Sunday, June 28, 2020

Savory Taṇhā (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble)

Three hundred days. I have written for a half-hour every morning, without missing a day, for nearly three hundred days. That is some kind of record for me. And for the majority of those days I have written a short, one-page play.

They’re not all good, to be sure. But most of them are, I think. There is some repetition, repetition of theme, or style. Sense of humor. It’s all me. These are the scripts I have been offering to anyone who would like to create a video for the Short Play Project.

More recently I received an offer from Cleveland Public Theatre to curate an evening of short plays for their current Encounters (Here and Now) Series.

To create a sense of community and immediacy, CPT has eschewed the current trend to post performances online for enjoyment at any time, choosing instead to produce live performances through which an audience has the opportunity to interact before and after a show (like you do) and that the shows themselves are like an actual theater experience in that, if you miss it, you missed it.

Choosing the right combination of plays for this forty-minute production has been a curious challenge. I had asked CPT Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan for some feedback, a reflection of what he or others may see in my work which folks respond to. He said it was my themes of longing, passion, melancholy, desire, nostalgia … these are not wistful emotions I have come to in my middle years. I was nostalgic for the 1970s before they were even over, and that was when I was ten.

Regret, mourning, coping with my mother’s death, reevaluating my choices as a younger man … I will be honest. This is not necessarily the first thing I would choose to present right now, during the pandemic, during the uprising. But in the midst of chaos we are still engaged in life, and I am content to offer these sixteen short plays as a reflection of all of our relationships, our fears and hopes and doubts and dreams.

And of course, I need to be clever. To protest my own ability to write works for people from all walks of life, we cast five actors who will read different roles each of the three evenings it will be performed. The text remains the same, the interpersonal reactions are different.

For the title, I wanted something which captured this sense of longing, without sounding overwrought. Or pretentious. That was meant to be a joke.

Constant Craving, the title of that k.d. lang song came to mind. And Savory Taṇhā is a variation of that. Savory is one of my love's favorite words. Taṇhā is the desire to return, to repeat, to stay in one place. Not to move on. The living bardo. It is a cause of human suffering, the inability to accept change.

But it tastes so good.

UPDATE: Cleveland Public Theatre presents the Zoom Premiere of "Savory Taṇhā (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble)" featuring Anne McEvoy Zyrece Montgomery,  Zach Palumbo, Brian Pedaci & Hillary Wheelock, February 17 - March 6, 2021.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Our Midwest Journey (1995)

The Mississippi River
Twenty-five years ago my wife Toni moved here from New York City. We did not know at that time we would be married, we didn’t know any of this. My first marriage was over, my first theater company in the rearview mirror.

I had a new project, though. I was to start a series of late night productions at Dobama Theatre. I had proposed two ideas, an evening of short plays written by twenty-something actors about their experiences as adolescents and children in the year 1980, and a long-form improv based on the MTV reality program The Real World.

The first was an idea I had proposed once or twice at Guerrilla, using our skills as writers of brief plays to compose an entire show on a single theme, but it never came to fruition. Long form improv was something I also wanted to experiment with, but had no skill or training in it. I just knew it existed.

Before starting this new job, Toni and I decided to take our first road trip. It was a test of our new relationship, it was also terribly indulgent. We enjoyed room service and each other, and checked out historical sights and tourist traps on our way up to the Twin Cities to spend a few days with my brother, Denny.

I was also compelled to see as many non-traditional performances as possible, as though any one of them might provide me with insight or ideas to steal for this new project. It was a mania. Looking back, I am shocked by how many shows we saw on this trip, and how many ideas for the Night Kitchen actually did originate on this journey.

The following italicized passages are excerpts from my journal.
Thursday, July 6, 1995 - Chicago
We saw “Harold” (sic) at the Improv Olympics (sic) … it appeared as though there were very few rules … they would take one word (mine: moon rocks) and make a half-hour piece out of it. It went everywhere and always came back to the central theme.

I wonder how much was planned and how much they were truly winging it.
Danny Hoch
This was the period when both Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were working at IO (Improv Olympic), and so the odds are good we saw at least one of them that night, but there’s absolutely no way to prove that.

Regardless, deconstructing what I saw this one night formed the basis of my directing concept for The Realistic World, and pretty much every long form I have directed since. Perhaps I should have taken a class.
Friday, July 7, 1995 - Chicago
Saw "Some People" and "Too Much Light" ... In “Some People” Danny Hoch (24 yrs old, fm NYC) portrays eleven different people … to blur the line between “we” and “them.” It made Toni miss NY … the only kind of theater worth doing, theater that teaches, that instructs, that makes you leave with more than a smile on your face.

Special note: Remember all the disenfranchised Generation X’ers w/multi-color hair hanging out under the “L” asking for change.
This last sentence is a line I included almost word-for-word in the text for The Vampyres.
Saturday, July 8, 1995 - Chicago
We saw “Klown” Unbelievable. Helmut Voelker, with the big forehead, unwavering, glassy-eyed stare and gaped mouth, piercing high laugh, he couldn’t break eggs except on his head, he was so frightening and pitiful, REMEMBER HIM … like a wild animal. He frightened me. And when his hand was hit by a mallet or his penis was cut off, or his gift of a rose was refused, he howled and cried so pitifully … I remember “Incomparable Pablo” at O.U. An evil little clown show, but those kinds are so powerful.
Die Hanswurst Klown
Late last year I wrote more about evil clown shows, including Die Hanswurst Klown: Pick Us and We’ll Burst, and you can read about that here.
Sunday, July 9, 1995 - Milwaukee
“Realistic World” idea I came up with in the shower … open show with introductions; one character has a monologue describing (improvised, of course) an uncomfortable event that took place “the other day.” Then all those involved act it out.
Unknown to me, IO had by this time already featured a program called “The Real, Real World.” I am sure it was hilarious, I was always aiming for a king of improvised cinéma vérité, which is not necessarily a good thing.
Break. The “narrator” comes out and gets a volunteer from the audience to describe something real that happened and then the characters act that out, taking it to a different (or who knows, maybe not) conclusion.
The very first time we did this opening night of The Realistic World, I asked someone in the audience what they did earlier that day and they said they had attended a funeral. I literally froze, literally. I turned into actual ice.
Another idea: give audience members the opportunity for additional participation by inviting them to wear a (button, ribbon, toilet paper) and if an actor needs someone new in a scene, they can just pick someone out and use them. Brilliant, no?
No. That is another fucking terrible idea.
Monday, July 10, 1995 - Madison, WI
Should I use improv games in the rehearsal of “Bummer”? Maybe one day a week.
1st day warm-up, hand out scripts, run them, discussion of content, pick five for memorization?
2nd day warm-up, run scripts, test memorization. Show & tell.
3rd day Improv day? More running of pieces?
The Infinity Room
The House on the Rock
Not a particularly inspired entry, but I am amused now by the fact was I was spending so much time fretting about my impending responsibility. You can read more about Bummer here.
Tuesday, July 11, 1995 - Spring Green, WI
Taliesin -- the home of Frank Lloyd Wright … (the studio) even has a little theater … a curtain designed by his students for his 90th (?) birthday … It smelled a bit mildewy but it was a theater. I’d love to mount a whole Shakespeare on that tiny stage.

From there to the House on the Rock. Monstrous! The most gifted architect in American history in the same town as this incredible, unbelievable THING.

It was like a real-life nightmare, all twisty & turny & dark -- were we indoors? underground?

The music machines … The Mikado. Glistening, gilded and red. The song it played, “Danse Macabre” -- I could have cried. Frightening! I will use it in the “Vicious Cabaret.”
True to my word, we did use the recording of the "Mikado" machine as the opening theme for This Vicious Cabaret.
Wednesday, July 12, 1995 - Winona, WI
(in a coffee house) "The Compass"
p. 42 Die Schmiere, “it means ‘smearer’ or something. It’s a cabaret which puts everything down.”
P. 43 Latin: Provisus, past participle of provider, i.e. To provide, providence, “to see ahead”
the negative, “improvisus” - unforeseen
Janet Coleman’s book The Compass was a revelation to me, about improvisation and, coupled with Jeff Weingrad and Doug Hill’s Saturday Night, about the corporate whoring of modern comedy. It was a foundational book for my award-winning play one-act This Is The Times.
Thursday, July 13, 1995 - St. Paul, MN
It was 102° today. Toni and I decided to give ourselves a break and just sit in a cold theater and watch a movie. But the place up the street (by Macalester) had their a/c busted and so we drove all the way into Minneapolis to see "Apollo 13."
This was the weekend that over seven hundred people died in Chicago during the heatwave of 1995.
Friday, July 14, 1995 - St. Paul, MN
I dreamed again last night about showing up to the first "Bummer" rehearsal without anything prepared.

Toni, my brother and I went out to see an improv show in a bowling alley. They have this little theater on the side. The troupe was called "Jump Up and Run." We three were the only ones in the audience, so we got our money back.

They “rehearsed” for us. They did two pieces, one called THX (“the three of you are listening”) where they act out a mundane activity (bowling) and two of them on microphones make the sound effects.

Then they did a musical based on a decade (Denny said 1850s) and an object (pasta). It was pretty funny.
The Young & The Weightless
This fascinating cabaret space is at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Several years later, when I was performing the Minnesota Fringe I caught a couple shows there, and I have to say there is nothing like being served a big fat cheeseburger, fries and a beer in the middle of a one-man solo performance of Hamlet. You can read more about that here.
Saturday, July 15, 1995 - St. Paul, MN
We saw "The Swan" at the Jungle Theatre. Interesting play.

Then we returned to the Bryant-Lake Bowl and caught an 11 PM performance of "The Young and the Weightless." Now there were more people in the audience.

A science fiction, musical soap opera. All improvised, they included what happened last week in the program.

They had a tendency to talk over each other, or to wait for someone to say anything. The funniest ones in the show were from "Jump Up and Run" … for the most part the whole experiment was fun, enjoyable to watch, etc. I am inspired.

I am also ready to go home.
"Funny Business" by Sid Smith, Chicago Tribune (4/9/1995)
"The Compass, The Improvisational Theatre that Revolutionised American Comedy" by Janet Coleman, University of Chicago Press (1990)

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Camp Theater! (2020)

(Not an actual link.)

These early days of the COVID-19 pandemic (oh, you thought they were over) artists have had a moment of reckoning, and it has not been pretty. Arts organizations have suspended or cancelled programs and productions, cut company and staff, and in far too many cases, closed up shop entirely.

In immediate response to the stay-at-home orders, my colleagues and I at Great Lakes Theater collaborated to create virtual programming for our English Language Arts instructors, brief video “modules” for use as part of asynchronous education.

One of my favorite pieces from our early experiments included inviting fifty actor-teachers, past and present, to recite Shakespeare’s “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy from Hamlet. We are currently working to anticipate the needs of our partnering teachers in the coming school year.

Ten years ago GLT began Camp Theater, a summer theater arts camp hosted at Berea-Midpark High School. My children, particularly my daughter have attended, on-and-off, since the beginning. It serves Pre-K through “rising” high school seniors.

There are a number of students who have joined us, year after year. It must mean we have been doing something right. For some of them, it is a way to get away from the usual school and societal pressure and express themselves without judgment.

It’s just two weeks, in the middle of June, kicking off the summer. Helping to facilitate this camp is a highlight of my year. And we needed to decide how to make camp happen this year in a way that kids who have already been “zoomed out” would choose to participate.

Zelda as Henry IV
Anonymous, late 16th or early 17th cent.
(National Portrait Gallery)
For the little kids, the team created brief videos that included stories, crafts and performance ideas so that parents could share them with the children to work at on their own time. It was agreed that the older campers would not be interested in another instructional video and besides, so many of them attend to see the other folks they only see here.

Last week we met for a half-hour at 10 AM every morning where they were provided with an artistic assignment to work on during the day in preparation for the next day’s work. I tried to work theater games into the mix, but they were dropped after the second day. We had over twenty campers and Zoom failed to accommodate that kind of interaction.

Just as well! They were there to work. Campers wrote short plays, they performed each others’ written work, they created costumes for brief two-person scenes from Shakespeare's "Henriad." By the end of the week, I was satisfied that we had fulfilled our mandate for this strange time; to be there for them.

And they were there for each other.

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Short Play Project: Short Film Series

No one wants to announce favorites among their children. Everyone who has taken one of my play scripts and recorded it for video has brought joy to me, and hopefully provided them artistic satisfaction during this time of social isolation.

However, there are a few who spent a great deal of time and talent, creating fantastic costumes, providing soundscapes and music, and engaging their cinematographer colleagues to create the kind of short film that is worthy of submission to a festival (and don't think we aren't talking about it.)

Three I would like to highlight here, and they are not the only three, feature interpretations of the text I have written that take them into an entirely other directions, featuring animation, sound design, and real live cats.

Performed by Melissa Crum and Patrick Stoops
Directed by Melissa Crum
Animation by Patrick Stoops

Performed by Paul Manganello & Timothy Michael Blewitt
Camera by Erin Dawson

Produced & directed by Davis Aguila & Michael Prosen
Performed by Michael Prosen, Davis Aguila and introducing Donna Bae

Other amazing short films include Creation, Consent, and many more you can find on the complete Short Play Project Playlist.

Monday, June 8, 2020

The Short Play Project: Kitchen Series

The kitchen in our house is really important. It's also the most unfinished room in the house. Whenever we entertain, there's always a moment when I realize everyone has gathered in the kitchen and I have to say, why are we in the kitchen? Let's relocate.

Some people have kitchens that are made for social time, with space and islands and stools but not at my house. It's intimate, there's nowhere to sit, nowhere to rest your drink, really. At least we added a pass-through ten years ago so you can talk to people in the dining room.

But it's where the food happens. And it's just the right size for me and my wife to talk when it's just us, away from the kids. We have had some of the most loving conversations and worst fights in the kitchen, dating back twenty-five years this spring.

With one exception (see "Cooking," below) I haven't written one short play script that was meant to take place specifically in a kitchen. But it doesn't surprise me that several chose the kitchen as the location for certain kinds of personal interactions. The play "Teamwork" was, in my mind, an office place conversation, but changing it to a tense discussion between partners also makes perfect sense.

Performed by Roxana Bell & Beau Reinker

Performed by Henrik & Brenda Hansen

Performed by Lauren Bruniges & Caleb Knueven

You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Documenting Cleveland, Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Literary Cleveland invited folks from all over Cleveland to document our city on Tuesday, May 12. It is their intent to create one, unified essay that chronicles this time, in this place.

They had intended to release the final product last week, but the task has proved greater than they had originally conceived (see tweet).
In the meantime, this is my 1,000 word entry. We were asked to write in third person. Mine is perhaps more personal than the criteria required, but it was my day, it was a particular day, and this is what happened to me.

It was a peaceful, uneventful Tuesday, in the midst of a pandemic. Three weeks ago. Before the uprising.

6:56 AM – Home, Cleveland Heights

After hitting snooze four times, he finally got up at half past six. It was a bit chilly for mid-May, but he opened the door to the side porch. He liked to hear the birds. The gas fireplace was lit, and it was time for morning pages.

He had slept through the night. If he didn’t take Benadryl the night before, he usually woke around two-thirty and just lay there for an hour. They said it was from all the worry, but he thought it was from all the alcohol.

8:09 AM – Forest Hill Park, East Cleveland

He took a brisk run through Forest Hill Park. It was overcast and cool, and it was gosling season. As he ran through the park, he had to make a wide berth so as not to get attacked by hissing, parental geese.

Out in the neighborhood he had been running onto the tree lawn, or onto the street, to provide at least ten feet of distance between himself and anyone who shared his path.

8:51 AM – Home, Cleveland Heights

He had lemon cake for breakfast. His wife had made one for family friends, and one for them. Saturday night he had made a loaf of potato bread and a batch of chocolate chip cookies because he was bored. Those went in about two days. In the past two months he had gained ten pounds.

His dreams had been vivid, active. Full of crowds. He only dreamed about people and places that he never usually encountered during the day. Last month it was the parking garage at work, which he had last entered on March 16. Now it was live performances. Memories of his dreams leaked into his waking thoughts.

9:31 AM – Home, Cleveland Heights

He settled into his workspace later than he’d planned. His desk was the wooden, round supper table downstairs. His wife, daughter, son; everyone else worked in their own bedrooms. The whole first floor had become his office.

11:22 AM – Home, Cleveland Heights

He was in a Zoom meeting with the education team. Today they were discussing the summer arts camp. This year they were creating five days of virtual programming, which would include storytelling, crafts, theater games, and scene work.

His daughter wandered by, so he pulled her into the meeting and everyone was glad to see her on the screen. She had an AP Calculus exam at 1:00 PM, and was clutching a fistful of sharpened pencils.

His co-workers had a lot of questions for her about online testing.

She reminded her father, him, not to use WiFi or to make any sound from one to three. Her brother said he didn’t know what he would do with himself for two hours. 2:22 PM – Home, Cleveland Heights

He typed up a list of items he had made note of last weekend, rooting around in his mother’s attic in Lakewood. The boy was on the couch, reading. Quarantine might be good for something after all.

3:21 PM – Mom’s House, Lakewood

His mother had died in January. They’d made plans to sell her things, her house, but that had been put on hold. His brother and family had driven all the way from the Twin Cities in one day to stay at that house, and go over her things.

He drove from his house in Cleveland Heights. Cars like were closed, atmospheric chambers, safe transportation vessels. Driving, he felt something like normalcy. Then he saw all the people at Edgewater, milling about without masks on and thought, “What the fuck is wrong with those people?”

4:07 PM – Mom’s House, Lakewood

He and his brother took a break from sorting through boxes. They were in the backyard, in the garden behind their mom’s garage. They stood apart and drank beer and talked about family. A neighbor came over to the fence to say hi. He and his brother were sorry/not sorry about not shaking hands. The neighbor told them their mom came over shortly after he and his wife had moved in, with photos of their house,the neighbors', from back in the day.

Mom grew up here, in her house in Lakewood, one that had been in his family since 1940. Eighty years.

He missed her every day, but he was grateful she wasn’t part of this.

4:51 PM – Mom’s House, Lakewood

They went through photos, so many photos. Some very old photos. It was just as well he was already wearing rubber gloves.

6:49 PM – Mom’s House, Lakewood

The rest of his family arrived in the other car with carry out. They dined al fresco, on that gorgeous spring evening, cool but bright, seated six feet apart in his children’s grandmother’s backyard. The neighbor on the other side introduced herself, too. She told lovely stories of how his mom and her daughter, the neighbor’s, would chat as his mom tended the garden.

He kept reminding his brother to keep his mask above his nostrils.

9:10 PM – Shoreway, Cleveland

He and his daughter talked as they drove back to the east side. She was worried her senior soccer season would be canceled. She would be a captain this year, and they’d already made plans how to continue team building traditions while keeping social distance.

They took the Shoreway, which at night feels like flying over the city. His daughter spied The Q. She just knew the Harry Styles concert was going to be rescheduled. His kids had been taking all of this so much better than he thought he would have at their age. Or was now.

11:15 PM – Home, Cleveland Heights

He and his wife returned to their couch, before the fire. They sat in silence, sipped whiskey, and read. Tomorrow would be much the same.

UPDATE: Literary Cleveland published the completed, final essay in Cleveland Scene on Tuesday, June 16, as well as an interactive map featuring all 140 submissions from this project.