Monday, February 28, 2022

The Witches (company)

Test Flight walks a line. Like the Big Box series that came before it (I was in Big Box four times) this is a single weekend of workshop performances. What is a workshop, the layperson may ask? The script is complete, but unfinished, and this is an opportunity to gauge its progress in front of an audience. There are certain professional expectations, but it is not a full production.

There should be design, and the actors should be well-accustomed to the material, at least that material that has not been pitched at them at the last minute. I’m not adding anything to the script for The Witches at this point, but even today I have taken things away.

Thankfully, I am working with a team of incredible artists, some for the first time, several with whom I have collaborated with more than once, and are good friends.

Adrionna Powell Lawrence as Keetchi
The piece is co-directed by Melissa T. Crum and Carrie Williams, who have worked with me at Great Lakes and who I have worked with on projects which have seen the light of day and those that have not. We have directed each other, acted together, and written together, and their work on this piece has delighted me utterly.

Another former Great Lakes colleague and one who has been an invaluable collaborator on so many projects – including and especially during the shutdown – is Chennelle Bryant-Harris. She was due to direct this piece when it was originally scheduled for two years ago, and I was so grateful she was available to perform as dramaturge.

The acting company is a tinderbox of performers who I have either worked with (Adrionna Powell Lawrence, yet a fourth former actor-teacher) or whose work I have enjoyed and admired through the years, including Bryce Evan Lewis, Jaime Bouvier and Juliette Regnier.

Here’s one thing we will not have: video projection. Adri plays a social media star in the model of Liza Koshy (yeah, I know – I started writing this years ago) and so there are meant to be YouTube videos and TikToks. In lieu of actual technology, the team has created some moments that get the point across with clarity and humor.

What we will have are a lot of mannequins, costumes, and shadow performance. Rehearsal was extremely rewarding, with song and humor, frank conversations about tone and a lot of useful suggestions for editing and revision.

And tonight we begin putting the final pieces together in the Levin at Cleveland Public Theatre! I’m really looking forward to seeing this all come together, even more so to how the audience will react this weekend. Maybe we will see you there!

Sunday, February 27, 2022

The Witches (process)

"The Witches" at Pandemonium
(Cleveland Public Theatre, 2019)
History is marked with terror, in America as it is in the rest of the world. There are monuments and memorials to moments of great suffering and tragedy which are peaceful sites of reflection, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or the Salem Witch Trials Memorial.

Then there are the museums, houses of artifacts and exhibits. Some are an attempt to rectify previously unacknowledged history, as they have been working to do at Monticello; some are meant to memorialize recent events like the National September 11 Memorial Museum in Manhattan. These efforts have also received their share of criticism.

What does it mean that there are for-profit tourist traps and wax museums exploiting such curiosities as Bonnie & Clyde’s Death Car, the actual mummified remains of mental health patients, and, of course, the Salem Witch Trials?

Two and a half years ago we workshopped the first scene I had written for The Witches at Pandemonium, the annual gala for Cleveland Public Theatre. It was there that I understood (once again) the inherent difficulty in pairing comedy with horror.

Salem Witch Dungeon Museum
We are attempting to walk the line between satire (n.: the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues) and the reality of misogyny, generational trauma, capital punishment, child abuse, and on and on. It’s not funny, this being burned alive business.

In spite of having to miss a week’s worth of rehearsals due to class, family obligations and the playwrights festival, I have been engaged in the process of revision, listening to our actors, trying to make it all clear. I can be obtuse, you know. Editing has happened.

I wrote speeches. Some work. Some do not. There were also a number of Hamilton references which in 2022 are embarrassing like naked baby pictures are embarrassing. No one wants to see that shit.

There’s a lot of stuff in the words, and yet, not enough stuff. There’s also jokes. I am going to be sitting in the back next weekend, paying close attention to what gets laughs – and what does not.

To be continued.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Process LVI

Thespian Humor.
“These medieval witches knew …”

The witches are all around this week. On a single day I’m revising a spectral visitation for The Witches, debating novelist Caren Beilin’s self-described witchwork in her takedown on the medical establishment, Blackfishing the IUD, as well as my personally leading a one-on-one virtual lesson in The Crucible.

Of course, that was Tuesday.

This week has been very challenging, as I have been getting to bed after midnight pretty much every night, due to rehearsals for Test Fight taking place downtown. Remember when rehearsals were all online? Yeah, I’m grateful for the return to meatspace but it is a slog for this slightly older matron (that’s a reference, come see the performances next weekend.)

But I went to bed with a headache Wednesday night and woke Thursday with a full blown migraine which pretty much wrecked my day. Once I could think straight I was able to do some reading but, you know, that old Puritan Work Ethic, I felt like a monster calling off from classes.

I have to write a new play. I may have had a breakthrough, just today. I need to complete fifteen pages in the next forty-eight hours, but at least I finally have an agenda. Writing exercises have been fruitful but ultimately not leading to anything greater. I created a rubric for myself that I will be playing with. Wish me luck, okay?

Friday, February 25, 2022

The Witches (inspiration)

Adrionna Powell Lawrence
Rehearsal for "The Witches"
Titles can be challenging. Usually I turn to song lyrics. Is that a bad thing? Not that I care.

Recently, I wrote a script titled No One Wants To Work Anymore. A meme from 2021, that phrase was the inspiration for the entire piece, so it makes sense.

The working title for The Witches was The Witches, inspired by Stacy Schiff’s epic history of the Salem Witch Panic of 1692. As I was considering a proper title, I remembered that I have already written one play titled The Vampyres and thought it would be symbolic to have another play named after a monster.

I know. Witches aren’t monsters. You take my meaning.

The Vampyres is an immature work. My first full-length play, it was meant to be a metaphor for the creative arena. It now feels to me like a study in toxic masculinity – it’s not about toxic masculinity, any more than the works of David Mamet are "about" toxic masculinity. They are the thing itself.

The Vampyres took place in a goth-themed coffee house (very 90s), The Witches in a witch-themed roadside attraction. Who knows, in a quarter century I may write a work about death and dying called The Ghosts or The Zombies.

My original intention was to write a piece about tourist traps (my wife and I love tourist traps) and also about my life in non-profit theater and education. The attraction in question, the fictional Bradbury Witch Dungeon (and Museum) aspires to a status of respectability as an historic, educational institution.

Bryce Evan Lewis
Rehearsal for "The Witches"
The family had a brief stay in Salem a few years ago, and I revisited a certain witch-themed attraction with our eldest, finding it to have changed somewhat since I visited with my wife a quarter century ago. I mean, it was mostly the same, except the docent, our guide, provided a great deal more context, which made the entire experience much less cheesy. Also, no one jumped out and said “boo” at us as they had in 1996. The place felt downright respectable.

Upon returning home, I wanted to call them, to see what I could learn about a place like that, how does it operate, how big is the staff, what are their hiring practices, were the changes I saw standard, or does it depend on who is conducting the tour?

The person I spoke to on the phone was not interested in speaking to me. I left a message, no one returned my call. I sent an email, and again received no response. So in writing my play, I just made stuff up. Sometimes you have to make stuff up.

To be continued.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

On Self-Control

One of my notable character traits, which I assume is related to my being the youngest in a trio of brothers, is my sharp tongue. 

The eldest sibling doesn’t need to prove their dominance, they simply are; always bigger, always stronger. The middle child is the mediator, to be sure, and also circumspect. Like Janus, they sees both ways, being younger and older, and yet not definitively either.

The youngest, this youngest, exerted his personhood the only way he could. With his mouth. If he got physical, his older brothers could always smother him with a pillow until he could no longer fight. This is a thing that happened. Why throw a punch, when depriving the offending child of oxygen is so much more effective and doesn’t leave a bruise.

So, I had a big mouth. Witty, but also vulgar. And when cornered, I lashed out. I graffitied, writing with soap on mirrors, pencil on desks, chalk on boards, carving into wet cement. When, in sixth grade, I was caught writing something particularly nasty about someone on a table in the library, a panel was convened to try and channel my impulses.

My guidance counselor asked if I was interested in creating a middle school newspaper. 

"Sure!" I said. 

Fine, he said. Create one.

Unfortunately, I am not an eldest child, I had no sense of independent initiative and required guidance, not knowing how to ask for it and none was provided. I continued to stew in silent resentment through my middle school years.

The high school did have a weekly newspaper and I was finally able to express myself through cartoons. I also wrote the occasional story or opinion piece which were inevitably disastrous, my penchant for unfortunate and often irrelevant metaphors distracting from whatever point I was trying to make.

Words can be an ugly tool. Worse, when you have an affinity for using them but only for the expression of resentment and spite. These were the early  plays I wrote to either drive a wedge between myself and people who cared about me, or to kick them in the ass on the way out the door. I need not elaborate. Some saw their way onto area stages, others did not, but they were read. It was ugly. And stupid. And embarrassing.

Practicing restraint is one thing, it requires constant vigilance. My wife deserves all the credit, not for teaching me restraint, but for sharing with me more a open engagement and understanding of the world and the people in it. It’s humbling, and this humility has helped me to finally, as so many before had recommended, think before I speak. And to edit, edit, always edit. And also to know when its best to delete.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Process LV

Tuesdays are my Achilles' Heel. If I can survive a Tuesday, I can survive anything.

My wife and son went out of town last weekend, leaving me ample time to read. On Sunday that is absolutely all I did. I also baked cookies. But mostly I sat and read. No housework, no exercise, just sitting and reading. And drinking. And other things. No Super Bowl for me, thanks, I have homework.

There is this feeling I have, maybe I got it from my mom, that if I narrowly make assignment deadlines that I have failed. Note, I said if I narrowly make thm, not miss them. I have succeeded in my task. But there’s a voice in my head which tells me that if I had better managed my time, I could have turned in my assignment earlier.

Who cares? I wrote them, I reviewed them, I edited them, I turned them in. Not rushed, not half-assed, just you know, a half-hour before they are due. Fuck that voice in my head.

It is remarkable to me how classes overlap, as we read a book of poems about the Holoaust for the class I am assisting, and also discuss survivor stories in my illness narrative class. My mind races from subject to subject, they do not interrupt, they flow together.

And suddenly, I need my notebooks, the ones I have been burning. I have not yet disposed of those from October 2019 through February 2020. Five notebooks from that time. I wrote a lot. I wonder what is in them. A lot of unreadable scribbling, to be sure, and short play drafts. But perhaps insight into what happened and when it happened. Potential source material for a chaos narrative.

I know I have my notes somewhere, too. Pulling over on a two lane highway in Wayne County to speak to a dispassionate doctor. The confusion. The helplessness. Maybe.

Wednesday would have been my mother’s 87th birthday. That would have been a fine age to be.

Friday, February 18, 2022

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (In Motion)

Before the proliferation of smart phones (after which time everyone became a cinematographer) capturing random moments on video was a bit more rudimentary. As I have been recalling the ten years since my play adaptation of The Mysterious Affair at Styles premiered, certain video "memories" have popped up on social media.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Opening Night
Alcazar Hotel, Cleveland Heights

Producer Daniel Hahn whipped out his flip-phone to record a record turnout for the Great Lakes Theater outreach tour (above). Over one hundred and twenty people attended opening night at the Alcazar Ballrooom. I promise, this is due to the enduring popularity of Agatha Christie, and not my reputation.

The first image is that of director Lisa Ortenzi, who did such a marvelous job getting this show on the road.

Thursday, March 1, 2012
Nordonia Hills Branch of the Akron Public Library

Ten years ago I had not yet acquired a smart phone, but I did have a laptop and used that to create this time-lapse document (above) of how our company of five brought in and put up the quite impressive and heavy set. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Lorain County Community College

The second night of performance, Daniel brought his family camcorder and recorded the entire performance at LCCC. It's handheld, so of course it's a little shaky. In this clip, Captain Hastings bids farewell the his audience. Don't worry, no spoilers, and we do get to see the entire company emerge for curtain call.

Monday, February 14, 2022

The Mysterious Affair at Styles: Ten Years On

Playmakers, Inc.
Covington, LA (2022)
St. Valentine’s Day, 2012. My adaptation of Agatha Christie’s first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, premiered at the Alcazar Hotel in Cleveland Heights. This would play become my first published script, and a significant moment in my life as a writer.

When it was announced that Great Lakes Theater would produce The Mousetrap at the Hanna Theatre in spring 2012, I proposed adapting one of Christie’s two (at that time) public domain works for the annual touring show. Writing this particular piece was an education for me in many ways.

For example, I had never read anything by Christie. I knew little about the First World War. I had never adapted a novel before, never written a mystery before, and I had to figure out how to present twelve characters with an allotted cast of five.

Chattanooga Theatre Centre
Chattanooga, TN (2018)
This was my sixth outreach tour as an actor, and my second as playwright. Our five person ensemble included actors I had worked with in previous tours, including Michael Gatto, Anne McEvoy and Emily Pucell Czarnota.

Two years earlier, Emily was in my play On the Dark Side of Twilight, a three-hander, with me and Dusten Welch. Our working dynamic was so familiar in that tour, that when we brought in an actor who was new to all of us for this production, we both kept calling him Dusten. That was James Rankin.

The good folks at Playscripts, Inc. chose to publish it the same year, and since that time there have been (to date) two dozen productions. Not an overwhelming number, but there are a few limitations to this particular adaptation which narrow the kind of organizations which might choose to present the show. It is brief, for one thing, no intermission.

Alaska Pacific Univ.
Anchorage, AK (2017)
Also, The Mysterious Affair at Styles is in the public domain in the United States only. There is a larger media company which manages the written work of Agatha Christie, and they carefully guard her copyrighted works. Copyright laws vary from nation to nation, and in the British Commonwealth, her work remains so.
"Loaded with many comedic moments."
- Ryan Jordan, University Echo, Chattanooga
So, no British productions. We learned this early on when an “am-dram” (as they say) licensed the work, announced auditions online, and almost immediately stated they were instead producing And Then There Were None.

Poughkeepsie Day School
Poughkeepsie, NY (2020)
Yet, within the fifty states (including Alaska) the piece is enjoying a healthy life at middle schools and high schools, as well as some fine community theater productions, most recently at a theater in the New Orleans region, and soon a charter school in D.C. It was written to have a flexible cast size (5 - 12 players, or more) and one basic drawing room set, making it a great choice for schools and smaller theaters.

To me, the most important element of the original production was when we found James to play Captain Hastings. James was only 22 at the time, and I had seen him in a production of Waiting For Lefty at Ensemble Theatre. In my script, Hasting rarely leaves the playing area, for as in the novel he is the narrator, letting the audience into the story.
"A thrill for any detective afficionado."
- Marjorie Preston, Sun Press, Cleveland
James Alexander Rankin
Great Lakes Theater
Cleveland, OH (2012)
Some twenty years my junior, he played the naive and at times foolish sidekick and sounding board to my Poirot with open-faced humor, and like Poirot and Hastings we swiftly became great friends. It was a particular delight to write my Much Ado About Nothing prequel Double Heart (The Courtship of Beatrice and Benedick) with Emily and James in mind as the young lovers. 

Next up, he is featured in the long-awaited video production of my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby), produced by Playhouse Square. The release of this production has been postponed as we work out the logistics of how best to use the piece as an educational product for medical professionals, and also as an aid to those who have experienced neonatal demise.

The Styles Affair? No, I'll never forget the Styles Affair.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

The Ocean Breathes Salty (In Performance)

Hannah Woodside & Adam Harry
Writing has always been my superpower. First, I harnessed it as a tool against my enemies. I thought that was okay. I was wrong. When I learned how to use it as a force for good, things came into focus. I could tap into my mind, my heart and my soul, and I started to understand what I was meant to write about.

What is writing as a tool for good? Having an agenda, knowing what your agenda is, and that it is true. That it harms none. You put people you love onstage. You learn something.

Anything you might have to say to someone you love which might be harmful? Say those things in person. Or decide that it is not important. Know that about yourself, at least.

This was the first weekend for the 2022 NEOMFA Playwrights Festival, which featured two ten-minute plays – mine (The Ocean Breathes Salty) and one by Eric Mansfield – and a one-hour work by Gabby DiDonato.

Mine was the weird one. Mine is always the weird one. The others were clean in their narrative, mine was abstract. My wife approved but even she suggested it may be a bit underwritten. I was pleased with the results. 

Emmett Podgorski & Clare Scott
It was an experiment, I would normally have chosen to do one, single scene, instead opting for five short scenes which allowed characters to bounce off of each other in twos and threes. Perhaps more suitable for a full-length, but who knows. One of my professors commented that they liked the short scenes, these vignettes. I like them, too.

I saw the performances on Friday and Saturday night. There was a post-show talkback on Friday which, for my play focused entirely on the bunny. There’s a bunny in the play. What was the significance of the bunny? That was pretty much the entire discussion. There were also four human actors in the play who played characters with emotions and lives and things, but everyone was confused about the presence of the bunny.

I think my brother put it best when he said, “Sometimes a rabbit is just a rabbit.”

Thing is, there were several audience members who spoke to me, during intermission, after the show. They wanted to know what happened in the play, because they were unsure. I asked them what they thought happened, and each of them, somewhat hesitantly, told me what they thought had happened. And each of them were absolutely correct. They did understand the play. It just wasn't made obvious.

This week we're reading Sheila Callaghan, and I am digging the way she plays with reality. I need to decide what story I want to tell this semester, and this experience with The Ocean Breathes Salty has inspired me to move further in this direction. Playing with reality might be my new superpower. 

Many thanks to KR Jones, Adam Harry, Emmett Podgorski, Clare Scott and Hannah Woodside, who did beautiful work on my short play! 

Friday, February 11, 2022

Process LIV

During the shutdown, I would greet every Friday morning with the same thought:

“Just another fucking Friday.”

No plans, nothing to do. No shows, no concerts, no parties, nothing to plan for, nothing happening.

This week I attended two music concerts at the high school. Those still fill me with melancholy. I am grateful to see our son onstage, he’s turning into a truly fine musician. But I remember the last concert I attended before the shutdown, when mother was losing her mind.

But she was so happy to be there. I was terrified; that she would fall, or something worse.

Our eldest was cast as Celia in the spring production of As You Like It, which never happened. Their high school extracurricular life effectively ended. They looked forward to things that never happened. This is the curse of being human. We anticipate. We create fantasies of what might be.

Now I visit schools again, and rehearsals, and classes. On one day this week I visited actor-teachers at a school, picked up rehearsal cubes for The Witches rehearsal, attended an in-person class as a TA, and a virtual class for my studies, and drove my son to his School of Rock lesson.

A lot of driving, the kind of city driving which drives me demented. And yet, it was a full and active day, out in the world. And that was just one day.

A year ago this would have taken place entirely online, now I have to drive. I hate city driving. Almost getting into an accident has become a daily occurance.

And yet. At least it’s not just another fucking Friday.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Process LIII

The week began posting this tweet, which is not the most sophisticated social commentary I have ever made, and then watching it receive nearly twenty thousand likes, which is absurd. Thank goodness for the “mute conversation” feature because I had absolutely no interest in what anyone would have to say in response to this.

The vast majority of responses have been positive, a much smaller amount were negative, and then there were the people who were trying to school me on the inaccuracy of my statement. These artists haven’t pulled their work from Spotify, they scolded. Of course, I never said they did. I was making fun of the people who were, as of Sunday morning, denouncing this list of artists as though they had. But I wasn’t about to explain that to anyone. What’s the point?

I did get a lot of new followers out of the experience, so that was nice, and an unsolicited email or two from people who like the cut of my jib.

The week was a bit grueling in other ways, cold, cold and quite cold. We have a fire in the hearth but then the rest of the house, even the adjacent room to the fire, gets real cold. It is demotivating.

Because there is so much to do. A concert to attend. A book to be read. A play to be read. A writing assignment. Another writing assignment. A third writing assignment. Another book to be read.

And a script to be revised. A film to be edited. Scheduled to be drawn. Schools to be visited. And classes to be taught. Online. In person.

All in the same week. And then came the storm.

"Coversations in Tusculum"
(The Public Theatre, 2008)
Andrea Mohin for The New York Times

We read Richard Nelson’s Conversations In Tusculum, which is a prequel to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I mean, technically it isn’t. It’s not in verse, the playwright used a more historically accurate spelling of the name “Porcia”. But really, it’s a prequel to Shakespeare’s play. Or it’s for people who have an in-depth knowledge of the historic events that led up to the assassination of Julius Caesar, without being familiar with Shakespeare’s play, and then ask how many of those particular people would make up the audience for a play.

I enjoyed reading it, but I question how many would who weren’t already fans of Julius Caesar. What I was most struck by was how it depicts great men, feeling impotent in the face of mounting authoritarianism, might lash choose the course of assassination. The play is not about assassination, never even mentions it. This is all before. But it goes deeper into how and why then even Shakespeare does.

Mornings this week I have been teaching an online class for high school students in (ta-da) Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which is a thing I have been doing for over twenty years. Not online, that’s new, but it’s the same lesson plan. I am glad to report that Nelson’s play encouraged me to ask new and different questions which I had not thought of before.

Earlier this week I visited a high school in Parma to watch a team of actor-teachers conduct the in-person version of the same Julius Caesar lesson plan I had conducted online a few hours earlier. Stepping into the classroom they were working in, I was struck with a strong memory.

This was the last classroom I had worked in, nineteen years earlier, almost to the day, before my wife went into labor with our first living child.

Nineteen years. Remarkable.

Friday, February 4, 2022

The Witches: Second First Reading

Melissa T. Crum, Director
Nearly two years ago, we gathered in a private room at Parnell’s downtown for the first read-through of my new script The Witches, in preparation for a workshop production at Cleveland Public Theatre that spring.

Wednesday night, we gathered on Zoom for the second first read-through of my new script The Witches, in preparation for a workshop production at Cleveland Public Theatre this spring.

During the intervening time, things have changed. And it would be impossible to move forward with the draft we had started with in early 2020. There were questions asked which I found easier to ignore back then.

Adrionna Powell Lawrence,
Then there is the reality of the pandemic. The play takes place in spring 2022. It’s not something that can be easily explained away. How are we going to deal with this moving forward?

The story of “witches” in colonial America is bound up in religion and gender. The story of America is bound up in race. I started by writing a comedy about roadside attractions, which became a story about the world of non-profit, and then about so many other things.

But at its heart, it is still a comedy about roadside attractions. And what makes one venue a tourist trap and another a museum? And why do we take the most horrific moments in human history and choose to make something entertaining or "fun" out of them?

Jaime Bouvier, Actor
I started writing this several years ago now (everything was several years ago now) and what is most exciting to me is the idea that the very first few scenes I wrote, the catalyst for everything that followed, are becoming less and less relevant. Those scenes may not even appear.