feverishly created greeting cards. I had no outlet through which to sell them, I never actually used any. But I made them, and a lot of them.

In high school I created editorial cartoons of varying inscrutability, and the immediacy of creation to presentation -- from Tuesday to Friday -- was a high. 

Then there were my editorial experiments which were often disastrous. Often I would use a harsh metaphor to drive home a point, swatting flies with hammers, which earned me disdain for my big mouth and entirely losing the point of whatever argument I had intended to make.

This was always a bad habit of mine, as I was emboldened by a sense of grievance, buttressed by tremendous privilege. Not unfamiliar traits for a straight, white man, I know. 

Today I am hesitant, and overcritical. My protégés believe I am judging them when I take a long time to create an answer. I am just trying to be careful, and restrained.

I just want to get it right.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Process V

“And there sat in a window a certain young man being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead.” - Acts of the Apostles 20:9
This week I turned in my spooky short story. It’s a week early, but I have so many projects spinning all at once I wanted to complete my edit of this, the first draft, and get it out of here so I wouldn’t look at it any more. My vignette written in the manner of Richard Wright is close to where I need it to be for evaluation but I want to keep looking at that one.

Because of these other two classes, it had been a while since I had thought about my playwriting workshop. I had gotten out so far ahead with that I was able to let it sit for a while. My wife is out of town visiting relatives, so I spent the entire day yesterday looking over the script, rearranging the sequence in which things happen. We will read more pages of that tomorrow night.

I was actually a little melancholy yesterday, I made overtures to my kids to spend some time but they were both totally engaged with friends, either online (him) or in person (her). So I just kept diddling with the script, weighing in as one does these days on social media, and crafting a seven foot pipe for the safe distribution of candy on Halloween. It’s really cool, with orange and yellow stripes, like this giant, Tim Burton, Willy Wonka, candy corn colored bendy straw.

This morning was an interesting experiment as I tried to write stage violence into this piece but wasn’t sure what was most appropriate, necessary, and most of all realistic. I can say, however, that I have successfully employed both Chekhov’s letter and Chekhov’s chocolate cake. And if you don’t know what that means, you've not been doing your homework.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Enola Holmes (film)

[Enola looks at the camera.]
Who owns Sherlock Holmes?

The British actor Millie Bobby Brown is only a year and a couple weeks younger than my own daughter. Two years in a row she, my daughter, dressed as the character Eleven from Stranger Things. So watching Brown grow as a person, first in subsequent years of that show, and as the star of the new film adaptation of Nancy Springer’s “Enola Holmes Mysteries” has been like tracking my own daughter’s development, as a person, as an artist.

Last year the two of us watched all of the third season of Stranger Things together on the Fourth of July. And now we have seen Enola Holmes. We had a delightful evening, she, the wife and I, curled up on the couch, watching an inoffensive and charming period mystery. The "woke" touches were welcome, after all. The entire affair is awash with the suggestion of a new and better future for all. One can hope.

It is very much Ms. Brown's project and during the credits my daughter expressed a desire for them to make a sequel. Target audience hit. 

The girl as "Eleven"
Halloween, 2016
The film is subject to yet another lawsuit from the Conan Doyle estate, who are determined to protect their copyright over the few Sherlock Holmes mysteries which have not fallen into the public domain. This recent suit ascertains that the character of Holmes as depicted in the film (Henry Cavill) exhibits a kinder, more sympathetic personality, one which was only evident in those very last works created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

Courts concluded several years ago that all characters for the Holmes stories prior to 1923 are in the public domain. This ruling came after the Conan Doyle estate attempted to litigate that since the character of Sherlock Holmes was not complete until Conan Doyle’s final story, the character himself could not be in the public domain. Since they were unable to win that case in the courts, they have since concentrated on prosecuting any example of Holmes’ character or history derived from the remaining copyrighted works.

Funny, the magazine GQ asked Cavill about the lawsuit, which is like asking a guy on the assembly line about an announced automotive recall. “It’s a character from a page which we worked out from the screenplay,” Cavill explained, with evident patience, adding: “The legal stuff is above my pay grade.” 

I would like to make it clear, I think copyright is important. And I believe things should eventually fall into the public domain. As long as we live in a capitalistic system, artists must reap the benefit of their work. It is also important for other artists to have the opportunity to reshape and reinterpret pre-existing work. Lawyers figure these things out, that is what lawyers do. It is, as the man said, above my pay grade. 

Susan Wokoma, Henry Cavill
Timeless social commentary in "Enola Holmes"
(Netflix, 2020)

I myself have adapted a couple of public domain novels, and created an original story using characters created by Conan Doyle. This has all been done legally, and I am also happy to protect my copyright over my own adaptations and interpretations.

Shortly after the movie premiered on Netflix, playwright Emily McClain (Slaying Holoferenes) posted an hilarious and pointed Twitter rant thread that began, “I need an ‘I Was Tricked Into Watching Enola Holmes Support Group.’”

A lot of my own friends posted positive notices about the film on Facebook, but McClain’s friends were telling her (her words), “Watch this! It’s so you! You could have written this! You’ll love it! It’s right up your alley!”
"Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street"
(Great Lakes Theater, 2020)

Pointing out works by others that we “could have written” is one of those unwittingly irritating things friends of playwrights who aren’t themselves playwrights like to say, along with (my words) “I have a great idea for a play I’d like you to write,” and suggesting, “That’s your next play!” after we report absolutely any trivial thing that has happened to us. 

My daughter got elbowed in the face on the playing field the other night. "That's your next play!"

McClain admits she does like to write plays about “plucky female characters subverting social expectations” but was brought short on the romantic subplot of the Eola Holmes movie, which appears nowhere in Spinger’s novels. The adapted screenplay, it should be noted, was written by a man.

Hot London Action
"Enola Holmes" (Netflix, 2020)
This was a particular concern of mine when putting together Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street. I wanted a female narrator, but under no circumstances did I want any romance in the script. I also knew having Young Vicky appear at Holmes’ flat unattended might be ahistorical, and that adults watching with children may be made uncomfortable.

So I just acknowledged it, making a big deal out of the door being left open and that Mrs. Hudson was always listening to their conversation. Moving on.

The new, full-length piece I am currently working on is a two-hander, between two women. Do you know how many scenarios I have imagined to create tension and conflict that involve men? All of them. And I’m choosing something different. 

As the young woman says, "The future is up to us."

Many thanks to Emily McClain for allowing me to quote her Twitter feed! You can learn more about her work here.

Henry Cavill on playing Sherlock with emotions and returning as Superman by Stuart McGurk, GQ Magazine (9/24/2020)

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Process IV

Question: How do you write in the style of an author whose work is intimately woven with life as they had experienced it in these United States when their life’s journey is not merely different from your own, but different as a direct result of the social structure that created the difference between theirs and yours?

To put it another way, their point of view made their writing what it is. For me to emulate that I should, what? I cannot pretend to be him. And I cannot write from my point of view simply emulating those elements of style which make his work unique; use of color, description of space, expanding of time, sense of alienation, anxiety, existential dread.

I cannot do this because the most important element, for him, his reason for writing, was protest. Expressing his walk of life, or mine, was not enough. The reader needs to be aroused, outraged, and moved to action.

Last Wednesday my professor asked the class how our writing was going, present progressive tense, as though it had already begun and is in process. I had not yet written a word. It’s an eight-page vignette that is due in a little over two weeks. But I have been engaging myself in these questions and finally arrived at a scenario, which I storyboarded yesterday and wrote the first pages this morning.

I may even use some of this post in my artist’s statement for that story.

The work on the play continues, just this week I had something of a revelation. Every piece, the play, the gothic short story, the protest vignette, has its own agenda. They each, however, require tension. For the play script I continue to be haunted by the observation of Joe Barnes, "It is hard to write a compelling play about two characters who are basically decent." They are decent, a mother-daughter duo who have (generally) open avenues of communication.

How to create conflict that does not involve men, men with a capital M. That it does not involve father, or boyfriend, or lover, that their struggle, if there is a struggle (there has to be a struggle) is between them, and not some other person. If you do not understand why this is important, you haven’t been paying attention.