Saturday, August 27, 2022

Process LXVI

Stop Making Sense
Interviewer: What are you going to do next?
David Byrne: A project with songs based on true stories from tabloid newspapers. It's like “60 Minutes” on acid.
Break’s over, back on your heads.

Last year, I regretted (only slightly) taking a summer course because I didn’t appreciate the idea of sixteen weeks of work crammed into six. But my, did I enjoy the time off once that was through.

Having the entire season without any classes, however, I feel mentally out of shape. No reading, no writing -- and that was before my eye procedure. But the days pass as days will and ready or not, school is here and the time is right for dancing in the sheets (of paper).

Fortunately, the last of the gas bubble which was put into my eye (to assist healing) disappeared the same day as the plastic medal band on my wrist, the one warning EMTs not to administer N₂O or to put me on a plane, finally cracked and fell off. Reading was suddenly easier, driving possible. I began running again.

Thursday night the semester began as I drove to Akron for my first class in a course on creative non-fiction. In spite of having autobiographical plays, these did not involve research. I wrote what I thought, from my own point of view. This is not creative fiction. Memoir, perhaps. Not the same thing.

Girlfriend Is Better
Shortly after obtaining an Apple Macintosh SE in 1990, I did what all callow young men do shortly before graduating college, I started to write the Great American Novel. That fall I drank 100 proof Southern Comfort, smoked cigarettes, and banged out my first book.

It was a recollection of a solo road trip I had taken the previous year, when I visited a former girlfriend with whom my relationship was undefined, and also to see my dying grandfather. Heady stuff. Great potential. Unfortunately, it read like a journal, not a novel, and the horrible truth was I wasn’t terribly interested in anything that was going on around me.

I was twenty years old. I was traveling through the deep South, to first reach Panama City, Florida, then onto Clearwater. And yet, I took the interstate, and not any two-lane roads. I ate at chain restaurants in service plazas instead of seeking local cooking. My erstwhile girlfriend was seeing one guy, and had her eyes on another (who would become her life partner) and I was a dull interloper.

When I did visit my grandfather, it was for one long afternoon in which neither of us said very much at all. He was in great pain, and I was terrified of that and of him. It was a pilgrimage I felt I ought to make, though I did not know why.

Road To Nowhere
Most of the narrative included my referring to other, better books, like Blue Highways, Still Life With Woodpecker, even Anne Rice’s Belinda. I quoted song lyrics which weren’t epigrams so much as hopefully evocative phrases taking the place of any original sentiment I was unable to have or create.

Basically, because it happened to me, I thought it was important for others to know about. I guess I’ve always thought that. I like to think I’ve gotten better at deciding which tales to tell, and how to tell them.

So, anyway, we’re not doing that this semester. This time, we’re telling other people’s stories. True stories.

Friday, August 26, 2022

I Hate This (First Reading, 2002)

Twenty years ago today, August 26, 2002, we held the first public reading of I Hate This (a play without the baby).

To recap, my wife and I suffered a stillbirth in early 2001. And I wrote about it. And wrote about it. My journal was a form of solace and understanding. We mourned, we talked, we traveled. We wanted things to stand still for a while but they kept moving forward.

My wife had a show in the New York Fringe that August and I saw a lot of shows, many of them solo performances. As I drove a van of sleeping teenagers and young adults back to Cleveland I had a lot of time to think and I realized then that I was going to write a show about this experience.

It had only been five months. I told myself to wait, not to think about it again at least until the new year. The wife had invited me to join her writers’ group which met at that coffee shop in University Circle. In 2002 I began to share pages for what would become my first solo performance.

Early that summer I met for lunch with Joyce Casey, Artistic Director of Dobama Theatre. As I had worked there for three years she was my former employer and mentor, and also a good friend. I had shared the script with her and she asked how she could help with the piece and I said I wanted to hold a reading, an invitation-only event and could I use the space. She agreed.

This was something I had never done before. I hadn’t actually written many plays. I’d never had a public-private showcase of a work I had just written. Maybe a few folks invited over to my house to read and comment. I planned to invite a wide variety of people, friends and close artistic colleagues, but also directors of other theater companies and most importantly to extend an invitation to those we had met on our journey, others who had lost children and were familiar with this grief.

I made postcards to send through the mail or to hand out. I must have sent emails, too.

Tom Cullinan was director, he would go on to direct the original staging of the play. We worked in various rooms in my house to create a shape for this performance. It was script-in-hand but there was also blocking. In the end what we created was the basis for the stage play I would eventually perform, on and off, for the next five years.

There were no slides, I read the title for each scene. There was no music or sound effects, those would come later. There were a couple music stands so I could place the script for longer passages. It was a staged reading. I wore the sweater.

The version dated June, 2002 is remarkably similar to the final version. I have edited and edited as the years have gone by, but its shape was established from the beginning. There are uninteresting details which were cut, and inaccuracies.
“I sang to it on Friday and I swear it was listening to me.”
That line may be poetic, or possibly emotion-evoking. It is not accurate. I changed that passage before the first reading. There were many, many f-bombs, and other obscenities which were unnecessary.

There is a scene where my brother and I are in the Cloisters in Upper Manhattan, observing the Annunciation Triptych. I compare myself to Joseph, the blithely ignorant father: “He has no idea what’s about to happen to him.” In the original draft I go on to describe other famous men who have lost children:
“God lost His son. Did you know the guy that writes Doonesbury, his wife had a stillbirth. And John Lennon and Yoko Ono had a number of miscarriages. And Luis Guzman. He’s that guy, you know, in 'Traffic' … yeah, you know, that guy, him, too. Read it somewhere. Really fucked him up for a while. Isn’t he great?”
That passage was struck from the August, 2002 version, the one I used for the reading. I had wanted to share what a widely-felt experience child loss is, and examples of famous men who have was one way to do that, I guess. But the scene is long and bends from topic to topic and we needed to draw a narrower focus.

Trying to describe our visit to Great Britain to see my other brother that summer, I originally read this:
“I don’t know what we wanted our trip to London to be, but it wasn’t what we wanted. I love that city, it bleeds history, and you’re surrounded by people from all over the world, rushing through its narrow streets, the places just pulses with music and art and exciting smells and noise. But it was still scary to even step outside and you know, there are newborn babies everywhere, even in England.”
Press to play.

But that wasn’t right. That’s some sexy but entirely vague explanation of how I feel when I am in any large city, and when things are entirely normal. It didn’t describe that place at that time, the way we were experiencing it. It was revised for the premiere.

The turnout was very good, all things considered. Sixty people? Maybe seventy? Following the reading I changed and sat in the back while Tom led a post-show discussion about the script.

I mean, here’s the thing. Everyone in the room knew me, most likely knew both me and my wife. They knew we’d lost a pregnancy. I knew no one was going to be very critical of the work. But I didn’t know what I’d written. Was it a play? Was this a story anyone wanted to hear? Would they say, I am glad you got that off your chest?

Well, no. No one said that, at least not yet. And there were generous questions about form and clarity. Someone suggested I cast other actors to play the characters I impersonate which was interesting and while that was not something I wanted to do you it has been done that way.

One theater colleague, a playwright (I did not yet call myself a playwright) marveled at the fact that I would even attempt something like this. She said there was this conventional wisdom that it takes ten years before someone can successfully write about tragedy, and yet I just went ahead and did it.

And Randy Rollison, Artistic Director of Cleveland Public Theatre asked if I had any plans for it. I said I had not. He asked if I would like to participate in a new works program he was planning, called Big Box. I said I would.

My wife and I were already four months pregnant with our next, and living child. They would be a month old when this new play would would premiere at CPT in February 2003. And that is how two decades can pass without your really noticing.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

How I Spent My Summer (2022)

June: Topsail Beach
This past weekend we visited Athens, Ohio. To celebrate my mother-in-law's birthday. Also, to drop our eldest back at school. A second-year. A sophomore. There is much I could say about my sophomore year at Ohio University. It is enough to say I never accomplished as much as they have their first year, and I lazed away my first summer break from college while they worked and worked and worked. They are my inspiration and my motivation.

I have continued to recuperate from my eye surgery. There are good days and bad. Sleeping remains a challenge. And writing. And reading. I spend a great deal of time on social media, because that is easy. But even my relationship to social media has changed this summer.

July: Deck Time
Last month, someone contacted me via Twitter to let me know they have been made aware that something they had posted on that social media site I have reposted onto my professional Facebook page.

I post all manner of things on my Facebook page, related to playwriting, to spur conversation, sure. But also to generate attention.

However, I don’t know this person. Another playwright, yes. But they are not a famous person. What right did I have to repost their thoughts somewhere else for my own purposes? None at all. It was a mistake. I was wrong. I took down the post and I apologized.

This exchange occurred just as my family was leaving on vacation without me the day before I would undergo surgery on my left eye was extremely helpful. It meant that instead of spending the day feeling sorry for myself, I could spend the day hating myself.

July: Zoom Reading
Feeling sorry for myself means something beyond my control happened to me, that I am a victim of circumstance. And as far my eye is concerned, perhaps that is true.

But I do shit like this all the time. Social media has only enabled me to cast a wider net of people to hurt. Hating oneself, at least, places blame squarely where it belongs.

The ten days I spent on my own I had the chance to do a lot of viewing. I watched Under the Banner of Heaven, completed BoJack Horseman, a friend came over and we watched The Moderns, another joined me to watch Magnolia. Each and every one of these stories are about men who plow thoughtlessly through their lives, only tangentially aware of their own sense of entitlement. Viewing or reviewing them, I was acutely aware of my own failings.

July: College Visit
I have both thoughtlessly and also with intention damaged personal items that were meaningful to my ex-wife. I have ended friendships with one carefully chosen sentence. I have complicated relationships by saying things I should not have said.

I have transgressed. I have been inappropriate. I have failed to return that call. I have pretended to be asleep.

Early in the social media era, long before the #MeToo era, this guy I know posted something on Facebook along the lines of, “If you are a woman I have hurt, I want to apologize.” That was it. I was incredulous. I’m sure I wasn’t alone. No one responded. Because cringe?

August: Birthday Reunion
But, you know, I understood the impulse. We know we have done bad things. We want people to believe we are good. But we’re really not. I wasn’t when I was a sophomore at Ohio University. And also last month. When will I hurt someone next?

This is not really an account of how I spent my summer, except to say that I have been going through some things. Convalescing has provided an awful lot of time to go through them. My final year of grad school begins next week, and I wonder what I will be writing.

June: Theater Camp