Monday, January 27, 2020

On Procrastination

This is how I always point at Jeremy.

Saturday afternoon, I moderated a panel discussion at Cleveland Public Theatre called Considering the Source: Creating With Existing Material, presented by the Dramatists Guild as part of CPT’s annual Entry Point festival of new works.

Panelists included Nina Domingue, Eric Schmiedl, and Jeremy Paul, and we picked apart their creative process for (among other works) Nina’s The Absolutely Amazing True Adventures of Ms. Joan Southgate, Eric’s work adapting the novels of Kent Haruf, and Jeremy’s recent interactive production of Dante’s Inferno.

Nina Domingue
The panel itself went well. I felt a little stiff, but at least I was prepared, and providing equal time to each panelist, and between the four of us there was a wide variety of material to be discussed.

I had been invited to moderate this panel a few weeks ago, a few days before mother died. I said yes. I thought it was crazy, I was fairly certain her death would come very soon, did I have any business committing to an event I may need to cancel? Would I have time for this? Where would I be in my headspace in two weeks time? I said yes.

As it turned out, it was a good decision to have made. I would have regretted saying no. Ever since January 2017, when CPT first produced Entry Point, the weekend has been a creative oasis in the midst of a dark time.

That first year I acted in someone else’s work, my eleven year-old son attended and has strong, positive memories of the works he experienced there -- and he was there because the female-identified members of our family were in Washington, D.C., taking a stand for women’s rights. To paraphrase Emile M. Cioran, “A new play is a nation’s suicide, postponed.”

Shortly before the panel began this past Saturday, Molly Andrews-Hinders, CPT Artistic Associate, asked me how my Test Flight piece was coming along, which is to say my new script The Witches. Test Flight is in April, and rehearsals begin soon. It was a perfectly supportive question, we were catching up, it was not an inquisition. But for the briefest moment, I felt like the teacher had asked about my progress on a term paper that I had not yet started.

The truth is I haven’t written a word for The Witches since November. And I do not feel guilty about that. I had made a promise to myself to complete the first draft by the end of calendar 2019. Tragedy intervened, and I told myself to leave it on the shelf awhile or else I would go mad. It will be there when I am ready to return.

When I have two assignments looming it can be difficult to concentrate on either one. When I have three, I’ll just scroll Facebook for eight hours.

Sometimes I will procrastinate on the next thing due by writing the thing that is due later, which can be very helpful as when I finally do bear down on my immediate project, at least I know I’ve made headway into the next one.

This winter I have concentrated on the very next deadline, fully aware there was one final deadline to meet before I could think about spring. These included:
Cleveland Public Theatre (2022)
I have thought about my mother’s eulogy for months. Even before we knew she was dying. Yet by yesterday morning I had only jotted down a few phrases, and I woke with a hangover. I had one, painful morning to create a public declaration of who I believe my mother is. By 10 AM I was writing it. At 2:30 PM I was reading it. They tell me it was good.

Another deadline met, another promise kept.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

On Editing

We have corsets!
Revision is an act of change, or alteration. Re-writing is as or can be even more important than original writing. The version of Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street I presented to the touring company was only the third draft, play scripts can go through many more revisions before production.

Editing, however, is an altogether different enterprise. Editing and revision can be synonymous. In this case, however, we are talking about cutting, excising, weeding. You can only assume how long a text might take to perform until it’s actually read, and even then you need to account for set changes, the use of music or the arrangement of song.

And then there are the words themselves. Until you hear them, hear actors perform them, you might not understand how they are received. And editing will be required to provide clarity, eliminate repetition or redundancy, drop jokes or turns of phrase than simply do not land, eliminate repetition or redundancy, and in general, to make the thing shorter.

We want, we need a fifty minute show. That’s what we’re selling, and schools need to account for the actual duration of the performance. To that end we have already struck out entire verses from almost each of the five songs. Not that the songs are terribly long, each first lasted a little over two minutes. Now they run between a minute and ninety seconds.

221B Baker Street
Does this bother me? Not at all. Yes, the verses are delightful and fun to hear. But we’re telling a story and each song is a means to an end, they are not the thing itself.

And then there’s the text. At the end of every rehearsal we ditch a few lines, or entire exchanges. And I say yes, thank you, to each and every one.

Lines you won’t hear in performance:
VICKY: … you will have to excuse me if I am skeptical about your … reformation.
SHERLOCK: Good word, “reformation.”
VICKY: Thanks.
SHERLOCK: Good for you.
VICKY: Stop it.
It’s a funny exchange, it speaks to the nature of their relationship at that moment. But a similar exchange happens again, a little bit later, and with greater significance.

At another moment we hear the description of an incident in New Jersey harbor, in which the hold of a ship was packed with asphalt, and during a sudden heat wave the cargo melted, sinking the ship. This is something which did in fact happen at the turn of the century, has happened several times in maritime history, in fact. It’s all very interesting, I guess, but who cares? The ship sank. No one died. All cargo was destroyed. Moving on.

This is why I do not like to direct my own work. I have written several tours for Great Lakes, including On the Dark Side of Twilight, The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Double Heart, and in each case judicious editing made the plays so much better than if we had proceeded with the draft provided. These productions were directed by Andrew May and Lisa Ortenzi, and in each of these cases overseen by my supervisor at the time, Daniel Hahn. They each provided vital contributions to editing the script, and so did the acting companies involved.

The Great Globe Itself (2015)
The only time I have directed an outreach tour was The Great Globe Itself, which I also wrote. And the experience reinforced my belief that I am my own worst director. Don’t get me wrong, it was a funny play. The actors, Arthur, James, and Roderick, they each did tremendous work. The designers and builders, our choreographer and our dialogue coach, and our interns who created the educational materials, it was all spot-on and well-executed.

But the script wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. I had thrown so much into the pot, arcane history about the Globe Theatre, the Great Lakes Exposition, Doctor Who, it’s like my every minute, personal artistic interest had been chucked in a blender.

It wouldn’t have taken much, it wasn’t a terribly long play. It was just that much too long, speeches should have been trimmed, gags dumped, and someone, anyone, could have asked, what are you trying to say here? It is a mistake I hope not to repeat.

To be continued.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Music Hall!

Music Director Eric Schmiedl
Music Hall is a form of entertainment which was extremely popular in England during the Victorian Era, featuring comedy performances and rousing, boisterous songs.

Subject matter for music hall songs could be thought unsuitable for “respectable” audiences, focusing on and making light, as they often did, on subjects such as poverty, crime and inappropriate social behavior.

Each of the songs that I selected for inclusion in the play script for Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street were written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though some of the lyrics have been adapted to suit the plot of the play, and the age of its intended audience.

For example, we use the song “Oh my! How the Money Rolls In!” which uses the traditional Scottish melody for “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” which allows Miss Barnaby to describe the illegal activities committed by her young charges:
Young Annie steals fruit from the corner
Which Sylvia sells in the square
Then brings all the pennies she’s made up
I’ll give her back one as her share!

Young Darla she sneaks into houses
Takes all of the silver and plate
Her talents have grown exponentially
And the darling sweet robin’s just eight
Those are my original lyrics, suitable for an elementary school audience. The original song (titled “My God! How the Money Rolls In!”) is much more lascivious. Over the years a variety performers created increasingly obscene lyrics describing how each member of the family turns tricks; it was “The Aristocrats” of its day. For example:
My mother's a bawdy house keeper
Every night when the evening grows dim
She hangs a red light in the window
My God, how the money rolls in!

My grandma makes cheap prophylactics
She pierces the end with a pin
And grandpa does quickie abortions
My God, how the money rolls in!
"The Mystery of Edwin Drood"
(Great Lakes Theater, 2009)
Ten years ago, Great Lakes Theater produced The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s final, unfinished novel of the same name, with music, book and lyrics by Rupert Holmes (no relation) the creator of "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)".

Utilizing the fast-paced and ribald style of the music hall, Holmes was able to tell Dickens’s sordid tale of opium, prostitution and murder with humor and audience interaction. The murderer, in fact, is chosen each performance by the audience!

Now, any casual consumer of Holmesian mythos (and here I am referring to the detective, and not the composer of "Him") knows that Sherlock plays the violin. Yet as I plunged into writing the plot for the Bully of Baker Street, I knew it would be more sprightly and fun for the company to sing their stories to our proposed child audience rather than subject them to a recital. And so we return to the Music Hall.

Note: I love violin recitals. Here is a really good one.

Rehearsals began this week, and our musical director is none other than the masterful Eric Schmiedl. Eric penned the last two "Classics On Tour" productions for Great Lakes (Huck Finn and Treasure Island) in which he was also a performer, and the arranger and lead musical performer. Including period music has now become a trademark of these touring performances for children, and I didn’t see why a Sherlock Holmes mystery should be any different.

The songs include "The Artist" by A.J. Mills and B. Scott, in which a painter describes her bohemian pose, and "Broken Down" by Harry Clifton, a woeful tale of loss of status. Eric has arranged the former to be in the style of Gilbert & Sullivan, the latter as bluesy yet ironically upbeat. Each is a showcase for one of the characters, with supporting vocals provided by the rest of the company.

Source: Traditional Music Library

Friday, January 10, 2020

My mother's hands.

These hands are not more like.- HAM I.ii
I have my mother’s hands. Long, thin fingers, veins close to the surface, standing out like bluish vines beneath the skin.

When I was a child, I was fascinated by these veins, standing out like inverted rivers on a relief map. I would poke at them to see how would divert beneath my touch. “Stop that,” she would say. My own children have done the same to my hands, and I say, "Stop that.”

Her final days, her hands could not be more different from each other. Her right hand, which had stopped obeying commands from her brain a month ago, lay still, devoid of muscular connection or attention. It was a soft and flat. skin rounded and smooth, like glass. Useless.

Her left still lived, wiry, boney. Her face had gone slack, emaciated, her left hand our best indicator of how she felt. She would raise her left arm, hand outstretched, to say, “I’m here. You’re here. We are together.” She would reach, grasp for attention. To hold hands. To say hello.

Or so we thought. Perhaps she was visioning, greeting those she thought she was seeing. We cannot know.

She would also clench her left fist, her arm in a stiff left angle. We took this to mean she was in pain, and we would provide medication. I like to think we were easing her suffering, and not merely depriving her of communication. She spoke with her left hand.

My mother died last night. She was washed and dressed, her cold hands placed across each other. They were alike again, and just like mine.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

A few bits of wisdom.

There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character.

- HAM, I.iii
From: Harrol W. Baker, Lakewood, OH
To: Miss Virginia Baker, Middlebury, VT

Sunday, Nov. 11 - 1956

Dear Tertia:

We were happy to have you call last night because you are always foremost on our minds and in our hearts. It is not always possible for me to collect my thoughts quickly. I wanted to call you back about 9 P.M. but Mom said you would be out with Sylvia viewing pictures of classic art.

I want to impart a few bits of wisdom which I have accumulated but not always used as I should.

Gather all the facts you can, then set a time limit and make a positive decision. The decision may even by proved unwise but even so a wrong decision is better than indecision. Great leaders make mistakes but they do not make the same mistake twice and they do not suffer from indecision. Men who never make mistakes are working for those who do.

There is no one who at one time or another is not afraid of something. The first way to meet fear is to keep yourself well and strong. Then prepare yourself to meet the situation you fear. Do what you fear to do or say and fear will vanish. With good health as a basis, people progress and succeed because they have a positive attitude and determination, not because they are born with some special aptitude. A great artist practices his skill more than an amateur.

Plan ahead but not too far ahead. Time is frightening to most people. Know your limits. Can you think or plan in terms of three years, one year, one month or one day. Bit by bit, day by day, we get better and better in our personality and skills. There is no short cut because we are all born ignorant.

In your decision whether to take the business course or the nursing course, plan in terms of one year only, then decide which you would rather do or could do most effectively. You might end up doing three years but don’t scare yourself with the thought of time in making the decision.

Mental Depression.
We all have our happy moments and our sad or blue moments. Others have similar feelings and experiences. So if we have a bad day and feel blue we must rationalize and say mentally, ‘This is only temporary and will soon pass to a happy & pleasant mood.’ When and if you are blue, ‘count your blessings.’ Get out and take a walk with a friend. Talk to people. Be positive and pull yourself out of a sad mood to a happy one.

In time of mental stress or anxiety, stop a few minutes for meditation and ask for God’s help & guidance. To do this effectively, take five minutes daily for deep meditation and religious reading. You must keep in practice to make use of this all powerful strength outside and beyond your own will. Through this process you will develop a quality known as ‘homeostasis,’ the ability to rebound from difficulties or adversity and make a new approach with a fresh attitude and renewed vigor. Give thanks for your happiness & Success.

You are now at an age when your emotions are very sensitive. You are beginning to realize or I should say anticipate the responsibilities of an adult. Thus any decision you make may have a lifelong effect and the whole future appears overwhelming. As you look back on this period in later life you will see it in a different light!

I mean to tell you this -- you are now at an age when you should learn various skills, have various experiences, all leading to a full and useful life. If you chose to take the business course it does not mean you will spend a lifetime in business. For one thing you would get practical experience in good judgement and how to make decisions. (I would like to take the course with you.)

If you decide on nursing school you will learn useful knowledge and skills even though it does not turn out to be your life work. Much growth comes just by daily contact with those with wise teachers and ambitious classmates.

What does all of this lead up to? It just means that you are preparing yourself to lead a useful and satisfying life. You are not preparing now to be an expert in any field of endeavor. To be an expert requires 10 years or more, often a lifetime. Opportunities now unknown will come to you and when they do you will be prepared.

So, throw off worry about the future. Have a positive attitude, like people, make friends, be happy day by day.

Mom & I love you dearly.

Write soon,

Sunday, January 5, 2020

On Revision

VICKY: I think “bully” is a thing that you do. It’s not a thing that you are.
Joshua McElroy as Sherlock Holmes
(Great Lakes Theater)
The first play I wrote for production was Breaking Point, a one-act adaptation of my daily comic strip for the college newspaper. The fact that I was also directing the script was an early lesson and made me hesitant to ever direct my own work ever again.

The problem is, I don’t know whether I should be a playwright who should have an eye to revising the as-yet un-produced work, or a director whose responsibility is to the text as it exists.

Breaking Point was problematic, and thank goodness it was and that I saw that. I recall that the ending was entirely unsatisfying, especially to the women in the company. I can’t even remember what happened, but I do know the argument was quite simply, “this doesn’t make sense, no one behaves like that.”

I knew in my heart of hearts that people do behave like that, because the moment in question was something that actually happened to me. Did it, though? And does it matter? We were producing a play, not a documentary, and if everyone says it doesn’t make sense, you have to at least entertain the idea that it really doesn’t make sense.

Breaking Point (1989)
I revised. My first revision. The ending was much more satisfying (especially to the women in the company) and in fact got the biggest reaction from the audience. Lesson learned. Revision is good.

But it’s hard. You have established a reality for yourself, it was hard fought, and now you have to change your reality. The Vampyres featured two major monologues by the protagonist, John Polidori, at the beginning and the end. The first monologue was not working, not at all. The director asked me question after question after question about it, trying to make it work. I changed a word here or there, but I was deeply unhappy with the criticism.

Over Christmas 1996, I just rewrote the entire thing. It was better. Our actor could make it work.

When we revived the show in 2005, I cut both monologues. They were both tedious, maudlin, unsympathetic, and unnecessary. Why did I ever think we needed them?

(Side note: I believe it is a testament to my fascination with Brian Pedaci, who originated the role of Polidori in 1997, that I believed they were worth including. I could listen to him recite a dictionary. Looking back, I would rather listen to him recite a dictionary.)

We held a reading of the second draft of Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street on Monday, September 30, for the Great Lakes Theater Education Committee. Obvious plotting errors from the first reading had been cleared up. Comments about character had been taken to heart, and I had found ways to make Vicky was a stronger protagonist. She wanted specific things and stood up for herself in a manner which was appropriate -- learning to stand up for herself is, of course, an important theme of the story.

The Vampyres (1997)
One major point of contention, however, was the character of Barney and her relationship with Vicky. Barney is headmistress of the orphanage, and the titular bully of the play, or so it is assumed. It is this relationship, in which the abuse runs from adult to child which made people justifiably concerned. We are creating a play about bullying, not domestic abuse. Yes, the two are associated, but you can understand how that might take the conversation where we do not want it to go.

When it was recommended that the bullying be peer-to-peer I was a bit distressed. I had already plotted the mystery, created the characters, and written the play. To suddenly introduce other characters, other girls in the neighborhood, perhaps, to antagonize our narrator … it would be like starting all over again. Comments were offered in good faith, and I spent the past few months going over it in my head. I didn’t know what to do, and I was running out of time.

Then, over Christmas, because Christmas is when I have all of my best ideas, I had an idea. What if Barney isn’t middle-aged? What if she’s the same age as Vicky? What if they were once like sisters, but now Barney has been appointed to manage the asylum while the headmaster is away on a holiday? It’s the Victorian Era, such things could certainly happen.

Chennelle Bryant- Harris as Vicky
(Great Lakes Theater)
Making Barney an aggressive boastful nineteen year-old was easier than I first thought it might be. But questions remain and they should be answered to provide more context to the mission of the production. We have incorporated tactics for coping with bullying behavior, with some of them even put into practice. Can we also address possible causes for this behavior?

Potential causes include:
  • Problems at home 
  • Bullied themselves 
  • Struggle with personal issues
Perhaps Barney doesn’t even like the name Barney. Her last name is Barnaby, Barney is a nickname. Calling someone a name, if they don’t like it, is a form of abuse. Sherlock himself is guilty of it as he insists on calling Vicky “Watson” even when she asks him not to.

Rehearsals begin in one week!

To be continued.