Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Mirror and the Light (book)

Pengo’s 2020 Summer Book Club
Alexander, rumors only grow.
And we both know what we know.
On this date, four hundred and eighty years ago, July 28, 1540, Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, Order of the Garter, Viceregent and Lord Privy Seal, was beheaded at the Tower of London by order of King Henry VIII for crimes of treason and heresy.

Spoiler alert.

Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of novels on the life of Thomas Cromwell each conclude with a decapitation. Wolf Hall (2009) with that of Thomas More, Bring Up the Bodies (2012) with Anne Boleyn, and with the subject himself in The Mirror and the Light, which was released March 5 of this year.

My wife gifted me with the hardcover just as we all went into quarantine. It took four months to read half of it, and the past week to read the rest. I thought several times of putting it aside, but I have developed an attachment to the character of Cromwell, not only as Mantel has painted him but also in the performance by Mark Rylance in the six-part BBC adaptation of the first two novels.

Thomas Cromwell
(Hans Holbein, 1532-33)
Novelists who set a specific number of books to complete an epic story often find themselves trying to cram too much into the last one (Deathly Hallows comes to mind -- Half-Blood Prince, too, for that matter, maybe I'm just thinking of Harry Potter) and Mirror is the longest of this set, but for most of the first half I felt we were spending far too much time on tangential relationships and all the weird dishes that English men of wealth used to have for dinner.

Also, I have poor reading habits. I can take in maybe a page or two before bed and then I am spent. Summer vacation affords me the opportunity to sit and read, for hours. This past week I avoided work, both in my employment and my art. I set it aside. I vacationed. I went fishing with my son and I read this book. Once I could spend all of my time living in it, it came alive for me.

And it hurt. I knew how it was going to end, but I avoided delving into history to learn how or why beforehand. I even entertained the idea that he outlived the king and was put to death in the chaotic years that followed, but I was pretty sure there was no way that was how it actually happened. Henry VIII used people up, again and again, and it was Cromwell’s complicity in these acts which made it all but certain that he would eventually no longer be seen as useful to this monstrous monarch.

Rylance as Cromwell
(Wolf Hall, 2015)
It makes sense that the primary reason for Cromwell’s fall from grace was that, having successfully played the role of pimp for a monarch who was increasingly desperate for a male heir, he contracted a fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, whom history has regarded as the king did himself: fugly.

To the author’s credit, however, she creates an alternative scenario inspired by true events. The ever-playful Tudor decides to surprise his betrothed before their appointed first meeting. This was a habit of his, as illustrated in Shakespeare’s All Is True, putting on disguises to the delight of the ladies long past the age when such behavior was deemed appropriate.

In Mantel’s version of events, unprepared for the arrival, it was the German Anna whose first reaction to the middle-aged, somewhat lame and already overweight Henry was a reflection of his own physical state that no one had yet shown him.

The best way to read.
Again, I am put in mind of the BBC adaptation, in which Damian Lewis portrays a hot king Henry, and wonder, if they are to create three more episodes to bring the tale to its conclusion, whether or not they would use the Billions star and if it is even possible to make this actor unattractive.

Cromwell’s downfall as depicted is remarkable, he never loses his wit (nor Mantel hers, the author’s sense of humor is a particular delight) and his death handled in a manner in keeping with my own recent philosophical imaginings on the subject. It broke my heart.

What should I read next?

Monday, July 20, 2020

The Short Play Project: Acting With Myself Series

The world has moved on. I have not received a short play project video submission for some time. People have focused on other porjects, and so have I.

The novelty of creating drama at a distance has cooled somewhat. We're still doing it, of course. But now it is summer, and we have expanded our ideas of what that means. Perhaps as cool weather sets in this will change. But don't talk to me about the future.

When I first put out a call for artists to create short videos from my play scripts, the monologues went pretty fast. Not everyone was shelrting in place with another actor, or with anyone at all.

Several entries created a some kind of work around, and here are three examples of those. Lynna Metrisin chose the high school Thespian "Forensics" route, performing both roles on her own at the same time. Patrick Gladish used editing to play twin disaffected hipsters.

Eric Fancher employed a very subtle split screen and headsets to play against himself in what appears to be a single take. Check them out.

Performed by Lynna Metrisin
Videography by Jim Metrisin

Performed by Patrick Gladish

Performed by Eric Fancher

You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Savory Taṇhā in Performance (Saturday)

Cardinal Hotel, Winston-Salem
Room #207
Three performances of Savory Taṇhā, three very different performances. Or were they? All five performers brought their own unique interpretation to each character.

It was challenging deciding who would play which role on which night. I didn’t want anyone to have too many performances in a single evening, or too few. I also didn’t want any actor to be in any more than three scenes in a row. And that was more challenging than I thought.

Having made that work, the evening’s each had a different dynamic, depending on who played what. An audience member felt Thursday's show had a large number of empowered women characters, and on Thursday there were.

My wife noticed that Hillary and Zyrece were the center of several romantic entanglements on Friday, whereas tonight Brian and Zach were engaged in a few scenes with sexual overtones.

The legendary Harvey Pekar said, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.” Folks in the post-show tonight were fond of those dramatic moments that come out of everyday experience, and how we captured those. More than one person has asked if any of these characters were meant to carry from one scene to the next, but if they did that was the actor’s work, and not mine.

The pitfalls of online performance have been bemoaned at length by others (and myself) so I was particularly gratified for the comments our production received in that regard. That folks were able to suspend their disbelief and we drawn into the possibility that our actors shared the same space. During our rehearsals we worked on creating similar backgrounds and lighting as best we could, and it paid off.

Finally, I remember a comment from Thursday night. One was pleased with the variety of ages, the span of generations represented. And that was intentional. Because the origin of these stories are very personal. Ten months of constant writing, digging up these deep parts of me, the thoughts that trouble me, and those that give me peace, represented in a spectrum of moments, moment which for three nights were played out in real time for a life audience.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Savory Taṇhā in Performance (Friday)

Brian & Zach
During tonight’s performance I said “shit” under my breath over a live mic. Errors were made.

And yet, another great crowd, and another great performance.

Yes, people are tired of Zoom. DID YOU KNOW ..? Zoom stock was mired around $68/share at the beginning of 2020? It is currently at $275. But as one audience member said tonight, they are “all zoomed out.”

This audience member also said tonight’s performance “filled my cup with creativity,” which was delightful praise. Another added, “I felt closer to live theater than I have in months.”

There was a great deal of commentary about the camera work, our actors looking directly into the camera, closing the distance between audience and performer. My friend Luke said the eye contact made him feel like he was actually looking through the eyes of the person who was being spoken to.

My wife watched tonight, she was also taken by the faces, and the close-up expression in each of the actors’ eyes.

Our final word was on the final monologue, Monument, asking whether it was meant to comment on all that came before; this collector of the memories that have been discarded, or forgotten.

This weekend there is an estate sale at my mother’s home. You might call it a coincidence … but it’s really not.

Cleveland Public Theatre presents "Savory Taṇhā (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble)" featuring Anne McEvoy Zyrece Montgomery,  Zach Palumbo, Brian Pedaci & Hillary Wheelock with one remaining performance on Saturday July 11, 2020 at 8:00 PM.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Savory Taṇhā in Performance (Thursday)

Brian & Zyrece
Yesterday the New York Times published an essay with the unfortunate headline, Digital Theater Isn’t Theater. It’s a Way to Mourn Its Absence by Laura Collins-Hughes. Journalists and columnists don’t usually get to choose their headlines, there are people who specialize in that -- and a good thing, too, try writing one.

Unfortunately, while the mourning may be real, the phrase “digital theater isn’t theater” is a statement I have to take issue with. And why wouldn’t it be? I am currently the writer/director of a piece of live, if digital, theater.

Collins-Hughes accurately describes the thrill of live theater so; “Bodily immersed in an experience, sharing a single space, we emerge at the finish of those performances imprinted with sense memories.” Yes, we do. It’s why some of us chose this path, as opposed that of movies or television. It’s why I have spent the better part of two decades working on behalf of students to bring live performance right into their classrooms, another mission which has been suspended for the duration.

“Immersed.” That word makes me shudder. Remember immersive theater? An entire popular genre rendered suddenly extinct. They may try to open Broadway, but Sleep No More isn’t rousing any time soon.

And yes, we have enjoyed the recorded dramas that has been made available to us, especially the highly-anticipated Hamilton movie. But they really are just movies, aren’t they?

Hillary & Zach
“Even the Hamilton movie,” Collins-Hughes remarks, “a thrilling and democratizing testament to the power of stage performance, can’t capture the soul of theater, because that soul lives in the room.”

We saw it, we may even have watched it at the same time as LMM and the entire company the evening it debuted, joining in on a nation-wide Twitter commentary, a virtual lobby in which we could compare notes and share our thoughts and feelings.

But even in spite of this opportunity to commune over a piece of theater, even one as professionally executed as that, it was still only the document of a live performance, and not the thing itself.

Which brings me to Savory Taṇhā (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble), produced by Cleveland Public Theatre to be performed via Zoom, and enjoyed by a live audience of viewers. Not to be archived, not to be seen again. To heighten that sense of immediacy, each night different members of the five person ensemble will be performing different roles from the same sixteen scripts.

We had our first performance tonight, and it went very well. We had a wonderful audience, somewhere between thirty and forty people. They get to see and greet each other before the performance, and also after. It is true, audience mics and cameras are turned off for the performance, so we miss out on any possible laughs or other audience reactions, a necessary sacrifice.

The post-show discussion, however, was very nice, and a warm validation of what I was hoping to accomplish. They commented on the connection between actors, and the great intimacy. In rehearsal I emphasized how, in spite of its many limitations, this medium provides an opportunity for intimacy and closeness that a live performance in front of a hundred audience members cannot, and that we should take advantage of that.

One commented on how though each character has a unique voice, they are still people that you know personally. And that some of them are you.

Finally, it was so great to see colleagues and friends I have made who I have never met in person, but with whom we have shared work, audience members watching from Virginia, Los Angeles and elsewhere, and having the opportunity to share this work with them. Oddly enough, I am currently in North Carolina.

And I challenge you to tell me what we're doing isn’t theater.

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.

Source: Digital Theater Isn’t Theater. It’s a Way to Mourn Its Absence (The industry’s show-must-go-on smile masks a harder truth: that there is no substitute for the live interaction between performer and audience) by Laura Collins-Hughes, The New York Times (7/8/2020)

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Nickel Boys (book)

Pengo's 2020 Summer Book Club

On Monday, the New York Times published an editorial in which Lucian K. Truscott IV, a journalist and (white) direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson proposed the third president’s memorial in Washington D.C. be demolished and replaced with one to Harriet Tubman.

My first reaction was, oh. But I like that one. My next was, who cares what I think? As Truscott points out, Monticello is monument enough. Even Jefferson himself did not think serving as President warranted mention on his own tombstone, who are we to argue?

Statues are coming down across America, and about time, too. We are supposed to be a nation established on ideals, and not individuals. Laws survive, and serve the people. Writing survives, the history remains. It's the hero worship that is being swept away.

It is at this moment, during a period of pandemic and social upheaval, that I read The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. I’ve read two novels in this one vacation week, both released in 2019. The first grappled with the ripples of American Imperialism, the second with our nation’s as-yet unresolved sins of systemic racism. This one got the Pulitzer.

Inspired by the 2012 discovery of a secret cemetery on the grounds of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, Whitehead has done what he does so amazingly well, created a fictional story grounded solidly in undeniable (and accurate) truth.

It is a breathtaking tale, and by that I mean, I lost my breath. Halfway through the book I cried with something like, but not exactly like relief, and had to set the book down. And then, as with the Eggers book I read on Monday, I was whipsawed near the end and had to stop and regain my senses, to rethink everything that had come before.

“If everyone looked the other way, then everybody was in on it.” So believes the protagonist Elwood Curtis, and it is a belief he tries to hang onto. Taking a stand for justice even in the face of overwhelming and absolute injustice, a young African-American in the early 60s caught the wrong ride and ended up in a reform school where silence and complicity were necessary for survival.

Much like the nation we are living in. Exactly like the nation we are living in, in fact. It’s not for me to defend the hagiography of the Founding Fathers, those who owned human souls and those who didn’t but looked the other way. We have all always known where the bodies are buried, and now they are being revealed.

Summer's not over. What shoud I read next?

I’m a Direct Descendant of Thomas Jefferson. Take Down His Memorial by Lucian K. Truscott IV, The New York Times (7/6/2020)
Florida's Dozier School For Boys: A True Horror Story, National Public Radio, "All Things Considered" (10/15/2012)

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Parade (book)

Pengo’s 2020 Summer Book Club

I have been lazily making my way through The Mirror and the Light, the third book in Hillary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy. My wife got it for me in March, the perfect quarantine tome, but I have been reading maybe one page a night.

It doesn’t have the urgency that the first two books did, dispatching More and then Boleyn (spoilers? sorry?) We already know who loses their head at the end of this book, and the road is paved with clues as to how this may be justified. But it meanders mightily as Mantel’s dedication to historical reality means acknowledging characters and episodes who do not edify as the crafty Howards did.

Anyway, we’re on vacation and I intentionally left that at home. I wanted a beach read, and intended to pull something (with a soft cover) from the shelf but neglected to do so. But there are several books here, my son had a copy of The Parade by Dave Eggers lying around, so I picked that up yesterday morning and read the whole thing in a matter of hours.

It’s not terribly long, 180 pages or so, but I could literally not put it down. Even when not reading it, it was tucked under my arm. I went from beach to hammock to adirondack chair, and I was not going to stop reading until it was through.

The plot is focused tightly on a nameless protagonist who works for a private contractor for a construction corporation with ties to the (presumably but never-definitively-stated as U.S.) military whose mission is to pave a road through a small nation, also never identified, which has recently suffered through a civil war.

Reading I was reminded of the kind of novel they would assign in middle or high school, your Red Badge of Courage or Heart of Darkness, following one man through a dark journey of the soul. The man (who refers to himself as “Four,” because having no identity makes you less valuable to kidnappers) follows his assignment to the letter, years of corporate oversight determining how best to not get tangled in local affairs.

But as events spiral out of control, his humanity is slowly revealed, and he comes to trust and even admire those he encounters. The devastating conclusion, one which was always apparent if I had only been paying attention, reveals itself only in the final page, which I had to read three times to believe what I had just experienced.

Except for a few brief descriptions of sexual activity, I would absolutely think this novel is appropriate for an English curriculum, dealing as it does with the harsh 21st century realities of the post-colonial world, with serious questions about ethics and the accepting the consequences of our actions.

Also, many works in canon have troubling, distorted views of people of color, and as I was reading this one I felt as though those earlier works were being picked apart.

I dig Dave Eggers, even though I haven’t read much of his work. Might magazine was a big hit around our child-free, Gen X, late-90s house (he’s my wife’s age) and I certainly enjoyed Heartbreaking Work but then haven’t picked up anything else. Someone even gave me a copy of the DVD for Where the Wild Things Are but we never watched it because it’s inappropriate for children, and while I appreciate the irony now the kids are grown we no longer have a DVD player.

I should read another of his books. Recommendations welcome.

Friday, July 3, 2020


Anne & Zyrece
Today was my 300th consecutive morning of writing. When I noted that this morning, that number, at first I was proud of my achievement. Then I realized, that is nearly ten months. I started last September.

This year. This fucking year.

Whatever your plans, they were shelved in March. This year is now half over, and everything remains on hold. 2020 is canceled, and the only good thing we got out of any of this is Hamilton. Had we been asked, I am sure we all could have waited to see it at the movies.

We are, all of us, holding out for a miracle. That a vaccine is arrived at, faster than has ever been arrived at before, to eradicate the virus and return our lives to something like normal.

The artistic community, to take only one example, is in a desperate state. Our livelihood depends on live performance, audiences, sweat and spit and contact and everything that might possibly kill you.

This is what I wrote on “Day One,” before I had even started writing short plays each day. I was mentally preparing myself for the Chicago Marathon.
This day is cool and most perfect. I project my mind into the afternoon to come and wonder, can I accomplish this? The race is a little over a month, but today, today I will run, my feet -- not just my feet, my hips, and all the rest,carrying me across the city. I can do that, can’t I?

I am imagining the Cleveland that currently is, with runners through the Cultural Garden, and packing Edgewater Park. There will be water fountains and public restrooms, amenities which make the travel easier. Will it be a joy? Or arduous? Will I notice the good things? I cannot know.
Just revisiting this, knowing how much we have lost, how much I have personally lost since then, Sunday, September 8, 2019. I was running the twenty miles from our house to my mother’s house that day. She was waiting for me on the porch when I arrived. Sitting out with her boyfriend on a beautiful late summer’s day.

My mother was alive. The park was swollen with people. And I was unafraid.

Zach & Brian
So. Savory Taṇhā. We had a lovely rehearsal last night, this time with the "Friday" version, the one that will be performed a week from tonight. The script doesn’t change, but the performers will read different roles each evening; Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

I am directing, which is most practical but not what I prefer. Directing my own writing, I spend too much time on the wrong things. I prefer all my concentration be on the words themselves, paying greater attention to what is said rather than how it is being said. So that I might change them.

Then there is the frustration of working within the constraints of this medium. Light, space, reception, delay. My attention isn’t even on what’s being said, nor how, but how it all comes together, as a whole.

And yet, having said all that. I am loving this. This is where I am grateful to be working with such talented performers. This material, these scenes. Relationships played out in intimate fashion. This is an experience you cannot have on stage, this intimacy. The closeness, the vulnerability.

We had made plans. Other projects, different journeys. They did not include this show, though. There is a saying, "serenity can be achieved by trading expectation for acceptance." Or as I'd put it, by trading one expectation for another.

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.