Thursday, December 30, 2021

Ten Creative Projects from 2021

"The Children Who Played at Slaughtering"
(Art: Chris Gleason)

I’m not horribly prolific, but considering it took forty years before I decided it was time to call myself a playwright (as opposed to an actor or a director) I am at least gratified to create one play a year. Sometimes they even get produced. 

Last year I wrote Forget About Me (The Breakfast Club Play) and over the course of one year had submitted that one to forty-five different places; theaters, competitions, and festivals. Beginning January 1, I expect to receive a number of rejections and also a lot of silence.

No matter. As the man said, “Move on.” I have already begun submitting my new play, No One Wants To Work Anymore. I have a job. I have my family and my health. The work continues, and move on.

These are ten artistic projects I have been involved with in some capacity during 2021.

Mrittika Chatterjee
"What Happened"
(Chennai Art Theatre)
Savory Taṇhā (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble)

The year began with fully-realized Zoom performances of this piece, produced by Cleveland Public Theatre and presented over three weekends with the company performing different roles for four different iterations of the script. If it was possible to have a live theatrical event during the shutdown, this was it.

What Happened produced by Chennai Art Theatre 

As things began to open up in other parts of the world, a postponed performance of I Hate This, re-titled What Happened for Indian audiences, opened in Chennai. For the first time, this monodrama was divided between two actors. Chennai Art Theatre remounted the work in Pondicherry in October!

All-Ohio Thespian Show: Time Capsule 

This year the All-Ohio Thespian Show was an online collection of short films called Time Capsule, chronicling the year 2020, season by season. It was all-original, written and produced by the students themselves, directed by Chennelle Bryant-Harris. I was tapped as dramaturge and New York-based artist SMJ was the movement coach.

The Children Who Played at Slaughtering

The NEOMFA Playwrights Festival went virtual in 2021, short films were adapted from short play scripts. My piece was an animation from my take on the Grimm’s Folk Tale, The Children Who Played at Slaughtering, directed by Dan Riordan, animation by Chris Gleason. It’s a seriously bent piece of work and I fear that if it is ever posted online it may ruin my career as the writer of children’s plays.

The Negative Zone (comic book)

My final project for a course in Comics Studies and Queer Theory was a book adapted from a short play scripts about comic book shops from the early 1980s. Every Saturday for ten weeks I spent the entire day (or longer) creating one page. I’m pretty pleased with the result, which you can read as a digital comic for only $1.99.

I Hate This produced by Playhouse Square

Last spring we recorded an amazing filmed version of our story, performed by James Rankin, and also directed by Chennelle. Ananias Dixon as videographer also played a major role in the shape the work has taken. We are still trying to decide the best way to present this piece, but I am grateful that it is done. It’s something I have fantasized about for over fifteen years.

"Sherlock Holmes Meets the
Bully of Baker Street"
(Jupiter Christian School)
The Great Lakes Theater School Residency Program

For (over) twenty years I have been working with actors to bring the residency program into area schools. This year is different, for too many reasons. But the people are so good.

Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street

Last Spring I was delighted to learn that not only was my Holmesian pastiche to be published by Pioneer Drama Service, but that the script had received the Shubert Fendrich Memorial Playwriting Award! 

Schools in the United States and Canada are now taking up their own productions of Sherlock and Vicky running down missing paintings and the bully of Baker Street (see photo from the Jupiter Christian School production, right). 

It is madness to think that only two years ago we were creating the original production for live performance in area schools.

School Residency Program
(Great Lakes Theater)
10 Minutes to Midnight: 9 Quirky Plays for the Holidays

There was a time when a major part of my creative output was shepherding writers to create short plays on a single theme, and I was very gratified to be one writer in such a project curated by someone else. Directed by Caitlin Lewins with Ananias, for Cleveland Public Theatre, this was a delightful way to end the year. 

NEOMFA Playwrights Festival 2022

The world is shutting down, again. Don’t act surprised. Last week there was a small gathering to read through those plays which (maybe, hopefully) will be presented at the NEOMFA Playwrights Festival at convergence-continuum in early 2022. I have a ten minute play which is (currently) titled The Ocean Breathes Salty. What’s crazy is that two of the four actors in this ten-minute piece attended Camp Theater! in years past.

However the new year shapes up, we will create. It's what we do, right?

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Smile (book)

Sarah Ruhl
(Sally Deng, New York Times)
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
The book I chose to read over Christmas break, this year more like a three-day weekend, was Smile by Sarah Ruhl (Dead Man’s Cell Phone, In the Next Room) a memoir in which she recounts her struggles with Bell’s palsy, an affliction which left one side of her face partially paralyzed following the birth of twins in 2010.

It was not the easiest book for me to read, I found myself sighing and wincing often as I read it, prompting my wife to ask if I was all right. I have never or not yet experienced this kind of physical trauma, but Ruhl honestly describes feelings of both rage and helplessness toward certain members of the medical community who failed her, and I have felt that.

I have known helplessness, and I have known rage. She shares several incidents, in detail, as members of the medical community continue to disappoint her, and is unapologetic for her disgust with their personal as well as professional failings. It made me regret those times I have pulled my punches in my writing, the edits I have made over the years to soften certain tales.

Ruhl recounts an episode in which she was escalating a stairwell and her legs entirely failed to work, she just pitched forward, with her body’s momentum. It is fortunate she was not terribly hurt. I was reminded of that time two years ago, when my mother claimed she “missed a step” on her way downstairs in her home. She struck her head on a bannister, leaving a shiner and a nasty web of scabs on her brow through our final Thanksgiving together.

As the extent and effect of my mother’s illness became more apparent, it was clear to me that she had not missed a step, but that her brain was ceasing to send messages to the right side of her body. Shortly after the accident she could no longer write. My mother's ability to write did not degenerate over time, one day she could write with a pen, the next she could not.

It is hard not to see this as a betrayal, when our body, our own self, refuses to obey.

One of the great lessons of this book is that there is no one way to manage (to quote another playwright) the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Not one religion, not one philosophy, not one path of medicine, not one course of therapy. There are known and unknown palliatives and cures in their thousands to ease our imperfect selves and souls.

That her journey would lead to Buddhism appeared to me to be inevitable, though she has engaged with it deeper than I have, which is an inspiration and not a shame.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Ten Recommended Posts from 2021

The most-visited posts for the year generally surround events which prick an immediate interest, or address a pertinent subject. But all year I record what’s going on, professionally, personally (to a limited degree), stuff I’m inspired to comment on, books I’ve read.

The History of Underground Comix

Taking a graduate level course in Comics Studies and Queer Theory was an attempt to rectify an ancient wrong, and in the process I learned so much about where we have gone and where we are going with the artform.

"Always"

People liked Diana, the Musical. A lot of people, I have seen them say so on Twitter. It will be remembered. There was once a musical about a controversial member of the British royal family which history has chosen to forget.

Twenty Years On

This blog entry. I can’t believe I wrote this. I am so glad I wrote this. I do not remember writing this, but I must have because it is entirely accurate and I want to re-read it every year until I die.

The Frantic Four


Regret is a useless thing (see below) and yet, there is nothing I regret so much as how little I wrote as a high school student. When I did attempt to write, my efforts were colossal failures, but I wish I had more of them. One thing I did do was to script a (highly derivative) superhero satire for a local comic book store.

Prom 2021

When the historic Cleveland Heights High School received a major and beautiful renovation several years back, we took pride in the fact that our eldest was a member of the first class to enter and to spend four years in our “new” building. But if the past five years (or five weeks) have taught us anything, it is not to project too far into the future.

Music Television: Forty Years On

Reading Annie Zaleski’s book Duran Duran’s Rio led to a musical reconsideration of that album, a masterpiece from a band which has generally been minimized to their image. Having said that, their image (and that of so many others represented on MTV) also made an indelible impression on the person I was to become and absolutely shaped the generation we call X.

To Maine By Canada (1996)

There was a period in my life when I was never entirely on vacation. Any road trip was not merely an occasion to take in the local theater scene, but to learn from it, to be inspired by it, maybe even to steal from it.

On Regret


Two roads diverged … Sorry, could I not travel both? Some thoughts on dreams deferred.

"Rememberings"

The memoir by Sinéad O'Connor was a reintroduction to an artist whose work I had always admired, and an opportunity to better understand her decisions, which have always seemed bizarre to the general public. The work has meaning, fame does not. Life is important, too. 

On Submissions

“Suit the play to the submission, the submission to the play, with this special observance that you closely read the application.” - HAM III.ii

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Ten Most Visited Posts from 2021

Since beginning this blog in 2010, I have used it as a repositority for research, to report on works-in-progress, to flog productions and publications, promote the work of others, file book reports, to keep track of my progress pursuing my MFA, and to opine about matters pertaining to the world of theater.

Some posts go viral, most do not. I have a dedicated following of about two dozen folks (hello.) Every now and then something catches everyody's attention, and that's nice.

For some odd reason, the most popular posts of the year were written in the past couple months. You'd think I would have accumulated more views for stuff from the beginning of the year. I think I have had a lot to say this season. Might have something to do with going the fuck outside. 

Here now, my most visited posts from the year 2021.

10. On Execution
You move just a finger,
Say the slightest word,
Something’s bound to linger.
Be heard.
9. “Hadestown” at the Walter Kerr Theatre

Having the opportunity to take my sixteen year-old to New York to attend a Broadway show was a highlight of the year. My own excitement to be back in the city was leavened by how much I learned about him during our brief stay.

Brian Pedaci
"Savory Taṇhā"
8. On Clichés

When does it become all right not to tell the entire fable, but just to reference it? You know what story I’m talking about. It’s in your nature.

7. “Savory Taṇhā” at Cleveland Public Theatre

As the shutdown lifted (for better or for worse) and live, in-performance resumed, I realized I was not as overwhelmed by the experience of re-engaging in theatrical performance as so many others, and much of this is due to the opportunity afforded my by Cleveland Public Theatre, presenting Savory Taṇhā live via Zoom, first as a weekend of workshops in summer 2020, and then as a full three-week run early this year.

Sylka Edmondson
Katie Wells
"10 Minutes to Midnight"
6. 10 Minutes to Midnight: 9 Quirky Plays for the Holidays

This is still playing and you should see it!

5. 2021 Shubert Fendrich Memorial Playwriting Award

This was a delightful surprise, receiving this award, and since the announcement, Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street has been licensed for production in schools in the United States and Canada.

4. On Trigger Warnings

Things have changed. Things have absolutely changed, and the world is divided into those who have the agency to say we must do things differently and those who say no, I want to do things the same way we always have. I find that those who oppose content warnings do not present compelling arguments for why they shouldn’t exist. 

3. Juke Box Hero

Part of my rock and roll fantasy (I mean – it’s all part of my rock and roll fantasy) has been to be able to play drums successfully with a band, and one night this fall I had my shot and I took it.

2. The “I Hate This” Series

When our video recording of I Hate This (performed by James Rankin) is released some time in the new year it will have been worth the wait. Several posts documenting the process of creating this work would individually take several places on this list, so in the interest of variety I added them up to represent one single entry. I am grateful this story has attracted so much attention.

James Alexander Rankin
"I Hate This"
Photo by Cody York
1. Philip Johnson (Revisited)

Upon the announcement that the Cleveland Clinic plans to bulldoze the edifice which former housed the Cleveland Play House (which should have come as a surprise to absolutely no one) there were a few days of outrage express not only by those who have strong memories of their time in the space, but also many who have no personal interest in Cleveland theater history but felt it necessary to malign the Clinic on principle.

Many argued that the space should be kept and maintained as an arts facility (though none would volunteer to shepherd such a project) and were unimpressed when I suggested that if the largest performing arts organization in the region found the place financially untenable, Lord knows some coalition of small arts organizations would also.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Process XLIX

Fall 2021 draws to a close. Turned in my “final first draft” of No One Wants to Work Anymore. I did not do any major restructuring, only spent hours embroidering the dialogue to address issues of clarity and intention suggested by our professor.

Also, a reflection on the second half of the semester in Dramatic Structure, pulling together the work of several 20th century playwrights and how they have influenced and continue to influence my own work.

I have returned to rehearsals at work, training one new team. This is exhausting, as I am focusing all of my attention on only two people for eight hours a day. It is enjoyable, emotionally fulfilling work, but by the end of the day I am not merely exhausted, but feel ill. That is how exhausted I get.

I also can’t seem to sleep past four in the morning. The holiday break cannot come soon enough. I am almost grateful not to be traveling to Britain. Almost, not quite.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

10 Minutes to Midnight (In Performance)

Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
Opening night of 10 Minutes to Midnight at Cleveland Public Theatre was sold out. I was stunned. And so pleased. Given the wide selection of holiday offerings, either already playing or opening this weekend, why attend a new show, one that’s description is vague enough to suggest it could be absolutely anything:
This holiday season, CPT shares humor, heart, and a party-like celebration, wrapped in a montage of short holiday (or non-holiday) plays. Part variety show, part cabaret, and part 10-minute play festival, "10 Minutes to Midnight" celebrates the breadth of holiday happenings (or non-happenings) in this seasonal extravaganza dosed with live music, fun-sized scenes, hilarity, and humanity.
There’s a lot of promises in there. Is it a party? I believe it is, from the jump there was a lot of enthusiastic answering back from the crowd. It’s certainly a 10-minute play festival, running the gamut from a fictional 90s sitcom Christmas episode, Millennials discussing the perils of possible procreation, and one particularly inspiring piece about the greatest love of all (and no, it’s not that.)

The great thing about a short play festival is that if you’re not into one piece, it won’t last long and then you get something else, brand new! Taken together, however, these scenes do communicate a shared humanity, and also a shared anxiety, but ultimately a communal joy.

I was reminded, somewhat, of the “vaudevilles” the company would present back in their early years, some thirty years ago. This show isn’t the same as those, the vaudevilles were like an open mic night for theater, and the content could be wide-ranging in its theme and polish. But the democracy of the CPT stage is something which continues. It is a very inclusive show, which is to say we are all included.

"Bakery"
Andrew Aaron Valdez & Cait Butler
I sat in the back, in the middle, watching the house fill to capacity around me, chatting with a surprise old friend, like me unencumbered this particular evening by either a partner or child. How to describe the feeling, the mood among the assembled, recognizable supporters of CPT, coming together, in this space, for the first time in nearly two years.

After the show, many people came up to me to tell me how much they enjoyed my play. I was never sure which one they meant. I have this strange, internal conflict regarding opening night post-show events. Seeing as how I work for a theater company I need to attend several of these a year and while I love to meet and greet and catch up with the folks involved in the production, those who have no time to socialize at all for the previous month or so, I also have a degree of social anxiety that makes me just want to ghost.

And yet, I felt this warm compulsion to reach out to as many members of the ensemble and creative team as I could to thank them for their work. As I was leaving, I said to a colleague. “Okay, I have to ghost,” which was a stupid thing to say because announcing you are ghosting is antithetical to doing it. Also, most of the crowd had already gone, which meant it was time for us all to go, anyway.

Cleveland Public Theatre presents "Ten Minutes to Midnight: 9 Quirky Plays for the Holidays" directed by Cailtin Lewins, continues through Sunday, December 18, 2021.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Process XLVIII

Joseph Beuys
Technology was not my friend this week. Not only for my Thursday night in-class presentation on Joseph Beuys, but also my Friday morning Styles seminar for seniors. Just to remember, never incorporate YouTube into my PowerPoint, it creates a variety of confusion.

It’s not that I was reliant on the app, but how long do you try to figure it out before flying without it? It’s frustrating. It makes me look unprofessional, and I hate that.

We were to choose an artist to present and our professor had presented us with a list but I was stuck. Choose someone I was already familiar with? That didn’t seem like learning, so I asked him to suggest someone, and he chose Beuys.

I’m not going to recap what I learned here, suffice to say there is a world of art out there with which I am shockingly ignorant. How could someone be so enigmatic and significant and yet I had never heard of him?

Last night 10 Minutes to Midnight: 9 Quirky Plays for the Holidays opened at Cleveland Public Theatre to a sold out house. I think my experience deserves its own post, for now I just wish to point up the program’s content warning on the website:
Content Warning: 10 Minutes to Midnight includes adult language, and themes of domestic violence, religion, sickness, and drug use.
My two, two-minute plays alone include adult language, sickness and (egads) religion.

Holidays and holiday shows can be fraught. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is Christie’s “World War One” story, and so to close my session with the seniors at Vitalia yesterday morning, I shared the animated short "December 25, 1914" from Simple Gifts. It brought women my mother’s age to tears. But they said it was beautiful.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

On Execution

There's all the work that needs to be done
It's late, for revision
There's all the time and all the planning
And songs, to be finished

- LCD Soundsystem, “Someone Great”
Stephen Sondheim
(1930 - 2021)
Losing a great person of art provides a moment of reflection. You hold for five, and look around and appraise not only what they have done, but also the impression they have made, what else may be absent had they never begun. Perhaps even more significant, when you are made aware of what currently is.

Because, oh! There is a revival of a musical by Stephen Sondheim on Broadway right now, and not just any revival, but one for which he actively participated, recentering the central protagonist to be a woman; Company.

A few openly gay playwrights have bristled as their works were psychoanalyzed for queer themes. If George and Martha were meant to be a gay couple, said Edward Albee, I would have written them as a gay couple. This is also the case with Company, which many have interpreted as centering a gay man who cannot acknowledge his sexuality.

If we must make Company autobiographical (and Sondheim would prefer we not) it touches not on the creator’s sexuality, but perhaps instead his inability to commit to a relationship, which his biography suggests may be true, up to a certain age.

There are no doubt people from all walks of life for whom the solitary life of Bobby/Bobbie is very familiar.

Reimagining the character as a woman who cannot commit, he had no problem with that, at least not during his final years. And that he would be engaged in the process, in his late 80s. He did not need to do that. But of course he did.

Of the many videos people are sharing today, one features Sondheim accepting his 1972 Tony Award for Follies, when he quoted the playwright David Trainer. He said that theater is “the only medium that acknowledges the presence of the audience, and that is why it will never die.”

I believe the theater will never die because of its fluidity. It resists definity. No, maybe Shakespeare did not intend Hamlet to be a woman, Iago to be black, Antonio to be gay (I mean, Antonio is totally gay) but they can be. You can do that production. I have seen them.

You can stage Into the Woods in an attic, Sweeney Todd where the actors play all the instruments, Assassins with a company of teenagers. Just remember: Having just the vision's no solution, everything depends on execution.

Yesterday, my friend Brian compared Into the Woods to Hamlet. “I'll see any production, any time and still find something new.” That, I believe, is the definition of a classic. Not that it can survive interpretation, but that it thrives on interpretation. 

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Process XLVII


The holidays are upon us, once again. Also, I have started consuming Centrum’s “Rest & Rejuvenate” melatonin and for the first time in weeks I am sleeping deeply and having crazy, crazy dreams. This is a good thing.

This week I started penning short scenes between the witches. It's all rather exploratory, but I’m meeting the characters anew and figuring out their relationship to each other.

Waiting for the turkey to cook, the family hunkered down to watch Pulp Fiction (as one will) and we only got through the first story before breaking to eat. I hadn’t seen it in years, and I was amazed at the template Taranatino created for himself with this one movie.

Talking pointless shit as a massively successful genre. I will never second-think my dialogue ever again.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Random Thoughts at the Commencement of the Season


This rock. The hardness. The completeness. The firmness. The ancientness. The water, in constant motion, all water the same water, always different water, the illusion of stillness, of the cessation of time. The trees beyond, evergeen, the uninterrupted vastness of the sky, from end to end, reaching high above, all the colors one can see.

How we fought. How she fought. I was stoic. I did not cry. I did not complain. I did not lose control. I kept it in. I remembered the past. I hoped for peace. And I wanted to be there. And I was. To help her cross over, to stop fighting.

How do we cease to be? How do we move from who we are to nothing at all? How can we live in the knowledge that all that lives must die, including ourselves?

By loving. By connecting. By enjoying everything and everyone. By making each moment the moment. The only moment. It is not about importance. It is not about significance. It is only about being. It is only is.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Process XLVI

The weather turns. The week has been exhausting and stressful. Illness among the team and I found myself playing Macbeth in Kent, as I have in days of old. But now I’m old and it is wearying. Enjoyable, but wearying.

But it feels as though we are barreling toward the end of the semester, and the holidays. And I’m excited about that, and that makes me cautious. Because looking forward to anything feels ridiculous. Anticipation? In this economy?

Speaking of the economy, this week we read Fulfillment Center by Abe Koogler. Having read several contemporary works (or tried to write one) about folks trying to make sense of life in this new millennium, this was the first to conclude on a note of what might be called hope. 

This week I turned in my final first draft of No One Wants To Work Anymore for the playwriting workshop. At the beginning of the semester, I had no idea what I would write. I cast about for inspiration, drafted ideas day by day, single page by single page. And then I wrote something -- a mystery, with structure, character, plot, humor and social significance. I can be proud of that.

Teaching at Kent Roosevelt High School

I have been casting about (occasionally) for online writing prompts without much success. Most are too specific, they are meant to inspire conflict and leave no room for flexible imagining. For example, one might read, “You’re at a buffet, and you and an attractive stranger reach for the same slice of pie at the same time. Go!”

Recently I came across the prompts at 826LA which are meant for children and young people and those have unlocked a few doors already. Yesterday I read this one:
Have you ever had a fight with your friend? How did it make you feel? How do you think it made them feel? What did you and your friend do or say to make up after?
I wrote a short story once, inspired by just such a thought, but when rewriting it as dialogue it carried me into a much different place. I resolved some time ago to cease typing up and posting short plays, but I might like to finish and share this one. It may even be a ten-minute work. 

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Ten Minutes to Midnight: 9 Quirky Plays for the Holidays

My first Christmas Pageant in elementary school (this would have been in 1973, surely they called it a "Christmas" pageant) was both a time of wonder and discovery. It was a wonder to be in our school after dark, a time when you should be at home and had never given a thought to what night time inside of a school might look like.

Also, one of our teachers had a “crystal ball” which was a gift from Santa. It glowed green and when you spoke into it, Santa could hear you! He didn’t speak back, that would have been asking too much. But just the idea of a one-way mystical communication device was enough to send the imagination on a whirl.

During the show we were gathered in one of the classrooms, waiting for our turn to take our place on the risers in the cafeteria. I was wandering the hall, probably headed to the bathroom or something, when I saw something in that teacher’s darkened room. It was the crystal ball. I went into the room, and took a closer look. It wasn’t glowing. It was plastic. It had an electrical cord coming from the back. It was just a light.

Was I disappointed to learn the truth? Maybe a little. I don’t remember ever having been a "believer" anyhow. But now I knew a secret, something that my classmates did not know. And I didn’t tell them about it, because it was mine.

Each holiday season I want to be involved. It’s not enough to indulge in the holidays (which I do, you know me). I want to participate. I want to provide the entertainment that provides joy during the holiday season, especially for those people who might only see one play a year, and it’s this one.

I have written before describing why I am goofy for the holidays. It’s about warmth and love, introspection and also gratitude. But though I have treasured, bittersweet memories of private, cloistered companionship (and even solitude) the sheer mania of the impending winter season makes me want to get out and be with the masses, to see the lights, to hear the music, to tell the stories.

Here’s my holly-jolly resume, dating back thirty years. Follow the links for further details!

Also: Joy of Christmas
(WEWS, 1978)
1991:
Stealing Christmas at Karamu House (actor)
1992: 12 Bands of Christmas Sing! At Cleveland Public Theatre (Guerrilla Theater Co., comic interludes)
1999: The Santaland Diaries at the Brick Alley Theatre (Bad Epitaph, producer)
2000: The Santaland Diaries at Cleveland Public Theatre (Bad Epitaph, producer)
2000: The Wayward Angel at Old Stone Church (Bad Epitaph, producer)
2002: The Santaland Diaries at Beck Center (director)
2003: Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge at Cleveland Public Theatre (actor)
2013: Adventures In Slumberland at Talespinner Children’s Theatre (playwright)
2017: The Santaland Diaries at Playhouse Square (Cleveland Public Theatre, actor)
2021: 10 Minutes to Midnight at Cleveland Public Theatre (contributing playwright)

See that last one? Yes! Theater cheer this holiday season at CPT! Playwrights from Cleveland and beyond have created nine short plays, and having attended the first reading last week I am very glad to be in such company. They’re engaging, touching, and very amusing scripts about the season of light.

Actor Cait Butler & Assoc. Director Ananias Dixon
And this is special. It is as though holiday entertainments must either be childlike and sentimental, or intentionally the opposite – outrageous, cynical, or obscene. The plays on this roster are intended for an adult audience, but they’re about family, anxiety, romance; my own pieces (yes, I have more than one, because they are short) are about tradition, death, legacy, and one kick-ass patisserie.

The production is shepherded by Caitlin Lewins, with whom I had a marvelous experience creating Savory Taṇhā for CPT during the lockdown, and Ananias Dixon who was videographer for I Hate This for Playhouse Square (coming soon, I promise).

Playwrights include Dayshawnda Ash, Melissa Crum, Emma Dahl, John Dayo-Aliya, Maya Malan-Gonzalez, and me. The acting company features Tania Benites, Dar’Jon Bentley, Cait Butler, Nickol Calhoun, Sylka Edmondson, Brooke Myers, Drew Pope, Andrew Valdez and Katie Wells.

This ensemble is incredible. I think this show is going to be incredible. I’m very excited about it!

Cleveland Public Theatre presents "Ten Minutes to Midnight: 9 Quirky Plays for the Holidays" directed by Cailtin Lewins, opens Friday, December 3, 2021.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Philip Johnson (revisited)


With the recent announcement that the Cleveland Clinic itends to bulldoze the former Cleveland Play House Theaters designed by Philip Johnson (Cleveland Arts Prize for Architecture, 1972) many of my theater friends are condemning and lamenting the move. While I am sympathetic to anyone who mourns the loss of any site which is a repository to good memories, claims that the building is "historic" don't hold water with me. 

The Play House worked in many different venues prior to consolidating into the former Sears Building at 8500 Euclid, and I was never so joyful as when it was announced they found a new home in Playhouse Square, where they are today.

The building created by Johnson in 1983 was a lazy cash grab in which he recycled old ideas and designed yet another proscenium stage for the company, a hall with terrible acoustics, awful sight lines, and useless "boxes". Plain Dealer theater critic Marianne Evett called the design of this new, 644-seat Kenyon C. Bolton Theatre, “appallingly short-sighted … aimed at public grandeur rather than furthering the art of theater.”

Following the unrest of the 1970s, many suburban whites declared they would never again visit downtown, and there were also those (like my parents) who would drive to this oasis of white privilege, in the center of a largely African American neighborhood, to park, scurry into the place, get their theater and jet directly back home.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan and supporter of the Cleveland Play House. I also have many incredible memories of the facility, like witnessing the Doris Baizley adaptation of A Christmas Carol starring Wayne Turney in the Drury, staging the first public reading of Sarah Morton’s Eighth Wonder of the World on the stage of the Brooks, and when Sherrod Brown read a scene from I Hate This on the stage of the Bolton.

Dobama Theatre produced several shows in the blackbox space (for which Johnson deserves credit, at least) including the world premiere of Morton’s Night Bloomers. One day I will spill the tea about that production, it was quite an adventure.

But by their own estimation, the Play House paid a million dollars a year just to keep the lights on in that vast, cavernous institution. The building is not beautiful, it’s not practical, it is not historic.

And it was designed by Philip Johnson. Eleven years ago as I was studying Cleveland in the 1930s I learned a lot about Johnson which made me like him even less. I will not miss this theater space.

Sources:
Encyclopedia of Cleveland History 
Cleveland Clinic to demolish ex-Cleveland Play House by Ken Prendergast, Neo-Trans Blog (1112/2021) 
Cleveland Arts Prize 
"Showtime in Cleveland: The Rise of a Regional Theater Center" by John Vacha (2001)

Friday, November 12, 2021

Process XLV

Asia, Noelle & Ryan
(No paper scripts!)
First off, I just want to say I know a lot of talented people.

Wednesday evening, I held an informal reading for the new play script I have written for the workshop. There are so few of us in class, I have had to ask three classmates to read two parts each, and one to read the stage directions, because the stage directions are pretty important. So it was important to me to hear six voices read the six roles before embarking on revision.

They were perfectly cast, too. I mean, I’ve never had a cold read of a script of mine with so many actors who totally got my sense of humor. I was flattered. They were just spot on. The only note I gave them at the outset was, don’t be someone else, be entirely yourself … only you just don’t care. You work in this place, and this place, these people … it just doesn't matter to you. It was all they needed.

But it’s too short. Or it’s a great short play, I don’t know. Each “act” would probably play at thirty minutes each. I think there is more business I could include. They clued me in to details which may not have been clear. And there could be a bit more character development. I have been encouraged to compose monologues. We’ll see about that.

Also, I kept an ear out for repetition. I never say “shut up” in my real life, but the characters say it one too many times. Also, “douchebag.” I’ll work on it.

I was struck by how many of the assembled expressed anxiety over the memories the play aroused in them, bad memories about working in food service. It’s just awful.

Took a break from classes on Thursday night, as it was Veterans’ Day, and spent it putting together a four-part residency for seniors surrounding my adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Juke Box Hero

Keith McGrath's Big Gas Band (plus Dave)
“You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them!” - Biff Loman, "Death of a Salesman"
Have you ever been in a bar and there’s a band playing and the drummer gets sick and the band asks if anyone in the place can play the drums and you say, yes. I can play. And then you play for three hours, basically saving the evening? Yes, this actually happened.

I was in Athens for Father’s Weekend at Ohio University, visiting our eldest. I had dropped them and their sixteen year-old brother off at their dorm for the evening and thought I would drive past the Smiling Skull Saloon. My siblings-in-law own the place, I thought maybe I would run into somebody I knew.

I was incognito, usually I walked in there with my mother-in-law but everyone looked at me with something like suspicion, wearing my “Smiling Skull Saloon STAFF” jacket, a Christmas present from years past. Like, who donated their staff jacket to Goodwill? And what’s this old nerd doing with it?

I paid the four dollar cover, there was a band (wait for it) and got a PBR at the bar. I kept my head down and watched as groups of fathers and students came in in small groups. You could tell them because they kept trying to pay with cards and the place is cash only.

The World Famous (2017)
From what I’ve heard, the Skull is a popular place for students who might otherwise not come to bring parents.

My sister-in-law Adrienne did show up and we talked and the band took their first break and that’s when things got weird.

A regular came up to Adrienne, this biker dude and he was very concerned: anybody got any Benadryl? Apparently the drummers arm has swollen up, he was having some kind of allergic reaction, no idea to what.

So, look. I’m at the opposite end of the bar. I’m minding my own, as they say. Then the band, ending their break, announces, “Is anyone here a drummer?”

And I think, “This is not my problem.”

Because I can drum. Or I have drummed. I practiced in high school. In my room, on a cheap set my parents got me. I was never very good. I never played the drums in front of an audience.

“Is there a drummer in the house?” they asked again. They were serious.

I tried to ignore them. This was not going to happen.

Do you know why? Because my instinct was to do it. If I’m at a performance, and they ask for a volunteer, I will wait. Because I perform all the time, and I don’t need to steal someone else’s opportunity. But if someone is needed for the performance to continue, sure. The show must go on, what do you need?

But this wasn’t that kind of situation. They needed a musician. They needed someone with a certain set of skills. And regardless of my desire to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing in a band, I wasn’t going to suddenly be good at something I had never been good at before.

Of course there were no other drummers in the room. And the band played on. They played one song, guitar and bass, and it wasn’t great. Because they’re a rock band. You need drums.

“This is not going to happen.“ I just kept telling myself that.

The guitarist moved the electric kick drum so that he could keep a beat. It wasn’t helping.

“OK,“ I said, taking off my jacket and my preppy sweatshirt. My sister-in-law said, “OK, what?“

“I’ll do it,“ I said. 

“What are you talking about?“ said my sister-in-law. I walked over to the band between songs.

“I can play drums,“ I said.

“Really?“ they asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe? Let’s find out.“


When I first moved into my house in Cleveland Heights, I bought a new used kit. Because I owned a house! I had always wanted one, a decent one. The person I was married to at the time had joined a band, playing keyboards, and I sat in with them (or they with me, practicing at our place) but this was shortly before we split. My ex-wife and I, not the band.

She left, I sold the kit. I haven’t played since 1994. My son is himself a very good drummer, we got him a set maybe ten years ago, but I’ve never played that. It’s his. You don’t mess with someone else’s instrument.

Now I was sitting behind this kit, at the Smiling Skull. It was an electric number, with pads and rubber cymbals, compact and simple. It had a nice sound, too, responsive to impact.

We started in with Mary Jane’s Last Dance, which is just your standard eighth note beat, 85 beats per minute, think an ordinary hit-hat, snare and bass rhythm. And that’s all I was playing, boom-ka-chick-ah, boom-ka-chick-ah, throwing in a crash in the right places. And we were off.

My sister-in-law was going crazy, texting my wife back in Cleveland, and my mother-in-law back at the house. It’s like Brian asked when I shared a photo on Facebook the next day, “Have you always had this hidden skill or have you been learning alongside your son?”

I have always had this hidden skill. I have to imagine that no one I have worked with has ever looked at me and thought, oh yeah, he must play the drums.

The guys in the band were pretty happy. It saved their night, having someone step up and play. I loosened up, took a few risks. I messed up, too, dropped sticks several times, but I kept going and I was all right at reading when to stop. It also helped that I’m old enough that I already knew most of what we were playing.

Somewhat ironic promotional graphic. 
Seven Nation Army. Walk This Way. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. It was a gas! I played for nearly three hours.

As crowds cycled in and out of the bar, the lead guitarist would remind the audience that they had no idea who I was but that I had “saved the night!” He’d holler “Let’s hear it for Dave!” And everybody yelled, “DAVE!!!”

Yes, when I am rocking you can call me Dave. My father-in-law called me Dave, and it was his bar. I’m Dave at the Skull.

We played an encore and concluded shortly after midnight. They joked about giving me my four bucks back. But seriously, they gave me a band T-shirt, effusive thanks, and they paid me for real. I tried to wave it off but he was dead serious, "No, man. We have to pay you."   

It was the opposite of an “actor’s nightmare” where you dream that you find yourself in the wings, dressed to play Hamlet when you realize you don’t know a word of Hamlet.” You don’t even know the plot.

But what if you opened your mouth and found out you actually do know every word of “To be or not to be,” and everyone called your name? It was a teenage dream made real.

UPDATE: “Brian (the drummer) is fine, thanks for asking! Had an allergic reaction to who knows what. Cathy, the other hero of the night, took him to the ER and they put in IVs , Benadryl, etc. and he was sent home around 4am. Random, out of the blue occurrence.” - Keith McGrath

Sunday, November 7, 2021

The New York City Marathon (2006)

The first New York City Marathon was held in September 1970. As last year’s marathon was cancelled due to COVID, they missed out on the opportunity to celebrate the event’s quinquagenarian anniversary. That is happening today. The 50th running of the NYC Marathon.

Fifteen years ago I ran my first marathon, and it was this one. There was something magical about training for New York first. Who knew if I would ever run a second?

Since 2006 I have kept a running blog, recording every run I take, long or short. I have also included some operations and other sidelining events. But I still run. In fact, it was this blog which provided much of the material used in my solo performance And Then You Die (How I Ran a Marathon in 26.2 Years).

Here is the contemporary account of my experience running the New York City Marathon. 


The Night Before

That night I had dinner with two old college friends, Andrew and Missy. Andrew bought me a pasta dinner at this great Italian place across the street from where he works. Andrew designs props for the American Airlines Theater, after dinner he gave us a brief tour of the set of Heartbreak House.

I stopped off at a market for extra food; a banana, pretzels, the odd energy bar, and a way too big bottle of water. Back to Coop's place, I laid out my gear, packed my bag and got in bed around 9.30.

Race Day: Sunday, November 5, 2006

I didn't sleep much at all, I woke up every twenty minutes. At 3.50, ten minutes before my alarm goes off, I got out of bed, cleaned up and suited up. I hate to consume anything when I first wake up, but I forced myself to drink a pint of water and eat a banana. I kissed my wife good-bye, said I'll see her on First Avenue, and headed for the subway.

I chewed a bagel on the way to the subway station. As I waited for the 6, other guys showed up in running gear and their "official" bags. We were each given a clear plastic bag, the only bag, we were told, we could take to the starting area. No bags inside of bags either, it's obviously a security thing. We're all like, hey, and hi, and have a great run. But not very loudly.

By 5 am there was a line of us walking up 42nd street towards the library, and there were at least twenty busses waiting for us. After all that fretting about my bus pass, they never even checked. They just wanted to see that we have numbers, there's no way they could have seen the small lettering on them that said if we had a pass or if this was the right pick up area. Whatever.

I had a great conversation with a guy from Toronto (sorry, I forgot your name) who ran the Cleveland Marathon last May. He kept saying really sweet things about our city and I kept biting my tongue from running the place down because we all do that.

Zelda & Toni
Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island

I was there before dawn, maybe the second bus there. Looked like a refugee camp. There were even experienced runners who had brought sleeping bags so they could just crash until start time. The only thing I missed was a scarf, otherwise I was relatively warm. I spent four hours pacing, having two small cups of coffee, eating another bagel, and another banana, trying to read the Sunday Times with gloves on, going to the restroom as strenuously as possible. When I tried sitting to read my body temperature dropped rapidly and so I got up again and just kept moving.

I even got in line for a massage. I didn't really need one, but it was something to do. She worked my back, I got tense in my shoulders a lot and my lower back hurt from all the pacing. By now the sun was up and I sat and worked on my red shirt. I wrote PENGO in block letters on the front. On the back I wrote:

CALVIN B.
ZELDA D.
ORSON A.
TONI K....

with a heart and a star. They got me to this place, I wanted to take them with me.

The people from different countries amazed me. Close to the start I met a young man named Matt from London. This was his first marathon, too - and he came from London. For his first marathon. So did I. Cool.

In my corral (the 20000 - 20999 corral) I found the 4:00 pace guy. I was going to follow the 4:15 pace team, but I'd already met this Londoner so I stayed there. Regardless, maybe I could pull off something like four hours, and maybe this was a big mistake, but whatever, I'd just let some people pass me first.

We began to move, and I took off the black sweats I'd gotten at Unique Thrift. I would be wearing my Asics all-weather black cap, glasses with a strap (not sunglasses), Lands Ends black long-sleeve tee, red Under Armour shirt, black Under Armour shorts, black running shocks and my Asics gels. I had gloves I planned on ditching. One last pee and we headed for the start. I was also wearing my iPod, had two GUs pinned to my shorts, and a tube of Carmex tucked into my waistband.

All my gear choices turned out to be perfect.

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

I reached the start line roughly six minutes after the gun went off. My headphones were off, I was saving that for later. Just the thrill of, well, finally being there. I was nervous for a fraction of a second back on the bus, then, after hours of waiting, I was just happy to be moving. The sky was cloudless, the weather was mild, it was going to be a beautiful day for running.

Already there were men relieving themselves, over the edge of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. I just didn't think that's right. Over the next four plus hours, I would see guys just letting it go over bridges, through chain link fences, anywhere really. I also saw amused photographers taking pictures of small groups of guys, pissing into parking lots.

Good-bye Staten Island.

Brooklyn

Brooklyn was amazing. And very, very long. After a two-mile bridge, we would be in the Borough of Kings until the race was half-over. Shortly after we arrived, we were greeted by large, large crowds of cheering locals. When I saw a guy holding a sign reading FINISHING IS YOUR ONLY FUCKING OPTION I knew it was going to be a good day.

There were Irish runners wearing big green hats, a guy dressed as a rhino. a surprising number of Norwegians, Dutch runners with matching orange jerseys sporting questionable cartoons of Africans, a guy dressed like the Statue of Liberty, and, so they told me, Bobby Flay.

For most of Brooklyn I enjoyed the ambient sound, the bands playing every couple of miles. I drank at maybe every other station, sometimes water, sometimes Gatorade. I forced myself to drink even when I didn't want to, though I found as I was drinking that I really did.

Whenever I took long runs during my training, I would feel terribly drained after a while. I attributed this to a lack of something in my system. At five miles, I took my first GU, right before a water station to wash it down.


10K split: 0:57:33

By seven miles, I began to wonder if we were in Queens yet, and had to remind myself that that wouldn't come until mile 13. I tried keeping the bouncing balloons held by the 4:00 pace captain in sight, but needed to take a leak (at an actual port-o-john) and spent a few miles trying to catch up. I was going much faster than I should have. By the time we reached Queens, I lost them for the rest of the run.

I began getting that drained feeling before the Half-Marathon, and worried I hadn't packed enough to eat. They warn you not to pick up anything not at an official table, which is a shame, because there were kids with small water bottles, old ladies with orange slices, guys with bananas. I took a Twizzler at one point, because I thought that was good luck, until I remembered I never chew Twizzlers thoroughly enough. I had my second GU, this one with caffeine in it. I knew there would be a PowerBar Gel station at mile 18, and hoped I would last until then.

I had read on some message board that you shouldn't put your name on your shirt, that it gets annoying after a while. Everyone else said to do it. Well, I didn't write my name, I wrote my nickname. And I gotta tell you, I never got sick of perfect strangers yelling "Pengo!" at me. That was a big boost, and whenever I needed it, I moved from the center of the street to one of the curbs.

Queensboro Bridge

A steep incline, luckily I read in one of the magazines that there is a stunning view of Manhattan if you look to your left. I did, and it was. It was breathtaking. It was one of several moments during the run I almost, but didn't, burst into tears. God, I love that city.

Choice track: Such Great Heights - The Postal Service

Earlier in the run I was concerned I was dressed just a little too heavily. Maybe I didn't need this thermal undershirt, at least not in the bright sunlight and 50º weather of Brooklyn. But the two miles on the lower level of the Queensboro Bridge made me grateful I had it on, that was brisk.

Choice track: Winners - 7 Seconds of Love

As we headed down the bridge descending into Manhattan, I said the only thing out loud I had said to that point. I said, "That's a lot of people."

Half-marathon split: 2:00:17 

First Avenue

Outstanding. First Avenue, deep with people, for miles. Bright and sunny again, headed uptown. My family was supposed to be waiting for me at 81st Street, but I started looking for them much earlier, on the west side of the street, looking for the SpongeBob Squarepants sign I had gotten for them from the expo. I missed the "official" banana station looking for my wife, but - I kid you not - I almost slipped on a banana peel.

Choice track: Future Sightings - I Am the World Trade Center

They were right where they said they'd be, Coop was holding the sign, which read "Go Go Pengo!" or I never would have seen them. I leaned over to kiss my wife and the children, and headed off again. And then I got really, really tired. It was only mile 17.

I had used the iPod intermittently, but relied on it more heavily to keep my spirits up. I snagged a PowerBar Gel, and then a second one for later.

Choice track: A Little Less Conversation - Elvis Presley vs. Junkie XL

I had no idea whether it was a boon or a curse to be familiar with the geography and relative distances of Manhattan in that situation. I knew I was racing into the hundreds, and that after a brief swing through the Bronx, it would still be a long way back to Central Park.


The Bronx 

On the Willis Avenue Bridge we were greeted by a Scots drum and pipes band. Not as many people were there to see us at the Bronx, maybe they felt slighted being such a short part of the route. I was feeling distress in my abdomen, couldn't tell if it was just all of the synthetic protein and carbs or all the fluid I had been taking in, or just gas. I stopped at another port-o-john, which was a big risk. I tried keeping my legs moving as I pee'ed (that was a very good idea) and then got back on the road.

I applied lip balm every few miles, I never lost the lip balm. I still had the gloves I'd tucked in my waistband.

And then we were back in Manhattan.

Fifth Avenue

I mostly listened to the iPod through Harlem and on toward the Park. The family was going to cross over and meet me there - at first my wife had said she would see me on the avenue, and then she changed that so I wasn't sure where I would see her. So I began looking well up the street. It was a good thing, too, another distraction.

Remember; I had never even run 20 miles before. The one time I tried it I fell slightly short, going from Cleveland Heights to Lakewood. Once I hit twenty, in the Bronx, I thought, well, from here on out I have no idea what I am capable of. I tried to drive any notion of what it was going to feel like stopping, of finishing, of having the medal, of seeing my kids again, out of my head.

Choice track: Put Your Records On - Corinne Bailey Rae

We crossed into Central Park. After another half mile or so, I found my family again. I wasn't stopping this time, I was just happy to see them. The last two miles were ridiculous. I can't say they were impossible, I didn't slow down any more than I already had (LOTS of people passed me on Fifth Avenue) I just kept going, not too slowly, either, it just didn't seem like it was ever going to end.

Final track: It's My Life (Vocal Mix) - Liquid People vs. Talk Talk

My iPod was on shuffle, and this track was next. I listened to it a lot during my training, one of those songs from my teenage years that was played so much it lost meaning at the time, but creepingly gained meaning in the time since. And the artist who was Talk Talk now goes under the name Liquid People and "remixed" this track, which means he mostly put a thudding beat under it that makes it incredible to work out to. It was exactly what I needed aat point in time, reminding me of all the work I'd put into this. I just shut everyone out except for the deafening cheering that came through.

Out the south end of the park, and then back in, I headed to the finish line. There was no feeling of overwhelming exhilaration, Just relief.

Finish time: 4:15:28
Overall place: 16,838 (out of 38,368)
Average pace: 9:45


Originally appeared in Daddy Runs Fast.

UPDATE: The string in the waistband to the shorts I wore during the 2006 NYC Marathon snapped while running in Central Park last month.


Saturday, November 6, 2021

Process XLIV

Spalding Gray
This week in workshop the class read the second act of my new script to its conclusion. I was worried it was a bit too talky, but at least there was genuine laughter. What I’d really like to do is get enough readers together to hear it properly. There are six characters, but only five students in the class, and I want to listen, not read.

This weekend I am in Athens, visiting our child. So maybe we'll have that read next week, or anyway, soon. The semester will conclude in a month and I would like to do some significant revision.

And speaking of revision! A workshop of another play (sorry to be coy) is to be pushed back two months, from January to March. That’s cool, why not make it an even two years?

In dramatic structure we watched Spalding Gray: Terrors of Pleasure, and I was shocked to discover I had already seen the entire thing, probably when it premiered on cable in 1988. The moment which stuck with me the longest was when the camera zooms on his face as he has this one most significant revelation:
“Wait … am I a loser?”
I have used that a million times, but forgot where it was from.

But I was disappointed. Even back then I was disappointed. Swimming To Cambodia made such an indelible impression, it was a theatrical event. It was a film, yes, of a theatrical event, with higher highs and even lower lows, which garnered him some kind of deal with HBO to make new, hour long, monologue films.

Unfortunately, Terrors is merely schmuck humor. He tells the story of buying a house which is a money pit but before it reaches any kind of climax it diverts to a Hollywood failure tale and then just kind of ends.

Every monologue play I have written, I have been obsessed with its structure. I should write another one, but God knows what that would be about.