Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Electric Hotel (book)

Pengo’s 2021 Summer Book Club

Last Christmas, my wife presented me with a copy of Dominic Smith’s historical fiction about the origins of the motion picture, The Electric Hotel. The New York Times calls this novel a “highly entertaining work about the act of creation” though by the time the word reached me, she, my wife, claimed it had been called the greatest book on the act of creation, which is to say ever, and that I found hard to believe.

As I have opined previously this summer, I do like works about the art of creation, but only when they are about other media; I like movies about painting, painting about dancing, dance about television, TV about theater, plays about writing, books about movies. But plays about theater are usually self-congratulatory and rife with inside jokes. Movies about movie-making can be awfully sentimental and hagiographic. Television programs about TV, don’t get me started.

There are exceptions, of course, and we all know what those are. But for every Sports Night there is a Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. For every The Player there is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (don’t get me started on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.)

The greatest film about the art of creation is, of course, Big Night. This small, period film by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott film is a beautiful tribute to the immigrant American experience and all the dreams and disappointments that it engenders. But it is first and foremost an epic tale about the creation of food, what it signifies, why what we cook and how we cook it is important, never more poignantly exhibited than the single, five-minute closing shot, virtually wordless, which involves the preparation of a simple breakfast of eggs.

Stanley Tucci, Tony Shaloub
"Big Night" (1996)
The Electric Hotel
is like two books. One chronicles the very, very early days of cinema, when folks were happy to just watch short clips of cats doing tricks (yes, yes) and how in very short order unconscionable amounts of money were being spent to cobble together fantastic sights to tell stories of beautiful, horrible people. The other book is about the origins of the uses of film as documentary fact and also political propaganda.

The fact that we have not found any new uses for motion pictures in the hundred years since is actually quite demoralizing.

Each tale is presented as prelude to the narrative thread, the rediscovery of these ancient works by a young film historian in the early 1960s. This man is a cipher, it’s not his story and just as well little time is given to him. His presence is a constant reassurance that the films so elegantly described in Smith’s text will not actually be lost to fire, flood, or the natural decomposition of plastic nitrate.

But is it the greatest rumination on the act of creation ever set to paper? Actually, it may be. At least, it excellently represents the chaos of creation. So many biopics or “great man” histories create a familiar origin tale of those who were destined by the universe to become what they eventually, inevitably became. Against all odds! They rise and fall and rise again!

These fictional film makers, impresarios, side show and classical stage performers; they added their piece to the puzzle of how motion pictures work and what they could do with them. But there was no plan, no grand vision for what it would be. Lives are messy, and art is messy, it is only in hindsight that someone else decides whether any of it was worth doing.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

On Virtual Performance

Last Spring, KrisP. Production, a professional company and actors studio based in Hong Kong, put out a call for original plays written specifically for digital performance, never intended to be produced on a stage, for a short series they call LIMITATIONS.

As it happened, I had just completed a short work as a class assignment that had the same stipulation, and so I submitted that. And it has been selected for production!

The Runner was written to be performed as a continuous live stream; cinéma vérité executed on a platform like Facebook Live. Inspired by the John Cheever short story The Swimmer it is about ageing, regret, masculine toxicity and includes certain supernatural elements.

I am very excited and intrigued to discover how they realize the material. I had played with the idea of producing the script myself this summer, but we have all, fortunately, been very busy. Will they produce it live? The call for submissions encouraged some kind of audience participation, which it has. And a “sensory” experience, which it does.

Hong Kong is a twelve hours difference from Cleveland. I’d love to watch some live, experimental short play performed over breakfast!

Timing "The Runner"
In spite of the Delta variant making its way across the U.S., many here (including, it must be said, me and my family, who are all vaccinated) have been behaving as though the pandemic is over. This is never so apparent as in the theater community, as Broadway has plans to open shows in a little over a month, and all our local theaters are now announcing their 2021-22 seasons.

With the great reopening of American theater has also come the great dismissal of so-called “virtual” theater. Some speak as though they would be happy never to see a play on a screen again. Or more to the point, that unless it is performed live in front of you, it is not even theater.

I find this distressing. Not only because I wrote and produced live performances during the recent shutdown. Not only because this thing really isn’t over yet, and anyone who thinks they may never again have to spend a year (or more) indoors again may be in for a world of disappointment. But also because as an audience member, the performances I saw, live and recorded, as well as though I participated in, gave me life and brought me hope. 

And as much as I have enjoyed the live, in-person performances I have already taken in during the past month, I am not so ready to dismiss the virtual performances that carried me through.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

On Clichés

Writers use words to challenge or shape ideas and thoughts. If you can distill a big idea into a short story, or an original turn of phrase, you can move untold numbers of people. You can also make bumper stickers.

Jesus told stories to get his point across. Ancient tales provide useful or hackneyed metaphors, to poignantly comment upon or dumb-down contemporary issues.

I remember the first time I heard the fable of the scorpion and the frog, it was nearly thirty years ago, in the movie The Crying Game (1992). I can also remember the last time I heard it, which was during the second season of The Umbrella Academy (2020). I have heard it too many times in between.

The first time someone told me that the clinical definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result (not the actual definition of insanity, clinical or otherwise) was almost twenty years ago, in 2002. I remember who said it, too, because I was impressed by the expression. Almost immediately, though, everyone was saying it and it has become cliché

cliché n. 1. a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.

The most quoted line from I Hate This (a play without the baby) is one that I did not write. During our experiences recovering from the loss of our first child someone told me, “A person who loses their parents in an orphan, someone who loses their spouse in a widow or a widower. There is no word for the parent of a dead child.” They went on to say that this is because in our society, the thought of losing a child is too horrible to bear. So we dare not name it.

That is certainly one way to look at it. In my script I do not pretend to have made that line up, and add my own personal conclusion:
I read somewhere that we use language to understand our world. Someone who loses a spouse is a widow or widower. Someone who loses their parents is an orphan. There is no word for parents of a dead child, so we do not understand who we are.
That’s the line everyone quotes from the play, “There is no word for a dead child.” It seems to neatly sum something up for people.

As a writer this fact is, of course, irksome. If the line that truly stands out is one that is not mine, did I say anything else that was memorable? Does the entire play revolve around that one line?

When I was trying to come up with an alternate title for the play for the performance in Chennai, people suggested variants on this one phrase. It gets quoted in the reviews. I don’t remember where I first heard this phrase. I have heard it used in many contexts since, most recently on an episode of Falcon & The Winter Soldier which was released on March 19, 2021, the twentieth anniversary of learning our first child was dead. We actually laughed, it was so absurd.

For those in the know, there is an entire series of “canonical” Doctor Who stories produced by the BBC for audio. Paul McGann, the so-called “Eighth Doctor” was only featured in one made-for-TV movie in the mid-90s but his regeneration (and his voice) has been part of many stories recorded for CD and digital download.

In an episode titled Jonah (July 2018) the Doctor is visiting an ocean planet, one which has been ravaged by the “Time War” and Bliss, one of his companions, has the following exchange with a native person named Murti:

Bliss: Is it steam powered or what?
Murti: Sorry?
Bliss: Ah, nope, nope, it's fine. I'll be fine. This is fine.
Murti: Sorry, was that a joke?
Bliss: I don't know. Do you have jokes on this planet?
Murti: Not really. Not anymore.
Bliss: Ah, of course. Um, have you, uh ... it must be... Have you lost any --
Murti: Everyone on this ship is an orphan or a widow or a widower or a sakshi.
Bliss: A ... what?
Murti: A parent who's lost a child.
Bliss: Ah, and what are you?
Murti: A little bit of everything right now.

Get it? This is a private joke for or on everyone who has ever heard or used this phrase before. Only it goes one better, because it is told from the point of view of someone whose language does have a word for a dead child, substituting the sentiment of the original cliché with its own poignancy. Count yourself fortunate you do not live in a society that has a need for such a word. 

The next script I write will include the following exchange:

One: I mean, it's like ... have you ever heard the story of the scorpion and the frog?
Two: Of course, everyone has.
One: Oh? Well. It's like that.

Playhouse Square will premiere "I Hate This (a play without the baby)" in Summer 2021. Details to come. 

Saturday, July 3, 2021

We Play Ourselves (book)

Pengo's 2021 Summer Book Club

There are far too many plays about plays, and I should know. I have written a few. Plays about plays satisfy playmakers and play-attenders. Movies about plays are usually weird. See Birdman or Cradle Will Rock.

There are also TV shows about plays. Okay, there's only one TV show about plays.

But then there are novels about plays. And those, as long as they do not include William Shakespeare as a character, can be transcendent. I believe it is because while theater is about showing, and not telling, just showing stories about plays in plays or other visual mediums doesn't succeed at taking theater further than it already goes.

Writing about, telling it, telling how it happens, how it feels, is the only true way to describe it to someone who doesn't know. When it's put on the page, the totally bizarre art form that is live theater performance becomes explicable, if no less odd.

I'm thinking of Station Eleven or The Cabinet of Edgar Allen Poe or even Interview With the Vampire. Earlier this year playwright Jen Silverman published the novel We Play Ourselves, about the after-shock of a certain Off-Broadway opening night. I tore through it in less than a week.

What Silverman describes so perfectly is all the ugly parts about being an artist. The creative process can be messy, especially in theater which is by necessity collaborative. You have a drive to create, but also need to compromise, and then there is the deep, dark part of you that wants your work to be accepted.

I have never read a better description of receiving a devastating review for your new play than when the author writes, “You keep thinking you should be fine, because there was a moment very recently in which you had been fine, so why aren’t you still?“

This is also how you could describe a broken heart.

Last night, having finished the novel just before bed, I dreamed I was running a marathon. This is not in and of itself unusual, because that is a thing I do. But this was no ordinary race. The route led me up mountains and across giant misshapen stone sculptures. It should have been a difficult trek, but I was doing very well, fleet of foot and remarkably agile.

I was also, I was informed, in the lead! In a marathon? Amazing! There was, however, a blonde man following close behind me, and so it was no longer enough to run. I had to maintain my lead.

Then there was a place where the stone beneath my feet broke through and I fell, maybe fifteen or twenty feet, straight down. I feared I might break a leg, or damage the bones in my feet. But I landed soft, cushioned by the springy bending of my amazing knees. I was okay! But I had been overtaken by the blonde runner.

When I got out from under this giant stone mountain, I found myself in a middle school library, one that was very crowded. I didn’t know which was to turn or how to get out. It was clear the blonde man had made it through, but I could not. There was a conveyor belt for books, but I could not fit onto them. I could not make my way through the library. I was increasingly distressed as I ran through stacks and time passed and I was stuck in this labyrinthine building.

Eventually, a fun size candy bar appeared in my pocket and it read “Congratulations!” on the label but it wasn’t for me. Rather, it was an announcement that the blonde man had crossed the finish line, and I felt defeated.

At first, I had just been running. And I loved the race, the hills, the obstacles. I was unafraid and feeling good, just running. But once I heard I was in the lead, winning became important. I lost the joy of doing what I loved, and so I lost everything. 

“Choose your art,” a director warns the playwright protagonist of We Play Ourselves. “Practice your art, always, always choose your art over and above anything else.” Approval, acceptance, acclaim, success, riches, love. These can be happy side-effects of doing the work, whatever work that is. But they can never take the place in your heart for the work itelf.