Sunday, September 26, 2021

School Residency Program: Twenty Years On


This fall marks twenty years since I began my work with the Great Lakes Theater School Residency Program. This work has become my life, and as with any endeavor you engage in for an extended period of time might ask yourself, why do I continue? Do I continue to execute my responsibilities to the best of my ability? Would the program benefit from a new instructor? Do I still enjoy this work, is my accumulated knowledge and understanding of value? Or am I merely repeating myself? 

Murder Arc with Alicia Kahn (2003)
Every September, we rise early to attend rehearsal. Long days of instruction and review, culminating in a week of classes, all eight actor teachers together at one school, a tryout in which the actor-teachers get to succeed or fail gloriously with the support of their peers and supervisors before they are sent out as partnerships of two to schools across the region.

This month can be very exhausting for me, especially as I have aged, from my early thirties to my early forties. The actor-teachers I have worked with have gone from people not much younger than myself to Millennials and now, Gen Z. Some of these folks are not even five years older than my eldest living child.

The same lesson plans, the same scene work, the same discussion questions. The actors bring something new, to be sure. But it is a well-established machine, this program. It works. And it doesn’t change.

Until March 2020, when this program, like everything else, was put in stasis. Schools were closed. Education went online. We had to let our actor-teachers go, and go they did, to graduate schools and other work, sometimes relocating as necessary.

This time last year our team was in the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, creating performance videos for schools to provide to Cleveland city schools, and any other schools who thought they would be useful. A skeleton crew of staff conducted online residencies for schools who just couldn’t do without the program.

With the creation and production of successful vaccines, which resulted in a significant drop in infection and death, this past spring we began to discuss the possibility of returning to in-person instruction. Even then, there were a host of considerations, not only in creation of safety protocols in the classroom, but how we could even rehearse new teams of actor-teachers in a responsible and safe manner.

Avery & Noelle in rehearsal (2021)
Wipes were purchased in bulk to keep the rehearsal rooms disinfected, we knew we would be rehearsing with masks. Windows were open as often as possible, fans kept the air circulating. Four actors contracted, instead of eight. We would only be working in high schools, as children have not yet been vaccinated.

Even so, there was no guarantee the teenage students we would be working with were vaccinated, because freedom. We instituted our own protocols. If you want the program, students must be masked. All props handled by students must be wiped down after every class.

And how would that go? Without actors' mouths covered, how would scene work be received? We weren’t even providing costumes for the students. Would that be a bummer?

Two teams conducted classes in Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and The Crucible at Berea-Midpark High School. It has been two years since we have done so, and like some kind of unusual anniversary gift we were presented with their brand new school building, which comes complete with a vast auditorium space where we were able to conduct our work with a great deal of space. Students who were not masked were provided one (GLT has purchased a metric ton of masks for this purpose) no one complained about having to wear one, perhaps because they were grateful to be receiving special instruction.

And it all went very well. Our folks were able to perform their scenes wearing masks, and having adjusted to them in so many arenas of contemporary life they did not seem strange at all. In rehearsal one of our performers took a sip from a chalice (which was empty) during a scene, absentmindedly “drinking” through their mask. I suggested we accept that our characters not ignore the reality of their wearing a mask, that a mask should be lowered to drink and that was agreed upon.

Our final day I recommended the final day for Macbeth be conducted outside. It was a beautiful fall afternoon, the temperature in the mid-sixties. From time to time we conduct class outside but usually not until spring, as new actor-teachers are processing a great deal of material, and outside instruction can be taxing on the voice.

Berea-Midpark High School
But as a society we have been doing so much more outdoors, dining and performing and celebrating. It’s just safer. If nice weather continues, I wanted them to feel comfortable suggesting a class or two outdoors — because it meant they could remove their masks. For a brief moment, our people could be seen. And it was a glorious battle.

There were moments this week, when I was about to cry. If I thought too hard about it, I would have. Remembering what it was like to see my own children, attending school from home. The deadening effect it had on them. They were more stoic than I. 

I fear how this generation will be affected by this experience. Reality is a joke to them, a vicious moron can become president, our forests are burning, every rainstorm brings catastrophe, and when struck with a global pandemic, legions of citizens would rather deny, harrass and argue than band together and literally take their medicine.

But for now, we are back, working with students, one our feet, performing scenes, playing games, and having lively, engaged discussions. It was a horrific and unnecessary kick in the pants, but I am grateful to have been reminded of exactly why this is the path I have chosen.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Process XXXVIII

Great Lakes Theater
School Residency Program
First day back in schools since March 2020
Masks suck. But I am so glad to be in a classroom with the professor and other students. 

On Monday the class read the first chunk of my new script, and the feedback was helpful. I mean, remarkably helpful. The professor is understandably concerned about the lack of structure, as it does not yet have one.

The structure, as it currently exists, is to drop clues for the tragedy which is about to occur. It’s funny, one of my colleagues is working on a straight up murder mystery, and when I said (after reading) that mine is also a murder mystery, they thought I was kidding … because it doesn’t appear in any way to be one!

But it is. Or rather, as I elaborated, it is a manslaughter mystery. And yeah, that’s why I am calling it from here on out. It is an Involuntary Manslaughter Mystery.

Here’s a question, though. What is the playwright’s responsibility to be timeless? My last play takes place when it was written, late 2020. This play, that I am writing now, takes place now. Right now. Mid-pandemic (let’s not kid ourselves) in a restaurant at a time when staff is short. In fact, that is an important part of the plot. How concerned should I be that it may be dated very soon?

When does Romeo and Juliet take place? We’re not really sure. It’s a question.

Meantime, I met with Melissa, who will be directing The Witches for Test Flight. A damp equinox evening, discussing women, wiccans, Black Tudors, Black Masses, Second Wave Feminism, and other roadside attractions. Questions were asked, and I will endeavor to answer them.

Also: I am indifferent to Sarah Kane. Don't love her work, don't hate it. Apparently that makes me unusual.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Process XXXVII


“It is as though she’s saying I’m not giving you a happy ending just because you want a happy ending. I’m showing you the world as it is. If you want a different ending, you need to change the world.”
- Me, in class, responding to the works of Adrienne Kennedy
Yes, I said earlier this summer how much writing I anticipated doing. That did not happen. No, instead I prepared for residency rehearsals. I did a great deal of running. And I spent time with my children, one of whom is now at college.

And that is all okay.

But I have to have fifteen pages of a new work prepared for reading on Monday, and so I have been writing flash scenes. One written page between two characters that establishes the atmosphere in which the play is going to take place.

Me, storyboarding my new play
Each scene is like a short play. And I am going to see how many interactions I can create between the six characters. How much exposition can casually be revealed, how much tension I can create, before the shocking conclusion of the first act.

One handwritten page a day is two-and-so typed pages. I have written ten since last Saturday. That’s at least fifteen pages. Each scene defining the relationship between two people, which will ideally expand into larger and larger scenes as the action reveals itself.

My notes are all over the place, though. Notebooks, the drawing pad … I thought I had sketched the entire thing out, but if I did, which I’m not sure I have, I cannot find it anywhere. But, you know? So what. I’ll do that today.

Also: I decided that Waiting for Godot is a comedy whereas Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a tragedy, not merely because one ends in death and the other does not (though that is not unrelated) but because while they are both about the individual made helpless against forces beyond their control, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the protagonists fail or choose not to push back against those forces and are destroyed by them, while Vladimir and Estragon do, and are not. In spite of the terrors and senselessness of everyday life, they choose to stay. They never lose hope.
"There must have been a moment at the beginning, where we could have said — no."

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Process XXXVI

NIAMH: Another thing I’m frightened of is jumping under tube trains.
JIMMY: Stand well back.
NIAMH: I stand right back by the wall.
- Carly Churchill, Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. (2019)

PAFNUTIUS: Everything according to number, measure and weight.
- Hroswitha, The Conversion of Thaïs the Whore (10th Century?)
Research for the new work.
As summer fades, I encounter a crisis of faith. There exists more uncertainty now than during the depths of the shutdown. We were told to stay home, and allowance was made for our condition, for we were all in the same situation. 

Now we try to return to a kind of normalcy, even as the pandemic continues. And it is left to the individual to fend for themselves. Some abide by practices of safety, while others not only flout these practices but are combative about them.

We train to go into schools. Are schools safe? Every day a new student or teacher is reported to have contracted Covid. That’s just at the school my son attends, one school. And ours is a district that takes the virus seriously. 

How do I in good conscience send the actors I am training in a potentially hostile and dangerous environment?

Playhouse Square had established a vaccination mandate, our theater operates out of Playhouse Square. People are furious. Do they know we are in the middle of a pandemic?

My uncertainty also relates to my writing. This is a fallow period. I have ideas, yes. A story and characters, yes. I have no faith in my own originality. You know, at a young age I was ridiculed by my brother’s friends because my writing was derivative. They were in college, I was thirteen. It was a criticism that has hounded me ever since.

We spend the weekend in Athens, visiting the elder child for "Parents Weekend." In our spare time, around the in-laws place, my goal is to breathe and focus. Breathe and focus. Focus. 

Can I remember how to focus?

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The Future: September 2001

James Alexander Rankin
Photo by Cody York
(Playhouse Square, 2021)
You know this story, or one very similiar to it.

It was my second week as an actor-teacher for Great Lakes Theater. We were in rehearsal, playing a warm-up exercise. Someone’s cellphone went off, and instead of turning it off, this someone answered it and started talking. This has always irritated me in remembering it, that that was unprofessional. Inappropriate.

I recall only now that it was his mother. If it had been my mother, I would have answered it, too.

The rest of us kept playing the game. Silly game, one meant for children. I could overhear the conversation my colleague was having. Something bad had happened, happened in New York.

I thought, I am now in the ignorance. Really, I thought that. This is my last moment of the innocent not-knowing.

It was a deep, blue Tuesday. And on that day the 21st Century truly began.

As I was compsing the script about my experiences with stillbirth, the script which would eventually become I Hate This (a play without the baby) I included a scene about September 11th. It made sense to me then. The story begins in March 2001 and tells about what happened through the following twelve months. It is set in time, how could you not make mention of the most traumatic moment in modern American history?

On that day we, we actor-teachers, we first listened the radio, and then went downstairs to watch on TV in a local bar and grill, before finally drifting away. Rehearsal was over for the day. I called my wife, she was watching at the fitness center. She lived in NYC for seven years, we knew people there, we had been there less than a month earlier, and we were both still so fresh in our personal grief. Was she okay? She was fine. Disoriented, but fine. We planned to meet at home.

She had a therapist appointment that afternoon, and called to see if she was seeing anyone that day. Her doctor said, well, she had appointments after all. And didn’t it make sense, seeing as what had happened that morning, to keep them? The doctor even asked if my wife would like to invite me to join them, which was very nice, and so I did.

David Hansen
(MetroHealth Main Campus, 2005)
Trauma can trigger unrelated trauma. It felt selfish even then to make this about us, and our loss. People had died that day, thousands of people died horribly. But we were still in our recovery, and the shock of this other event was still a shock.

I tried to articulate this in my play, which I began writing in 2002. One member of our writers group thought it was a distraction from the main story, which was and is intensely personal. He said it took him out of our story to mention 9/11. The others disagreed, and I kept it in, but his sentiment was not unreasonable and it stayed with me.

I remember my first performance in the West Village in 2004, as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. I was aware of the fact that I might be reporting back to people personally affected by the tragedy what it had been like to watch it on TV. From Cleveland.

During the scene in question, titled “The Future,” I take the briefest of pauses after first mentioning the World Trade Center, a moment of silence in which one of the critics seated in the second row, literally five feet in front of me, loudly clicked their ballpoint pen to make a note. Ah-ha.

Directing the play for video this year, Chennelle asked if I would consider dropping the scene. She’d suggested a few judicious but minor cuts here and there, first when she directed my performance in 2016, and again directing James for the Playhouse Square video. Minor, but notable. She’d never suggested cutting an entire scene. I asked her to film it, and we’d see.

There’s nothing wrong with James’s delivery. In fact, it’s very good. But watching a rough cut of the video, I have decided that Chennelle is right, that the time had come for this scene to go. Because to someone who had not lived through that moment, it is distracting. There are details that tie the play to time and place, but that one is so vast. Mentioning it before was appropriate, because it was expected. Today, I agree that it is no longer necessary to include in this play. 

James Alexander Rankin performs "The Future"

Coming soon: Playhouse Square presents "I Hate This (a play without the baby)" directed by Chennelle Bryant-Harris and performed by James Rankin.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Process XXXV

"Greater Clements"
(Lincoln Center, 2019)
Things are different this year. I am working full-time, back in rehearsal for the residency program. At the end of the day I am exhausted, and then I need to either go to class, or prepare dinner. I need to turn in earlier if I hope to get any exercise in (Septembers are traditionally the months I run little) but I also need to get my homework accomplished.

Also, too: writing. When is that gonna happen?

This week we are covering ancient Greek tragedy in one class, including Medea. In that play, a person who feels betrayed and bereft murders her own children rather than let them live as second-class citizens to those her ex-husband hopes to have with his new wife.

In the other class we read Samuel D. Hunter’s 2019 drama Greater Clements, a Trump-era work in which the citizens of a former mining town in Idaho choose to un-incorporate rather than pay taxes for basic community services now that the place is being “Californicated.”

See the similarity? Destroy what you love to cause to harm to those you hate. That’s where we are in America today. Just, you know. Fuck everybody. The difference is, the gods sent Medea an escape chariot, we’re all stuck here with each other.

We have a three-day weekend. It will be spent doing homework. Also, too: writing.