Monday, February 22, 2021

"Savory Taṇhā" (aflame/afloat)

Hillary Wheelock
“Taṇhā is the price you pay for being a person,” said Arthur on Friday night, at the post-show for Savory Taṇhā. He was also in attendance on Thursday night. Regarding the final scene, about the person who creates art from those things left on the curb, those cast-off, he added, “It wouldn’t be a complete life if you didn’t have these things. The loss is what makes it important.”

We have completed one cycle of these four different performances. One audience member, Patricia, joined us on the second night, then through Friday and Saturday and returned last night, to enjoy all four. After the show Saturday she admitted that upon a second viewing she felt she was spending too much of her attention comparing the performances, but by the third night she was simply taking in the stories as they were, with fresh, new eyes.

The names we have given the four differently cast performances are not some random affectation. The first, the one we are performed again last night, is Aloft. This one tracks most closely to what I was thinking when I wrote them, in gender orientation, in the age of the characters. As a result, there is a youthful quality to them, as younger performers like Zach and Zyrece take the fore, the older performers supporting them in their journey.

Zach Palumbo
has a masculine edge, as Brian's presence dominates the proceedings, Brian who is my own personal stand-in in all things theater related. Hillary’s kinetic energy takes precedence in Aflame.

The fourth version, Afloat, is the one which subverts expectation. Anne is most present, expressing the doubt and fear of failure which we usually attribute younger people. After you get to a certain age, these feelings can be too shameful to express. Also, we get the middle-age sex action.

We asked Patricia for some immediate reaction having seen all four, and she remarked upon the hospital scene, that it is that one which changes the most. The three relationships represented in the scene.

And I realized, that’s right. There are not two relationships in that scene, but three. But then, to me, that third, unseen character never changes.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Process XVII

"Hello, Cleveland."
Alters #4
(Aftershock Comics, 2017)
We’re reading the Paul Jenkins/Leila Leiz comic Alters for class this week, the third notable comic to take place in Cleveland, Ohio, after American Splendor and Howard the Duck. It is also notable in that the protagonist is a trans woman superhero, named Chalice.

Last week we took in the Iceman comics which delved into his life as a gay man, which was queer as in strange (as they say.) It is often an odd fit when an long-established character is rewritten to have a sexual orientation contrary to previous expectations.

So, yeah. We’ve moved onto queer superheroes. When I was a teenager, reading X-Men was in its full flower, working as an aggressively overwrought metaphor for any marginalized group. This came to its obvious conclusion in the X2 when (coincidentally) Bobby “Iceman” Drake reveals to his parents as being a mutant. The metaphor is played for comedy.

His mother asks, “Have you tried ... not being a mutant?”

In the Iceman comics he has to come out to them a second time, this time as gay. No more symbolism, this is attempting to reflect the real life experience.

Alters had the advantage of starting fresh, a new “universe” with a different power dynamic between superpowered humans, which I enjoyed more. In spite of its unique and sympathetic protagonist, and leans harder into the lives of marginalized people - not only trans, but disabled, homeless, people of color - it still falls into a several traps, including a queer-coded arch villain and the cringey depiction of a single black mother anmed Sharise.

Is she realistic, are there people like Sharise? I guess. But knowing it comes from the mind of a white, male writer, the situation and vernacular were a little difficult to take.

And then there’s the Cleveland thing. Just as Steve Gerber, who never visited Cleveland, chose our hometown as the setting for the adventures of Howard the Duck, the British-born Jenkins made this Chalice’s home without really knowing anything about it. Where the hell is “the city center”? The least bit of research could have made it more believable. As it is, Cleveland is simply a stand-in for “Not New York.”

As for me, I am spending this weekend creating a twelve-panel comic adapted from my short play The Negative Zone, which takes place in a comic book shop in the mid 1980s.

Friday, February 19, 2021

"Savory Taṇhā" (aloft/aground)

Anne McEvoy
We have so far presented two live performances of Savory Taṇhā, the versions we call “aloft” and “aground”. One of our audience members called Wednesday night’s performance “effective, funny, sad, wistful.” 

The audience member's commentary, her very presence in the house that night was significant to me, because she is my ex-wife. It has been well over twenty-five years since she has seen any of my work. It meant a lot to me for her to be there. 

So much of the text, this text, is about awareness and understanding. Not apologies or explanations, but a frank presentation of what is, or at least what is how I see it.

Last night a number of the students we are working with to create this year’s All-Ohio Thespian show were in attendance, high school students from around the state. One of them introduced me to a new word, sonder. It is literally a new word, it was coined by the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows in 2013.
sonder (n.) the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.
Zyrece Montgomery
Chennelle noted the universality of the pieces, which is part of the reason these were chosen, as opposed to others which might necessarily cleave to a particular gender, age, religion, race or ability, and also why we chose to change up how the roles are distributed among the performers each night.

Caitlin, our director, proposed we make it clear each evening is distinct by providing a name to each version; tonight we’re doing the “such-and-such version.” As each performance came together, we worked to divine a common theme, or vibe. 

And so, aloft, aground, aflame, and afloat. Whatever that means to you.

The common refrain is one of connection. One audience member said these plays made them feel “something I was always connected to, brought to life.”

We are making connections, in real time, with performance, through our screens. These are also moments we will never forget. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Short Play Project: Cleveland Sight Center Series

Bobbie Szabo, Recreation Specialist at the Cleveland Sight Center worked with my good friend Tim Keo to create videos from my short play scripts. 

They were designed specfically to be enjoyed by clients of the Sight Center who are low vision, visually impaired or blind. Credits are read aloud, and include a brief description of the visual setting.

My favorite take is Szabo's adaptation of my short play Cleveland, which includes no visual information at all. Rather, the scene is performed audibly, twice, two different ways. The audience is encouraged to participate, to imagine what actions are happening during each of the performances and to drop them in the comments.

Also featured in these videos is Ken Hoegler, who is a staff member at the Sight Center's summer camp, Highbrook Lodge. He translated his scripts into braille.

Performed by Tim Keo & Bobbie Szabo

"Jury Duty"
Performed by Ken Hoegler & Bobbie Szabo

Performed by Tim Keo & Bobbie Szabo

Other short plays produced by the Cleveland Sight Center include CatsCooking and Dragons.

You can watch the entire Short Play Project here.

Monday, February 15, 2021

"Savory Taṇhā" at Cleveland Public Theatre

Brian Pedaci
There is currently a NYC-based theater artist named Cheryl Bear who is tearing through all of my short plays on New Play Exchange in reverse alphabetical order. I am stunned and delighted. 

I don’t even know who this person is. You can register as a playwright on NPX and post your work, and read and recommend the work of others. 

You can also register as a reader, which is less expensive (neither is expensive, not for the motherlode of material that is available to you) and Bear is one of those.

While I had already noticed she had been reading and recommending an awful lot of material written by others recently, this is something different. I have no idea why she is doing this, but I can only imagine it speaks well for my work, right?

As of today, she has read all my short plays from W (I haven’t yet written short plays that begin with Z, Y, or X) to M. That's almost 100 scripts! That also means she has already read and recommended several scripts that are included in Savory Taṇhā, which opens this Wednesday at Cleveland Public Theatre.

Some of Bear's comments:
  • SKETCH Things are more than surface level as we learn there may be more behind the faces and the artist drawing them in this intriguing encounter.  
  • STEPS The intoxicating secret moments of risky intimacy vividly portrayed with anticipation.
  • SKINNY DIP The apprehension to just live in the moment and be free perfectly captured.
Zyrece Montgomery
She’s also reminding me of plays I wrote and posted and then haven’t thought about since, and it’s breaking my heart. Little pieces of me, strewn into the great ocean of the internet. And now someone is recovering them, one moment at a time.

I can’t under-state what she’s doing by reading and commenting on all of these, it’s truly affecting.

Savory Taṇhā is a truly beautiful undertaking, one made possible by the current circumstance. Listen to this, this is what I would do, if I could. I’d have a stack of my short, two-person plays. A company of actors would read them, and become familiar with them. They wouldn’t need to memorize them.

A stage manager would have them in a stack, set a timer for one hour, and call actors out to perform them, entirely at random. And go, they would perform them, script in hand, for the audience. When the hour was up, the show would be over.

The culmination of my life’s experience creating original, non-traditional theater. Short honest plays. And all of these scripts are from my soul, they’re who I am. They’re what I think. They are me. 

It's also like a Guerrilla Theater or Dobama's Night Kitchen show, made up entirely of my own writing. Which is also an entirely appropriate thing to have happen.

Hillary Wheelock
Anyway, that was the original idea. But we’re in a pandemic. So, instead, we have a company of five actors, my favorite actors, folks I have known from thirty years to twelve months. And they’ve been turning these plays back and forth, each of them performing in most of the plays, in most of the roles, interpreting each with their own life experience.

Directed by Caitlin Lewins, with original music (performed live!) by Molly Andrew-Hinders and animations by Emma Chu Wolpert, this is a fully-realized production. I am so excited to be presenting a new work for audiences to enjoy.

I should invite Cheryl Bear to see it.

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.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Process XVI

"If it were done when tis done,
Then 'twere well it were done quickly."
Macbeth, I.vii
This week we have been teaching Macbeth to students at Chardon High School. Remotely, of course. This is the first "Murder Arc" I have performed in who knows how long. Ten years? Maybe more.

I recut the Porter Scene to include “knock knock” jokes, an education in comic relief and also adaptation.

Why are we all talking about Macbeth this week?

Rising to teach, and teaching for four or five hours a day, takes a lot out of me. True, I do not need to wake at 5:00 AM, and dash out of the house to drive an hour to teach in Geauga County. Little blessings.

But trying to reach through the screen to engage masked students, while worthwhile, is its own kind of stress.

I sat at my computer every day this week, more or less constantly, from 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM.

This next week I will not be teaching. Once Savory Taṇhā opens on Wednesday, I will be able to retire earlier in the evening. And read Christie. Or do homework.

President’s Day affords me a day off, from everything. Which, of course, means I have more time for the homework. I spent pretty much all day last weekend reading. This weekend I will be reading, and also writing.

And drawing cartoons. And isn’t that amazing?

Monday, February 8, 2021

"What Happened" at Chennai Art Theatre

What Happened
(also titled I Hate This) will be produced at Chennai Art Theatre in Chennai, India on March 6, with two performances. 

The actor T.M. Karthik Srinivasan contacted me last January. He had come across the script and asked for permission to perform the role. COVID-19 closed public performances around there as everywhere, but in Chennai they are beginning to congregate and produce live theater.

As Karthik told me stand-up comedy is extremely popular, but he wanted to try something different. I was delighted at the prospect of someone telling this story to a new audience. Would it be translated? No, they will be performing in English.

TM Karthik
It’s only in the United States that people only know how to speak one language.

But my play, I Hate This, in spite of its universal themes of loss, doubt, communication and compassion, is a tale particular to me, a straight, white, American man. Working in communication with Karthik, and director Denver Anthony Nicholas we have negotiated certain changes, necessary to bring the story to their audience.

We changed the title, as you can see (more on that here) and names of all characters will be Indianized. Also, there will be another actor. Mrittika Chatterjee will perform the women’s roles. And we have eliminated two scenes, Sitting Up and The Future.

Why cut these scenes? Well, I could go into that. Someday, probably some day soon, I will. It was a request, and I honor it. For the time being it is enough to say that this production is an experiment for me, to see how far we can go to tell a story that needs to be told. Think of me as dead. What might future artists do with my writing, to keep it relevant, and to pass along the message.

Call me Shakespeare.

I am not dead, of course. And I have approved these changes. Another playwright might not, and that would have to be respected, let me make that clear. For me, this is a powerful opportunity to test the elasticity of our story, to share it with people around the globe.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Process XV

"If I'm not telling the emotional truth of something, it's not worth telling."
- Hilton Als, February 5, 2021

I have written two stage adaptations of the novels by Agatha Christie, for The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Secret Adversary. In preparation for those works I read several other novels by Agatha Christie. I am currently reading Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile and her own adaptation for the stage, Murder on the Nile, for a play reading group I will be leading in March. 

I can now well and truly state that I have had it with Agatha Christie.

I have enjoyed her work in the past, I have even found it amusing. But Nile has broken me. There are too many players on the pitch and they all blend together for me. Who can keep track of all of these feckless white people? Meaningless, high class, white-privileged bullshit.

I understand Christie is supposed to be a distraction, but from what? Or rather, to what? To a world built on the backs of all the subjects of the British empire. Horrid, racist depictions of grubbing Arabs, silly Irish servants, and no Afro-Caribbean people to speak of. What would Christie have to say to a so-called  “Negro” character? What conversation could they possibly have?

Meanwhile, in craft and theory of playwriting we had a refresher on Aristotle’s Poetics. The last time I had a go at this I was an eighteen year-old college freshman, and his/their six elements of drama sure sounds different to a middle-aged playwright than a callow, young actor. The first four are all about the writing, the last two about all elements of design and performance.

Are you insane? Without the actor there would BE no theatre!

Today I’m like, yep.

It was a big week for guest speakers, which is one of the perks of going back to school. We met Justin Hall, comics artist and editor of the gay comix anthology No Straight Lines, and on Friday I had the opportunity to participate in an artistically and emotionally restorative workshop with Hilton Als, New Yorker theater critic.

Als was a very generous and thoughtful speaker. We joined him via Zoom, of course, and were treated to the image of one of his bookshelves, overflowing with books.

Speaking of which, James has installed two bookcases into our upstairs hallway. Those partcile board cases which had been there were ill proportioned and took up too much unnecessary space. These are perfect for their position in the hall and rise to the ceiling -- just like they would in an NYC apartment.

Now I just need the time to paint them.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Insomnia Moment

Click on strips for detail.

2/4/2021 1:01 AM. We’re having an insomnia moment. I can go days with contented sleep, the past several nights have been like that. Fit, deep, dark, with imaginative, wild dreams. 

Then there are nights such as these, when I sleep for a couple of hours, then I am suddenly just awake. I’m too hot. A little headachy. My forehead is tense. And I am thinking about absolutely everything. 

Often, I am not worried. I am just thinking. Tonight, I am worried. About what I am getting wrong. About the responsibilities that are piling up. About letting anyone down. 

Also, the plain old discomfort I can have, lying in bed. I don’t have the kind of heart palpitations or poor circulation issues I was having last year. But I’m not healthy. I don’t feel good. At least my back doesn’t hurt. Oy. 

Anyway, after forty-five minutes of lying in discomfort, I got up. I am writing this by hand before a roaring (gas) fire. I am kept company by a sleeping cat. 

And though I may be tired, at least I am not miserable.

Rearding the art: When I was a college sophomore I wrote and drew a daily comic strip for the Ohio University Post called Breaking Point. The strips featured above are dated May 2 - 6, 1988.

This was the first week I attempted something different, instead of ending each with a gag I took five days to tell the story of one night in which of the main characters is not able to sleep.

This was when people really started hating on my work.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Process XIV

Zyrece & Brian
("Savory Taṇhā" rehearsal)

Last summer, Savory Taṇhā began with a short play about playwriting. It was a little snarky, like I was taking the piss out of the kind of writing I was in my early years, but also men who write a certain kind of play in general. It was a fun way to open, but in discussion with our director, Caitlin, I felt we needed so start with something a bit more sincere. 

The play ends so well with a monologue (Monument) that I thought perhaps we should begin with one. There was a monologue I wrote last summer, during the BLM uprising, about a teacher finding a slur written on the whiteboard in their class.

This week Chennelle and I were team-teaching live classes on Romeo and Juliet for students in Chardon, which caused a great deal of stress in the middle of the week. It is exhausting conducting this work via Zoom, even worse over Google Meet, because Google Meet sucks.

Then, however, I caught Brian James Polak’s The Subtext podcast. Last March he invited playwrights to record their immediate reaction to the shutdown, and I participated in that. He extended another invitation last month for those same playwrights to check in once again, and I heard my own voice. 

At that time, in mid-December, as we were starting up these live residencies, I recounted how grateful I was to have the opportunity to resume bringing the classics to students, live, even at a distance. It was a very helpful reality check.

Meanwhile, I have been taking melatonin gummies to help me sleep. Isn’t everyone? It has been very helpful, but my dreams are deep and vivid. This week in craft and theory we read work by Adrienne Kennedy, and imagery of the dead loved one haunted me. I had a dream this week of the death of a loved one. I also received a very nice anniversary card from hospice. 

And today is our daughter's eighteenth birthday. And I need to redraft a ten-minute screenplay before tomorrow evening. It's all a bit confounding.

Finally, if I say that Foucault makes my eyes water, does that make me a bad student? 

The Subtext: Pandemic Playwriting, Part 2

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Process XIII

/ˈpräˌses,ˈprōˌses/ n. 1. a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end.

Yes, that is what we are doing. Classes resumed this week, a new administration has begun, and the holidays are well and truly over. I do miss the Christmas tree, the decorations. But there is work to do. So, so very much work. Good work. But a lot of it.

There are times in my life in which I have so very much work to do that it can make me even more intensely focused and productive than ever before. I recently described a semester in which I failed incredibly. This was followed by a period of tremendous production.

I was in three plays at once spring quarter my junior year; acting on the mainstage, also as part of third year performance class, and I had written and was directing my first one act. The entire department faculty called me into a staff meeting to question whether I thought this was a good idea. I told them I believed it was. I got straight A’s that quarter. I even surprised myself.

I must read two plays over the weekend, and have another sixty pages of reading on queer theory. I am working with a team to produce the Thespian All-State show, and collaborating with Caitlin Lewins who is directing the Zoom premiere of Savory Taṇhā at Cleveland Public Theatre. These are all things that are happening.

Already, I am projecting my imagination ahead into the semester, and how to best maximize previous effort into future work.

Today we meet to discuss the NEOMFA New Works Festival, which will take a creative turn this year in light of blah blah blah. At work we are putting the finishing touches on a new residency podcast. And who knows, I may be producing a comix zine.

Will I retain my grade point average? That remains to be seen. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Five Hundred Days of Practice

What does it mean to write every morning? What is the significance of this daily ritual?

It means I begin the day thinking, in silence. Meditative. Thoughtful. I do not jump from sleep to the screen. I can process my thoughts, my dreams. I articulate. 

And because it is daily, my family, my children, respect that I have to do this.

It need not be creative, though it can be. It need not be productive, though it can be. It need not be anything, just three pages, thirty minutes.

And once I have set down my pen, then I can continue my day with the confidence that whatever else happens, I will have accomplished this one thing.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Gay Comics #19 (1993)

Ten years later. My Guerrilla Theater partner and I were on our way to the studios of WRUW. We had been invited by a DJ and fan of our show to come in and be her on-air guests and to share some sketches we’d recorded for her new releases program.

The day of our visit also happened to be her birthday, and I had even brought a gift. I’d been to North Coast Nostalgia, that used to be next to the Cedar-Lee Theatre, and noticed the recent issue of Gay Comics was entirely created by Alison Bechdel.

One of the cool things about having our storefront theater in Tremont was that the weeklies would drop papers at our joint. We got short stacks of Scene, Free Times, Plain Press, Call & Post and the Gay People’s Chronicle, to make available for our audiences. 

I had been following Bechdel’s weekly strip, Dykes To Watch Out For in the Chronicle for some time by then. It was a very important education for me, not only in the lives and concerns (and humor) of non-heteronormative women, but women in general, also also women who were African American, Asian American, Latinx ... and even gay men!

Gay Comics #19 was an all-original book in which Bechdel told stories about herself (in keeping with Gay Comics’ stated mission) and her childhood, her coming out, laying the groundwork for her later, best-selling graphic memoirs, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?

"Coming Out Story"
Alison Bechdel (1993)
Click on for detail.
I picked up a copy of Gay #19 for our DJ friend, and showed it to my colleague as we made our way to the radio studios on the Case campus. He raised an eyebrow.

“You got her a gay comic,” he said, “because ... she’s gay?”

I hadn’t thought of that, and immediately felt self-conscious. I mean, it wasn’t like I was thinking, “Lesbian comic book?! I know a lesbian!!” This was an artist I really liked, and it was our friend’s birthday, and … well, shit.

Long story short, I gave the DJ the comic, and she was delighted. “I love Alison Bechdel!” she said, and I will assume she meant it. 
"I got out of college in 1981 and went into a gay and lesbian bookstore one day and found an issue of 'Gay Comix' ... It hadn't occurred to me at that point to put together my penchant for silly drawings with my personal life and my political interest in gay and lesbian issues, but there were these people who were doing it." - Alison Bechdel, 2007
Digging through my collection this week, I discovered that I had actually bought two copies of Gay #19, and kept one for myself. Smart boy.

Gay Comics ceased publication in 1998.

“Life Drawing” by Emmert, Lynn, The Comics Journal No. 282, Fantagraphic Books (2007)

Monday, January 18, 2021

Gay Comix #4 (1983)

When I was a teenager, there was a period of time when I hung out at a comic book store. North Starr Comics was located in the storefront of a motel on Lorain Avenue in Fairview Park. There was a cast of regulars, at the age of fifteen I was one of the youngest. We would read comics, watch video of B-movies on the TV, talk shit, pull each others’ chains.

One Saturday in early 1984 the owner had scheduled a live auction, to get inventory he couldn’t move out of the place. It wasn’t a very large store. Most of what he was unloading were by lot, and I wasn’t a huge spender. But there was a lot of cajolery, mocking each other for their stupid purchases.

When he announced, “Next up, one copy of GAY COMIX!” that got a huge laugh, and I hollered, “Two cents!” It was a joke! Because, come on, who would want something called “Gay Comics”? Right? 

“I hear two cents!” said the owner, and I realized I had made a mistake. Because now I was the joke. No one else bid on it, and in spite of my desperate protestations, I won the comic. I refused to pay for it. I was informed it was free, and if it was discovered I had somehow left it behind there would be hell to pay.

So, I slipped it into my bag and hoped no one would mention it ever again. Later, I read it.

Gay Comix (later retitiled “Gay Comics”) was first published in 1980 by Kitchen Sink Press. It was created to be an anthology of short stories by gay artists on gay themes. Originally it leaned heavily on providing true stories of the LGBTQ+ experience. It had a mission to challenge the prevalent cartoonish imagery of gays and lesbians in the media, and in comics.

While it did feature nudity, there was an intentional de-emphasis on the depiction of sex or anything that might be construed as pornography.

Gay Comix #4, the issue that I had won, was published in late 1983. It was not only my first adventure into comics with LGBTQ themes, it was perhaps the first underground comic I had ever owned.

What does that mean? That it was my first experience with non-superhero, non-fantasy, real-life material, set down in black and white, in this case created by a wide variety of artists and writers, including a few artists of color. The subject matter is almost entirely binary, however, and leaned more into stories about gay men than lesbians.

One of the stories, Ready or Not, Here It Comes by editor Howard Cruse, was a view of the AIDS crisis, certainly my first exposure to the pandemic from a gay man’s point of view. Another, The Unicorn Tapestry by Roberta Gregory was the only piece in the issue about someone who is transgender.

I was raised to be homophobic. But I found this material to be fascinating. I was not repelled. There were coming out stories, tales of first love, some purely comic bits. Naturally, I was concerned that if anyone knew I was reading this they would “think I was gay.” I kept it to myself. Reading this book did not end my bigotry. It was the first crack in the wall.

And I still have that comic book.

To be continued.

Source: Wikipedia

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Always (musical)

There are those who point to the Abdication as the moment the British Monarchy began its inexorable decline.

Then there are those who believe it has been downhill since the Magna Carta.

Today would be a good day for this American President to “abdicate.” Most days are. Unlike Edward VIII, Trump has been impeached (this time) for inciting insurrection. All poor David Windsor ever did was to fall in love. It’s the stuff of Shakespearean drama, falling in love with the wrong person.

And so it happened that a musical was created during the 1990s (that most trivial of decades) to celebrate what was blurbed as “the ultimate love story.”

Even die-hard monarchist enthusiasts might choose Victoria and Albert as the ultimate love story, but who wants to see a musical in which the groom dies after the first song and the rest is the bride in mourning. Bit upsetting.

The story of King Edward VIII and Mrs. Wallis Simpson at least has what you might call a bittersweet ending, he loses the crown, but at least they have each other.

And that’s the problem, because the they that each of them had were awful. By all accounts shallow and selfish, and living off the British dime. They were perfect for each other.

An auspicious meeting. (1937)
My wife and I visited England in 1997. It was her first trip to Europe and for two weeks we traveled and saw many plays and performances and the first was the new musical Always at the Victoria Palace Theatre, which was in previews.

A musical about the Abdication! What a brilliant idea! We were not yet, however, into the modern era of arch, satiric, or darkly-themed musicals, at least not those intended for the West End or for Broadway. Not unless you were Sondheim.

Always is an unapologetic valentine to Edward and Mrs. Simpson, chronicling the unfairness of the world, and the nobility of romantic sacrifice. The story is even bracketed by the widow Duchess of Windsor following the funeral of her beloved David in 1972, making it a memory play.

There is no mention of their documented history as Nazi sympathizers or their visiting Hitler, not any other controversies but the main: she was a twice-divorced American, a “commoner.” And he loved her!

The production starred Clive Carter as David, who I had seen play Prince Charming in Into the Woods in the West End several years earlier, and Jan Hartley as Wallis, who played Christine in Phantom for over a year. 

It had some other ringers, too. Sheila Ferguson is an American singer, whose biggest hit was When Will I See You Again with the group the Three Degrees. Credited as only The Chanteuse (and the only person of color in the entire production) she sang Love’s Carousel, a song about the irresistible power of love that was meant to be a first act show-stopper.

Only it wasn’t because, like Hearts Have Their Reasons, The Reason For Life Is To Love, and (oh my goodness) If Always Were a Place, Love's Carousel is a horrible song. The show is packed with horrible songs made even more horrible because they are about horrible people.

If you didn’t know the show was in trouble already, Love’s Carousel left no doubt. Every single cast member was thrown onstage for this number, set in a Parisian cabaret, as it rose and rose to a feverish pitch. 

Once concluded, a few individuals in the balcony rose to their feet, shouting with delight, who were then loudly mocked by others -- yes, many more audience members hooted and shouted things like, “OH, COME ON, NOW” at those audience members who were likely paid to attempt a standing O during the first act. Maybe they were just huge Sheila Ferguson fans, which is a fine thing to be.

During the interval we discussed the possibility of leaving. Many others did, but this was a fiasco and I was intent on seeing what happened next. I did not, at that time, purchase one of the CDs, which I regretted for many years until that Christmas my brother gifted me a copy he found in a 99p bin.

Duchess & Duke of Windsor
(Richard Avedon, 1957)
The play officially opened on July 10 and ran for three weekends, closing on my birthday when I was safely out of the country. The review in the Times of London read “Wallis & Vomit.”

The following year, we visited my other brother, the one in Minnesota, and took in an exhibit of the photographer Richard Avedon. Avedon could be kind of a dick in his attempts to make famous people not pose fake. 

Knowing that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor reportedly loved dogs more than people (more than certain people, anyway) he idly told them a made up story of how his taxi had run over and killed a dog on his way to the studio. The result, seen here, is less than glamorous.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The History of Underground Comix

When Ohio University announced its first graduate level course in sequential art, The History of Underground Comix, I was still an undergrad. It was 1988, Fall quarter of my junior year. But if there was going to be a course on independent comics, by God, I was going to be taking it.

I was, at that stage in my life, immersed in comics. I had been reading commercial comics or “floppies” since I was a kid, and the 1980s were a golden time for the superhero genre; reconsidering it, turning it inside out, and creating the template for today’s Industrial Superhero Film Industry. Books like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and the heyday of the "Uncanny X-Men." 

Also, I had been drawing a daily strip for the college paper and though my art was pretty crude, I was not only taking inspiration from mainstream comics. I had begun to discover alternative works, including those of Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), Matt Groening (Life In Hell), Art Spiegelman (Maus) and those artists that appeared in Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Raw anthologies.

So, if there was going to be a course on comics, then I, David Hansen, creator of the controversial strip Breaking Point, would have to be accepted. 

Breaking Point (1988)

This was a mistake. Fall quarter my junior year was a disaster for me for a number of confluent reasons. I was cast in an extremely challenging mainstage show which conflicted with much of my attendance for this evening class. I underwent something of an emotional breakdown as I negotiated my poorly-managed interpersonal relationships. 

And the fact is I had always been a bad student. I skated through my classes. I knew enough to pass, even occasionally to do well. But I was never a deep study, or a good reader, of texts. Pleasure reading, sure. Not work that was assigned.

Cover, "401"
Art: Ken Kastely
The professor was skeptical. An undergrad can’t just take a graduate level course. I had to submit a portfolio, and a letter of intent. Only then was I grudgingly assigned a slot. 

But there were texts to be read and papers to write, and debate in class and a final project which involved the class collaborating on creating an original, physical comic book.

The comic, titled simply “401” after the class's room number in Siegfried Hall, was a missed opportunity for me, one in which I could have pushed myself and broken form. As it was, I drew two pieces involving suicide (I didn’t know at this time how thoughtlessly trite that was) and a third which was just a cheap shot at one of my classmates, a woman with a strong feminist agenda.

This one is a single panel depicting myself reading Kate’s final monologue from The Taming of the Shrew as my “humorless” classmate approached from behind wielding a baseball bat. No, I will not be sharing that image here.

It was my beef with the women in the class that I am most ashamed of. There were, to me, a surprising number of women in the class; self-possessed, confident, intelligent women, who were into comics and had an agenda to explore and expand the form. I was a young, callow, white male of privilege and I was challenged by them, or should I say I felt challenged by them.

Another signifiantpart of our grade was a class presentation, for which I planned a take-down of Dr. Friedrich Wertham’s seminal work, Seduction of the Innocent, which documents a direct connection from comics to juvenile delinquency.

I cannot imagine I actually read the book. Worse yet, I had a performance the night of my presentation. I provided a booklet of photocopied images from the book, images from horror and superhero comics of the kind Dr. Wertham asserted were the cause of sociopathic behavior, and also a cassette recording of a stream-of-consciousness rant in which I quoted Wertham's claims and then just said that he was wrong.

The next class, the final class, I avoided anyone’s gaze and received my materials back from the professor. The cassette itself has been recorded over by members of the class to provide their response. I think I got a couple minutes into it. I never listened to the entire thing The tape began with a lecture from one of the women (a woman of color, if I recall correctly) describing how unprofessional my work was and spelling out in no uncertain terms the errors in my scholarship.

I dropped the cassette into the wastebasket, not out of resentment but shame. I had fucked up, and I knew it.

There’s always that guy in any class, you know the one. Often absent, does substandard work. You don't know who they are or what may be going on with them, but you do wonder, why is this person even here? For that class, that guy was me. I got a D for the course, which I believe was generous. 

Why am I sharing this humiliating piece of personal history? Because this semester I am taking a graduate level course in Comics Studies and Queer Theory. Among other goals, I plan to make up for past failures.