Friday, December 16, 2022

On Understudies & Swings

Roger Allam & Susan Fleetwood
"Much Ado About Nothing"
(Royal Shakespeare Company, 1990)
Ms. Fleetwood does not appear.
One of my favorite theater experiences was when our school group was in Stratford-Upon-Avon in late 1990. A blizzard socked the area, and the roads were impassable.

The plan for the morning was a matinee of Much Ado About Nothing starring Roger Allam and Susan Fleetwood. We were staying at an inn right in town, but anyone who was driving in from anywhere to see the show were out of luck. So few were in attendance they announced it would be general seating, so instead of the balcony some of us chose the third row.

The stage manager came on stage to address the audience, looking bemused. She explained it may be an RSC record, with no fewer than six actors assuming roles for those performers stranded in the outskirts, and several members of crew. But the show was going on!

And it was marvelous. We saw actors whispering dance choreography to each other during the party scene, and I noted one time someone said a line twice. Other than that, they nailed it, including the comparatively young woman who stood in for Ms. Fleetwood as Beatrice.

This was when I learned a very important lesson: Without the understudy, there is no show.

Once upon a time we said, “The show must go on!” And actors with fevers and vertigo would pump themselves up with antihistamines and pain relievers would muscle through. It was expected. COVID has changed all that, and rightly so.

This does mean that, unfortunately, smaller theaters may need to close a show due to illness, and this has happened many times. Last year, as the Omicron variant was rising, theaters right here in Cleveland closed their holiday shows early, one after another.

Today, our professional theaters make more time to prepare understudies and also budget for swings.
“While an understudy is usually a smaller or ensemble role within the main cast of a production, a swing is an offstage performer who only goes on if someone in the ensemble is unable to do so. A swing most often does not cover principal roles in a show.”
- Dramatics Magazine
Desmond Sean Ellington crushed it.
Attending a show and discovering that an understudy is going on has become more and more common. I myself have made pre-show announcements this season, more than once, that someone other than listed in the program will be going on.

Last Tuesday, the family went to see the touring production of Hamilton at the KeyBank State Theatre. That night Burr was played by Desmond Sean Ellington who usually plays Mulligan/Madison (that role assumed by John Devereaux) and this was exciting to know; that something different was happening that night, just for us. He delivered a beautiful rendition of “Wait For It” and ferociously stuck the landing in “The Room Where It Happens” which are absolutely my two favorite songs in the show.

Opening weekend of the world premiere of The Land of Oz at Dobama Theatre, my good friend Sarah Blubaugh went on as Mombi the Witch. It’s exciting when a friend goes on, and others show to support them. In the past, I have made understudy announcements at the Hanna and there are cheers from supporters who attended just to see them.

I myself decided to attend opening night of Oz, which I did not have on my calendar, when Sarah gave me the word that afternoon that she was going on. Unfortunately, the power went out ten minutes into the performance. If you live in Cleveland Heights, you know. I did, however, get to see the entire show, with her in it, that Sunday night.

It’s a delightful show, Sarah was delightful in it, and if they didn’t have her as a swing, the entire first weekend may not have been possible.

Next time you hear there is an understudy, give a cheer! Because otherwise, you just wasted all that money on the babysitter.  

Sunday, December 11, 2022

"A Christmas Carol" Writing Contest (2022)

Actor Lynn Robert Berg greets and awards a
writing contest school winner on stage
at the Mimi Ohio Theatre.
Since 1989, Great Lakes Theater has produced a writing contest for sixth, seventh and eighth grade students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, in association with the annual production of Gerald Freedman’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

This past season was my tenth year shepherding the program, which involves engaging English Language Arts teachers throughout the district to participate in the program, contracting the readers who will choose the most original and creative works from the written entries, and making arrangements for all participating students to attend one of two free student matinees of the production.

The past two holidays seasons have been disheartening, to say the least, as there was no stage production of A Christmas Carol in 2020 (though GLT did produce an excellent radio adaptation that year) and while the show went on in 2021, the fact that vaccinations were not yet available to students twelve and younger made student matinees untenable.

The writing contest continued, however. But with remote instruction and without the promise of matinees for students, participation was depressed, which is entirely understandable. For me, however, it was one more of a raft of disappointments during a very difficult period.

In order to revive interest in the contest this year, GLT offered writing workshops to any teachers interested in receiving them. This past fall I conducted twenty such hour-long workshops at schools across the city. While exhausting (and taxing on my voice) it was very inspiring to be able to make a direct connection with so many students – in person – and to engage them in the craft of creative writing.

Here’s the thing; I always wanted to write. When I was a child, I wrote. But my efforts were ever promoted. They were never fostered. Not by my parents, my efforts were outright derided by my brothers’ friends. There was always someone to tell me what I was doing wrong, no one took me aside to show me how to do it right. It took me a long time before I realized it was something I could do. Someone I could be.

In these workshops, there wasn’t a lot of time to cover structure, apart from the basics. What we did was brainstorm, create characters with motivations inspired by themes present in Dickens’ work. When a student offered up a character, I would ask questions about who they were, and where they were, and what they – the character – wanted. And then I asked them to write about that for a few minutes, then we would go further.

When all the entries were submitted, and six grand prize winners were chosen from over a thousand written entries, five of the six had participated in one of these writing workshops. But so many of the stories were so well written this year, whether they had received a workshop or not. Stories about love and acceptance, and grief and anger, about loss and doubt but also confidence and hope.

These kids, my kids, all of our kids, have been through so much these past years, and there is all this talk about how they are behind, in their education and in their socialization. But reading these stories, and hearing their voices as they reacted to a live performance at those student matinees of A Christmas Carol, I see so many strong, resilient, and thoughtful young people.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Ten Recommended Posts from 2022

I can’t even determine what were my most visited posts of the past year, the amount of visits have inflated beyond anything I have previously experienced, which means that either a) my blog has suddenly gotten very popular or b) they’re all bots.

Even the most basic post about my ongoing experiences in grad school receive over two hundred notices a week and I am here to tell you, they really don’t.

However, I have posted some essays this year which I feel might warrant a second (or first) look, and here is a list of those.

1. Secret New Year’s Getaway (Parts One & Two)

A set of aging Gen Xers risk the Omicron variant for a romantic weekend in NYC during which everything went perfectly well except for the original reason for which they had planned the trip.

Bryce Evan Lewis, Adrionna Powell Lawrence,
Jaime Bouvier
"The Witches"
(Cleveland Public Theatre, 2022)
2. On Self-Control

While writing a new script, I delve into the darker elements of my childhood and how I evolved into the witty but restrained raconteur I am today.

3. On Social Anxiety

Picture says a thousand words, this one just says “loser” over and over again.

4. Phil Collins

He’s the only one who really knew me at all.

5. On Solo Performance

Notes on this particular form of performance and the best cheeseburger I ever ate.

6. The History of Western Civilization (play)

No, seriously. It’s all the guns. This year marked the thirtieth anniversary of Guerrilla Theater Company, and one of our members wrote a really great piece about the American gun epidemic.

7. On Abortion

In the aftermath of the Dobbs decision which overturned Roe v. Wade, a recollection of one heady summer of street protest.

8. On Sight (Pre-Operative, Post-Operative, Recovery

The vision in one eye was compromised by a detached retina. The operation and recovery took place while my family was out of town.

Guerrilla Theater Company, 1992
9. I Hate This (playlist)

Much of the fall centered around the premiere of the film adaptation of this solo performance on stillbirth. I provided this deep dive into the musical inspiration for the original stage production, which was also included in the film.

10. Leaving Twitter

Pretty self-explanatory. It is a decision which daily proves to have been the right one.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Ten Theater Projects in 2022

"Here's To You, Mrs. Robinson" at Cleveland Public Theatre's Pandemonium
Sarah Blubaugh & James Alexander Rankin
Photo by Steve Wagner

Folks have asked, David! Why a degree in playwriting? Aren’t you already an accomplished, professional playwright?

No, the answer to that is no, I am not. I am a playwright with an obnoxious social media presence which might lead one to think I am successful, if they weren’t paying close attention.

The fact is, I have done lots of plays in the past, and they are good plays, but they are not great plays. One or two may be considered very good. And I have never had a production at a professional house. Apologies to all the theaters that have supported my work in the Cleveland area, no shade, but I would very much like to have a full production at an AEA house.

This year, however, I have had a large number of original pieces, generated through my graduate workshops and elsewhere, that have been workshopped or produced. It’s been a pretty remarkable year.

Hannah Woodside & Adam Harry
"The Ocean Breathes Salty"
(Convergence-Continuum, 2022)
1. The Ocean Breathes Salty (festival)

The year began with a ten minute play, as part of the NEOMFA Playwrights Festival, about miscommunication and loss, and that fucking bunny.

2. The Witches (workshop)

I learned so much through this process. Sometimes I bite off more than I can chew, and this was one of those moments. Let’s say my heart was in the right place, but I did learn to lean back a lot through this experience, and I like to think I managed it the best I could.

I like to think that it was this experience which was greatly influential on the very next script I would complete which brings us to:

3. Scenes From a Night’s Dream (reading)

Here’s the thing. I once wrote about what was important to me, personally. And I produced comic strips and short plays and full-length plays that told people what was important to a narrowly-focused straight, white man. These plays have always been, not surprisingly, more successful with straight white men than they were with people who do not identify that way.

Then, I chose to expand my point of view, and so began to write about people who were not like me. Some attempts were not successful, and in the case of The Witches (first drafted before the pandemic) I learned a great deal about that.

However, I have produced scripts in the past two years which I feel have worked because I do more listening than I used to. But I have failed, to date, to seek into myself for that which is within me that might be universal, relevant, and possibly dangerous. And where better to find what passes uncensored and honest than in a dream?

This will be my Masters thesis production at Convergence-Continuum in February, 2023.   

4. Falling (short film)

For my graduate level class in illness narratives, I created a short film that described the sudden decline of our mother, the text taken from my daily writings at that time. It’s not something I want to be made available for public viewing, but who knows? Maybe I’ll do something with the script one day.

5. Theater Camp

This summer we used my short plays as splash scenes for the middle and high school students to concentrate on, in addition to larger and longer pieces from Shakespeare. Some parents took offense to the “political” nature of some of the scenes, but if you think moral relativism humor is political, well, there’s not much I can do about that.

6. Forget About Me: The Breakfast Club Play (reading)

One of my recent works was tapped by the folks at Purple Rose Theatre for a Zoom reading, which was very exciting. People claim to be exhausted by Zoom but there were around one hundred fifty participants, which would be very impressive for a live reading! Their theater has a devoted following, and the company specializes in new works.

The cast, the director, the entire program was supportive, productive, and I hope I have the chance to work with them again some day in the future!

7. Here’s To You, Mrs. Robinson (Pandemonium)

It was a delight to return to Pandemonium, having previously provided a scene from The Witches, a work in progress at the time. I have a bad habit of submitting unhappy scenes to this event, which is supposed to be a party. I took great pleasure in presenting something which, while still entirely me, was funny, dirty, and transgressive.

Apparently the Dawson’s Creek joke went over like gangbusters during each of the three performances.

8. I Hate This: A Play Without the Baby (film)

This was a such a big deal. It had been a year and a half since principal photography, and to finally release the work to an audience was so important. It’s now being used by University Hospitals to educate teams of nurses and doctors about the effects of child loss on the parents, and I am so grateful for that.

After Roe
9. After Roe (reading)

The man said write a play that will change the world. I don’t know if I managed that, but I can say that so far this has been a remarkable experience, interviewing fifteen subjects and then braiding (there’s that word again) their stories together into what I believe is a compelling and important narrative. I will be submitting this piece far and wide in the coming weeks.

10. Metropolis (in progress)

Still in its formative stages, this is what I am currently working on. Using both the film and the novel as source material, to create a stage adaptation of the most inspirational science fiction film in history. If it makes any difference, H.G. Wells hated the movie, which relieves a certain amount of pressure.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Process LXXIX

The week before Thanksgiving, always brief and yet fully-lacked, consisted of playing Emcee for the annual writing contest (our first writing contest matinees since 2019) and preparing for a train ride to Minnesota which unfortunately did not come to pass. Our eldest arrived in town with a terrible stomach bug, and so they and my wife remained at home while the boy and I caught an impromptu flight to the Twin Cities, to spend the holiday with my brother and his family.

I also took in-between moments an opportunity to further edit After Roe, and think a lot about my final revision for creative non-fiction. To that end, my brother and I drove to Vermillion, the birthplace and final resting place of the woman we believe is our grandmother. It was a poignant, instructive and also inspirational visit. That night I also had the opportunity to meet some new relatives, which is to say they were new to us.

We also toured Paisley Park, and later, we paid our respects at George Floyd Square. It was a full weekend, thoughtful and productive.

And it brings us to the final week of classes for the semester, and for my degree. Like, really. That’s it. Monday night my playwriting workshop professor and I met at a local joint to have wings, talk about new pages, and plans for the future.

Thursday I turned in the final draft of my creative nonfiction essay, sticking the landing this afternoon around one p.m. That’s right, with four hours to go I had finally figured out how to end.

After class we headed to Lockview on Main Street to eat a lot of cheese and to unwind a little – not that the class had been stressful. A classmate asked if it felt anticlimactic and I said quite the opposite, I was very happy with my paper, and the entire class. It feels good to go out on top.

What’s next?