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
Aground
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.

"Cleveland"
Performed by Tim Keo & Bobbie Szabo

"Jury Duty"
Performed by Ken Hoegler & Bobbie Szabo

"Work"
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.