Thursday, June 30, 2022

Just Kids (book)

Pengo’s 2022 Summer Book Club
“I was full of references.”
- Patti Smith, “Just Kids”
Earlier this month, Luke and I had a “New York City 1980” double feature (viewings spaced by seven days) where we watched Alan Parker’s Fame and Allan Moyle’s Times Square.

Fame is, of course, the fictionalized story of a few teenagers making their way through the School of Performing Arts, and as such it had a remarkable effect on me as an aspiring performer. 

Times Square, a lesser-known flick, is a rock and roll love story between the child of a rising NYC councilman and the street-dwelling kid she meets in a hospital as they are both treated for mental health issues.

While this version of Fame is not a musical, Parker employs his talents melding song with narrative, as he also did so successfully with The Commitments. Each tune is from a source – a rehearsal, a performance, a realistic moment alone creating a tune – but each could be its own music video.

Moyle’s film could have been a groundbreaking queer teen fantasy, had the producers not insisted on an alternate ending which is pure Hollywood bullshit. But it’s all worth it just for the scene in which our protagonists, Pam and Nicky, bop down 42nd Street to Life During Wartime.

They are both artifacts of a transitional moment in the history of the city, documenting a Midtown which no longer exists, but also in their own way setting the stage for the MTV era which was to come. Like the man said, don't you wonder sometimes about sound and vision?
“Today the city is populated by benevolent ghosts.”
Patti Smith’s 2010 memoir Just Kids is (tangentially) about another point of major transition in the city. The focus of this book is primarily her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, it is also therefore about their paths, together and apart, as young artists in the very late 1960s and into the 1970s.

Photo by Norman Seeff, 1969
I believe I was only first made aware of Smith when someone produced a lab production of Cowboy Mouth, which she wrote with Sam Shepard in 1971, a roman à clef of a play, a thinly veiled examination of their brief time together. Yes, I knew the song Because the Night, which she wrote with Bruce Springsteen, which was a hit when I was ten years old, but I couldn’t have told you who sang it.

And I first became aware of Mapplethorpe when a retrospective of his works, many of which feature images of a sexual nature, became a convenient focus of attack by those authoritarian forces that are currently Panzer-blitzing their way over a half-century of American civil rights and progress. This, when the artist had died only four months earlier, in March 1989.

What is charming and affecting about Smith’s book, fulfilling a promise she had made to her friend and former lover decades earlier to tell their story, is how unaffected it is. It’s a sweet tale of a young woman and a young man who meet cute and have Downtown boho adventures as they make art and aspire to greatness.

Smith is one of those rare artists who had to become an artist because, by her own admission, she couldn’t hold down a steady job – though her ability to find rare books for cheap and sell them high is a skill I find enviable.

Patti Smith in Cleveland
(Photo by Judie Vegh, 2017)
But as I was saying, transition. Brief encounters with Hendrix and Joplin, shortly before they died. Dylan and Ginsburg make appearances, too. Rubbing elbows with the 1960s as it vanished into the new decade which would entirely define them as icons of rock and art.
“The gratitude I had for rock and roll as it pulled me through a difficult adolescence. The joy I experienced when I danced. The moral power I gleaned in taking responsibility for one's actions.”
Five years ago, we took the entire family to the State Theatre to see Patti Smith perform Horses, her first album, in its entirety. 

At the age of seventy it were a fearsome performance from a white-haired punk, full of grit and passion. Our children, aged 15 and not yet 13, recently traumatized by the election, were electrified and inspired by the performance. It was a balm for the parents, too.

Source: “Behind the right’s loathing of the NEA: Two ‘despicable’ exhibits almost 30 years ago” by Travis M. Andrews, The Washington Post, 3/20/2017

Friday, June 24, 2022

Notes on Camp: Day Eight

It is true, with the improv club on our penultimate day, we could spend the entire day rehearsing and preparing for our performance.

To think. We weren’t even sure if we could do this. Would anyone sign up? Would they agree to masks? And how would that go? I’ll tell you, it went fine. Only the photos will remind me that we were even wearing them. And no one got sick, not at this camp.

Family and friends of the campers arrived in time for a 2:30 PM performance. The Jesters & Fools (9-11 group) presented an original play about oracles before our teams presented their short plays and Shakespeare scenes, before the entire camp came together for our final song and dance number. It was a one-hour show! Created in eight days!

The short plays, by the way, were presented in a manner inspired by the Neo-Futurists. We called it “Ten Short Plays in Twenty Minutes” with the caveat that there were neither ten plays nor were we performing them in twenty minutes, though when all was done I believe we did execute all eleven plays in twenty minutes or less.

On the drive in this morning, I was already thinking about next year, when hopefully I will have a better opportunity to organize the improvisation workshops. The first week is for a close study of the mechanics or techniques, the second concentrating on a singular character for use in a (short) long form improv.

Now, if you will excuse me. I am going on vacation.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Notes on Camp: Day Seven

Another Improv Club is in the books, and I am very surprised and relieved with how it all worked out.

The Crows and Mechanicals each had their own genre (mystery and soap opera, respectively) and after a brief introduction of each character, they were provided an episode title and called upon to perform two person scenes that took place in whatever space I provided (The abandoned MacGruder Place! The dunes on the beach at the Cape!) concluding with a “slacker” scene in which each character cycled in and out of three person scenes in turn.

And we consumed a massive amount of pop, chips and cookies. Because nightclub.

On any other year, I would head down to our rehearsal space to pick up additional costumes or props for our rehearsed "splash" scenes as necessary, depending on what scenes we were creating. Kelly insisted (and I bless her for it) that we spend the rest of the day creating everything we didn’t already have out of paper, cardboard, watches of fabric, duct tape, hot glue, paint and their imaginations.

Self-directed work is the best work. It really, really is. Bless you, Maria Montessori.

The end of the day, after cleaning up, I got to kick back and watch Tim and Asia coach all the campers in the choreography for the closing song for our performance … which is tomorrow!

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Notes on Camp: Day Six

“I'm taking an awful risk, Vader. This had better work.” 
- Governor Tarkin, "Star Wars" (1977)
The improv club was created as a way for the campers to show off their skills in a manner in which they did not need to feel the pressure of an audience of anyone other than their peers (i.e., their parents). If a comment is accidentally blue – trust me, I actively discourage this – no harm, no foul.

This year, however, we haven’t taken the same amount of time to develop these skills. It all comes down to their innate ability to riff, the characters they have been thinking about since last week (we haven’t actually played with any of them to date), a set of camper-generated prompts in the form of episode titles, and the heavy hand of the narrator: me.

So, anyway. We had a lot to do today, and a lot planned. Short scenes and Shakespeare in the morning, final improv rehearsal in the afternoon. What we did not expect was that the fire alarms would be tested for over an hour and a half. The sound was loud and disturbed – and it was ninety degrees outside. We found the band room to be slightly less horribly loud, and played games and, yes, practiced some improv, until lunch.

These things happen. How you cope with them is what matters.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Notes on Camp: Day Five

And we’re back. In days past, this would be a restart, greeting new campers for the second week, beginning a second-week lesson plan which tracks the first week, but not entirely the same because many campers took both weeks.

So, instead of restarting, we are resetting – taking this opportunity to revise expectations based on the personalities of the players involved. As our Crows and Mechanicals are full of clowns, he have assigned two cuttings from Shakespeare’s comedies to compliment the “Battle Royale” which now surrounds a third scene, one from Henry IV, part 1.

This took up a great part of the day, which was fine. We have that time to spare. We were still able to spend time running our short plays, stage combat, and concluding the day with musical practice.

Are we doing too much? I do not know. Are they up for the challenge? Yes, they are!

Friday, June 17, 2022

Notes on Camp: Day Four

Camper walks in wearing a T-shirt reading “Be Kind.” Gray shirt, simple black font. I want my own version of this shirt.

The memory feature of Facebook has been rolling out camp memories every single day. It’s all a bit overwhelming.

We began the day by moving one of the Jester & Fools up to the Upstart Crows. This happens, one of the older kids from one of the younger groups is not challenged by what they are working on, or sometimes we notice that all of their friends are in the older group, and we adjust accordingly.

I asked the team to write for five minutes, reflecting upon what they had discovered, or discovered about themselves in the past three days. Then they shared their names and pronouns (so our newest member could hear them) followed by a one or two word summation of what they have discovered.

It was gratifying to learn all the wonderful things they had picked up, and that they are happy to be here. We need to reflect sometimes, to remember where we were, and how far we have come. Their telling me reminds me of this, too.

Today we ran through all eleven short plays. I was so impressed, not only at what a fantastic playwright I am, but how well my work can be interpreted by middle and high school students. I really need to create a book.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Notes on Camp: Day Three

“That summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life.”
- Jonathan Richman
Summer is different. The smell of the gas pump, which is an entirely ordinary aroma, takes on a nostalgic pong when it is received standing in sight of the highway, your car filled with family and luggage.

Going to camp is different. I’m wearing shorts to work. I pick up a latte for the forty minute drive across the city. The windows are open, and I am singing at the top of my voice. It feels so much more relaxed.

The days are crammed with activity. Campers have now selected short plays on which to concentrate, we will begin rehearsal of those in earnest tomorrow. Kelly is not only staging the Battle Royale, but including verses from Shakspeare to tie them together.

The improv sessions are loud, hilarious and dizzying. My only question is whether or not the preparation will come together into a performance. But, we’re having fun, right?

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Notes on Camp: Day Two

Afternoons, Kelly and I trade off between the Upstart Crows (middle school) and Rude Mechanicals (high school). She is guiding them through a Shakespearean “Battle Royale” while I lead them through improvisation exercises.

In this way, the campers are getting a lot of specialized attention in two different aspects of performance. I don’t think we’ve ever provided as much time on stage combat before, and never with as an experienced mentor as Kelly.

As for improv club, I was inspired by someone one of our interns said during the planning sessions, comparing long-form improv to a role playing game – which is another way of looking at the work we use to do in the Night Kitchen; concentrating on creating one very specific character for the actor to create and embody. They, the established character, can enter into any scenario, handle conflict and create relationships, pushing a storyline forward without inconsistency.

That’s the plan, anyway. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Notes on Camp: Day One

Dutiful interns Sylvia & Connor
Something old, something new. Mornings, Kelly and I work in tandem with students aged twelve to eighteen. It’s been three years since we held in-person camp, and I was curious as to how many of these kids would have attended our camp before. And it was around half. I was shocked. I was so pleased. 

How many had aged out? How many had folks were weren’t ready to send their kids to an experience like this? But so many were back, and it is so good to see them again.

We are wearing masks. Yes, it’s a drag. But I wouldn’t do it otherwise, and I am grateful for the accommodation. They want to be here and so do we.

We worked together to create a list of expectations for the week, to which we could all agree. Some expectations involve playing certain games. Others involve providing mutual respect and attention. We got onto the same page.

Campers got to know each other a little, introduce each other, learn names. And then we got to work! And this year, guess what? We’re working on (among other things) the Short Play Project. I have a tranche of two-person plays, many of which are perfect for middle and high school aged kids to work on.

Exactly how we do that, I will make note of as the week progresses. Today, we had cold reads, tearing through a number of them, but not enough apparently, as they were eager to keep reading them aloud for each other.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Notes on Camp: Day Zero

Rude Mechanicals, 2019

We emerge from quarantine, if not from pandemic. Since 2010 Great Lakes Theater has held a two-week summer arts camp at Berea-Midpark High School (formerly Camp Theater!) for kids from kindergarten to high school. I am happy to say there were campers who returned year after year.

Scenes from Club Improv (2019)
Two years ago, when the inevitable decision to cancel camp was made, we offered a virtual version for a week in June 2020. It was simply part of the general contribution of goodwill provided during that season of disappointment and uncertainty. We got to see the familiar faces of kids we would not be meeting in person for some time, if ever again.

Last year we didn’t have any kind of camp at all.

This is a year of change, as the camp will be hosted in a new location, and incorporate music and dance into our lesson plans. This year I am working closely with Kelly Elliott, as we team-teach middle and high school aged campers in stage combat and improvisation.

Also? A trio of interns, Ally, Connor and Sylvia, all former campers, who either graduated from high school this or last year. We have instructed them since they were kids, now they will work alongside us.

Good Lord, I could cry. I'm really looking forward to this.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

England, 1997 (Week Two)

Shakespeare's Globe
Our second week visiting England in June 1997 was busier than our first, and in spite of developing something like a cold, we kept seeing shows and even took an overnight trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon. It helped that my brother and his family lived close to the city, which helped cut down on cost. We did a few things together, but they were also raising a sweet two year-old girl which kept them close to home.

Monday night we saw Ute Lemper sing Weimar Berliner cabaret songs at the Almeida Cabaret in Islington. She was a new surprise to us, though by the late 90s the German-born performer was already an award-winning actress on stages across Europe playing the leads in shows like Cats and Chicago.

Today I learned that if you were a German child in the late 1980s, she was the singing voice of your Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. On the evening in question she was singing and storytelling about the kinds of passionate and transgressive songs which inspired those created for Cabaret.
Mon, June 9: “Opening night. Full house. Third row. It was wonderful. Tall, red hair, high cheekbones, child-eating smile, arching eyebrows … humorous, passionate, amazing … English, German and French, beautiful and scary.”
Ian Holm & David Burke
"King Lear"
(National Theatre, 1997)
Yes, it rained on stage.
Featuring songs with titles like Masculine/Feminine, Sex Appeal and Ich Bin Ein Vamp! Lemper shared the legacy of sexual liberation and gender fluidity which would soon be extinguished by a Fascist regime. (See also: The Degenerate Art Exhibit.)
“The Almeida is my theater, it’s the theater I want. Like a round, brick well, high-ceilinged … intimate. Fantastic space.”
The next day we were able to get rush tickets to see Ian Holm’s return to the stage after several decades, performing King Lear in the Cottesloe Theatre at the National.
Tue, June 10: “A cold, cold Lear. Holm came out of the gate intense and quick to anger … small man but a huge presence. I wish Dad could see it. Almost no music. Run on, act at your leisure, run off.”
We took an overnight trip to Oxford and Stratford. I was unwell but we pushed on.

With brother and his family.
Even Oxford had a tourist trap, and we do love tourist traps. We took a spin on The Oxford Story which is a straight-up dark ride, a maddeningly slow roller coaster ride through the history of England’s oldest university featuring lots of still marionettes. Narration was provided over headphones while we were shuttled along in cramped, little desks.
Wed, June 11: “And it’s sponsored, produced and sanctioned by the school! Can I blame the Americans? Our entertainments must be 3-D, automated, cold and tacky. The House on the Rock produced by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”
We spent the night in Stratford where we had dinner at the Glory Hole (yes) and took in a performance of Camino Real at the Swan Theatre, where I also saw “The Seagull” in 1990. 
“A live band made for most excellent music – a lot of Beat-era jazz, for example.”
(There is literally a guy on the floor,
covering his head.)
The next morning we saw more Shakespeare-oriented historical sights than the entire time I was there in 1990. Of course, much of my time there seven years earlier was to take workshops and to see shows, and it was very, very snowy. My partner said Stratford was the most delightful place we had visited so far.

We took the train back to London, and that evening, Henrik, Toni and I saw Anthony Neilson's The Censor at the Royal Court. Bad Epitaph would produce this play in September 2001. The run was cut short for obvious reasons.
Thu, June 13: “Great. Inspiring. Emotionally awful.”
On Friday we visited the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI), a historical celebration of the science and craft of projected entertainment. I was particularly taken with the devices which created thrilling or unsettling imagery for unsettled audiences well before the invention of what came to be known as the motion picture.
Fri June 14: “The Phantasmagoria! … an 18th century slide [magic lantern] show – images, tinted slide drawings, projected on a screen in a darkened room, accompanied by spooky music, augmented by smoke cast before the lens, or slowly bringing it into focus, or casting one image the another, back and forth to give the impression of movement – or a sequence of two images (Adam and Eve biting the apple/being cast out of Eden) intercut by a lightning bolt flashing on and off, with appropriate sound effect. 

"And to appreciate how spooky this would be to an audience! It was great! So creative! I wish I could be half as inventive!”
Salieri's, seat detail.
That night was our only real “date night” with just the two of us and my brother and sister-in-law. We headed to the Warner Brothers Cinema on Leicester Square to see Big Night, a period film about Italian immigrant brothers who operate a restaurant on the Jersey Shore and starring Stanley Tucci and Tony Shaloub. My wife and I had already seen it when it was released in the US, and it remains one of our favorite films.

It only made sense that we close the evening with a long, indulgent dinner at Salieri’s, which Toni and I had discovered the week before. The decor was “a little ridiculous – everything is painted, the seats have scenes on them of cabarets and showgirls, so do the walls and the ceiling. Mermaids and seahorses and gambling dandys.”
Fri, June 14: “The harp player actually played La Colegiala.”
Saturday afternoon we took a tour of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which was utterly remarkable. When our student group had visited Southwark in late 1990, it was just a big, muddy hole in the ground and our tour guide gave the impression that the thing would never actually get built. And here it was, a peg-by-peg and fully-practical reproduction of an Elizabethan theater.

The place hadn’t officially opened to the public yet, and in fact there was a major event going on that evening and ours was the last tour before the theater was closed for the festivities. We had a snack in the cafe as the place was filled with an assembly of formally dressed people, several of whom I recognized from stage and film. I noticed that Michael Maloney, one of Branagh’s favorite players, was seated at the table next to ours. He caught me gawking. That was embarrassing.

Juliet Stevenson & Nicholas Robinson
"Caucasian Chalk Circle"
(Théâtre de Complicité, 1997)
That evening we closed our journey by attending Caucasian Chalk Circle at the National Theatre, produced by Simon McBurney’s troupe Théâtre de Complicité (today simply Complicité) which is perhaps the greatest theatrical performance I have ever had the joy to witness.
Sat June 15: “Produced with a great sense of play, humor and adventure. In the round … using long poles they made spears and guns, but also a rickety bridge, and even made a river using them.”
One particular moment though, which always reminds me of the unique magic that is stagecraft: The child was portrayed by a succession of puppets, from the baby to the toddler and so on, and with each iteration the chorus would sing as the “younger” puppet was led off and the “older” puppet was introduced. A marionette the size of an eight year-old walked off and an impossibly big one, the size of a ten year-old was led on, operated by no fewer than six company members.

But as this one was walked by the puppeteers, each one stepped away, and as it walked on its own the last puppet operator pulled a skin-tight mask from its head as it was revealed to be an actual human actor. The audience gasped and applauded, it was marvelous. So glad we saw this show last. It is a shared memory my wife and I treasure to this day.

I was last in England five years ago, with mother to attend my niece's college graduation. How was that only five years ago? I worry I will never return.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

England, 1997 (Week One)

Last year we made plans to visit England during the holidays. I am downright resentful this did not happen. Not that we should have gone regardless, that would have been foolhardy. If I had had my way we would have gone as soon as possible after my mother died. I wanted a family trip with my high school aged children, perhaps our last big journey together for some time, perhaps ever.

England is the land of my ancestors, and I wanted to share that with them. They have touched British soil on two occasions. Neither of them remember very much. They were one and two, and three and four years old in 2006 and 2007.

Old Sarum, Wiltshire (1977/1997)
My first visit was in 1977, the summer of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Twenty-five years ago, in June 1997, my girlfriend and I visited. It was her first time off the Americas.

At that time I was in the middle of my tenure with Dobama’s Night Kitchen, and treated these vacations like archaeological excursions, digging for inspiration by seeing as many shows as possible. Unfortunately, our first choice was the notoriously awful Edward & Mrs. Simpson musical Always (see post) and I felt particularly bad about this because I had campaigned to see it.

We made for it the next night by checking out The Herbal Bed by Peter Whelan, an RSC production at the Duchess. Based on one historic document in which Shakespeare’s son-in-law Dr. John Hall sues a man for slandering his wife (stating publicly that Susanna Hall “had been naught with Rafe Smith”) it starts like some romantic fan-fiction until it suddenly becomes The Crucible.
Tue, June 3: “Everyone was sympathetic and you hated yourself for rooting for anyone … ethical matters are rarely ever cut and dry. They’d fuck it up in America, change the ending or something.”
Teresa Banham, Richard Hawley
"The Herbal Bed"
(Duchess Theatre, 1997)
At that time, having spent the better part of five years either managing Guerrilla Theater Company or Dobama’s Night Kitchen, I was a bit obsessed with the new theater company I just assumed I would inevitably found. Every road trip we took I would observe spaces and customs.
“Ice cream is served in theaters during the interval by vendors in the house. You can place a drink order before the show and have it waiting for you in the lobby.”

“My next theater project should be called The Other Theater Company”.
Our third night we got half-price tickets to see The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) performed by the present iteration of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Even then I understood that the star of the show were the topical references, and not the text itself. There was a line in the “comedies” section where they bust into the refrain of Wannabe by the Spice Girls.
Matthew: Meanwhile, the six brothers fall in love with six Italian sisters, three of whom are contentious, sharp-tongued little shrews, while the other three are submissive, airheaded bimbos.
All three sing in falsetto: "Tell me what you want, what you really, really want!"
Adam: (aside) I want to hit you in the face with a shovel, that’s what I want.
Clive Carter. Jan Hartley
(Victoria Palace Theatre, 1997)
Everybody laugh. Comedians are horrid.

On our journey, I also picked up a number of books. Big books, little books. Perhaps most significantly visiting the bookstore at the National Theatre I purchased Hamlet: A User’s Guide by Michael Pennington. The RSC veteran breaks down the entire text by each evident action, and not some psychological interpretation, which I found refreshingly clear. Since that time I have ordered dozens of copies to provide for actor-teachers.

The book was also an invaluable tool when I would direct Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark two years later. Reading over my journal, my thoughts were roiling about my life as an artist.
Sun, June 8: “I worry my artistic future. Sometimes I wish I were younger, or that I was clever when I was younger – that I had accomplished more earlier, so I would be further along now.”

“Look at the Reduced Shakespeare Company. They started ten years ago in California, putting on a simple, goofy show … and they have touring companies, radio programs and an ongoing run in the West End … I want to start an ensemble, and have a theater, and teach classes …”
My anxiety was no doubt fueled by the fact that I was about to turn twenty-nine.

"Hamlet: A User's Guide"
by Michael Pennington
At the same time, I refer almost daily to my “Eliot Ness play” which I never did write. He played a role in These Are The Times, which also remains unfinished. I was inspired by the books on the so-called “Torso murders” I had read, and Paul Heimel’s biography. But also Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy of existential urban mysteries, and the current fascination with modern popular jazz ensembles like the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

I didn’t actually want to start my own theater company, ego made me think that I did. What I really wanted to do was to write plays. We rounded out our first week with a trip to Canterbury Cathedral, where I conceived of and jotted down a short play which I only recalled a couple of years ago, typed up and posted at New Play Exchange. It is titled Museum. You should read it.