Sunday, October 31, 2021

Twenty Twenty-Two

I used to love the new year, because it held promise. As the years counted up, there was always something to look forward to. The numbers themselves held a kind of magic. 1985? Why, that’s one year before 1986, the year I have had on my sleeve since sixth grade!

A new decade was rich with possibility. Raised in the 1970s, the year “1980” was freakish! What will happen? Ten years later I was older and wiser and felt it when George Michael sang;
Now everybody's talking about this new decade
Like you say the magic numbers
Then just say goodbye to the stupid mistakes you made
Oh! My memory serves me far too well. And yet, we continued. Onto the 1990s, and new millennium, and on and on as we had children and did our work and then my mother died and the odometer passed onto the third decade of the 21st century and I became acutely aware of my own mortality. When your parents are gone, it means you’re next. That is by design.

How the fuck did I lose twenty years? Well, you know what John Lennon said.*

You do know what John Lennon said, right?

I'll say this, the past year has been more fruitful (and far more harmless) for me than for many others. I'm not even talking about loss, though there has been plenty of that. But when I sat down at an in-person rehearsal last week (more on that soon) and heard so many artists sharing their sheer delight in engaging in their first artistic endeavor in twenty months, I felt a glow of gratitude for the projects I have participated in, just this year.

But what are my plans for 2022? Continue my MFA, for one thing. We’re going remote again, at least at CSU. I have loved being in a classroom with others, but I also got a lot more work done when I just needed to log on and off my computer for class.

I will have a ten-minute play produced as part of the NEOMFA New Play Festival, something new (of course). I should write more ten-minute plays, as an exercise. And because there are a godawful amount of ten-minute play festivals in this world.

And at long last, there may be witches

Other than these events, I await word on a dozen or so submissions of that play that I have been submitting this year.

So, you know. The work continues, until the pen drops from my syphilitic fingers.

*Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Process XLIII

This week I had the opportunity to sit in an audience and experience a play I had been assigned to read for class before I read it, which was novel.

Apart from that, I have little to say about my process this week. I read. I wrote. That's it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

"Hadestown" at the Walter Kerr Theatre

Friday, October 22

“You almost got hit by a bike.” That became our running gag in New York City last weekend.

Maybe two years ago, my son asked to see Hadestown which was something of a surprise. He’s been attending the theater since he was three, but had never asked to see a specific show.

Apparently, he’d been following the process for many years, though he can’t remember why. It’s a well-reported story, the journey from song cycle to concept album, from Off-Broadway to the Walter Kerr Theater.

The tour was scheduled to be in Cleveland last spring, canceled due to COVID. For his sixteenth birthday, as I had for his older sibling, I offered him a weekend in New York, and one that hopefully included the show. When tickets went on sale, I got the very best seats; mezzanine, front row center. He likes being seated above the floor.

My wife finds the best places to stay, in this case a former “cold water flat” in the East Village, with a clawfoot tub in the living room and literally no closet space. I had to go outside to change my mind! Perfect for our needs, however.

When asked what else he’d like to do, he said he’d like to hear live jazz. Not a concert, a set at a club or something. Our first night, we stepped into a place in the West Village. The bouncer asked if he was over 21, and I said no.

The man shook his head. “It’s 21 and over.”

I told him the truth. I gestured at my son and said, “He’s just here for the music.”

He looked at us both for a moment and then waved us in. “He can’t drink,” he warned us, which I guess was obvious, but I decided it would be best if I also didn’t drink.

As I’m counting out the cover, the guy leaned in and rubbed me on the shoulder. “You having a good night?” he said. It was a sweet gesture, sympathetic. Dad taking his son to hear some music, you good? I love this city. 

There was a quartet, the leader was the keyboard player, a purveyor of bop. He was a well-experienced sideman, one who had even played with Benny Goodman in the early 1980s. We sat and listened to the first set, keys, drums and bass, the sax player arrived late. The boy was highly satisfied by the drummer.

We played pool and enjoyed the second set when they really began to rip. It was energetic and high. The clientele surprised me, a diverse though obviously well-funded selection of young Millennials drank and hooted and played pool and ping-pong while to one side a more intense and appreciative set sat in remaindered church pews and leaned into the jazz. I was not the only person of my age in attendance. 

The boy would have liked to see them take it further, but after the second break we agreed it was best to call it a night. I touched the bouncer’s elbow on the way out. "Thanks, man."

The extent to which restaurants and cafés have moved onto the sidewalks and into the streets is remarkable. This is the case everywhere, but the street we were starting on is lined with restaurants, and their exterior dining areas took up the majority of available parking spaces.

At night they are lit up and magical. Most have been constructed, but there were also prefab plastic sheds like you’d get at a hardware store which also looked quite cozy.

Eva Noblezada as Eurydice
(Walter Kerr Theatre, 2021)
Saturday, October 23

We made a plan to run in Central Park. It was cool and overcast and threatened to rain, and we took the train to save all our steps for the park. Together we ran ten miles, and I was overwhelmed but grateful. We spent the afternoon eating, resting and eating.

And then we departed for Hadestown.

I knew little about this show. I knew there were people who thought it was weird, and also that it had won many awards. I knew about André De Shields, and Reeve “Spider-Man” Carney. I knew it was based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

I heard it was weird, that people were surprised it made it to Broadway. And I found it more beautiful and engaging than I expected. It’s one of the few musicals that has truly touched me in a long time.

And it was the first musical I have seen since the pandemic. Yes, we had our vaccination cards at the ready. Yes, we all kept our masks on, the entire audience. This very weekend Peter Marks (Washington Post) tweeted that London audiences are outright ignoring requests to wear masks.

There is a lot of silence in the play. Shockingly, not one cell phone went off all night. Can you imagine? During the song “Livin' It Up on Top,” a roaring ensemble number, Orpheus is asked to give a toast, and he and the company lift their tin cups to each other. The music breaks and he says:

“To the world we dream about, and …”

Then, cups raised, they turn to the audience, and look at us, wearing our masks.

“... the one we live in now.”

Hold. Silence. It was startling.

There were folks sitting behind us, at least one of them was familiar with the music, and had their opinions about the understudies, but my son and I agreed the woman playing Persephone was just wonderful.

The guy who originated the role of Hades Off-Broadway is engaged For another couple weeks, but they got Tom Hewitt who is a storied performer and it seemed like he was doing a spot on impersonation of the originator. It was intense.

The other three leads were played by the people who were brought on for the Broadway production. I was unfamiliar with Eva Noblezada (Eurydice) but she was heartbreaking.

Reeve Carney is far more fascinating to watch and listen to than I thought he would be. You ask yourself, how does someone perform Orpheus? How do you sell that his singing would make the devil cry? And yet, he does.

And André De Shields was the André De Shields. I have seen performances headlined by a brilliant star (Hamlet with Ralph Fiennes at the Belasco comes to mind) where I am ultimately disappointed by the production as a whole. And this is an ensemble work that is greater than the sum of its parts. Having said all this, that the storyteller is such a magisterial and accomplished performer, and that I had the blessed opportunity to see him … I do not seek out these moments. I am only so grateful when I experience them.

I was awake for a couple hours in the middle of the night, early Monday morning. So I decided to read the reviews, to learn a little more about the process. Apparently, somewhere along the line, someone told composer Anaïs Mitchell that beautiful music is beautiful, but you can’t assume the audience knows what you’re thinking. Let them in.

Sunday, October 24

Oh it is truly strange how magical the street looked at night, and how mundane it appeared in the morning. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere about a one-night stand but I’ll leave that to someone younger.

Sunday was casual, we rose late and attended a “jazz brunch” at a nearby hotel. One thing I have always loved about NYC are all the close, cozy spaces. This is not necessarily a good thing during a global pandemic, but we showed our vaccination cards and ducked into our table, right next to the drummer.

It was cool, early afternoon of standards and originals, a trio with keys, bass and drums, led by a female vocalist.While this type of jazz is not our son’s favorite thing, he respected their skill, and it stood in contrast to Friday night’s musical frenzy. It was a lovely set, and a sweet close to a very special weekend.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Process XLII

This week I celebrated my having written morning pages every day for an entire month. There is a school of thought, often expressed in the form of inspirational memes, that being a servant to practice can be harmful. Don’t be hard on yourself! It’s okay not to do morning pages!

Sure, of course. It’s okay not to do anything that’s good for you. You can skip your daily exercise, you can eat what you choose, once you have received confirmation you never need go to church again, this is well understood.

But then, what is a practice if you don’t keep it? Each morning, at 6:00 AM (later on weekends) I handwrite three steno pages, or for thirty minutes, whichever comes first. It’s usually the three pages. I once did this for over six hundred days.

I chose when to stop, that was intentional, but it was difficult to resume. But I had to resume, at least if I was going to think of myself as a writer. I say I am a runner because I run, when I can’t run anymore I will happily report that I was a runner. I never want to say that I was a writer.

This week I turned in the first draft of a new play on the subject of the "great resignation". The assignment was for at least half of the new work, but as far as I am concerned, getting to the end is half the work. I want to spend the rest of the semester improving upon it, not finishing the first, rough draft. And it is rough. But it’s whole.

And a ten-page paper on structure which is more like a fever dream, but hey. The man said it didn’t need to be scholarly and boy-howdy, it’s not.

This weekend the boy and I are in New York City, having an adventure! We may even see a play.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Monster Bash!

When I left home for school, I got rid of much of my childhood business. What I didn’t get rid of, my mother did. This is a parent’s responsibility.

During the 1990s and on into the 2000s, however, first retro-nostalgia toy and gift stores and then eBay popped up to provide Baby Boomers and Gen Xers the opportunity to pine for and purchase long-last treasures from their forgotten and discarded youth.

I bought a copy of all the Schoolhouse Rock videos on DVD, that was before I had children. But once I did have children, hey! Retro and educational. Those are still pretty awesome, nothing hideously dated about those.

At some point in the past fifteen years I fulfilled a desire for a few of the magazines I had enjoyed in my youth, with titles like Dynamite and Pizzazz. The one Dynamite issue I just had to have I found online, the June 1975 issue, which included instructions for a Monster Bash, the ideal monster themed party.

Christopher Lee Black Light
Poster Included!
I thought it was important to have this artifact in the house and left it around for the kids to discover and look at, but that’s not really a thing the kids ever do.

My brother, whom I tried to emulate in so many ways, was inspired by this issue of Dynamite to throw a Monster Bash! including the suggested party games "Pin the Fangs on the Vampire" and recipes for creepy snacks and desserts like "Poisonous Purple Punch" and "Transylvania Treat".

There was also a face painting element, which traumatized me. No one offered to paint my face with scars or fangs or bolts because I was the annoying little brother. One guest arrived late, an exchange student, and he offered to paint my face, but he didn’t understand that this was a monster-themed party. He made me up like a clown, much to the amusement of my brother’s pre-teen friends. I was humiliated. 

Right to left: Rich, Jim, George,
a tribble and a monster.
(October 1978)
A few years later, when I was ten, I threw my own Monster Bash, which was really just an excuse to decorate the family room, have the guys over and eat ice cream. We didn’t play any of the games and we certainly didn’t do any face painting.

I’m not even sure what it all meant. Halloween debuted that year, the original John Carpenter film, and so followed an avalanche of slasher films which I did not watch. I mean, I saw one or two, and they were horrifying and not in a fun way. I’d rather sit up with my brother to watch Hoolihan and Big Chuck, but even that was just to hang out with him. It wasn’t really my bag, except for the comedy sketches.

"Creepy Feely Feelings"
(October 2009)
We did have a few neighborhood Halloween parties, when the kids were small. They bobbed for apples, our creepy snacks were pretty freaking creepy. Once I even dressed up like a mad scientist and we played "Creepy Feely Feelings" where the kids have to touch things in covered bowls like peeled grapes which they are told are eyeballs or dried apricots which they are told are severed ears.

During the pandemic I have been stepping up my outdoor decoration game. I’d usually only have time to get things out the day of trick or treat, but starting in 2020 I started putting things out, a few at a time, starting at the beginning of the month. I wonder what I will wear to hand out candy this year.

Maybe I will dress like a clown.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Process XLI

Okay, Anton. Whatever you say.
I was rushing to get a paper completed by last Thursday, only it is really due next Thursday. So, I have a paper due next Thursday which is mostly complete, so that’s good.

My work will appear in a certain collaborative holiday project but that hasn’t been announced yet so instead I’ll just mention it here to be all oblique and shit.

We spent the week in rehearsal learning the Hamlet residency, which was awesome because I love Hamlet and it is exciting when I’m in a room of people who agree, or at least listen to me go on about it because they haven’t really formed their opinions yet.

I finished the first draft of the play I am writing for workshop, which is dynamite because the only the first half is due this week, so again. Ahead of the game. I am writing every single morning.

Next weekend, Chennai Art Theatre will be reviving their production of I Hate This (re-titled What Happened) at Indianostrum in Pondicherry, India. Pondicherry (or Puducherry) is a three and a half hour drive from Chennai, so they will be reaching an entirely new audience, and I wish them a strong turnout.

As for me, I’m taking the boy to NYC next weekend. Some time ago he expressed a strong desire to witness the musical Hadestown, as he has never before asked to see a specific production, I thought that if we could we should.

And tonight. Tonight, we return to the Hanna Theatre for the first time since January, 2020. Sara Bruner is directing The Tempest, she who played Ariel in the GLT production fourteen years ago, the one in which I played Adrian, Shakespeare’s least-consequential named character. We’re masked and vaxxed, and it will be a celebration.

Friday, October 15, 2021

On Trigger Warnings

(West End, 2021)
Recently, a theater critic lamented on Twitter the lack of “trigger warning” for the musical Six.
Trigger warning: a statement cautioning that content (as in a text, video, or class) may be disturbing or upsetting - Merriam Webster
I know little about Six, a British musical which recently opened on Broadway following an eighteen month postponement. What I do know is that it is a celebration of the wives of King Henry VIII, each of them modeled after a contemporary pop star. It is presentational, like one of those rock music competition television programs.

The suggestion that the show requires a warning of disturbing content led to a great deal of theater twitter tweeting, much of it centered on how dumb a person needs to be not to be aware that Anne Boelyn and Catherine Howard were beheaded, or that Henry was generally an abusive husband.

Two things. 1) Why should an American know that? The British Monarchy is not part of our curriculum. And 2) The show isn’t really sold that way. The advertising shows a diverse sextet of women with microphones. They’re not even wearing crowns.

Sure, I know who they represent, I do Shakespeare. I don’t look down upon those who do not.

I have thought a lot about trigger warnings, and I have decided they don’t trouble me, and they may help those who could use such advance warning. “This program makes light of spousal abuse and murder, please be advised.”

Dear Evan Hansen was part of our subscription package for the KeyBank Broadway series two years ago, and apparently it was a popular show with “the kids.” We took the family. My stomach bottomed out when one of the characters dies by suicide. I had no idea. My teenage children have exeperience with suicide, it’s not some abstract concept. It made for a difficult evening.

"Dear Evan Hansen"
(Broadway Tour, 2019)
I understand, life is full of challenging experiences, but like those going to see Six on Broadway, we expected a fun evening. Hell, we paid for one.

This school year, we have introduced a warning to the final scenes of Romeo and Juliet our actor-teachers perform in the classroom. Surely, you ask, they know Romeo and Juliet take their own lives. No, maybe they don’t. Some schools bring us in before they have finished the text. And many students know someone who has died by suicide, and watching that act performed with the degree of realism our actors bring to the performance may be troubling, whether they know the ending of the play or not.

So yeah, I fail to see how a content warning in any way mars one’s enjoyment of a performance. That is unless you are the kind of person who thinks they are stupid in which case I might ask, why so sensitive?

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Process XL

Let’s talk about the well made play. What is it? Do people still even make those? I mean, any one worth speaking of? 

The well-made play consists of:
  • All action!
  • Surprises!
  • Suspense!
  • Contrivances!
  • Neat resolution!
Or so they say. George Bernard Shaw did. He said it, he didn't do it.

These two classes I am taking this semester, the one on dramatic structure and the playwriting workshop, they blur into each other. What I am learning in the former is employed in the latter.

The thing about a murder mystery, or even an involuntary manslaughter mystery, is the extent to which it is based on surprise. And is the mystery compelling? Most important-to me, anyway (and to Shaw) is whether or not I can craft a shocking mystery with a MESSAGE.

Yes, a message play! I said it, and I’m not ashamed of it. Neither is Shaw.

Okay, the past week has been an emotional adventure. I mean, I haven’t been emotional. Quite the opposite, actually. Since I began taking anti-anxiety medication, I have been floating somewhere an inch underwater. And considering when I started this medication, which is about two years ago now, it has been the absolute best time for me to be taking it.

Am I missing anything? I don’t know, have I been productive and not wanted to curl up and die? Yes to both, thanks. Emotions are overrated. They only cause pain and interrupt my sleep.

Friday evening my son was at his Syndicalist book club (he’d bludgeon me if he knew I said that) and my wife is seeing the new Bond film as part of a trio of ladies, which is only just. Me? I tried to decompress and yes! Write.

One final bit of good news: Today I have written morning pages for twnety days straight. After a summer adrift, I have returned to a practice which pleases me. Cheers!

Sunday, October 3, 2021

On Submissions

Dance Nation
(Dobama Theatre, 2020)
Photo: Steve Wagner
This week we are reading Clare Barron’s Dance Nation which, among other honors (including as a Pulitzer Finalist) won the 2015 Relentless Award. A production of this play was underway at Dobama Theatre when all productions were suspended in March of last year.

The Relentless is an annual award, established by the American Playwriting Foundation ten years ago and dedicated to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman due to his “relentless … pursuit of the truth” (quote attributed to Ethan Hawke).

I have applied to this award only once, with the play The Way I Danced With You (The George Michael Play). It was the play that I had most recently written, had workshopped, and I was sending it everywhere, for prizes and for production. Strictly speaking, this play does not satisfy the criteria of the Relentless Award, which seeks new work that exhibits “fearlessness, passion and truth.”

My script is passionate and, I believe, truthful. But is it fearless? No, I can honestly state that it is not. But I was on a submission kick, and so out it went. In hindsight, I should not have done so. I have not applied since.

But why? Why prejudge my own work, why not leave it for others to decide? It’s a waste of the adjudicators’ time, for one thing. I generally follow submission guidelines closely, and suit the script to the sub. I convinced myself that it might qualify. It’s a symptom of privilege, that my work might be good enough, when what is demanded is daring, craft, and above all, originality.

Dance Nation is one such work, just in terms of casting. The script demands that the team of thirteen year-old dancers be performed by an all-adult and varied age company, from twenty to senior citizens.

The script addresses numerous issues, of age, gender and race, and does so in a manner which is inherently, ultimately theatrical, which is to say it must be performed on a stage, for a live audience, and can be executed nowhere else. It’s vibrant, physical, transgressive, dark and powerful.

When I write a play that could not work as a radio drama (The Way I Danced With You would make a fine audio play), or as a film (I have thought of this, too) but could only be performed live on stage to be appreciated and understood, then I might be comfortable submitting for such an award again.

Submissions for the 2022 National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center open tomorrow, October 4, 2021.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Process XXXIX

Lindsay Buckingham
An Effective Play, by August Strindberg c. 1900
Translation by Evert Sprinchorn

An effective play should contain or make use of:
  • Hints and intimation.
  • A secret made known to the audience either at the beginning or toward the end. If the spectator, but not the actors, knows the secret, the spectator enjoys their game of blindman's buff. If the spectator is not in on the secret, his curiosity is aroused and his attention held.
  • An outburst of emotion, rage, indignation
  • A reversal, well-prepared
  • A discovery
  • A punishment (nemesis), a humiliation
  • A careful resolution, either with or without a reconciliation
  • A quiproquo (ed.: “misunderstanding”)
  • A parallelism
  • A reversal (revirement), an upset, a well-prepared surprise.
I have been enjoying the assigned essays of Strindberg, in the same way that I enjoyed David Mamet’s book True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor. Each writes with the unapologetically bellicose certainty of a white, cishet man, but in this case each is expressing their abusively confident assertions in the service of the performing arts, which is kind of adorable.

Strindberg provides this brief list of items necessary to make an effective play, and while that’s just like his opinion, man, I find them to be instructive in retrospect rather than construction.

To wit; I am writing a play for class. I am daunted by whether or not it is any good, but fortunately that is not really the goal. The goal is completion, someone else can work about whether or not it is any good. But it should be well-constructed, and while I am putting all the pieces-parts together, I can check this list to see how well I am doing.
  • Are there hints and intimation? All over the place.
  • Is there a secret? Yes, a big secret.
  • An outburst? No, not yet. That is a necessary ingredient to this particular play.
  • A reversal? Also important, I will work on that.
  • A discovery? Yes! A punishment? Unfortunately, yes!
  • A humiliation? Not enough to my satisfaction, but we’re getting there.
  • A careful resolution? There had better be.
  • A misunderstanding? Totally.
  • A parallelism? I think so?
  • A reversal, an upset, a really big surprise? Yes, that comes with the careful resolution.
It's a mystery.