Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Producing Theater Online

Clockwise from top left: self, Brian Pedaci, Chennelle Bryant-Harris, Carrie Williams
"The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth"
(Brave Spirits Theatre, 2020)

Now let us speak in defense of "Zoom Theatre."

I have not witnessed as many plays online as perhaps I should have by now. There are plentiful professional recordings of plays from before the quarantine that were shot before an audience using several cameras. Like movies, they are.

Hamilton will be released on July 3, and it will appear as one of those. Even more bizarre, filmed iin the summer of 2016 by a company and for an audience who have no idea that Donald J. Trump is about to be elected President of the United States.

We have been paying to stream independent film, but I really should be accessing productions from behind a paywall to support theaters. The critics on Three On the Aisle have promoted several events which, unlike their former offerings in New York City and elsewhere, I can actually view from the safety of my own home.

However, in spite of my desire to support my fellow artists, I have avoided diving too deeply into the world of “Zoom Readings.” There have been plentiful opportunities to hear actors read new scripts or even the works of Shakespeare, but when you spend your working day staring at a screen, returning to it for entertainment is a particular investment.

Speaking of which, anyone else's butt hurt? I mean, from sitting? Just me? I digress.

There have been some impressive attempts to elevate the medium, and the time that goes into them makes the experience much more rewarding.

Earlier this week I was a participant in the Brave Spirits Theatre reading of The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, a forerunner to and by all accounts the inspiration for not only Shakespeare’s own Henry V play, but also the Henry IV plays.

Running at only ninety minutes, this work, entirely in prose and whose author is lost to history, the work his none of the grand poetic turns of Shakespeare’s work (nothing to match “Muse of Fire” nor “Band of Brothers”, no “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world” to be found here) it’s full of humor, drama and above all jingoistic bravado, this is by all records the play that created the English appetite for historical drama.

Bedroom Studio
Directed by Kelly Elliott (she also directed Shakespeare’s Henry V for Cleveland Shakespeare Festival last summer) we had a couple rehearsals before performing once, live streaming on YouTube.

The thing about Zoom performances is that it is incumbent upon the actors to provide their own costume, to create their own set, and must work together to create props which, if shared, need to be identical. We had great fun putting it all together, and it was helpful and rewarding that BST provided dramaturgical commentary before and after the work. Any technical issues could be addressed in real time in the comments section, which was also a bonus. Some of us were even following along “backstage.” It was kinetic, lively, and loud.

There is a certain forgiveness audiences will provide a free performance, generously offered by a company trying to connect with their audience during this quarantine, and even it has to be said, to remain relevant.

Last weekend my wife and I paid admission (they had asked for a minimum one dollar donation) to watch Cleveland Public Theatre present a live “virtual reading” of Excerpts from Panther Women: An Army for the Liberation by India Nicole Burton.

Also a history play, about the women of the Black Panther Party, presented in prose, verse and dance, it was a highly choreographed piece, had a fluidity by featuring few performers (four, the screen was complete the entire performance) and it was brief, only forty minutes.

CPT is also creates a sense of live theater by giving audience members the chance to communicate before and after the performance (not during) and these online offerings not archived. They’re live, like theater should be, and not recorded. Subtle differences in performance, or outright mistakes, are for that audience only.

That one way, that one time, just for us. Just like live theater.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Short Play Project: Parenthood Series

Since we started having living children time has collapsed. Just last night (it was a very hot night, I could not sleep) I was thinking of the rooms in our house, and the different uses they have had.

My wife and I each had our own office, which were sacrificed; one room for the children, one for a playroom. Then two rooms for the children. Layers of paint, the acquisition and letting go of various furnitures. The music, the craft, the arguments, the injuries. And finally, coming to terms with the reality of their one day moving on.

Several writing prompts inspired reflection upon the condition of parenthood, lovingly interpreted by these performers.

Performed by Emmy Cohen & Moira Cohen

Performed by Tim Collingwood

Performed by Derek Koger & Evelyn Koger

You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Short Play Project: Quarantine Series

Yes, I have written a few short plays about sheltering-in-place. I mean, I'd rather not. I posted a tweet from theater artist John J. Caswell, Jr. that read, "No offense but I'm not going to go see a play reliving any of this."

He posted that two months ago.

But sometimes inspiration strikes and sometimes the results are enjoyable. Almost a month into quarantine I wrote Quarantine, which has been delightfully rendered by my long-time friends Ben and Pam, detailing the busy life of stay-at-home Gen Xers.

I've been catching up a lot with old high school friends on Zoom recently, and was made terribly aware of how the lion's share of my good high school memories are from the last several months of senior year. Having teenagers at home myself, I much more aware of what they are missing than what I currently am, in the form of cancelled concerts, parties, and ceremonies. A month ago I wrote Prom, to lend some perspective, perhaps, to the turns that life can take.

Finally, I have included here Giovanni, which started as a in-joke at work, but actually provides some sympathy to the much-maligned character of Friar John from Romeo and Juliet.

Performed by Ben Dooley & Pam Turlow

Performed by Maria Guardino Schreiner

Performed by Tim Keo

You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Short Play Project: Philosophical Series

The short plays are always written in the morning, before I have had too much time to think, or censor myself. Sometimes the writing is merely a conversation I have with myself, debating an issue, or a thought.

I am not religious. I have considered Buddhism, though I would hardly call myself a practitioner. Even if I were, I am not prepared to consider that a belief, but a philosophy. These works reflect my recent feelings about finding peace, and making sense of a complicated planet.

Performed by James Alexander Rankin

Graphic blandishments by Nancy Shimonek Brooks

Performed by JR Simons

You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Short Play Project: Action Figure Series

Many among us are sheltering-at-home alone ... or with people who do not make willing acting partners. Several actors have requested monologues, but I haven't written many monologues so those went fast. Most of my short plays require two characters. A small number, even three.

These short plays have been executed with the use of action figures, Funko dolls and pretty ponies, and they have been particularly popular.

Performed by Assad Khaishgi

Performed by Michele Kosboth

Performed by Carrie Williams

You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Spaceship Earth (film)

Florian Schneider Lives
DID YOU KNOW ..? You can watch first-run art house films, streaming courtesy of your friends at Cleveland Cinemas. (This is not a paid advertisement, support your local businesses.)

Last night we watched Spaceship Earth, a new documentary directed by Matt Wolf, about Biosphere 2, its origins, what went wrong, and what didn’t.

For those too young to remember, or are only aware of the Pauly Shore flick, Biosphere 2 is a minor footnote in 90s history, like the Hale-Bopp comet, or Pauly Shore. It was an enclosed environment in the Arizona desert, and eight individuals sealed themselves inside for two years to see how well they could survive.

My wife and I were trying to remember the details. Didn’t they abort the mission? Didn’t they “cheat” somehow? We remembered them going in (it was in September 1991) but didn’t remember them coming out.

A great deal of the film is dedicated to the foundations of the project which go back to the 1960s. A band of surprisingly capable and intelligent back-to-the-earth people, led by a charismatic if somewhat odd leader, practice avante garde theatre, and teach themselves how to live sustainably, on the earth, and then on the sea. It is a remarkable American story.

By the 1990s, the world had changed and with media attention their greatest experiment, and the personalities of those involved, were picked apart and exposed as less-than-science. This is why people like us, who were only casually paying attention, were left with the impression that it was a failure. Biosphere 2 is a punchline, like Pauly Shore.

But the film’s sincere portrayal of the the founders of the experiment, and what happened to them is what I found most relevant. We have been fighting the same battles since the 1960s; those who are exploring new belief systems and new ways of doing things, against those who just hate those people, and seek dominance, control, profit, and adherence to the dominant paradigm.

This fucking guy.
In this case, ageing hippies built a very sophisticated terrarium, and when their work was complete, Steve Bannon stepped in, kicked everyone to the curb and seold the science to the highest bidder.

Yes, that Steve Bannon. It’s a real what-the-fuck moment. Just watch the movie. What’s amazing to me is that it is impossible to watch, listen to, or read anything today without seeing just how everything that has ever happened has led to this current moment. Baby Boomers have been waging an inter-generational civil war for almost sixty years, the idealistic innovators vs. the aggrieved demagogues, and have destroyed the nation in the process.

“Spaceship Earth” was released May 8, 2020.

Friday, May 8, 2020

The Short Play Project: Humiliation Series

Writing these short works has provided me the opportunity to work out some of the more embarrassing moments in my life. I have been every one of these characters.

Performed by Tracey Gilbert & Robert Buckwalter

Performed by Michelle Ho & Kylie Nolan

Performed by Samantha Cocco, Hannah Storch & Carrie Williams
You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The Short Play Project: COVID-19 Series

There are those who speculate on all the coronavirus plays that will be debuting next season. Then there are those who state clearly they would never again wish to relive this period through drama or any other art form. Then there are those who direly suggest even a 2021-22 theater season is wishful thinking.

Several of my plays have become quarantine plays, as a direct result of how they have been interpreted on video for this project. Then there are those I have written specifically about COVID-19. These three are in the chronological order; written just before the lockdown, then shortly after the commencement of same (I was shocked by the phrase "it's only been a week" when I watched the video for Sick) and finally a reflection on the future.

They're a little depressing. It's okay if you don't want to watch.

Performed by Ellen Morales & Katie Rotuno

Performed by Taylor Steigmeyer & Trevor Pletcher
Produced by Sandbox Student Productions

Performed by Monica Cross

You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.

Monday, May 4, 2020

The Short Play Project: Monologue Series

Monologues are a conundrum. I am not a big monologue guy. There are few monologues in my plays, unless you count my monodramas, which are technically one big monologue.

As a director and arts education administrator, I have to watch a lot of monologues. Today should have been our annual audition for actor-teachers for the residency program. Instead it is the deadline for people to provide video auditions for same.

Video auditions are almost uniquely terrible, the worst possible way for an actor to make a first impression. But then, so are monologues in general. Actors have to be themselves and greet you, then "take a moment" and suddenly be someone else. That person is usually angry, or upset, or deadly earnest. Out of nowhere.

It's not fair, it's a terrible way to determine someone's talent, but we got a lot of people to see here and very little time. So there you are.

There are lots of books of monologues, pieces not taken from plays but written to be stand-alone monologues. Those might make for good performance pieces but they aren't very good for auditions. You can pretty much tell them for what they are. They usually feature very loopy or silly character, or if written for teens, way too emotional. They aren't fully developed, because they aren't part of a larger thought-out story.

Too many monologues chosen by women to perform at auditions are about being obsessed with a man. Too many monologues chosen by men to perform at auditions are about their junk.

I hadn't intended any of the three monologues featured here to be monologues, they just happened to feature one individual talking. Two of them are from the point of view of animals. "Cactus" might be very different interpreted by a male-identified actor.

And, hey. Feel free to use any of them at your next audition.

Performed by Joe Milan

Performed by Nina McCollum

Performed by Rich Stimac

You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Short Play Project: Mourning Series

I began writing these short plays in late September. That might seem a long time ago for most people, given our current situation. To me, that was the last moment before my mother began her sudden and inexorable decline.

She was in the hospital the first weekend of October, and again two months later. A month after that, she was dead. Writing these plays was one way of trying to make sense of losing her. I mean, it never did make sense. But at least in writing these I remember what it was like just before we lost her.

I am particularly grateful for the performers who took on these scripts, and created these lovely short films from them.

Performed by Liza Grossman & Phil Gould

Performed by Emily Mathews & Tom Wolan

Performed by Josh D. Brown

You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Short Play Project: Romantic Series

My last day in the office was Monday, March 16. That, for us, was the beginning of quarantine.

The night before I posted the first video in the Short Play Project. I had put out a request for interested parties who would like to create art through (or in spite of) social distance.

Since then folks in Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York City and elsewhere have created over forty-five short films from my brief play scripts.

What is remarklable to me is how many, written before the onset of COVID-19, have taken on additional significance, recorded as they are over conferencing platforms, cellphones, or even in makeshift tents.

Here are three romantic short plays.

Performed by Adam Graber & Vince Williams

"First Kiss"
Performed by Bobby Coyne & Valerie C. Kilmer

Performed by Laura Burnett & Joe Tanjai

You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.

Friday, May 1, 2020

What Happened (a play without the baby)

A couple weeks ago, I polled my friends on Facebook for an alternate title for my mondrama, I Hate This (a play without the baby). All of the responses I received were thoughtful and generous, poetic and appropriate. Really, every single one of them.

Titles suggestions included:
  • Fallen Leaf
  • A Whole In the Heart
  • Duet
  • Still
  • Forever Still
  • So Still
  • Pack Up the Moon
  • Eternal Lullaby
  • Zawadi
  • Still Love, Still Grief
  • Still My Child, Still Their Father
  • Still a Father
  • Acts of Despair
  • Bereft
  • Beyond Measure
  • Remembering Him
  • The Play Without the Baby
  • Talk About the Baby
  • Baby Shoes, Never Used
  • Still, Born
  • It Seems So Wrong
  • Firstborn Son
  • Three
  • Calvin
  • Still, My Son
  • Still, Father
  • A Father Stil
  • I Am a Father
  • Am I Still a Father?
  • He and I
  • Return to Sender
  • This Is How It Doesn’t Go
  • Untitled (On Purpose)
  • The Lost Homecoming Parade
  • The Sparrow
And, of course, Fuck You, Gerber.

There is a company in Chennai, India who have made plans to produce my play once the theaters re-open. And they very politely and sincerely requested they promote the production with a different title.

The title has been controversial, since the beginning. The play has been controversial. I had at least one producer tell me it was unwise to begin at the moment we were informed that the baby was dead, providing the audience no warning whatsoever.

My thinking was, and is, the title is the warning. But then, surely it has prevented many from attending. Hate is a very strong word, it is a word I choose not to use in daily life, if I can help it. I do not hate.

But we said, time and again, I hate this. We both did. Again and again. “I hate this”. I say it only once during the play, in passing, You might even miss it.

And it was this expression, a statement of feeling, that blankets the entire year chronicled in the script. And that is what I was seeking, another, less fraught expression, from the play, which best describes what this play is. Not something poetic. Not thoughtful, not soft nor sweet, not even descriptive of the situation. Not about me, not about her, not about him.

The first thing I said when I heard the news, the very first thing, was a question. “What happened?”

And this play is an urgent document of what happened. Not a question, a fact.

So, for now, we will call this play What Happened.