Michael C. O'Day with Adele Wendt as Miranda in The Tempest.

Blog

  • Sic Transit

    Four years ago, I produced my play Dragon’s Breath as part of the New York Fringe Festival. A key scenic element of that production was a lectern, a big wooden unit that could be moved around the stage to serve as a podium, pulpit, liquor cabinet, or what have you. The money I had raised for the show had been earmarked for actor salaries and other expenses, so when it came time to purchase this object I spent money out of my own pocket. As a result, I was now the proud owner of a large wooden lectern, and when the show closed I took the thing back home with me.

    I’m not in the habit of giving sermons alone in my living room, and I (sadly) don’t have any large codices or grimoires to display ostentatiously. As a result, I don’t really need to have a lectern in my house. But I kept the thing just the same. It was a souvenir of a show I loved.

    I have a number of these. I imagine most actors do. I still have a prop I used in my very first show ever, a production of Shaffer’s Black Comedy I did my freshman year in college. It’s a silver-painted block of wood, supposed to be a piece of a modern art sculpture which I ripped off and used as a weapon at the end of that play. It’s still one of my most treasured possessions. I have posters and programs and old contact sheets aplenty. However, these objects aren’t four feet tall weighing fifty pounds or so – setting them apart in one crucial way from the Dragon’s Breath lectern.

    When I moved to the Bronx three years ago, I took that darned lectern with me. Up many brutal flights of stairs to a fifth floor walk-up. It was mine, darn it, a tangible reminder that I had mounted a show. That I had written. That was good. That had existed. And I had every intention of keeping that reminder with me until the end of my days.

    But I still had to figure out what to do with the darn thing in a one bedroom apartment. So I arranged the layout of my living room so that the lectern was directly under a flat screen tv, so that it could hold its digital antenna. But as time wore on, and it filled this function in my apartment, it became just another piece of furniture. And one that took up a lot of space for the function I was using it for.

    As I promised in my last post, I left the Bronx last week and moved to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. And as part of the move, I made the hard decision not to take the lectern with me. What sentimental value it still held wasn’t enough to justify transporting it from one end of the city to another, so I hired a salvage company to arrange for its donation. (Most likely to a church somewhere, which is an especially ironic fate considering Dragon’s Breath’s skewed take on religion.) There’s no space for the lectern in my new apartment, and no practical function for it to serve.

    Of course, holding onto treasured mementos isn’t a practical function in the first place. That didn’t stop my heart from breaking a little bit when it was loaded onto the truck. But I wasn’t saying good bye to my memories of Dragon’s Breath. I still have those, along with plenty of programs and posters, as well as two other scenic units from that show – a pair of wooden bar stools – which have joined me here in Brooklyn.

    Furthermore, in the course of packing I discovered a memento I forgot I had. Towards the end of Dragon’s Breath, the cult that has arisen out of the heroine’s YA paranormal romance novels (it’s a wacky play) has proclaimed a fatwa on the character I played. They display a picture of “the face of our enemy.” It’s my face, in character and most grotesque, blown up to absurd proportions. I’d forgotten I kept that as well, and now it’s here in my living room, ready to be mounted on the wall.

    Because what better way to make a good impression with my new neighbors, right?

  • Last Dispatch From the Bronx

    For the past few years, it’s been a comfortable routine. Every Sunday night, I come home to the North Bronx, and climb the many many stairs to my 5th floor apartment. I settle into my cozy little warren of rooms, high above the rest of the world (or at least my part of it). I have a little supper, put on the radio, and plop myself down on my couch. I grab my laptop, decide what topic appeals to me as the subject of a short essay, and type out the draft of the blog entry I’ll post the next morning. Sometimes I’m taking time away from other projects to do this; other times, that’s the only writing I’ll get done that week. But it gets done, week after week, in my little Bronx apartment.

    Well, that’s all changing.

    Don’t worry, Gentle Reader, I’m not quitting the blog. But after three years, I am quitting the Bronx. Later this week, the movers will make their way up those many many stairs to my 5th floor apartment, and I’ll relocate to my new place in Brooklyn.

    Did I mention my old place has many many stairs? It does, all right – and I think that’s had a significant influence on my creative life over the past few years. It’s such a hassle to come and go from this apartment – and it’s such a comfortable little nest – that I tend not to leave it at all without a reason. And so, as I sit on my couch, I write.

    And not just the blog posts.

    I’ve managed three full length plays in my time here, two of which were written in iambic friggin’ pentameter. Four short one acts as well, and a script for a one person show. (That last one’s for a friend of mine – I’m not completely megalomanaiacal). That’s eight significant projects, all of which had to be researched and outlined and drafted before being put to paper.

    It’s been a lot of work. And, in this little nest of mine, it’s been (comparatively) easy to do this.

    But it’s also been easy to only do this.

    At some point, the scripts have to go out into the world. They need to make the rounds. They need to be seen by people – most of whom will reject them, or ignore them, or give them a metaphorical pat on the head before dismissing them. A few of those people, a precious few, will enjoy them enough to move the scripts to the next stages of production.

    But, like me, the scripts need to get out of my living room for this to happen.  

    So, as helpful as it’s been to have this little retreat of mine over the past few years, I’m happy to leave this fifth floor walk-up in the North Bronx. I’ve spent enough time preparing – enough time being distracted by comfortable routine.  It’s time to actually go out into the world and make things happen.

    And that’s a lot easier to do from a first floor apartment, believe me.

  • Almost

    I almost had a performance this weekend.

    I was recently contacted by a director friend of mine. She needed a last-minute replacement for a history theatre piece that was going up at a New Jersey museum. It was a super-short rehearsal period and a two weekend run; those weekends were Labor Day and this current weekend, the start of Rosh Hashanah, which means I’d have been off from work for the performances. It would have been tricky, given that I’m moving to Brooklyn soon as well, but it was do-able, and I said yes. I had about an hour to study the script before I got another email from my friend; because it was so last-minute, the producer had taken it upon himself to hire a replacement without notifying her, and the role had already been filled.

    Easy come, easy go.

    It’s a strange thing. The acting life is so chaotic, that we desperately want to believe that there’s finally some order once we land the job. A role is offered, it’s accepted, it’s rehearsed, it’s performed. But it doesn’t always work that way. Over the course of an actor’s life, he’s inevitably offered something that, for whatever reason, never actually happens.

    There was the time in graduate school, when I was offered the role of Snug in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by a director who proceeded to panic when he learned I was working as sound designer on another show going up several weeks earlier. We used to multitask like this all the time when I was an undergraduate, but alas, his college experience must have been different than mine…

    There was the time a major role was offered to another actor in a significant off-Broadway production, when I’d workshopped the role through three readings of the script (and been promised the role in front of the whole cast during one of them). We all have a story like this; that I share this with so many doesn’t do much to lessen the sting.

    There was the time I was offered a major role in a classical production by a director who refused to hold a rehearsal, book rehearsal space, or a performance venue, until he already had the cast locked in place - because he was convinced somebody would withdraw from the production and screw him over. Note to those not in the theatrical profession: this is precisely how you get people to withdraw from the production and screw you over. It wasn’t me who did the withdrawing – but that show never happened. Pretty sure the entire company fell apart too.

    Then there was the show I was cast in that I was told would be performing “around the holidays.” This time, I’m the one who withdrew – when, once cast, I was informed that “around the holidays’ meant that we would be performing on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with no pay. (Ah, non-Equity.)

    I also withdrew from yet another company's production of Midsummer when a different company, with whom I had a long-standing relationship, got their act together, finalized their plans, and offered me a role about an hour after I’d accepted Theseus. The members of that first company relocated to California some time thereafter; I have no idea if they took any hard feelings with them.

    In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter – no one of these roles would have altered the trajectory of my career to any great degree. But in a world as insane as this, and in a profession that can be as chaotic and as cutthroat as this, we hope that we can try and deal fairly with our collaborators, and that they’ll deal fairly with us in turn. Lost roles can shatter our faith that this is possible – especially when we’re the ones responsible for losing them.

    Everything’s fine in this case – I only had the role for an hour, after all, my friend acted in good faith with me, and I’m honestly a bit too busy to have done the project anyway. But still, there’s a part of me that wonders if that museum in New Jersey knows exactly what they missed.

  • Labor

    Happy Labor Day, Gentle Readers! Remember that today’s holiday – the capper to the long, end-of-summer weekend – is meant as a celebration of the American worker, and specifically as a tribute to the achievements of American unions, and the labor movement they spearheaded. As we barbeque, binge-watch, and enjoy our last beach day, we should also remember the sacrifices that have been made to guarantee the rights and the dignity of all our nation’s workers, in whatever field they toil.

    Which brings us, obviously, to the story of Geoffrey Owens.

    The whole story has been going viral all through the last few days, so you’ve probably heard it by now, but here’s a brief overview. Two women were shopping in a Trader Joe’s in New Jersey, and realized that the cashier was Geoffrey Owens, who had been a series regular on The Cosby Show back in the day (he played Elvin). Here in New York City, there’s an unspoken etiquette that you never make a fuss when you recognize an actor, but that’s clearly not the case out in New Jersey. One of the women made a point of broadcasting this sighting on the various social media platforms, which led to a story in the Daily Mail, which led to the usual breathless coverage on Fox News.  The tone of this initial coverage was, of course, mean-spirited and mocking; look at the once-famous man bagging groceries! Oh, the humanity!

    Thankfully, there has been a healthy show of support for Mr. Owens in the aftermath of this initial story. People have pointed out that he’s still a working actor, and by most standards a successful one, still popping up on tv and on theater. He also teaches Shakespeare, and has been doing workshops with special needs children. So here is somebody with a productive life in the arts, taking another job to ensure steady income – like just about every creative artist in America, self included. And plenty of people have pointed this out, in coming to Mr. Owens’ defense, doing so in everything from detailed think pieces to celebrity tweets of support. 

    None of these defenses, however, really get at the rot of what’s going on here. In the minds of many Americans, the fact that Mr. Owens is no longer a famous person on a Big TV Show constitutes a failing in and of itself. To them, there is no option that wouldn’t incur shame. If he were collecting unemployment instead? They’d call him a lazy bum. If the income from guest star gigs and teaching were enough for him and his family to live on? There’d still be “where are they now” stories, still people who’d think “how the mighty have fallen.” And if he happened to be a series regular again, and rich? Then he’d be expected to shut up and be grateful that he didn’t have to work like the rest of us – even though that’s precisely what he’d be doing.

    See, this isn’t the typical actor’s complaint that creative work isn’t valued – it’s all work that’s being viewed with contempt here. One thing that hasn’t been pointed out in most stories about this gentleman is that, here in the Northeast, grocery workers tend to be unionized. So if income from creative work is unsteady, this unglamorous job is nonetheless a terrific way to maintain health benefits. (One of the many things unions have provided – like, y’know, today’s holiday). But the same people mocking the man for bagging groceries also tend to become incensed when those very jobs provide benefits. It’s the argument you hear against minimum wage increases, when we’re all supposed to be insulted that people flipping burgers are making the same money as the rest of us. None of those folks ever seem to stop going to burger joints, so they expect that labor to be provided, and yet they can’t help holding the people providing that labor in contempt. It’s a contempt that extends to all sorts of jobs that we need for survival – we need people to drive our mass transit, for instance, to to cart away and treat our waste, yet how often have we heard “bus driver” or “garbageman” used as a pejorative?

    So of course Mr. Owens is in a no-win situation. We all are. Because for all of our nation’s hard work ethic, we’re living in a society that seems to hold work in contempt.

    Steinbeck once wrote that socialism would never take root in America, because we all view ourselves as temporarily dispossessed millionaires. Assume that those imaginary millionaires inherited all their wealth, or somehow willed it into being like Athena springing from the brow of Zeus, and I think you’ve got an idea of what’s going on here. If that’s how you see the world, then any job, no matter how important or fulfilling, represents failure on the part of the person who has to work it. And rather than deal with the self-loathing such a warped mindset must induce, the people who hold it are projecting it onto the rest of us.

    Onto Mr. Owens. Onto me. Onto you.


    It’s exhausting to deal with. And we’re going to have to work hard to overcome its effects on our society, and reassert our basic rights and dignity. It’s a long, hard road ahead.

    It’s a good thing we have today off.

  • What's In the Box

    I’ll be moving to a new apartment in a few weeks. (Don’t worry, fans of my reporting on the New York theater scene – I’m moving from one borough to another.) I have begun packing, sorting through my belongings before sealing them up. The mountains of cardboard boxes I’m amassing contain much of my life – and being an actor, they contain tons of scripts.

    Loose-leaf binders full of my own writings, as well as tons of scripts from productions, readings, workshops, and friends looking for feedback. Dog-eared Samuel French publications, with blurred pencil markings where I needed to note down blocking twenty years ago. Xeroxed copies of Shakespeare and Sophocles, held in tattered folders and filled with doodles made by a college-aged me during table reads. If you’re an actor yourself, you’ve no doubt got a sizeable pile of such things yourself.

    And as I’m going through each and every one of them, preparing to haul them twenty miles or so across town, I can’t help but ask; why?!

    For example, take one of those tattered folders I mention, which holds the script for my college production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s become a sacred talisman to me, this record of the first Shakespeare production I ever did. But I also have an Arden edition of Midsummer, as well as not one but two omnibus editions of all the Shakespeare plays, one of which is clearly the edition from which that college script was photocopied. So do I truly need Peter Quince’s speech prefixes highlighted? Are a handful of long-ago notes worth having one more thing cluttering up my life and apartment?

    I could ask this question of just about every script in my collection. For the classics, the texts still exist, and can be read at your local library (at least while we still have local libraries). For original works, these scripts have more value as a document – but when was the last time I actually sat down and read that avant-garde work from the late 90s I appeared in for four days? Am I going to remount these productions any time soon, and desperately need to be able to refer to the original stage directions? (Hint: no.) What, exactly, am I doing with all of these?

    I called that Midsummer script a talisman a few paragraphs ago, and really, that’s what all these scripts are. Holy relics. Proof that, at such a such a time, these productions existed, and I was in them, and I was there and had an experience worth the remembering. As such, a quick perusal through those long-ago doodles and ill-considered cuts triggers a happy burst of nostalgia, and perhaps a jolt of reassurance as I consider projects yet to come.

    They’re also likely to induce a hernia when they’re moved across town.

  • It's Always the Anniversary of Something

    Fifteen years ago, I was sitting at my desk at a previous day job, listlessly pecking at my keyboard as the late afternoon dragged on. I was scheduled to perform that evening in a play called Workday, which was written by my friend Arthur W. French III and directed by his father. It had been selected for one of this city’s many one-act play competitions - I can honestly no longer remember if it was the Samuel French Festival, the Strawberry One-Act Festival, or one of a myriad of lesser-known, long-forgotten programs. The opening round of the festival was a guaranteed two performance run; popular audience vote would determine which shows moved on to a semi-final round and further performances. We had been on a very tight rehearsal schedule, and hadn’t really had time to run the piece prior to opening, so the first performance the night before had been a little wobbly. I had every faith, however, that we were going to crush it that night, now that we had a run under our belts. I was already hearing new line readings, envisioning new bits of business to try, as I sat there at my desk, already wearing the wool suit I’d be wearing in the show (it fit the character, and given the festival format arriving already in costume made things much easier). And suddenly, as I sat there in my reverie, there was a strange grinding noise as the power went off.

    Everywhere.

    I had no way of knowing at the time – that late afternoon of August 14, 2003 – but the entire Northeastern United States had been plunged into a historic blackout. We didn’t have smart phones or any of the other informational devices we take for granted - transistor radios and pay phones were the only means we had of getting any news. And so, not knowing what was going on and having nothing else to do, I trudged off to the theater. I walked through the heat of the late August afternoon for twenty blocks, to the Producer’s Club on 44th Street and 9th Avenue where we were performing, to rendezvous with everybody else. After an hour or so of talking with each other at the bar, condensation forming on every bottle around us as the cooling systems failed, it became obvious that there would be no show that night. So, not knowing what to do, we had some pizza - the coal ovens were among the few things still working and all the nearby pizza joints were making pies as fast as they could, giving the product away before their inventory spoiled.

    With nothing else to be done, the cast dispersed into the sweltering evening. Arthur, our playwright, had come to what should have been this second performance; instead, he and I tried making our way home. I was living on Long Island at the time, and he lives in Jamaica, so we headed east, our mutual destination. Mass transit in Manhattan was shut down, but there was a rumor that the buses were running in Queens. We just had to get there, somehow.

    So, as night fell, the hot and suffocating darkness engulfing us, Arthur and I made our way across town and trudged the endless expanse of the 59th Street Bridge to catch a bus once we’d made it to Queens. Of course, no sooner had we crossed the bridge that we learned that the buses had stopped running altogether. So we kept walking, in the general direction of our homes, not remotely prepared for such a jaunt – remember, I was still wearing my costume, my a grey wool suit. We kept looking for somebody - a bus, van, anybody - to take us the rest of the way, and with each step that goal receded further into the distance.

    By the time we found gypsy cabs able to take us the rest of the way, Arthur and I had walked - on foot, in the heat and the darkness - from the corner of 44th Street and 9th Avenue all the way to Jackson Heights. They say you can’t know a man without walking a mile in his shoes; I think Arthur and I know each other pretty well by this point, since we travelled about eight miles together.

    Tragically, due to the blackout, Workday never did get its second performance. And fifteen years later, it still galls me.  After all that we went through, and with the competition cut short in such a fashion, it hardly seems fair to this day. But then again, it’s not a particularly fair business.

  • Only Equity Can Save Us Now

    I first noticed it when I went to do my banking at Actor’s Federal Credit Union, on the 14th floor of the Equity building, a few months ago. A cardboard box, over by the member services station, beneath the community bulletin board. A box designated for the collection of used loose leaf binders, so that they might be recycled. Actors, or at least those fortunate enough to be working on a project, always have a need of binders for their scripts, as well as their audition “book,” so here was a fine way of getting a hold of others’ surplus notebooks for free.

    I’ve recently started a massive decluttering campaign in my apartment, as one does when one is in between projects. The first thing to go was a large group of unused binders, and I remembered that cardboard box on the 14th floor of the Equity building. So I put a number of them in the bag one morning, when I was off to do my banking, and looked for the box when I got there. The box was nowhere to be found, and so I asked the folks at the member services station if it had moved, or if they were no longer collecting binders. They told me I should go see the people behind the collection in their offices, one floor below.

    I don’t know how many people are aware of the existence of the Broadway Green Alliance; I’d never heard of it before my visit to the 13th floor. It’s a very modest office, a cluttered grey chamber down a cluttered grey passage, well away from the elevators. But when I entered that office, I found myself staring at unimaginable treasure – albeit of a peculiar variety.

    For they don’t only collect three-ring binders in this office – and they do collect them, an entire shelf of them. In neat plastic bins, they collect just about everything you can possibly recycle, and many things you probably assume you can’t. Spent toothpaste tubes. Expired Metrocards. Eyeglasses. Used batteries. All the flotsam and detritus actors accumulate while making their rounds, which they usually throw out because they’re not easy to recycle – they can just make a quick stop to the thirteenth floor, and leave it all behind.

    In such calamitous times as these, one is liable to have one of two extreme approaches to recycling. One of them is to be maniacally diligent, attempting to recycle every single thing possible, hoarding plastic bottles as they’re accumulated throughout the day just so you can empty out your bulging pockets at the nearest collection point. The other is to become completely cavalier about it and turn your back on the entire concept of recycling; after all, if our corporation and not-actually-elected leaders stymie environmental progress at every turn, and developing nations dump their plastic into their rivers unabated, then your one plastic straw isn’t going to make much difference, and it’s wrong to even focus on it.

    I do understand the latter outlook; the problems we’re facing are systemic in nature, and individual behavior ultimately only goes so far in affecting it. The problem with this outlook isn’t that it’s wrong – it’s the toll it takes on the person who espouses it. Bitter nihilism only takes you so far, and you can only sustain it for so long before it eats you away from within. So for the sake of my sanity, I’m going to continue acting as if my tiny efforts at making a difference actually do make some kind of difference.

    Equity building, thirteenth floor. You’re welcome to join me.

  • Or Possibly Rainn Wilson

    Saturday was a classic actor’s day – a long day of errands, trudging on foot throughout the five boroughs, ending in my attending a reading by a theater company I’ve worked with before. After the show, and the requisite schmoozing, I started back home – and as I was too hot and exhausted to face an endless ride on the subway, I decided to splurge on a Metro North train ride to my North Bronx abode. As is inevitably the case, I arrived at Grand Central Station a few minutes after my train left, leaving me with a stretch of time to kill before the next departure. And so, still thirsty from the brutal August heat, I ducked into the cool gray comfort of a magazine kiosk to purchase a bottle of iced tea.

    The register clerk was a short and crooked man, the sort of “character” this city has in such mind-reeling abundance. As I offered him my little bottle to scan, he looked at me quizzically, his head cocked at a strange angle (though it might be that way all the time), and said, “you’re an actor, right?”

    Well, there’s an Equity card in my wallet, so I said, “yes.”

    Having guessed right, his face lit up. “What have I seen you in?”

    I was flummoxed for a moment. Usually, when people ask me if I’m an actor, it’s because they’re actors themselves and are confirming that they’ve seen me around at auditions and the like. And for a moment, that’s who I thought this gentleman was – he was such a “type” that Central Casting could easily find bookings for him. But no, he was a regular vendor, who thought he recognized me from movies or television. And the film and television projects I’ve done have been the sort of independent and student productions that largely go unseen.

    “I do theater, mostly.”

    Which is true, but it still left me wondering. The most recent shows I performed in last year were small, experimental little showcases, and if he’d been in their sparse audiences I would have remembered. Likewise, I didn’t remember him ever making his way up to St. Nicholas Avenue when I was performing with Classical Theater of Harlem. So did he even remember me at all? Was I having a conversation meant for some other actor, some genuinely prominent performer I might happen to resemble, with whom the vendor had confused me? Was I being asked about my profession, my very identity, by accident?

    “Well, break a leg,” said the vendor, and I went off to my train, enjoying a benediction, and a bottled iced tea, that the vendor probably still believes he gave to Tim Robbins.

  • Signal Boost

    There has been one story which has dominated theater discussion here in New York over the past month, without having made it to the Paper of Record until this past weekend.  The New York Times finally ran a story about the June 29th suicide of Jeff Loeffelholz, the long-time standby for the role of Mary Sunshine in the Broadway revival of Chicago.  What makes it disturbing beyond the awful human tragedy of the man's loss, is the clear implication that Mr. Loeffelholz took his life in the aftermath of a deliberate bullying campaign by member of that show's creative team, in order to get him to leave the show.  You can read the article here.

    There's more to the story, of course.  The newspaper article you (hopefully) just read exists in large part because of the efforts of the Justice for Jeff blog, set up by his friends in the aftermath of his death and alleging that this incident is part of a much larger pattern of harassment at the show.  If you're not thoroughly depressed already, I recommend reading it here.

    I don't have anything to add here, really; I don't have any personal connection to Chicago, and don't know anybody in the cast who can offer any more information.  And obviously, much of what's laid out here are still just allegations in any legal sense.  But still, I wanted to make sure attention was on this frustrating, anger-inducing story.  And sure, most of us in the performing arts have experienced some measure of abuse in our careers, without things escalating to the degree depicted here.  But that's what's so infuriating, so awful - for most of us, theater was supposed to be the face that we'd found to escape from, to insulate ourselves from a world full of bullying and abuse.

    Let's do better, everybody.

  • Sinatra Could Even Make Hoarding Look Cool

    As I pointed out a few weeks ago , most pop-culture depictions of writers at their craft bear no relationship whatsoever to the actual craft of writing, or anything else a writer might be doing with their time. (Except when they show us fighting space aliens. We do that a lot.) Conversely, some of the best depictions of what writing is actually like come from movie scenes which have nothing whatsoever to do with the profession.

    One of my favorite such cinematic moments – and one which I find myself living right now – comes towards the beginning of John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) is having a breakdown, the result of his ordeal in Manchuria during the Korean War; his commanding officer Colonel Milt (Douglas Henderson) has come to his apartment to check up on him. The apartment is filled with books, on every conceivable topic, which Marco has been desperately collecting to try and calm his racing mind. When Milt asks him about them, he barely knows what he’s referring to when he says…

    Yeah, they also make great insulation against an enemy attack! But the, uh, truth of the matter is that I'm just interested, you know, in, uh, Principles of Modern Banking and, History of Piracy. Paintings of Orozco. Modern French Theater. The... Jurisprudential Factor of Mafia Administration. Diseases of Horses and novels of Joyce Cary and... Ethnic Choices of the Arabs. Things like that.

    Every writer knows exactly what Sinatra’s thinking in that moment. We all have a variety of projects in our heads at any given time, all of which require varying degrees of research. And since there’s no way of knowing ahead of time how much research a project will need, or exactly what topics will come up during the course of that research, the writer’s brain – as well as their coffee table – becomes a byzantine jumble of different, random topics, all jostling and bumping up against one another.

    That’s certainly where I am now. I still have to finish shelving the Arden editions, the copies of Holinshed’s Chronicles and Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Spencer’s The Faerie Queene and everything else I was referring to when writing my SNC submissions. But now that those scripts are finished? There are a number of projects that I know I want to tackle next, but they’re all still in such early stages that I don’t know where exactly to go with them, or which one to address first. As a result, I’m sort of doing the preliminary research for all of them at once, and so my coffee table is further cluttered with material on New York civic planning and the history of Kwanzaa and U.S. Supreme Court decisions from the 1940s and the life of King James I…

    Disorienting as it may seem, it’s par for the course when you’re a writer. And all things considered, it’s not so bad. It’s not as if anything else from The Manchurian Candidate has come to pass lately –

    Oh, wait. Nevermind.

  • Superstitious

    As I promised in my last post, I submitted my play Philostrate to the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries competition this past week. The script was essentially complete when I posted; I probably could have made the submission that very Monday. Instead, I waited until the end of the week. Partly that was to make as many proofreading passes as possible, and leave absolutely nothing to chance; partly that was to make sure the accompanying essays (plot synopsis, playwright’s bio) were the best they could be. But even in that case, I could have pushed myself to submit on Tuesday or Wednesday. Instead, I deliberately waited until Friday – because it was Friday the 13th.

    As I’ve detailed ad nauseum, the idea which became Philostrate was born during a particularly rowdy college cast party. The college in question was Colgate University, which was founded (two hundred years ago!) by thirteen Baptist ministers, who said thirteen prayers at their initial meeting and started the college with an outlay of thirteen dollars. Ergo, thirteen is our college’s lucky number, and Friday the 13th is our designated lucky day. So, in submitting Philostrate on Friday the 13th, I was simply being superstitious. It’s the opposite superstition from what just about everybody else in the country holds, but it’s superstition all the same.

    And that seems like a perfectly natural thing to do, as far as I’m concerned – especially when the theater is involved. The theater is a place of superstition. It’s got all sorts of strange rituals, passed down through the generations, one actor to another. Some are well known – wishing “break a leg” rather than “good luck.” Some are more obscure – such as the prohibition against whistling backstage, lest disaster strike. Most of them are holdovers from earlier times – the reason you don’t whistle, for instance (apart from not disturbing the performance, obviously), is that once upon a time docked sailors would serve as the stagehands, and use their system of whistling cues to move the ropes that flew the scenery in and out, so an accidental whistle could cause the set to come crashing down around you.

    They’re not coming in off the whaling ships to move scenery anymore, but I still love all the of the old superstitions, and keep them alive as best I can. (Seriously. Just try saying the name of the Scottish Play around me and see what happens.) And this may seem a tad hypocritical on my part – I’ve spent the bulk of the last few years railing against our collective descent back into superstitiousness, our desire to live in the past. Am I not doing the same thing myself, just in a different way?

    Perhaps. But I think there’s a crucial difference between wanting to live in the past uncritically, and preserving the specific things you love about the past – the things worth loving about the past – and making sure they’re carried forward into what’s hopefully a better future. And if you don’t think that making people leave the room, turn around three times, and spit should they quote the Scottish play is one of those things worth loving – well, we’ll have to agree to disagree on this.

    A belated Happy Friday the 13th to one and all.

  • Finish Line

    Since January of 2017, during the tumultuous past year and a half, the bulk of my writing energies have been focused on one major project – a pair of entries for the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries playwriting competition at the American Shakespeare Center. I was actually working on this before the contest was even announced – I’d already started my riff on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, entitled Philostrate, at the beginning of last year after preparing it for more years than I care to mention. (Though I did already mention it.) When the overall contest was first publicized in April of that year, I resolved to forge ahead with the stalled rough draft, figuring that I could revise and polish what I had whenever the contest round asking for Midsummer submissions came around. In the meantime, as a result of a monthly private Shakespeare reading series, I hit upon an idea for a riff on Henry IV Part II, which I call The Tragedie of King John Falstaff. Since Henry IV Part I was part of the competition’s first round, I figured I had time to write this new play for the second round – only to discover, when it was finally announced, that the second round was looking for riffs for both 2 Henry IV AND Midsummer.

    So. Two full-length, mock-Elizabethan plays, both with the same due date of August 1st. A year and a half to write both of them. A year and a half in which rather a lot has taken place (you might have noticed). A year and a half in which everything else I’ve wanted to say, everything else I’ve had to do, everything else that’s happened, has taken place against the backdrop of this looming deadline.

    Well, the lunacy of the rest of the world is still going on. (Remember those babies in cages? Yep, still a bad thing. Getting worse, too.) However, this vast project of mine is finally coming to an end. The Tragedie of King John Falstaff is finished, and was formally submitted to the competition on the fourth of July (seemed a fitting day to submit a play about a disastrously incompetent monarch). The script for Philostrate is finished as well; I have to put together some final materials for the application, and I’ll submit that play later this week.

    So I’m done. At least for now.

    It will be a few months before I have any idea what’s going on with these submissions. However, I have received the first confirmation email from the theater, saying that they have the first of the submitted scripts.

    An emailed which filled me with unfathomable joy.

    It’s not that hard, of course, to input the title of my play into a form letter, electronic or otherwise. Hell, I could have done that on my Commodore 64 back in the day. That email, however, represented the first tangible piece of evidence from an outside party that this script of mine exists. After spending a year and a half – this momentous, horrifying year and a half - toiling away by myself, even this tiny measure of acknowledgment served to push back the nagging fear that I’d been wasting my precious time. I wasn’t doodling for nothing – I’d created an actual thing that at least one other person is going to read.

    This year and a half is concluded.

    There’s much more to come.

  • Childhood's End

    On the basis of my last two posts, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I’d devolved into a complete shut-in. Fear not, Gentle Reader; when not at home writing, I am going places other than my day job. I’m even going places other than the gym, the supermarket and the laundromat. I’m finding time to do things other than the usual round of auditions, and the dutiful checking out of friends’ shows. Believe it or not, I’m able to grab a few hours out of the week to actually have fun.

    I usually do this at Ethyl’s, an amiably kitschy bar close to where I work, which does things like host Bingo nights with go-go dancers. As with many such establishments, there’s a plethora of video screens lining the walls, and in keeping with the overall vibe at least one of them has some sort of vintage 70s television playing at any given time. It’s a strange experience, to say the least, to be sitting at the bar as a middle-aged man while flashes of my childhood appear in the background. The Bob Mackie-fied glitter explosions of the Cher show. The bleached-blonde and polyester sleaze of Three’s Company. The explosion of burnt umber shag carpeting that shows off the appliances on classic episodes of The Price Is Right. And seeing these long-ago programs, these childhood memories made manifest, makes something abundantly clear.

    My childhood sucked.

    I’m not fishing for pity here; it’s a simple statement of fact.  And if you grew up when I did, your childhood sucked too.  The 70s were far and away the ugliest decade man has known, for as long as photographs and accurate visual records have existed. (Maybe ancient Sumeria was uglier, it’s hard to be sure.) The colors were mind-shredding clashes of shades that do not exist in nature; the fabrics physically hurt to wear. It looked like everybody was wearing oil slicks all the time, and given the prevalence of polyester that’s not that far from the truth. And that’s just talking about the fashions; the pop culture was a never-ending parade of sleaze, the economy was lousy, and all the political and social ills of the 60s were still in force, but with the will to combat them having seemingly been broken. Even when we reminisce about certain aspects of the time – chiefly its movies and music – we selectively remember the only the best parts of it. We might want to think it was nothing but Scorsese and the Stones, but I was there, and I assure you, between the disaster movies and Olivia Newton-John it was enough to break the strongest will.

    Now, granted, we did have Morgan Freeman on The Electric Company. But the glory years of PBS aside, the 70s were a lousy time to grow up.  (And that's just speaking from a position of relative privilege and comfort; so many on this planet had things so much worse, and it's safe to say their Me Decade really sucked.)

    But then again, even if you don’t belong to my specific generation, your childhood sucked too. Did you grow up in the 80s? You took it for granted we were going to die in a nuclear war, and your favorite television programs were made by the most coked-up sleazebags ever to wear a spoon around their necks. Did you grow up in the idyllic fifties? A few blocks over from Maple Street, racial discord and the Red scare were violently turning Americans against each other, and people pretended not to notice by watching Francis the Talking Mule flicks. Did you grow up in the thirties? You lived through a damn Depression, and until we entered World War II you could thousands of literal Nazis demonstrating in our streets.

    I’m sure your parents loved you (and I’m sorry if they didn’t). And I don’t doubt that you have cherished childhood memories that you cling to. But if you take a long, objective look at the world in which you grew up, you’ll find that it’s pretty horrifying.

    This is normal. You’re supposed to find the world you grew up in to be horrifying. It’s what provides the impetus to try, in however small a way, to make it better.

    And I mention this because our national conversation is so thoroughly dominated by people who refuse to accept this, who insist on believing that their childhood was a blissful idyll untouched by any difficulties. Worse, it’s dominated by people willing to exploit this belief to sell all manner of awfulness. Because if you believe the world you grew up in was a spotless paradise, then you’re liable to go along with anything if you think that will help you defend or reclaim it. You’re liable to roll back all the gains ever made by anybody who looks different from the people on your childhood television screens. You’re liable to sit back as babies are locked up in cages (this is your third weekly reminder that this is a bad thing).

    So please, accept the truth. Your childhood was lousy, as were all of ours, and the best we can do is work to make our descendants’ childhoods slightly better. And if this is too depressing a thought for you, then come sit by me at the bar sometime. (Wednesday’s Bingo night!)

  • Same Old Same Old

    As I mentioned last week, as I’m finishing the revisions for my two SNC submissions, I’ve been leading a relatively uneventful life. I won’t bore you with the details again, because like I posted last time, there’s only so many ways to describe me sitting on my couch.

    However, there are a surprising number of auditions taking place this week, so I’ll be flexing my acting muscles a little more than I have been. I would have gone to one this morning, in fact, and since it’s been a while I would have written another of my early morning live-blogs to walk you through the bleary-eyed world of the AEA Audition Center at 6 in the morning. However, I participated in a private table read of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus yesterday, making my way through the crowds of activists and revelers celebrating Pride yesterday in order to get from my day job across town to the studio where it was being held. Combine that with our accustomed hard partying after the reading, and I was in no shape to wake up at 4 o’clock this morning.

    A renewed focus on auditioning will have to wait, at least a few more days.

    And so, eventful days like yesterday aside, things go on pretty much as they have been.

    I’m still editing two mock-Elizabethan plays, with a month left to finish all work on them.

    I’m still trying to arrange productions for my existing scripts.

    I’m still holed up with my cat in my Bronx apartment as I do all this.

    I’m still trying to figure out how the arts – which require some baseline capacity for human empathy in order to exist – can function in a society where large numbers of its citizens still need to be told that locking babies in cages is a bad thing.

    I’ll probably still be doing all this next week as well.

  • Fun with Cliches

    I must admit, it’s getting harder and harder to write these weekly posts. Part of the reason is that this blog supports a professional page, and so I write about theater and writing and the New York arts scene, because that's my profession - and it can feel increasingly hollow doing so in these current, horrific times. (I mean, seriously, you guys know it’s wrong to lock up babies in cages, right? I don’t have to devote a blog post to that in order to make you realize that, do I?) Furthermore, I’ve spent the past few months holed up in my apartment writing, and at a fundamental level, that’s boring as hell. How many ways can I describe how it feels to balance my laptop as I sit on the couch? Do you need to know what color it is? It’s beige! It’s that boring! Would you like to know I listen to on the radio each Sunday night, as I prepare the posts you read on Monday morning? It’s called “Old School,” it’s on WQXR, and it’s dedicated to Renaissance and Baroque music! My life as a writer could not possibly be more boring!

    It’s not just me, of course. It’s historically impossible to tell the story of a writer, be it in a film or in a book or what have you, and make the writing itself exciting. Usually, you have to assume the writer is writing whenever the camera isn’t looking, while you send him off on some tangentially related adventure. You’ll see him discover the subject he’ll write about, but you won’t see him doing the actual writing, because there’s nothing particularly interesting about striking at a typewriter or a keypad. And on the rare occasions where someone is depicted actually putting to words to paper, it’s one of two scenes, which have become shorthand for “being a writer.” Either they’re crumpling up sheet after sheet trying to figure out their opening line, or they’re staring at the screen, head buried in their hands, steam pouring out their ears, as they wait for inspiration for One Big Important Speech that will sum up everything they want to say, and ensure that they have Created A Masterwork.

    Both of these tropes are bunk, of course. Nobody crumples up page after page in search of the perfect opening line. You write a few paragraphs, then look back at what you’ve done, and then adjust as necessary, and keep on repeating that procedure as you make your way through your work. And if you can’t – if you really can’t think of any words to start your story – then you have bigger underlying problems to deal with, and probably aren’t typing in the first place. And as for the One Big Important Speech – well, it just doesn’t work that way. Plays, novels, what have you, each is full of hundreds of little moments. It’s these little details that either block you, or connect with each other to propel your work forward. It’s the tiny little bit of exposition, the bit of imagery you’re trying to thread through the piece, that causes the most consternation. It never comes down to One Big Speech.

    In related news, I’m almost finished with my revisions – except for a crucial character’s One Big Speech.

    I wasn’t planning on this. I’d already written out a speech for this character at a pivotal moment of the play, and I’ve been steadily cleaning up and polishing around that moment. What I’ve realized, however, is that after all of my other revisions, what I’d originally written for The Speech is now merely a placeholder. The themes are clearer, the surrounding arguments are sharper, and this moment of truth for a key character needs to reflect that. And so, ridiculous as it is, here I am. Unable to finish this play until I’ve written a perfect speech. Holding my head in my hands in frustration. Hell, I’ve just written a 700 word blog post about not writing the speech when I could have been writing the speech.

    I’ve got until August 1st to submit this play, so I’m not in a rush. And truthfully, it won’t take me that long to complete these revisions. But as long as I’m hung up on One Perfect Speech, there’s a part of me that figures I might as well wait until 11:59PM of the night of the due date, just to embrace the cliché.

  • Belated Congratulations

    The second round of the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries competition, for which I am working on two playscripts at the moment, began accepting submissions on June 1st. (The deadline for submission is August 1st, so I’ve got a little more time for revisions ahead of me.) A few days ago, curious to see if there were any last minute adjustments to the competition I needed to know about, I checked the website of the American Shakespeare Center, the theater sponsoring the competition. There I read that the winners of the first round of the competition had been announced on May 31st. Amy E. Witting’s Anne Page Hates Fun and Mary Elizabeth Hamilton’s 16 Winters or The Bear’s Tale will be produced in 2019, kicking off this series of highly anticipated new plays.

    And I thought to myself, why am I only hearing about this now?

    Granted, I was traveling to my college reunion on the 31st, and that weekend was too full of carousing for me to have checked the trade papers. But I went back and looked. Though the announcement appeared on the company’s website, there was no similar announcement on Playbill.com or Broadwayworld.com. No press release appeared on the various theater chat boards. Only a handful of tweets. Heck, it turns out I have friends in common with both playwrights (thanks as always to Mark Zuckerberg for help with the snooping), and none of them posted an “OMIGOD CONGRATS” or the like on their Facebook feeds.

    I find this surprising, given the fanfare with which all of the outlets I’ve just mentioned trumpeted the initial announcement of this competition last year. Many of my friends have been falling over themselves to come up with scripts for it, and why not? There’s a sizable cash prize, a guaranteed production, and significant bragging rights. And yet, now that we actually have two scripts deemed worthy of being modern contemporaries of Shakespeare, the response seems to be a collective shrug.

    This is far from the only such example. A number of major playwriting awards with major prizes attached have been established over the past few years, and they fit the same pattern. Significant coverage of the announcement of the prize, followed by minimal or nonexistent coverage at best. Things change if the plays go on to further production – Aleesha Harris' Is God Is, for instance, won the 2016 Relentless Award and is currently playing at Soho Rep.  The reviews of the current production mention the award - but in 2016, when the news of the award was announced, the announcement barely registered.

    If you’re trying to solicit great new American plays, how exactly does it help not to shout from the rooftops when you find them?

    For make no mistake, they’re out there to be found. That might seem like a strange statement today, as we’re all waking up from watching last night’s Tony Awards; only one new American play was nominated for anything major, and it lost to Harry Freakin’ Potter.  (And don't feel bad if you don't remember who wrote any of those, because they barely announced the names of the authors.) . But bubbling under, in small theaters all over the nation, is an immense amount of exciting new work – which is being studiously ignored. Commercial producers have got it into their heads that only the splashiest and most basic of pre-existing properties are viable. And that’s an unpleasant fact of the business, but one that we can work around. One that we are working around, with competitions like Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries.

    It would help immeasurably if we started noticing.

  • Brutal

    “My girlfriend says it’s called Brutalist,” said the young man driving me, as he put his foot down on the accelerator and we headed up the hill from the student union, and the gigantic concrete structure loomed into view.

    “She is correct,” I replied, tightening my grip on the go-cart railing. They had been provided to ferry us old-timers around the hilly campus. We gained speed, and the young man ferried me past the looming concrete to the dorms I’d last seen a quarter century ago.

    My college reunion was this past weekend. I was fortunate enough to go to Colgate, a small liberal arts institution nestled in the rural hills of Central New York. It’s known, among other things, for being a beautiful campus; its classroom buildings and dormitories are a Platonic ideal of what academic buildings are supposed to look like, their limestone and granite facades capturing the light and transmuting it into a golden glow. It has its own lake, at the foot of the hill where the college stands; I lived across from it in my sophomore year, and would be woken up each morning by the rays of the morning sun bouncing off the surface of the water in a blazing, fiery dance. The fields of the local farms roll on for as far as can be seen; it’s been a particularly wet spring upstate, so the trees and fields were even more beautiful than I remembered, the green practically exploding from the landscape. In the hearts of those who graduated – and quite possibly in reality – it is the most Edenic place on this earth.

    And yet, below the hill where sits the academic quad, just past the student union, emerging from among a brace of trees, there is one building that looks completely out of place on this picture-postcard campus. An alien fortress, all ribbed grey concrete, with angular outcroppings jutting out haphazardly. A gloomy, forbidding fortress.

    It’s the Dana Arts Center. The theater building. And it’s therefore where I spent much of my time when I was a student.

    There’s a good chance that the theater on your own college campus is housed in a similar structure. Many colleges and universities didn’t have buildings dedicated to theater, or even theater departments until the late 1960s and early 1970s. This corresponds to the initial establishment of M.F.A. programs in places like Yale University. It also corresponds to many American campuses (like Colgate) finally becoming co-ed, after traditionally being all-male institutions, which among other changes allowed them to mount a wider variety of theatrical productions.

    As a result, college after college in this country has arts centers that were built according to the tastes and fads of early 1970s architecture – most notably Brutalism, with its unadorned concrete surfaces and blockish designs claiming to represent an uncompromising honesty \. And so, college after college that undertook construction at that time, especially arts centers, are festooned with these unsightly, unwieldy concrete monstrosities.

    After I’d settled in this weekend, I went back to explore Dana, and the Brehmer Theater inside it where I’d performed so long ago. The theater was almost completely unchanged – and still absolutely impossible. The various components of the arts center – the theater, music studios, an art gallery – had been designed to fit in the same building in an interlocking fashion, making the whole thing something of a huge jigsaw puzzle. The space for the different departments radiate out from a central staircase ringing the lobby, making it feel like a strange hive of some sort. The result of this, however, is that they built the theater to fit in the space, regardless of how it impacted its ability to function as a theater.  Brehmer is a very deep theater – it’s gloriously huge, really, a bigger stage than most of us will ever perform on again – but the house is significantly wider than the stage, meaning many of the seats wind up having obstructed views. The wideness of the stage is the result of two side-stage areas, which are a novel and potentially arresting idea – that winds up being unusable given how few seats have a good viewing angle for action set there. And there’s limited wing and fly space, which means you’re hindered from using the kind of scenic elements that the stage’s size cries out for.

    And there’s no real way to renovate the theater to change any of this. Heck, you probably couldn’t tear down the theater even if you wanted to. This gigantic block of a structure, this densely packed collection of concrete slabs, seems destined to outlive all of us. So it’s a basic fact of campus life. Year after year, students who want to create art, filled with youthful idealism and vitality, must do so within this out-of-place, out-of time, unwieldy, grim, dark fortress.

    And I dearly love it.

    Not simply because it’s where I gave my first performances. It’s obviously where I learned how to do what I do – but its imperfections and grotesqueries were a huge part of teaching me those lessons. You always have to compensate for something – there’s never all the technical resources you might wish for, there’s always some inherent obstacle in the performing space that you need to overcome. And the arts are always an afterthought, despite their crucial importance, to any organization – you have to fight and scrape for everything you have, and improvise furiously when it isn’t enough.

    Making theater is an endless battle. What better place to learn that lesson than a fortress?

  • Angels in London

    I’m not cool. Never have been. I’m at home working on Saturday nights; I write mock Elizabethan plays, in full iambic pentameter, for fun. And yet, in one sense, I am indeed cooler than you. When I was in college, back in another century, I went to London for my semester abroad, and while I was there I saw the original National Theatre production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America – a year before that production transferred to Broadway. In other words, I saw the defining American play of the end of the twentieth century before most Americans (outside of San Francisco, where it was first staged) knew it even existed. For my non-theatrical readers, this is roughly the equivalent of seeing the Beatles play the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, or being in the bleachers at the minor league baseball game where Derek Jeter first took to the plate. It’s pretty cool.

    We’ve gotten so used to thinking of Angels in America as a Capital-M-Masterpiece, so accustomed to its being a part of the theatrical landscape, that it can be hard to understand how genuinely startling it was when it first emerged. Especially if you didn’t have anybody telling you it was a masterpiece beforehand, or even anything about it. Remember, even as late as the early 90s the subject matter of AIDS was still taboo enough that even the plot would seem shocking in some circles. And Angels is so, so much more than its plot. Indeed, one of the things that struck me watching its current Broadway revival, a 25th anniversary production, is how little of the actual plot has even happened by the end of its first part, Millenium Approaches (which, y’know, runs three and a half hours). It’s the language that inspires, startles, mesmerizes – arias encompassing every aspect of modern politics, culture, and society that you care to name, careening from heartbreaking poetry to vaudeville schtick with head-turning speed. And the scenes similarly pinwheel from naturalism to surrealism in the blink of the eye, each one carving out new possibilities for the American theatre. And twenty-five years later, it’s still as mind-expanding a kaleidoscope as that startling explosion of possibilities I witnessed as a student in the Cottesloe.

    And twenty five years later, it’s sad to realize how few plays have taken up its challenge, have explored the possibilities that Angels created.

    Of course, the reason this particular revival has such prominence at this particular moment is that Roy Cohn, once the lawyer and mentor of our current president, figures as one of the play’s most prominent characters. And when people like me talk about what a gamechanger Angels in America was, when we talk about how thunderstruck we were when we first saw it, what we’re really talking about is that phenomenal speech of Cohn’s that concludes the first act of Millenium Approaches. The “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual” speech, in which the intersection of politics and morality and identity is given perhaps its definitive exploration. Consider lines like this:

    “Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot pass a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council.”

    It’s so much a part of how we talk about politics and privilege today that you can forget that once, not long ago, that line did not exist. I heard it comparatively early on in the life of this play, but every night this play’s performed, somebody hears it for the first time. In the current revival, Nathan Lane, exploring the human side of Cohn, makes the speech a brilliantly complicated exploration of the man’s scared, wounded pride, his defiance and his self-rationalization. In the original London production, Henry Goodman, performing much closer to Cohn’s own time, didn’t bother to recreate the man’s psyche, but instead let that monologue rip with a pure demonic fury, a sense that here was the fundamental evil of our modern mindset explaining itself at last. Sitting in that audience, a quarter century ago, it was I was hearing a warning from an Old Testament prophet. And all these years later, it’s heartbreaking to think that the warning seems to have gone ignored.

    And considering these two things while watching the revival, how both the form and the content of Angels seem to be unanswered challenges, the question occurred to me: why does nobody acknowledge that the two are linked?

    Because it’s not as if writers haven’t been chasing Kushner’s accomplishment for the past twenty five years. Apart from those of us who were inspired when we first saw it, there are now whole generations who were taught this play in school, who have had it as a guide post for How To Write An American Play, a beacon shining out just as brightly as Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire did for generations past. And the plays these folks are writing are good. I’ve read them, seen them read. But I haven’t seen them performed, because they’re not the plays that producers, by and large, have been mounting. Cowed by production costs, desperate to keep a certain type of subscriber feeling safe and secure in their entitlement, these past twenty five years have been dominated by a particular variety of naturalistic drama. The kind of three character, one set bleakness parades that Neil LaBute has become famous for. Generation after generation of Mamet knock-offs, claiming to find poetry in its very absence. The aesthetic has been as brutal as the times we find ourselves living in.

    Is that really a coincidence?

    You can’t cover the kind of philosophical, political, and emotional territory that Angels in America covers if you deny yourself the words that expresses it. But the kind of gruntfests that litter the stage today, reducing life to the most banal of hungers, unfolding in broken half sentences and Meisner-ready grunts, don’t afford the room for any of that. And by implying that the human condition can be broken down to that basic, animalistic level, they don’t challenge, condemn, or understand the mindset of the Roy Cohns of this world. They reinforce it.

    It didn’t have to be like us. More of us, in a hundred different ways, could have taken up Kushner’s challenge from a quarter century ago. I wish we had. Things were so much cooler then.

  • Catnip

    I was working last night on another, longer blog post, trying to wrestle a whole bunch of Very Deep Thoughts onto the page. As I was attempting to concentrate on my work, however, I heard a familiar crunch-crunch-crunch on the table to the left of me. I looked over, and saw an entire spiral notebook of mine being ripped to shreds.

    By my cat.

    I’ve written before that my cat Chloe enjoys eating paper, and that she’d destroyed a whole elaborate worksheet I’d created to prepare for writing one of my plays. Cats being creatures of habit, Chloe hasn’t stopped trying to eat paper. And being a writer, I have no shortage of papers lying around to offer temptation.

    What’s remarkable, however, is that my various papers do not seem to be equal in the eyes of my cat. Whenever she shreds and devours my notes, she always does so to the notes of the same play whose worksheet she’d originally destroyed. My play Philostrate, a riff on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I’m polishing to submit to a contest with an August 1st deadline.

    That spiral notebook? Filled with the scene synopsis for the play. With revision notes about imagery I wanted to highlight, quotes I wanted to put in. And most importantly, with a cast breakdown – now neatly shorn in half by my baby’s incisors – which I have to include when I submit this play online.

    In a few short weeks from now. Weeks in which I’m frantically trying, not only to revise and polish my work, but to keep it from being eaten.

    It begs the question – why, of all the possible targets for her feline wrath, does Chloe fixate on this one play of mine? If she were simply jealous of the attention, or enjoyed the taste of paper, she could go after anything I happened to have lying around. She beelines for my Philostrate notes instead, every time. Is she some sort of kitty instrument of divine judgment on the play’s merits? Is Shakespeare’s vengeful ghost unhappy with me for daring to think I could improve on one of his most beloved creations? Or worse, are Midsummer’s fairies and spirits real, and is Chloe channeling the will of Titania and Robin Goodfellow, punishing me for my presumption?

    Or am I looking at this the wrong way? Is it possible that Philostrate is so good that its physical pages are actually delicious? I hope that turns out to be the case – but I’m not sure exactly how I indicate that in the online submission.

  • Brush Up

    When I was in college, back in another century, there was a pronounced divide in our little drama community between those of us who performed in classical, “straight” plays, and those who performed primarily in musicals. Those of us over in the theater department were steeped in Shakespeare and the rest of the Western canon, and filled with seriousness of purpose. It was the gloriously self-righteous early 90s; we’d just spent a decade being bombarded by the British mega-musicals, and more than a few of us felt we had a sacred duty to protect our little oasis from the onslaught of vulgar, meretricious musical cheese which we saw all around us. Meanwhile, as we were mounting Shakespeare and Shaw with abandon, a whole other group of students were setting up a musical theater program of their own, explicitly setting it up in opposition to the other shows happening on campus. In various student meetings, they were outraged – genuinely outraged, at a level not usually encountered outside of cable news programs – that this major American artistic genre was being ignored by the college.

    Now obviously, the musical actors appeared in dramatic plays, and vice versa, and the university’s drama department eventually put up musical productions themselves, and the student musical group produced more and more challenging fare. But even so, there was always the sense that musical actors and dramatic camps belonged to two separate camps. Any overlap was incidental; they were two vastly different outlooks on, and approaches to, theater, and never the twain should meet. And this didn’t seem all that unusual to me, for in the overall culture at the time this same division appeared to be in effect. If you sang show tunes, you could be no true Shakespearean.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been participating in an ongoing workshop run by a friend of mine, largely focusing on Shakespeare. We’ve been reading the plays on a monthly basis for the past year and a half; recently, we’ve added more structured scene workshops into the mix. It’s been a little while since I’ve been in a Shakespearean production, so it’s been thrilling to work with these performers, mostly young, with such skill and such dedication to the art of classical acting.

    And by and large, these aren’t performers with formal classical training. Their background is in musical theater.

    And they’re every bit as good at this – at the mechanics of Shakespeare’s verse, at the understanding of the text, at the joy of performance – as folks with more formal Shakespearean training. And the love of Shakespeare (and this whole project of ours is being done purely out of love) in this group is equal to the love of American musical theater. Indeed, they’re similar in a many respects, if you think about it – in the physical demands on the performers, in the heightened reality they create.

    And it makes me wonder; when did the rigid segregation that I remember so vividly from my younger days fall away? I’m glad it did; I’m just not certain when or how it did.

    Was it purely a practical issue? Have we all realized that, given the scarcity of jobs in the performing arts, limiting your interests and your skill set is a suicidal decision? That there’s simply no room for that kind of self-importance?

    Have the aesthetic fault lines shifted? Have a relentless few decades of Mamet and LaBute and other foul-mouthed, hypernaturalistic bleakness-fests with tiny casts made us realize that Shakespeareans and musical lovers need to join forces, in order to protect the larger theatrical forms and richer artistic experiences that we love?

    Or is it simply that, in a world that’s getting more and more hostile to the humanities by the second, we’re finally realizing that we’re all in this together? That belonging rigidly to one artistic camp, in a society that would gleefully trash the arts altogether, is a wee bit counterproductive? Stupid, even?

    I don’t know. But I’m glad I’ve found some friends to play with.

  • Marvel. So Much Marvel.

    When I was a small boy, Spiderman taught me how to read. He did that for a lot of people my age, those who grew up watching The Electric Company on PBS. At the end of each episode, there’d be a segment where Spidey had a little Spidey adventure, and he was the only performer in the sketch who didn’t speak – instead, comic-style thought balloons appeared over his head, and you had to apply the reading lessons you’d learned that episode in order to follow along.

    It’s been pretty much non-stop Marvel Comics characters ever since. That I was never much of a comic book reader hardly mattered – there were Saturday morning cartoons a-plenty. There were coloring books and lunchboxes. There were movies – for most of my early life, fairly dreadful ones, but movies nonetheless. Then the new millennium dawned, and coincidentally or not, the movies started getting good. And then, in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born, a film series now culminating in the number one movie in all of human history - Avengers: Infinity War. You’d think, as somebody who grew up with Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, and all these characters, that I’d be overjoyed right now.

    Actually, I’m terrified.

    And it’s not just because –

    (Okay, here’s the deal. There’s gonna be spoilers in this week’s post. Lots of ‘em. For a whole bunch of movies that every American has practically been required by law to see, so you really should have seen them by now. If you haven’t, go do your patriotic duty. Now. Right now. Because here come the spoilers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

    - Spiderman is dead. Disintegrated, turned into space dust whilst being cradled by a despondent Tony Stark, along with half of the heroes we’ve come to know over this past decade's worth of movies. Victims of Thanos and his plan to save a fragile universe by killing exactly one half of the sentient beings gobbling up its finite resources. (Yes, that’s his evil plan. I’m serious. Go watch the movie if you don’t believe me.) I mean, that happened already, in the Infinity Gauntlet comic book story arc which this movie is adapting. We knew it was coming, or at least suspected it – to be surprised would be like be like watching an Agatha Christie adaptation and being surprised by all the murdering.

    No, my apprehension goes back a little further, starting with last year’s Thor: Ragnarok, a widely well-received movie that I thoroughly detested (and remember, I like these movies). The very thing most people liked about it – the sense of humor brought to what had been one of the more moribund series in the MCU – was the thing that aggravated me. The flippancy of the tone. It worked fine in the sequences on Sakaar, keeping the gladiatorial sequences light-hearted. The problem is, the flippancy extended to the rest of the movie, which involves such weighty elements as the destruction of all Asgard. (I mean, Ragnarok’s right in the title.) The people of Asgard willingly destroy their home in order to protect the rest of the universe from Hela, and atone for Odin’s various crimes in establishing their home world in the first place. This is heavy, heady stuff – there should be a certain grandeur to it, I feel. But the overall tone of the film seems to make a mockery of it.

    Let me put it this way: early on in Thor: Ragnarok, there’s a sequence where Loki has a bunch of actors putting on a terrible play in his honor, and it’s meant to subtly indicate that Asgardian culture has grown so decadent that it deserves to end. To me, the whole movie felt like that sequence; I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a product of a late-stage society that was reveling in its own destruction. Little did I know that in a few months, that late-stage society would be going absolutely bonkers watching its favorite fictional heroes get ripped into shreds, as a happy diversion from the madness going on real life. Was I right? Are the audiences for these movies really that decadent, that nihilistic?

    Ah, but wait! you say. In between those movies was Black Panther, perhaps the greatest single movie in this whole series, and one of the most humanistic. A movie which dares to dream of a utopian society. A movie with a hero whose concept of heroism involves more than simply punching the bad guys, but in demonstrating compassion for them. Certainly, if you’re sick of the nihilism of much of our current popular culture, you can find an antidote in Wadanda.

    And yet…

    The whole point of Black Panther is that its villain, Erik Killmonger, turns out to be right. Wakanda’s isolation has indeed benefited itself at its neighbors’ expense, with all the real world horrors that entails. (Do I really need to quote Killmonger’s final line? Come on, Black Panther’s still in some theaters, go see it! It’s really good!) T’Challa’s hero’s journey in the movie ultimately involves him realizing his society has been in the wrong, and correcting it. Which is a wonderful message – but it implies that the unjust society that had existed in the first place is indeed coming to an end.

    Three movies about the endings of a society. Three movies in which the villain is presented as having valid grievances, as perhaps being right. Heck, in Infinity War, the giant purple genocide enthusiast is explicitly presented as the film’s protagonist.

    To me, the thing that resonates about that final apocalypse in Infinity War – resonates on an incredibly disturbing frequency – is how gentle it is. Sure, poor Peter Parker dies in pain, crying out to his mentor, but most of the others barely have the time to notice what’s happening. Hell, look at the expression on Scarlet Witch’s faceat the end, looking on in wonder at her rapidly disspiating body. She’s happy, delighted that her ashes are being borne away on the Wakandan breeze to join her beloved android in the afterlife. (Seriously, if you’re reading this post without having seen these movies, it’s just gonna seem like the weirdest collection of words imaginable.) And even before that, Thanos’ actions reveal a certain gentle whimsy, which you don’t expect in a murderous Grimace clone. He uses the Reality Stone to turn potential dangers into bubbles, for heaven’s sake! Bubbles!

    The original 2008 Iron Man, which kicked off this whole wacky universe, is still one of the canniest pieces of wish fulfillment in all of pop culture. Want all those awful terrorists in the world would get what’s coming to them? Would you rather see all those hateful industrialists profiting off the War on Terror get what’s coming to them? Did you simply hope that nice Robert Downey Jr. would clean up his act and get his life together? Iron Man gives you all three at once. And while the subsequent MCU movies have varied in quality, they’ve all been preternaturally adept at intuiting what we as a culture wanted – at figuring out our anxieties, our fears, our aspirations – and translating that into slam-bang pop spectacle.

    So, what the hell do these movies say about us? About what we want? About what we’re longing for?

    Are we truly longing for death? Do we suspect, on some level, that we deserve it?

    Are we so frustrated with the direction of the nation, and the world at large, that we’d like to see it all burn down around us? Are we so fearful of change, that apocalypse is preferable? Do we see the environmental and societal collapses rapidly approaching and wish, rather than make the sacrifices necessary to avoid them, that a 10-foot-tall bejeweled Malthusian extremist might swoop in to make the hard decisions for us?

    Don’t get me wrong. These movies, by and large, are good. And I have every confidence that through comic book magic or some other science fiction stratagem, our disintegrated heroes will be reborn to fight another day. (My money’s on Duck Dodger’s re-integration pistol coming into play somehow.) But the real world isn’t as well managed as the MCU.

    Like I said, Spiderman taught me how to read. And I’d like to hope that I can do more with that knowledge than simply read my society’s obituary.

  • Make Broadway Choruses Great Again

    I fear that you’ve been lied to all these years.

    No doubt you’re under the assumption that actors, and performing artists in generals, are reliable and orthodox leftists when it comes to their politics. You’ve seen decades of clips of celebrities advocating for liberal causes; you’ve heard them referred to as a liberal elite countless times. (Often with something like “snowflake” attached as an epithet beforehand, because 2018 is horrifying.) And certainly, when it comes to obvious issues that affect them personally, like arts funding or LGBT rights, this tends to be the case. But under the right set of circumstances, I’m sorry to say that these good lefties can and will turn into an angry populist-right mob the likes of which Steve Bannon can only dream about.

    Earlier this month, the Actors Equity Association’s National Council voted to rename the object of a decades-old ceremony, the Gypsy Robe. (Read more about that decision here.) Each Broadway opening night, it’s awarded to the chorus member with the most professional credits in that particular show. The ceremony started in 1950, at a time when chorus dancers were frequently and colloquially referred to as “gypsies.” The word, however, is an ethnic slur, an insult against the Roma people. To my knowledge, no member of that community has registered a complaint, but the Council decided it was out of place and inappropriate in 2018. The ceremony isn’t ending by any means – it gets more and more attention, the ceremony more and more elaborate, with every passing year and show. But it will have some sort of new name – the “Chorus Robe,” or the “Legacy Robe,” or whatever – in the near future.

    And over this, people have gone insane.

    Good lefty actor types, with their Hillary or Bernie buttons still adorning their PBS totebags, have taken to social media to denounce their union, their abandonment of the past, and the “hypersensitivity” of our age in general. (Take a look around you – does it really seem like the world is getting more sensitive?) They’re using language terrifyingly similar to those other angry mobs of people on the internet. They’re invoking that old standby “tradition,” even though the actual tradition of referring to chorus dancers as “gypsies” is itself long gone. (There used to be “gypsy run-thrus,” open dress rehearsals where cast members of other shows could come and see their friends – when’s the last time that happened?) They’re using memes, for god’s sake. MEMES. And like all memes, they’re based on faulty logic and poor reasoning. Like the complaint “What’s next? Do we have to rename the musical Gypsy now?” That’s an argument based on false equivalency – the title of that show is a character’s stage name, not a description of who they are. We’re not supposed to be the ones making arguments that sloppily, that angrily. And yet my timeline is offering up innumerable examples to the contrary, and it has been depressing and horrifying to see.

    True, you can argue that the word "gypsy" itself has been used colloquially over the years to refer to vagabonds in general, and people move from job to job frequently (like, y'know, actors), and that it's evolved from its original roots as an ethnic slur.  But stop and think - how is that a good thing?  Are we really so inured to our capacity to racism that, after a while, we simply stop noticing that we're doing it?

    I don’t think the robe was an issue demanding to be addressed right this very second; it’s entirely fair to say it’s a form of virtue signaling (even though I despise that term) to demonstrate that we actually do care about the values of tolerance and acceptance our union claims to live by. But what on earth is wrong with that?

    And can we really say that, if the name of this garment had been changed twenty or thirty years ago, anybody would care about it today? The tradition would still be chugging along just fine, the chorus folk would still be standing in a circle, and one of their members would still be wearing a cartoonishly overdesigned piece of finery and ritually blessing them, photographers from Playbill at the ready. The word “gypsy” would be attached as a piece of trivia, nothing more. Nobody would care.

    Why do they care now?

    Fear, of course, fear that the world of their childhood is gone and never coming back. And since childhood is presumably when they sat down and listened to their first Broadway cast album, they’re especially apprehensive about changes in this particular sphere. But the worlds of all of our childhoods are gone. That always happens. The question is whether the world that replaces it is a better one.

    And this hysteria isn’t a good answer.

    Let’s do better, everybody.

  • Party Crashing

    Happy Shakespeare’s birthday, everybody!

    A week and a half ago, I treated myself to a performance of King Lear by the Royal Shakespeare Company, starring Antony Sher and playing here at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Unbeknownst to me, the one Thursday night I had available to go see the show turned out to be their opening night. Being the opening night, the audience was full of people connected with the company in general, and their ongoing relationship with BAM in particular. That wound up including an actor friend of mine who had served as a local supernumerary in their production of Julius Caesar a few years’ back (a local actor hired as an extra, to put it in layman’s terms). He had been invited back for their gala opening night celebration after the show, there in the Harvey Theater lobby, and he assumed that I was there for the gala opening as well, and he insisted I come along with him.

    And so, I was a bad boy; I crashed the RSC’s opening night party.

    I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, nodding my hellos and congratulations and speaking only when spoken to. I did, however, notice Byron Mondahl, the actor who played Oswald in the production, standing apart, off to the side. I’d played that part myself, back in 2002 at the Classical Theatre of Harlem, and knew the play well enough to appreciate all the details of his performance. So I went up and congratulated him.

    And the poor guy practically wept in my arms.

    Not right away, of course. We talked for a while about the demands of the role – few if any characters receive as much physical abuse, in terms of number of scenes, as Oswald does. Lear beats him up, Kent (repeatedly) beats him up, Edgar (fatally) beats him up. Whenever the action of the play threatens to become too dark too quickly, Shakespeare lightens things up by having somebody beat up Oswald. And the verbal abuse he receives includes my single favorite Shakespearean insult: “Thou whoreson zed! Thou unnecessary letter!” It’s as if people spend so much time cursing this character that they literally run out of insults, and must resort to throwing letters of the alphabet at him. (Sadly, in my production, the actor playing Kent could never remember this line, and would always call me an ‘unnecessary whoreson,’ which doesn’t make any damn sense. Not that I’m bitter about it or anything…)

    Anyway, we talked about the role for a while, and then we talked about his experience playing it, and it was here where things became emotional. Like Antony Sher, he was born in South Africa, and he was therefore performing opposite a childhood hero. Sher’s famous actor’s diary Year of the King wasn’t just an inspiring read for him, it was literally one of his textbooks. And now here he was, following in the master’s footsteps, performing with the RSC, touring the world, living out every childhood fantasy of what a life on the stage must be like - and giving his all on stage, night after night, in the process. And yet, he was certain that he was doing so in a role and a performance that nobody, other than myself, would ever notice.

    And it turned out he was correct. The New York Times’ review didn’t mention him. Time Out New York didn’t mention him. Even Sara Holdren’s typically comprehensive review in New York didn’t mention him. It’s in the nature of this particular supporting role; Oswald is a parasite, an opportunist looking to profit from the chaos around him, and that chaos is what the audience is busy paying attention to. It’s created by major characters with Famous Soliloquies like Lear and Edmund, while Oswald hovers on the margins. His arc provides crucial details to show what’s happening to the larger society as Lear declines – Shakespeare knew what he was doing – but those details are small enough to miss if you’re not looking for them.

    To give you an example of what I mean – and to illustrate just how smart and strong Mondahl's performance is – consider the scene with Oswald and Regan, where Regan attempts to bribe Oswald into assassinating Gloucester for her.  In Gregory Doran’s staging, Oswald is present and observing earlier when Goneril seduces Edmund into plotting with her against her husband Albany. Nia Gwynne’s Goneril takes this moment to kiss Edmund with vast amounts of repressed passion, even fury, a lifetime of frustrations finally released. So when Regan makes her offer, Oswald, thinking this is how such exchanges are handed, leans in ever so slightly in this staging for the kiss he wrongly thinks is coming. And Mondahl then has a moment as he hangs there, almost (but not quite) registering how pathetic his desires are in the face of the apocalyptic times he’s living in. It’s exactly the grace note the moment needs, and Mondahl’s performance is filled with them. But most people are just listening for the main melody.

    Like I said, I know how he feels. The bulk of the roles I’ve played have been these kind of supporting roles which are crucial to the overall effect of the play, but tend not to receive precious column space when it’s time to write the print review. Shakespeare has a lot of these roles, a nice fraction of which I’ve played. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leap to mind (and I’ve played one of them too – or perhaps the other). Despite Tom Stoppard giving them a play of their own, plenty of productions omit them entirely, despite everything they reveal about the court where Hamlet’s trapped.

    It’s always been this way. The state of affairs has even been memorialized in verse by T.S. Eliot –

    No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
    Am an attendant lord, one that will do
    To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
    Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
    Deferential, glad to be of use,
    Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
    Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
    At times, indeed, almost ridiculous –
    Almost, at times, the Fool.

    Well, just because we’re J. Alfred Prufrock doesn’t mean we can’t be appreciated – it takes skill to perform that character too. We all take up the same space in the dressing room, we all have to sign the same call sheet. And so I congratulated the Mondahl again, and found myself giving him a hug, as overwhelmed by emotion as he was.

    Apparently, crashing the RSC was my good deed for the day.

  • It Was Inevitable

    After three and a half months with very little for me to audition for, EPAs for two appropriate Off-Broadway productions are being held today. Because of my work schedule, I only have a few hours in the morning in which I’m free to audition for them. I therefore endeavored, last week, to be a responsible auditionee and use the on-line sign-up procedure, to try and guarantee at least one morning time slot for myself.

    The on-line sign-up goes live at noon exactly one week before any given day’s worth of EPAs. Because of my aforementioned work schedule, I’m usually on the subway at that time, somewhere under the Harlem river, and unable to access the Equity website. So last week, I decided to plan ahead. I went in to work a few hours early, simply so I could be at my terminal and log on to the website at the appropriate time.

    Which I did. And waited three minutes as the crush of sudden site traffic stalled out the Equity website. (Is “stalled” the appropriate verb? It’s hard to keep track of these things.)

    By the time the proper page had loaded, there were four hundred people in the digital line ahead of me.

    Maybe they’re signing up for other things, I desperately hoped. There’s a lot happening today, after all. But no – as I stared at that webpage, watching the countdown for my request to be processed, I saw the updates come in as every EPA for today filled up.  And there I sat, having come in to work two hours ahead of time for what turned out to be no reason at all.

    So, yes, here I am joining the chorus of Equity actors in New York who are screaming about the online sign-in procedure. We’re all experiencing this, and it’s making it impossible to sign up for anything. And it’s impossible to figure out how to adjust or game the system – one of us may access the server instantly, while another of us may experience what I describe above, with no apparent difference between us in terms of what we’re doing. It’s arbitrary, and it’s frustrated, and it seems to be broken.

    It’s not like we can’t audition – one third of the slots are set aside for signing up the day of the audition, just like we’ve always done. Which is what I’m waiting to do as I’m typing this. Of course, this now means that fewer slots are available today, which means I had to wake up even earlier than usual – 4am, if you’re curious – to get here. And if you’ve been following the national weather, you may know that I had to make it through the cold rain brought about by the latest winter storm (in spring) in order to do it. Yes, in order to have a chance to audition for anything today, I literally had to travel through a dark and stormy night.

    The change in audition procedure was meant to make things simpler for us. (That’s what we were told, at least.) If you can make it through the online procedure in time, you don’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn, when your voice is still ragged and your brain still charging up for the day, in order to try and book a performing job. But only a tiny fraction of are managing this. The rest of us are waking up earlier and earlier for fewer and fewer spots, taking the faults of the previous system and making them exponentially worse.

    I do understand – the day job I mention above is in the not-for-profit arts, and the more you work in that field the more you realize that server hardware and software is simply not meant for us. We don’t generate enough income for the major developers to bother with us (great job, capitalism), and so we have to jury-rig programs with what we have available. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs, and I sympathize with what Equity must be going through.

    But do they sympathize with us?

  • Timetable

    As I mentioned last week, I’m presently working on the revisions for two scripts of mine, Philostrate and The Tragedie of King John Falstaff. Both are pastiches of Elizabethan drama, which I’ll be submitting to the ongoing Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries contest at the American Shakespeare Center. The deadline for this round’s applications is August 1st, giving me just under four months to revise both drafts. Which you’d think would be plenty of time.

    I think I may already be behind schedule.

    By my reckoning, I’ll need one of those four months to do the major revisions to Philostrate, two months for King John Falstaff (because I need to reorganize it to fit a particular cast size), and then two weeks in July for each play to do a final polish before submitting. So, despite having a third of a year in which to do this, my actual margin for error is smaller than I’d like.

    Thirty days for the first play.

    Eight of them are already gone.

    That means I’d need to have gotten through a little over a quarter of the play by now for my timetable to still be viable. And lo and behold, I have. The current draft runs seventy six pages; I’ve made it through the first twenty two. Success!

    But.

    The part I’ve reached, the middle of the play, is the part that needs the most work; after I’d finished the original draft last year, I realized there was a whole series of conversations that needed to happen which I’d neglected to put in; a whole character was missing from a crucial part. (If nothing else, that character needed to be there to say the line which, in real life, prompted this whole ridiculous project in the first place.) I didn’t do anything about it last June, knowing that I needed to come back to this project with fresh eyes someday.

    Well, someday is here.

    In fact, it seems like someday is already past.

    It’s probably a good sign that I’m this stressed this early; I have a lot of work ahead of me, and it couldn’t possibly be done at the last minute. The only problem is, the entirety of the next four months amounts to being the last minute. And this can’t be rushed – these two plays are pastiches of Elizabethan verse drama, and I have to go practically line by line.

    So, sorry for a shorter-than-usual post this week. My time for doing things like blogging, eating, sleeping, and so on, will be somewhat reduced in the weeks to come.

  • Just an Average Holiday Weekend

    I’ve just had a rare four-day weekend, the result of the Easter/Passover holiday. As is often the case on these occasions, I feel a little conflicted now that it’s over. On the one hand, I’ve had a busy few months both at my day job and as a writer, and the need for rest, to just lie back and do nothing, has been overwhelming. On the other hand, these past four days have been full of time which I could have been using for writing. I did use some of that time for writing, but it never feels like you’ve used all of the time you had available. It’s hard to shake the uncomfortable, gnawing feeling that you’ve just been slacking off.

    On Saturday night, while wrestling with all of this, I went to HB Studios to see a reading of a new play. It was directed by my friend Arthur French, and was written by his son, who’s also a friend, and who’s also named Arthur. (When both are in the room together, we usually refer to the younger of the two as ‘Arthur 3,’ so that’s what I’ll be doing here.) I chatted with Arthur 3 for a few minutes before the reading began. We spoke about the piece I was there to see; I’d seen scenes from it workshopped already. And then he asked me, “you’re working on a piece two, right?”

    And I stopped and thought for a moment, trying to figure out what he was referring to.

    Because the day before, I had indeed finished a draft of a new one act play. But I hadn’t mentioned anything about that, to him or anybody else – I haven’t mentioned it here before. It’s a topical piece, so I’d wanted to get something down on paper as soon as possible, and had taken advantage of a break in the work on my other projects to do that.

    As to those other projects? Well, there’s a solo piece I wrote a few months back for a friend of mine. It has enough real-life figures that I need to deal with rights issues and clearances before I can start thinking about getting it produced. I’d sent an inquiry a few weeks ago, and am currently waiting on a response from that inquiry before proceeding.

    In all likelihood, Arthur 3 was referring to The Tragedie of King John Falstaff, whose rough draft I’ve just completed. I’d originally hoped to submit the piece to the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries competition at the American Shakespeare Center by February 15th, but that deadline was impossible to meet given the complexity of my script. But American Shakespeare Center has rolling deadlines for the next several years; they’re seeking contemporary riffs on the entire Shakespeare canon. The February 15th deadline was for riffs on Henry IV Part 1; the deadline for riffs on Henry IV Part 2 (a more appropriate one for my play anyway) is August 1st. That deadline I can make.

    The thing of it is, that August 1st deadline is also their deadline for riffs on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which means it’s perfect for me to submit my long-gestating play Philostrate. Which means I have to revise two rough drafts, both mock-Elizabethan verse plays, in four months.

    So I responded to Arthur 3, “well, actually, I’m juggling…um…four…”

    At that, Arthur laughed behind us. “Only four, Michael? Man, you’re slacking off.”

  • Go West, Old Man

    It was announced this week that at the end of this year, the seminal Sam Sheppard sibling rivalry drama True West would be revived on Broadway. You can read about the production here: it stars Paul Dano as Austin and Ethan Hawke (who, in retrospect, seems like he’s spent the past twenty years transforming himself into the part) as Lee. It has a terrific creative team and pedigree. And yet my response upon hearing the news was:

    “Huh? Again?”

    It’s not because I dislike the play, or don’t find it particularly relevant to our current situation. No, my gut response is simply dismay that it’s being staged after only recently being on Broadway. In a classic production, no less, in which John C. Reilly and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman famously switched roles each night, alternating as the two brothers. The whole point of True West is that the brothers keep trying on each other’s personalities anyway, so the alternating of the roles added another dimension to the plays existing themes, transforming it into a must-see high-wire act. It’s still talked about; it’s been referenced ever since whenever actors alternate roles in a production, as most recently occurred with Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon in the recent revival of The Little Foxes.

    (Oh, in case you haven’t heard, Cynthia Nixon might wind up becoming the next governor of my state. I’ll probably have Things To Say about that in weeks to come. But I digress.)

    Anyway, my point is that this last production of True West was such a landmark, such an event, that it seems silly to me to revive it again so soon. It was just on Broadway, after all!

    Except that isn’t true. The production I’m describing was staged in 2000. Eighteen years ago.

    Now, perhaps I can be forgiven for thinking that eighteen years wasn’t very long ago. I was a struggling actor in New York then; I’m a struggling actor in New York now. (I’ve written a whole bunch of scripts in the interim, so it’s not like the time’s been wasted, but still.) And the theatrical landscape isn’t all that different; Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King were on Broadway then, and are on Broadway now, and likely will be playing long after I’m gone, the survivors of whichever of the dozen or so imminent apocalypses finally destroys us dutifully waving Julie Taymor puppets and singing “Music of the Night” amongst the ashes.

    But here’s the disturbing thing. (Yes, more disturbing then the apocalypse thing.) That production of True West was the first major production in New York since the legendary Steppenwolf production, with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. That production originated in Chicago before moving to New York, establishing the reputation of the two leads and the play in the process.

    That production was mounted in 1982. Eighteen years before the Broadway revival.

    So the amount of time that elapsed from the Steppenwolf production to the last Broadway production, and from that to the upcoming production, is exactly the same. And yet the Hoffman/Reilly production seems like only yesterday, while the Steppenwolf production seems like something from some bygone era. And it felt that way in 2000 as well.

    Why on earth is this? Is it because the culture was so radically different in 1982, compared to today, that it seems like something strange and remote? (I doubt it – in a lot of ways, the culture hasn’t changed much at all, and it seems like we’re desperate to bring the 80s back no matter what the cost.) Have technological advances made the world before the internet seem like a completely different geological age? Perhaps. Or perhaps this is a purely subjective, purely psychological effect – when I was younger, time seemed to move at a glacial pace, where now, in my middle age, it rushes past before I have a chance to notice what I’ve missed.

    If only there were some mytho-poetic American playwright to help me make sense of it all.

  • Bit o' Blarney

    Well, another Saint Patrick’s Day has come and gone. If you are reading this, you may congratulate yourself on having once again escaped this holiday’s many horrors. Green leprechaun outfits everywhere. Green foodstuffs. Green projectile vomit. But of all the terrors of March 17th, there’s one worse than the moan of any banshee. I speak, of course, of fake Irish accents, which millions of drunken revelers feel compelled to adopt. The sing-song shotgun wedding of a Lucky Charms commercial and a bleating goat. It bears no relationship to any sounds actually made by citizens of Ireland, except if they happen to run over their own foot with a lawnmower while taking heavy hallucinogenics.

    I’m particularly sensitive to the perils of poor accents these days, because the few EPAs for which it’s made sense for me to attend in the past few weeks have all required them. The Manhattan Theater Club’s upcoming production of Richard Bean’s The Nap required authentic (or at least authentic-sounding) Yorkshire accents, and Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman - soon transferring to Broadway from its London run - is so particular about its Northern Ireland setting that it specifies whether individual characters speak with an Armagh or a Derry accent. Even if the likelihood of being cast in one of these high-profile productions from an EPA is small, and the best a person can hope for is to make the casting assistant laugh in the hopes they’ll remember you later, you still have to give these auditions everything you have. And in the cases of these two EPAs, this meant becoming familiar with two very particular, very odd regional accents.

    In theory, preparing accents for an audition or performance should be easier now than ever before. Once, you had to track down obscure field recordings and make appointments to listen to them in libraries, with a speech notebook by yourself so you could note down the particular vowel sounds and other peculiarities that typified the accent. Nowadays, all that information is a few keystrokes away. These were both sides calls – meaning that I didn’t have to prepare a monologue, but was simply reading from the script – so I could focus all of my energies simply on watching You Tube videos, as many as necessary, until I’d perfected the accents in question.

    Something became readily apparent, however. The vast bulk of the videos on the internet which purport to offer instruction in an accent have nothing to do with the scholarly work of theater historians and speech pathologists. No, if you google “how to do a Yorkshire accent,” what comes up are videos of would be internet superstars from Leeds, all throwing out pieces of Yorkshire slang while trying to look as hip and entertaining as possible. (They’ve even scored the things, with original music and everything.) The accents aren’t even consistent – you’ll encounter half a dozen variations of a given accent with only the barest acknowledgment made of how and why those variations exist. They’re still valuable as research, but they make the process much more difficult – instead of nice step by step instructions, you have to wade through a lot of extraneous, often inaccurate information to get what you actually need.

    I managed to pull it off, at least well enough for the purposes of an open audition. And I got those (intentional) laughs from the casting assistants, which means I achieved my goal. But it got me to thinking – internet searches like this are how we research just about everything these days. And whatever you’re hoping to learn more about, you have to wade through bad information and disinformation before you can find something useful. And on YouTube specifically, the algorithms are designed that the next video you see on any given topic is going to be more sensationalistic, more problematic, more unhelpful. And you start thinking about all the different topics, all the different spheres – politics, history, science – where this is going on…

    It’s enough to drive a person to drink. Even if it’s not St. Patrick’s Day.

  • Fun and Games

    If you are an actor, or aspire to be one, then at some point in your training you are going to play theater games. You are going to toss an imaginary ball towards a fellow student standing in a circle across from you. You are going to pretend to be an animal of some sort – most likely several in succession. You are going to mime eating an apple and sipping a cup of coffee. You are going to draw numbers from a hat and organize yourself into an ersatz pecking order, playing high or low status, physically stretching yourself towards the ceiling or squashing yourself towards the floor to delineate this. And if you were inspired to study acting because of your love of the classic works of dramatic literature, or simply because you craved fame and glamour, then you’re probably going to be frustrated by this. “These ridiculous games aren't going to help me play Hamlet!” you’ll cry. And you’ll be absolutely convinced that, should you become a professional actor, you’ll never find yourself doing these goofy exercises again.

    And you probably won’t.

    And you’ll find yourself regretting it.

    My friend Erik Ransom has organized a private monthly Shakespeare reading series; it’s proved so successful that he’s added directors’ workshops to the schedule. This weekend, we held our first such session, focusing on scenes from the Henry VI plays. (He’s combined the three into one script; I’ll be sure to let you know if it gets staged at some point down the line.) We’d already read through those texts some months before, meaning we all had a basic sense of what was going on in the texts, and so the bulk of the workshop concentrated on a variety of theater games.

    We treated a post-battle scene as if it were in a tavern, with all of us trying to rally surly drunks. We contorted ourselves into absurd shapes so that characters fleeing to safety had physical obstacles to get through. We formed myself into an undulating mob surrounding a character giving a heartbreaking soliloquy, getting closer or further from them depending on their emotional state. It was an afternoon of kindergarten activites for adults, and it was glorious.

    And it made the scene work infinitely better. When we fully staged the scenes at the end of the day, their emotional beats were sharper and richer than when we held the initial table read. What had been a sea of iambic pentameter now was specific and clear. And we could match the language with now-vivid characterization and physicalisation. So clearly, all these silly games pay off.

    Yet these games never seem to occur in actual, professional rehearsal situations, even though they work. And the irony of it is, you’re better able to make those games work for you, and appreciate how they work with the rest of the process, when you’re an older and more seasoned actor than when you’re impatiently first starting out.  You finally appreciate them.  So why don’t you get a chance to do them more often?

    The sad fact of it is that even these few hours which we took on our weekend is more time than the average professional rehearsal process affords. You only have a few weeks to put up the show, and the bulk of the time is sent simply with the physical staging, making sure that one pretty stage picture flows into another. There’s rarely time for any in-depth character work, much less work built on theater games – it’s assumed you’ve done all that on your own, so you’re not wasting time in rehearsal. And that means that your full cast isn’t necessarily on the same page, doesn’t get to explore and find unexpected things, doesn’t get to bond by lying on the floor together becoming lumps and bridges and writhing octopi.

    And it’s to our detriment.

    So if, in this fast-paced and frightening world in which we live, you do find a few hours in which you can play a game, play it. You won’t regret it.

  • The Thrill of Victory

    For a variety of reasons - work, high ticket prices, other commitments, lack of easily accessible theaters where I live - I didn't see very many movies last year. Maybe a dozen in their initial theatrical runs.  Once a month isn't bad, of course, and it lets me keep up with the cultural conversation (and every once in a while see something I like).  But it does still leave me feeling left out in certain critical ways.

    Like the Oscars, for instance.

    This year, I was the partisan of no particular film, hadn't seen nearly enough of the nominated pictures to have informed opinions about them.  There were plenty of causes and individuals worth championing, of course, and many of them triumphed last night, but sharing in that triumph was more of an academic exercise for me.  So as a shared pop cultural event, this year's Oscar ceremony didn't hold any particular excitement for me this year.

    But the Oscars, as a social event, have a life of their own, quite apart from the films they honor in any given year.  And so, despite having seen few of this year's honorees, I felt obligated to take part in the event somehow.  And fortunately, there was an easy way for me to do so.

    By being a huge trivia nerd.

    When not writing, or acting, or blogging about writing or acting (don't get me started), I belong to one of New York's most dangerous trivia teams.  (And if you don't regularly attend trivia events in this city, trust me when I tell you that we do indeed get dangerous.) There are a number of arts professionals in our ranks - in addition to myself, the makers of the award-winning film Millie and the Lords, which you can still download from HBO streaming services (and upon whose cutting room floor a performance of mine was left), are members of our team.  We mostly attend events put on by the Big Quiz Thing, which is a deluxe and highly polished trivia event which used to go up monthly in New York, but which now, for various reasons, limits itself to special events here.

    Like, every year, Oscar night.

    And so we came, and nerded out during the Oscars preshow, as three trivia rounds plus a buzzer battle for the finalist teams played out in our Lower East Side venue.  And we won - getting plastic medals and cookies for our troubles.  Which would have been all we required for our troubles - you nerd out for the love of nerding out, after all.

    But somehow, the Big Quiz Thing publicists must have outdone themselves this year.  Because among the throngs of film geeks was a small crew from the local ABC Eyewitness News affiliate.  Covering our trivia event.  Which my team won.  And they decided that simply covering the trivia event wasn't enough for their human interest coverage story.

    They needed to interview us.

    And so it was that after twenty years working as an artist in this city, I was finally interviewed by the local news - not for any play of mine, but for my achievements in remembering trivia under pressure.  (I'd link to the story, but I haven't been able to find it - I don't know if it's exclusively online, or set to be part of something larger, or what.)

    Imagine what will happen next year, once I've actually seen the movies!

  • He Said the Quiet Part Loud and the Loud Part Quiet

    If you’re a writer or other creative type, you have grandiose dreams. It comes with the territory; no matter how clear-eyed and self-deprecating you are about your abilities, or the state of your career at the moment, you’re convinced you have a civilization-defining magnum opus within you. It comes with the territory; in order to put in the drudgery and the mental effort of putting pen to paper (or keystroke to laptop), you have to believe in your heart that you have what it takes to write a definitive account of your society and times, something that perfectly sums up the world around you and will last for generations. And helping to fuel these ambitions is the fact that, from time to time, masterworks like this are indeed created. They really do exist.

    You know, like The Simpsons.

    It’s been around nearly thirty years. For much of the show’s latter years, the episode quality has been spotty at best, so if your last viewing of the show was on a recent Sunday after the football game, you may find the language above a little hyperbolic. But in its heyday (from roughly Season 3 through either Season 8 or 10, depending on your taste), The Simpsons was the greatest sustained work of satire American culture has yet produced. Obviously, its catchphrases still resonate decades later (and I’m not just talking about obvious Bartisms – I’m talking about observations which, like Shakespeare, have become such a part of our lexicon that we forget where they’re originally from – like, for instance, the title of this post). But more than any joke or gag, the show’s legacy is its vision of what America looks like, its visualization of our ridiculous id, Kwik-e-Mart donuts and all. It’s so perceptive, it’s managed to predict significant events years and decades before they occur – most recently, of all things, our nation’s gold medal Olympic curling victory. It’s an American institution, and over time, every citizen of this nation has come to understand its take on who we are.

    Unless, of course, that citizen is the junior Senator from Texas.

    At a speech at CPAC this past week, Senator Ted Cruz referred to the Season 9 episode “The Cartridge Family” as part of a speech on the current gun control debate. That episode contains this exchange between Homer and Lisa:

    Lisa: Dad, the 2nd amendment is just a leftover from revolutionary days. It has no meaning today.

    Homer: You couldn’t be more wrong, Lisa. If I didn’t have this gun, the King of England could just walk in here any time he wants and start shoving you around. Do you want that?

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cruz sides with Homer in this debate. But it’s the vehement certainty with which he does so that has made the news. In case you haven’t already heard it, here’s Cruz’ quote:

    “I think the Democrats are the party of Lisa Simpson and the Republicans are, happily, the party of Homer and Bart and Maggie and Marge.”

    That’s right. Cruz happily defined his own political party in opposition to the preeminent voice of reason in modern American fiction. And his audience roared with approval and delight. Set aside, for a moment, the fact that Cruz’ assertion isn’t even true – after all, Marge famously voted for Mary Bailey over Montgomery Burns, and Mr. Burns is one of Springfield’s most prominent Republicans, so by the transitive property Marge isn’t a Republican. But Cruz wants to believe she is, and wants the family to join in permanent opposition to, and mockery of, their celebrated daughter.

    Here’s the thing about The Simpsons when it comes to Lisa – she’s frequently at odds with the rest of her family, and they don’t know what to do with her precociousness or her ideals. They love her all the same. Episodes aren’t driven by Homer trying to humiliate Lisa – they’re driven by his bungling efforts to help and understand her. It’s a profoundly humane vision of the country as a whole, a mass of eccentric and conflicted people nevertheless trying their best to love each other – and it’s a vision that Cruz simply doesn’t understand.

    The question is, why? What do Cruz and the rest of the CPAC crowd have against Lisa Simpson?

    I could be a partisan and say that it’s because the modern conservative movement has come to define itself against the ideals of intelligence and civic engagement that Lisa Simpson represents. That would be something of a cheap shot, though, and against the show’s humanistic spirit. (Plus it would be rather hamfisted and clutzy, and the show’s writers could do a much better job of making the point – or at least they could if the fourth season writers were still at their desks.) So instead, I’ll suggest it has something to do with the show’s record of prophesy. After all, in the eleventh season episode “Bart to the Future,” a glimpse of the future is given where Lisa Simpson herself has been elected President of the United States, and is busy dealing with the debt crisis created by her predecessor in the office – Donald Trump. Yes, The Simpsons’ prophesied our current political situation. And I imagine that Cruz and his ilk are worried at the thought that their replacement, President Lisa Simpson, has at last arrived.

     I, for one, welcome our new Lisa Simpson overlord

  • Bees In Our Eyes

    In certain sordid sections of the Internet, you’ll find certain sordid people who are convinced that social movements and cultural reckonings, like what’s popularly referred to as #MeToo, are nothing more than witch hunts. That the ongoing exposure of prominent sexual harassment cases is simply vengeful people taking joy in upending lives. In my own experience, this is bullshit. I know people who have pointedly shared their stories, and they took no pleasure in a single word they spoke. One friend of mine single-handedly reached out to and brought together the women who had been sexually assaulted by a leading voice-over instructor. She claimed no public credit, took no delight in this predator’s fall. This is a grave moment for our society, and nobody is responding to this long-overdue reckoning with anything resembling delight.

    Until this past week, that is.

    Last Thursday, MCC Theater cancelled its upcoming production of Reasons to be Pretty Happy, the latest play from Neil LaBute. By itself, this isn’t a big deal – to the chagrin of subscription ticket holders, theaters drop plays from their announced seasons all the time. But in so doing, MCC also announced that they were ending LaBute’s tenure as their playwright in residence. This is a big deal – MCC has produced ten of LaBute’s plays over the years. In making the decision public, MCC drew tremendous attention to the rift, and then fanned the flames of speculation by simply stating, “We’re committed to creating and maintaining a respectful and professional work environment for everyone we work with.” The implications of that statement, coupled with the pointed silence surrounding it from all parties, leads to all kinds of terrible speculation – it’s as if they’re inviting us to think the worst. (And aside from the vaguest of rumors, all I can report on this topic are thoughts, so there won’t be any allegations here.) Regardless of the ultimate truth of this matter, it’s obviously a momentous development within the theater world, one to be treated with solemnity and respect for all parties.

    Just kidding. People I know in the theatrical community, especially playwrights, are giddy. Openly celebrating. It’s as if MCC had tossed a conveniently placed bucket of water on the man in order to save their friend the Scarecrow.

    This may seem like a wildly disproportionate response if you don’t follow theater that closely; LaBute isn’t exactly a household name. But since he first rose to prominence, with In the Company of Men (written as a play in 1992, known for its 1997 film adaptation), he’s had an outsized influence on the culture, especially in theater. Playhouses in the early aughts were filled with LaBute plays and LaBute clones, to the point where you could have easily assumed that he was the Voice of Modern American Theater.

    And by and large, that voice kept saying the same things over and over again. His plays are stylistically similar to each other – minimalist, elliptical, and focused on the power dynamics between men and women. In depicting those power dynamics, he keeps showing us men doing unspeakably cruel things to women – and again, he’s been doing that as a writer for over twenty years. Because he keeps circling back to it, and presenting it without comment, it’s provoked an ongoing debate as to whether he’s critiquing the misogynistic elements in our culture, or simply indulging in them himself.

    Of course, LaBute is also the man who wrote and directed the notorious remake of the horror classic Wicker Man, in which Nicolas Cage bellows awesomely ridiculous lines like “BEEEES! BEEEES IN MY EYES!” and “HowdidgetburnedHOWDIDGETBURNED!!” And since that movie also features Cage punching lesbian characters while wearing a bear suit (seriously), and posits a global conspiracy of neopagan women sacrificing men to create a genderless society – a fever dream worthy of Rush Limbaugh or Alex Jones – it lends a lot of credence to the “indulgence” theory.  Indeed, you'd think it would end that debate once and for all.

    Is that a cheap shot? Perhaps. But the underlying attitudes of LaBute’s dramatic corpus have held a stranglehold on our culture for years. Decades. A theatrical landscape clogged with endless productions of one-set, three character sexist hipster nihilism. And in monopolizing the crucial artistic incubator of Off- and Off-Off Broadway, he’s prevented dissenting voices from gaining traction. That’s not necessarily his doing, of course. Plenty of directors and producers had to sign off on it. And they might have simply been swayed by the fact that his plays feature minimal sets and tiny casts and are easy to cast, and bring in money from people eager to watch that sexy, controversial brand of bloodsport.

    But enough is enough.

    And the giddiness, the release that so many are feeling now that MCC has cut ties with the man, involves that hope that “enough” has finally arrived. Because there are so many other voices out there, and the quality of their work is extraordinary – I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat my claim, that this past decade has seen the best playwriting of my lifetime, the most extraordinary collection of writers creating work at all professional levels. But there has to be somewhere to hear them. And for too long, both in the public sphere and behind closed doors, those voices have been ignored because it was cheaper, and easier, to hear voices like LaBute’s say the same things over and over and over again. And I can’t begin to count the number of talented artists I’ve known who have given up the profession out of frustration at the futility, feeling that their voices would never be heard in a world where only LaBute’s, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of drones behind him, never stopped buzzing.

    And so yes, many are indeed celebrating an aesthetically stultifying stranglehold which appears, much like a figure made of wicker, to have gone up in flames.

  • Hitting the Books

    I finally finished drafting a scene in my most recent project, which I’ve been hung up on for the past two weeks or so. The play is a riff on Shakespeare’s Henriad (i.e. Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, and Henry V), an alternate-history which I’m calling The Tragedie of King John Falstaff. (Because that’s just how I roll). I’d reached the point where, in Henry V, King Henry discovers a plot against him by three of his nobles, and arrests them for treason at Southampton. Since this is an alternate history, in my play, something…else happens. (Sorry, no spoilers.)

    In order to figure out exactly what happens in this new version of the scene, I had to know what the three conspirators – the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scroop, and Sir Thomas Grey – hoped to accomplish in the first place. And here, the original play I’m riffing on is surprisingly little help. (Thanks a lot, Shakespeare.) The play doesn’t get into the traitors’ motivations at all – Shakespeare only cares about the King’s behavior towards them. Furthermore, in real life these three were acting on behalf of another character who Shakespeare had managed to kill off back in Henry IV Part I. (Again, thanks a lot.) So the immortal Bard of Avon had no guidance for me – I was on my own.

    So I’ve been reading. Doing my homework. I already had Ardens of all those Shakespeare histories, filled with historical footnotes and reference material – to no avail. I consulted Ian Mortimer’s biographies of Henry IV and Henry V – which don’t appear to have been published in the United States, so I had to get Amazon to import them for me. I found a facsimile of Holinshead’s Chronicles, the primary source which Shakespeare himself used, and bought that along with a scholarly guide to reading Holinshed, because seriously, you try making it through Holinshed’s Chronicles.

    And in the end, I used precisely none of it. In filling out the motivations of the traitors in this revised scene of mine, I wound up going exclusively by their characterizations. The political and details which I’d researched, and tried to incorporate, were too abstruse to be of any use. So I just discarded them, and hoped for the best.

    Which raises the question – was all of that reading wasted? I have a submission deadline of August 1st for this play – did I squander precious time searching for some secret clue that doesn’t actually exist?

    I don’t think so.

    In order to make the command decision that some detail or other doesn’t matter, you have to know what that detail is. The point of research isn’t to use every single piece of information that you find, but to become conversant enough with that information that you know what is and isn’t valuable for your purposes. And in order to do that, you have to get that reading in, whether you use it or not. (Please remember this when you’re at your next national security briefing.)

    Now on to the next scene…

  • Proof

    As you may have noticed, I’ve largely refrained from commenting in this blog about the ongoing revelations about the full scope of sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood. This is intentional, and there are a number of reasons why. I don’t live in Hollywood, for one. I don’t have stories to tell about this, nothing I’ve directly experienced. And that being the case, I really don’t have any business spouting off on this subject, distracting from the voices of people who actually have stories to tell.

    I’m breaking that rule today, in order to amplify one of those stories. I probably don’t need to – it appeared in the New York Times this weekend, so it’s not exactly obscure. But if you haven’t already done so, you really need to read the lengthy interview with Uma Thurman, detailing abusive behavior by Harvey Weinstein and frighteningly reckless behavior by Quentin Tarantino. Seriously, go read it right now. The link’s here. I’ll wait.

    Finished? Good. Astonishing, isn’t it? At this point, we’ve heard so many disgusting allegations about Weinstein that we’ve become inured to them, but that takes nothing away from awful lucidity with which Thurman lays everything out. But the real shock comes from the account of the car accident on the Kill Bill set, in which Tarantino demanded Thurman do a piece of stunt driving, in an unsafe vehicle on an unstable surface. It’s a completely senseless abandoning of basic safety protocols and a horrifying power trip that’s sickening to read about. Even with the overwhelming number of accounts we’ve heard over the past few months, this is a singularly compelling narrative. Heck, if you have a certain kind of mindset, you might say it could make a great movie itself.

    Here’s the problem. A movie about this has already been made. By Quentin Tarantino.

    Death Proof, for those of you who haven’t sat through the Grindhouse double feature, is about a murderous stuntman stalking and killing women. His weapon of choice is a car specially rigged for stunt driving – exactly like the one Thurman drove in the Kill Bill scene that almost crippled her. In much of the movie, he kills by crashing into other cars – however, in one scene, he gets into an accident knowing that it will kill the woman in the less protected passenger side of the car. That woman, by the way, is played by Rose McGowan of all people – the actress whose accusations set off the current avalanche of revelations. Remember when she alleged “my ex-boyfriend sold our movie to my rapist?” That’s a reference to Planet Terror, the Robert Rodriguez movie which joins Death Proof on the Grindhouse double-bill. And she’s wearing a blonde wig in Death Proof which makes her look disturbingly like – wait for it – Uma Thurman.

    So, does that make Death Proof some sort of bizarre fantasy recreation of Thurman’s crash by the director who caused it? Surely, if it is, it’s some sort of apology or act of atonement, right? After all, the villain of Death Proof is ultimately and spectacularly taken down by another group of women he’s trying to kill? Problem is, the final scene in Death Proof is so stylized, so hyperbolic in its 70s-exploitation aesthetic, that it turns the whole moment fetishistic. That’s the thing about Death Proof – it’s one long fetish object. And apparently, it’s fetishizing the moment where a reckless director almost killed his leading actress and closes friend on the previous film he’d shot.

    Now, here’s the thing. The thought that it’s based on a real incident doesn’t automatically invalidate Death Proof as a movie. You can absolutely mine the worst parts of your own life and your own psyche as raw material for art. In fact, you kind of have to if you want it to be any good. But if you do that, you need to be honest. With yourself, if nothing else. And if your instinct is to fetishize, or rationalize, or create a self-aggrandizing or self-pitying justification, then you’re not being honest. In all likelihood, the art you create as a result won’t be any good. (Seriously, Death Proof is not good Tarantino.) And that’s the best case scenario. If you’re enough of a craftsman to create an effective piece of art out of dishonest material, you’re liable to create something with a pernicious effect, as movies from Birth of a Nation onward can attest.

    Apart from the simple human toll of the stories we’ve heard these past few months, that’s been one of the most sickening things to realize – just how many of the movies we enjoy have such profound dishonesty at their core. (Every movie Woody Allen has made in the last 25 years leaps to mind). And those of us who tell stories need to resolve to be better than that. The stories we tell don’t have to be comforting, they don’t have to conform to current fashion or even current morality, they don’t have to tell us what we want to hear. But above all else, they absolutely need to be honest. 

    They’re useless otherwise.

  • Serenade

    As I mentioned in my previous post, over the past few months I’ve been participating in readings of a screenplay at Naked Angels long running cold reading series Tuesdays at Nine – a historical action movie providing beloved American icon Paul Bunyan with a gritty origin story. There’s one fact about this project which I didn’t mention, because I was unaware of it when I wrote the post – that its author and I share a birthday. Last Tuesday, as a matter of fact. Perhaps it explains why I’m enjoying the project so much – the goofily incongruous mix of children’s folk tales and action movie tropes must have a special appeal to January Aquarians.

    I discovered our shared birthday, as one discovers everything about birthdays in our current age, through Facebook. Tuesdays at Nine’s group account mentioned the fact in its weekly announcement about who would be reading this past week (its administrators having learnt the information the exact same way we all learn about which of our friends celebrates another trip around the sun on any given day). I thought it was a nice gesture – especially since I wasn’t having read last week – but I didn’t think much about it, largely because I’m still not used to the novelty of having these public announcements at all. When I first joined Naked Angels, the folks running it at the time strongly discouraged writers from promoting their readings, since they were intended to be workshops rather than presentations of finished pieces. But times change, and personnel changes, and online norms have changed even over the four years I’ve been reading there. The people in charge of the program now actively encourage online promotion, and eagerly send out detailed and hyperlinked Facebook blasts to that very purpose.

    And so, knowing who would be reading that night, I went to last Tuesday’s installment the same as I do every week. And a few people, who had diligently read the day’s online update, wished me a happy birthday. Nothing too elaborate or overdramatic – we were here to listen to what this week’s writers had come up with, and I was not the center of attention.

    Or so I thought.

    Midway through each week’s presentation, there is a musical guest – typically a singer-songwriter presenting material they’re working on. Last Tuesday, it was a musical theater composer, presenting excerpts from a song cycle on his electronic keyboard. He finished his two song set, and the host came on to thank him – but he didn’t leave the stage. He stayed, noodling, the melody eventually becoming something very familiar. The host mentioned the names of two people who weren’t on the stage – the two of us whose birthday was that day. And then, somehow, the entire hundred-plus audience wound up singing Happy Birthday. To us. To me.

    And it sounded really good! I mean, these were mostly actors. Generally speaking, they know what they’re doing when it comes time to sing. There were harmonies and everything!

    I don’t normally make much of a fuss over my birthday (and the older I get, the more inclined I am to pretend it’s not even happening). And it did feel awkward being made the focus of an event that wasn’t supposed to be about me. But the Tuesdays at Nine community, like the theater community as a whole, prides itself on functioning as a family. And it’s nice when your family sings Happy Birthday to you.

    Now if I just get them to schedule another Paul Bunyan installment...

  • Gritty Origin Story

    For the past few years, I have been a regular attendee at Naked Angels’ Tuesdays at Nine cold reading series. I’ve had a few things read over the years; more frequently I’m a performer. One of the more notable things about the reading series – apart from how long it’s been running (26 years and counting) – is that longer works are developed over time. Pieces of scripts and screenplays are brought in over the course of months, sometimes years, and we can participate in their process in real time. And it’s not just that scripts move on to complete staged readings and full productions, although that’s certainly happened. When it comes to screenplays, over the course of a year an entire movie is often spooled out in ten minute installments, a cold reading version of the old chapter serials.

    Over the past few weeks, I’ve been participating in the reading of one such screenplay. And indeed, it’s a fun – and so far, quite popular – throwback to those serials of old, though with an oh-so-contemporary gritty vibe to it. It’s a rollicking tale of historical adventure, set in Canada in the early 19th century and featuring French-Canadian freedom fighters, Native American scouts, eeeeevil British soldiers, and a heroic young lumberjack coming of age. His name? Paul Bunyan.

    Yes, THAT Paul Bunyan.

    For a time, the gritty origin story was the de rigueur way of starting a proper superhero franchise. Every character had to have a traumatic childhood and a series of catastrophic events which created them, shot through grimy filters in a slate-gray color palatte. It didn’t matter how colorful goofy we might have thought they were beforehand, how appropriate a creative choice it might have been – if you were a comic book character, you got a gritty origin story. Within the superhero world, it seems that such an idea has run its course – Zach Snyder probably pushed the idea to ludicrous extremes with his morose and murder-friendly Man of Steel, and the Marvel Universe is now so sprawling that we’d all like to skip the origin story and get straight to the good stuff.

    But clearly, the impulse to explore the tragic backstory of literally every character we loved in our childhoods is still as strong as ever. And so, every couple of weeks, I read a few lines from a disapproving lumberjack elder, or a sneering British colonel, in the bloody, muddy, and soon to be very gritty origin story of Paul Bunyan.

    And it seems to be going very well with our audience. So much so that I can’t help but wonder – how many more gritty origin stories are out there? And is my path to fame and financial security ultimately going to depend on finding a gritty origin story to claim for myself? If so, what on earth could it be?

    A brutal, Sergio Leone-style epic of violent revenge during the Mexican-American war, that tells the story of Pecos Bill?

    A horror tale of murder, possession, and vengeance-from-beyond-the-grave that ultimately creates the Boo Berry cereal mascot?

    A sequel to Watership Down, even more horrifically violent than the first, which contains a mystical religious sect that ultimately gives rise to the Easter Bunny?

    If anybody has any suggestions, please let me know. It would clearly be a sure-fire hit, and I could use the income.

  • As If Tossed Into a Dark, Foul-Smelling Hole of Some Sort

    Since I’m not performing in a show at the moment, my schedule is fairly routine. I work at my day job from Saturday thru Wednesday; while this affords me a few extra hours on those days, those hours are usually taken up by other commitments, leaving me little time for writing. The bulk of my creative work, along with various errands and housework, therefore takes place on Thursdays and Fridays.

    This past Thursday began normally (though, thanks to an especially busy week at work, I did wake up a little later than usual). I cleared out my emails, did my laundry and had a late lunch. I then decided to get a few hours’ worth of exercise at my local gym. By the time I got back, it would be around 5pm, leaving me the remainder of Thursday evening and all day Friday for writing. As I reached my gym, I turned off my cell phone, hesitating for a moment about cutting myself from the outside world, but reasoning that nothing too catastrophic would happen in those two short hours.

    Well, silly me. We had a major international incident in those two short hours. One which I learned about by walking past a television in a local business’ window, tuned to CNN, with the chyron reading “Trump refers to Haiti, African nations as shitholes.”

    And that was pretty much it for Thursday. I naturally had to check various news sources to try and figure out what on earth was happening (still working on that), and that naturally devolved into an entire evening staring at a computer screen, hitting refresh every five minutes. And the next few days only got worse. Friday added the alleged bribing of porn stars by our nation’s chief executive. Saturday topped even that with a rumor of nuclear war, thirty eight minutes in which citizens of this nation genuinely thought annihilation was imminent, and during which time that same chief executive was golfing.

    That’s right. All of those incidents happened in the space of forty eight hours.

    And the time I had designated for writing within those forty eight hours?  Gone.  Lost into the void.

    Some say the antics of this administration are simply random and grotesque flailing, while others say it represents some genius sort of fourth-dimensional chess, a brilliant strategy which has managed to outwit and outmaneuver us all. I have a hard time envisioning any of these people as thinking with any long term strategy, but as a short-term tactic this chaos is devilishly effective. Like many of you, I’ve been too busy staring goggle-eyed at what’s been going on to do anything about it – unless you’re being charitable and count the page or so I actually managed to crank out on my days off.

    Thankfully, today is a holiday, and I have another chance to be productive and get some writing done. And given this administration’s mindset and priorities, Martin Luther King Day is the perfect day to do it.

  • Snowed In

    As you might have heard, the Eastern United States experienced a brutal cold snap these past few days. Here in New York City, the temperature is only getting above the freezing mark today, for the first time in almost a week. As it happens, my days off from work are Thursday and Friday – the very days that the “bomb cyclone” tore into the Northeast. I woke up Thursday morning to see whiteout conditions outside my window, with the wind shrieking like an entire phalanx of banshees, and thus I promptly decided to hide under my covers for another few hours. So if you were hoping this week’s blog post would depict some epic adventure, I’m afraid I must disappoint you. Since my last post, apart from work, I’ve barely stepped outside.

    Fortunately, this is a productive condition to be in when you’re a writer. Despite the usual distractions (being pestered by my cat, having to check online news every five minutes or so to see if we still have a country), I managed to get the opening scenes of my next play drafted. It’s slow going, because this script is particularly complex, but there’s a couple thousand words that weren’t there before.

    And from my forays into Facebook, it’s clear I’m not the only one who thought to take advantage of all this enforced isolation. All throughout Thursday, as people either arrived home early or chose not to go in to work at all, they’d announce that they were safe, and reasonably warm – and that they’d begun writing for the day. At least a half dozen of my friends began projects over this long and frozen weekend. (This includes a friend of mine who was just shortlisted for this year’s Relentless Award, so we should all look forward to what she has coming next. Just saying.)

    They say, during times of crisis, to expect a baby boom nine months thereafter. Well, writers are solitary creatures, so unless human biology has changed recently I would expect much in the way of literal babies. Metaphorically speaking, however? There’ll be a whole bunch of scripts whose birth we can celebrate in nine months’ time.

    Now if only we could get some producers interested…

  • What Year Is This, Anyway?

    Happy 2018, everybody!

    Last January, at the start of 2017, I determined to get as much writing done as I possibly could. In and of itself, this goal wasn’t much different from a resolution made in any other year. 2017, however, didn’t turn out to be any other year. (As you might have noticed.) With the nation at a perilous crossroads, its norms of culture and of governance under attack, the stakes seemed far higher past this year than they’d ever been. Whatever I was going to write, it needed to address what was going on in our country right now. It needed to matter.

    Well, I can say that I was productive. By year’s end, I’d drafted two full length plays and two short one-acts, and had the outline completed for another full-length (which I’ll start drafting as soon as I finish posting this). Not to sound boastful, but that’s a significant amount of work. what was it that I spent my time writing? With what did I attempt to engage the fearsome issues facing us in our tumultuous present?

    With a lot of mock Shakespeare, mostly.

    As I’ve mentioned before, the first half of this year was taken up with drafting Philostrate, my behind-the-scenes riff on both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Two Noble Kinsmen. It still only exists as a first draft - I don’t have any immediate submission or production plans for it, so I have some time before I need to revisit it. That’s not true of the next project on my to-do list – a riff on the Falstaff character from the Henry IV plays, which I want to have ready in time to submit to the American Shakespeare Center. Their “Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries” competition has a February 15 deadline, so frantically outlining that is how I brought 2017 to a close. In between I wrote Morningside Heath, which also touched on Shakespeare as I dealt with my absolute favorite news story of 2017. Even my short holiday one-act had a page and a half in iambic pentameter. (I’ve omitted one full-length draft from this synopsis because I’m still investigating rights issues. I’ll have more about that project at a later date.)

    And as I look back over the year gone by, I can’t help but wondering: was this the best way to spend my precious time? Shouldn’t I have been dealing with our many contemporary problems in a manner that was more, well, contemporary? Wasn’t I just frittering the time daydreaming, brooding over happier memories of undergraduate Shakespeare classes? Was I simply retreating into fantasy by spending the year in a mock-Elizabethan mode, seeking comfort in the past?

    Perhaps. But it’s just as possible – I’d say likely - that these classical dramatic modes provide the best means of examining our current situation. (Bertold Brecht came to a similar conclusion, after all – he borrowed Shakespearean dramaturgy and staging practices for his own Epic Theater.) Shakespearean drama is built to look at big issues, to cover world-changing events and examine their effects on a wide cross-section of people. It doesn’t shy away from the grotesqueries of life – it revels in them, it needs them in order to function properly. In the sheer shamelessness of what we’re dealing with, the heights of greed and avarice, the violent coarsening of our public life, we seem to be living in a Jacobean tragedy – why not use the techniques of Jacobean tragedy to say something about it?

    To me, at least, it’s an interesting question. But as it happens, that question is now an academic one. Both the Elizabethan age and 2017, the reign of the Virgin Queen and the last tumultuous presidential election, are now squarely in the past.

    On to the future!

  • Death and Taxes

    For those of you who don’t keep tabs on my performer’s union, this is the official statement which AEA Treasurer Sandra Karas issued about the tax reform bill currently making its way through what passes through the federal government these days. Among other things, this bill does away with itemized business deductions, which would result in enormous changes in the performing arts. Note that this text refers specifically to the original Senate bill (the original statement was posted on November 30), but the issues it’s referring to haven’t changed with the reconciliation process:

    “Senate Republicans, like their House colleagues have stabbed us in the back. The Senate bill eliminates the deductions for ordinary and necessary business expenses, including agent fees, audition costs, research, coaching and classes and transportation, among other expenses, which will raise taxes and make it harder for actors and stage managers to maintain their viability in the marketplace.

    “It is important that we maintain our skilled performing work force of artists all across the country. Equity’s talented actors and stage managers are middle-class employees who work in jobs that cannot be outsourced. They are the primary drivers of a nationwide industry that countless Americans have come to rely on for entertainment in their own communities, every day and night.

    “This latest tax bill as written not only doesn’t provide the relief for Equity’s middle class workers, but by raising costs for thousands of artists, puts our entire industry at risk.”

    Background: Like so many who work in the entertainment industry, actors and stage managers often incur significant expenses such as transportation costs when they audition or work out of town. Itemized deductions help level the playing field for workers like actors who are required to spend a large portion of their income on business expenses. (This paragraph was attached as part of the original post by way of explanation – you can see the original here.)

    To which I would add that it’s much worse than this statement makes it seem.

    Because in order for the shows that provide employment (and warrant all of these business expenses) to exist, they have to be funded. And outside of the world of commercial Broadway productions (which is admittedly what Equity is built around), the bulk of that funding comes from charitable contributions of one form or another, from individuals, estates, foundations, and corporations. And the same removal of itemized deductions that affects business expenses applies to those contributions as well. Meaning the financial incentive to make those contributions no longer exists – and the expected loss to charities (and arts organizations) is expected to number in the billions. In practical terms, this ultimately means a large number of job opportunities are simply not going to be there anymore, the funding wiped out.

    Do you care?

    It’s understandable if you don’t. These are scary times, with a ludicrous amount of things happening all at once, and human nature is such that we retreat into ourselves at times like these. We tend to only care about our own experiences, the things we personally value. It’s a huge problem in a world as interconnected as ours – hell, it’s a large part of why this is happening in the first place – but so long as it’s the case we have to account for it. So if the words of my union’s treasurer don’t have much sway with you, let me put this in terms of something that I know you do value.

    This blog. (After all, you’re reading it right now.)

    Ultimately, this website – blog included – is a promotion for my creative efforts. A business expense. Which means that if this bill becomes law, its monthly maintenance couldn’t be tax-deductible. Now, I’m not inclined to discontinue either the blog or the website regardless of what happens – and at the moment, I’m not receiving enough income as a performer to qualify for the deductions anyway (don’t worry about me, I have a lovely day job). But that’s not true of everybody who uses the web service I do. This website, along with many others, are maintained by a friend of mine whose business specializes in websites for performing artists. If it’s no longer financially viable for artists to maintain those websites, my friend’s business suffers. And if that business is no longer there to support this website, then this blog may no longer be here for you to read.

    And I haven’t even begun to get into how net neutrality law changes might affect things. Or how we’re supposed to deal with actual restrictions on words (for government agencies – at least for now).

    Whatever you can do about this, however insignificant, please do it while you still can.

  • Excuses, Excuses

    Way back in my very first blog post, I pointed out that time spent writing this blog was time when I wasn’t writing something else. Well, Gentle Reader, this past week has proved me right. And as a result, I’m afraid I don’t have a blog post for you this week.

    I’ve spent the bulk of the past week trying to write a holiday-themed piece, in the hopes of having it read later on in the month. I’d tell you more about it, but it’s only a horribly rough draft at the moment, with whole chunks of what I want to say missing – and since it’s already over its page limit, I have no idea how I’m going to put in that missing material. So I’ve been spending time trying to figure that out – and therefore not writing this blog.

    I’ve also been looking into the rights and other legal issues concerning another piece I’ve written, a solo piece I’ve created for a friend of mine. And I can’t tell you any more than that – because I still need to figure out those rights issues and don’t want to say anything before that happens. So I’ve been making inquiries and phone calls – and therefore not writing this blog.

    I mean, I usually have time on Sunday nights to write up something, but this week we had another installment in my friend’s long-running monthly series of Shakespearean history readings. And I do everything possible not to miss them. This is partly because I’m a giant ham who needs to get his iambic pentameter fix – but it’s also because the next writing project on my docket is a riff on those same histories, and this is serving as my research. So I’ve been making a significant investment of time and energy in this little project – and therefore not writing this blog.

    Again – that’s three projects I’m desperately trying to juggle. And that’s especially hard these days, because, like most of us, my attention span has been reduced to that of a goldfish. I’m overwhelmed by the compulsion to check in on news sites every five minutes, to see whether or not my taxes have skyrocketed or my nation’s government has collapsed. And as you’ve probably guessed by my love of parallel paragraph construction, this has resulted in me – say it with me now – therefore not writing this blog.

    I’ll have something profound or humorous or erudite to write next week, Gentle Reader. In the meantime, support your local theaters and artists, yell at your elected representatives while you still have the chance, call your friends in Alabama, try and recycle and exercise more, and have a Happy Hanukkah.

  • A Wassailing

    It’s been another crazy week, Gentle Reader. Between working at my day job and frantically scanning the web to try and keep up with current events, I’ve had little time for writing, and no time to think about what I was going to post this week. I’d thought about dissecting the effects the grotesque tax bill will have on freelance artists, but since that bill is going to reconciliation and even the people who wrote it (literally in crayon) don’t seem to know what’s in it, that’s too hard a task for now. (Even so, if you have elected officials to yell at, you should go yell at them as soon as you’re finished reading this.) And I’d thought about writing about the ongoing revelations of sexual misconduct that have been roiling the arts community, but that story keeps changing and getting worse every second.  Such is the state of America in these last weeks of 2017.

    No, I’ve been too stressed to think clearly, let alone write, and some measure of rejuvenation was clearly in order. So in that spirit, I went to my first holiday party of the season, a fundraiser given by the folks at Smith Street Stage. Smith Street is notable for the extraordinary quality of the music it commissions for all its projects, and that extended to a holiday fundraiser. A skilled jazz pianist and drummer were set up in the center of the Brooklyn venue, playing adroit arrangements of holiday music. Guests came up and sang Christmas standards. They even referred to the event as their Winter Wassail, to give you an idea of how seriously they take their music.

    Listening to spirited arrangement after arrangement, a realization struck me. One that I’d never expected to have on a chilly December night. Prior to last evening’s festivities, I’d barely heard any Christmas music this year.

    At first glance, this seems like a ridiculous statement. This country has been celebrating Christmas since approximately noon on Halloween. I’ve recently spent the equivalent of a full 24-hour day driving to and from North Carolina for Thanksgiving, with the radio picking up nothing but Christmas music all along the I-95 airways. This country is desperate for a pick-me-up right now, and Santa and sleigh bells always seems to deliver that.

    But I’m not talking about the volume of Christmas music; I’m talking about variety. During those epic drives up and down I-95, I heard the same dozen or so recordings over and over again. And again. And again. And I’ve gotten so used to that being the case that simply hearing a jazz version of Good King Wenceslas blew my mind. When was the last time you heard some version of Good King Wenceslas on the radio? Or Jolly Old Saint Nicholas? Or God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen? Heck, that last one served as the basis of a folksy duet between Sarah McLachlan and Barenaked Ladies that used to get lots of airtime. This year, nothing. I’ve been alive for a whole bunch of decades now, and the Christmas music I’ve been exposed to in my lifetime has encompassed everything from traditional Victorian carols to show tunes, to alternative covers and American Idol bombast, everything from The Messiah to Christmas in Hollis. And yet the amount of Christmas music being commercially broadcast hasn’t expanded – it’s radically contracted.

    It’s a useful little microcosm to look at. Because their profits depend on appealing to the widest base of audience possible, the commercial broadcasters are convinced they can only use the most obvious of popular songs. Any deviation risks some fraction of us changing the channel. And so, this time of the year, they pick those same dozen songs and play them over and over and over again. And in the process, they wear them out. Remove all meaning from them. Render them inert.

    Want to make the holidays great again? Embrace everything about them. Crank the Duke Ellington version of The Nutcracker from the album Three Suites (it was literally my family cat’s favorite record). Follow that up with Fairytale of New York and some Anonymous 4 medieval carols and Back Door Santa. It’s a big wide world and a bustling time of year, and if you don’t respect and venerate all of it, if you assume your little slice is the only part of it that matters, then you’re only going to suck it dry and render it joyless and barren.

    And that’s true of anything else you care to make great again.

  • The Blackest Friday

    We didn’t have a color television in my house until I was four or five years old. When the holidays came around, each night that a Christmas special was broadcast – A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Year Without a Santa Claus, etc. – we would make a pilgrimage to my grandparents’ house. There, we’d gather around the color TV in my great-grandmother’s room, wait that minute or so as the cathode tube sizzled and came to life (remember how they used to do that?), and then thrill as that “a special presentation” logo came on the screen. I’m far from the only person my age with such a story – before every house had a gigantic flat screen in every room, you had to make the appropriate arrangements for a special event. And in the days before cable and internet, when there were only three national networks, each animated holiday program was a special, practically sacred, event. (Heck, “special” is right there in the name.) And the networks that broadcast them at least pretended to treat them accordingly.

    Contrast that with this past Friday. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, the unofficial start of the secular holiday season. (From a religious point of view, the Christmas season doesn’t start until next Sunday, December 3rd, so you’ve still got some time.) As families came home from their Black Friday shopping – which a particularly demonic series of Walmart ads, complete with Black Eyed Peas music, urged families to do beginning at 6pm on Thanksgiving Day – they were presented with a cruel choice. Each of the three major networks was presenting a different special, precisely at 8pm. Frosty the Snowman on CBS, How the Grinch Stole Christmas on NBC, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town on ABC. A family with young children eager to watch these holiday perennials would have to choose which of these three they would see this year.

    Now, I do realize that viewing habits have changed since I was a child. Thanks to cable packages and streaming services, there will be innumerable chances to watch these programs. And starting with the advent of VHS cassettes way back when, and proceeding to the era of DVDs and whatever’s been invented by the time I post this, we can own our own copies of all of these, and view them whenever we want. I would have delighted in this as a child, had the technology been available at the time. So, in that regard, hooray for the progress of consumerism.

    However, as you may or may not have noticed, the same capitalist system that is so good at providing consumer goods tends to falter quite a bit when it comes to providing public services. And to my mind, those long-ago broadcasts were a public service. The networks viewed them as such; I don’t remember this kind of scheduling conflict ever occurring when I was a child. (Though I seem to recall CBS having the broadcast rights to most of the specials back then, which would have made scheduling conflicts much less of a problem.) Those specials provided a common frame of reference for this large, diverse, fractious nature of ours, by which we could examine what these holidays meant to us. Let them be just another viewing option, and that impact is blunted.

    No, there’s nothing like a story that only gets told once a year, and which gets us to gather around the electronic campfire with our great-grandmother, staring into the embers as the tale is told.

  • Memorials

    It’s been a sad week for me, Gentle Reader. Two men, each one an important part of my life, passed away over these past few days, within hours of each other. They were both in their 90s, and had come to the end of long and fruitful lives – which doesn’t negate the pain of their loss in the slightest.

    The first of these men, the one whose lost hurts me the most, is my grandfather. Carl Larson. When I first started performing, back in college, he and my grandmother made the five hour drive to be in the front row of all of my shows. He was my first audience member. But more to the point, in introducing me to British comedies and Universal horror movies and the like, he helped turn me on to storytelling itself. It hurts like hell that he’s not here anymore.

    The second of these men, who passed away the day before my grandfather, is the actor Earle Hyman. Distinguished stage actor, Cliff Huxtable’s dad, and the number one television star in Norway (a fact that never fails to bring a goofy smile to my face). I’m fortunate enough to be one of the many actors who worked with him, and was lucky enough that the show on which we collaborated was the show on which I happened to get my Equity card. The Classical Theatre of Harlem production of The Cherry Orchard, in which I played a handful of tiny parts. Earle was the old servant Firs, stalwart defender of a vanishing way of life, who ends the play alone on stage, forgotten by the others, in what’s left of the abandoned estate.

    The opening night of that production happened to be the night that Ossie Davis passed away; the news of it reached us all just hours before we were set to go on stage. Many members of that company had worked with Ossie Davis, and knew him personally, Earle foremost among them. Earle was already in advancing age and delicate health, and we could see that the news was taking a physical toll on him. The show went on, and Earle was his usual marvelous self, but with every shaky gesture and every quaver in his voice (all of which are crucial to the role of Firs), I found myself just a little bit worried.

    Then came the end of the show, which I watched from the wings each night as I prepared to go on for curtain call. There was Earle, alone in his chair, as always. But this time, something was different. Something was wrong. He spasmed, he grabbed his chest, and as the lights went out for the end of the show and the house began to applaud, he slumped backward into the chair, nearly falling out of it.

    Oh my God, I thought. He had a heart attack. The news was too much for him and he had a heart attack. Oh my God there’s nothing I can do for him what are we going to do…

    And just like that, Earle Hyman bounded up out of the chair, spry as a teenager, and went offstage to prepare for his curtain call. The old rascal had been trying out new business for opening night.

    That story always makes me happy. And at a moment like this, I find it inspiring as well. Because Earle was in genuine grief-stricken pain that night. And he carried on like a trooper despite it, using it to fuel his art, transmuting it into something beautiful. And that’s the example I carry with me, as I wrestle with my own grief.

    Thank you both for everything.

  • Explaining It All

    In the popular American imagination, theater folk are a godless bunch of sinners, bereft of any morals or sense of religious feeling. If you know enough theater people, you know that this stereotype is ridiculous. Half of the Playbill performer bios go out of their way to praise Jesus, half of the actors’ Facebook pages I know are clogged with inspirational devotions, and it’s hard to navigate backstage in the half-hour before a show without stumbling across a prayer circle. True, back in another century, actors were classified as vagabonds and denied burial in Christian cemeteries – but that was a specifically Catholic policy, and Church doctrine has changed since then. And true, there are plenty of scandalous stories involving actors and other celebrities – with ever more numerous and disturbing accounts coming out each day, it seems. But I would (sadly) submit that you can find these stories among people in all occupations, all throughout the land – celebrities just (by definition) have the spotlight on them. I’d further submit that actors, generally speaking, are about as religious as the overall population. And yet the stereotype persists – if you work in theater, you must hate God and are striving to bring down Christianity with every fiber of your being.

    When we talk about this alleged anti-religion bias in the theater, we’re really talking about American theater of the post-Vietnam era. And when we’re talking about that, we’re really talking about the plays of Christopher Durang. And we’re reeeeally talking about his seminal, Obie-winning work, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. In this pitch-black comedy (for those of you who haven’t read it), Durang presents a catechism lecture given by Sister Mary Ignatius, an unreconstructed conservative nun still angry about the Ecumenical Council of the early 60s, who gives increasingly demented voice to every piece of rigid dogma Durang ever heard growing up. At the height of her lecture, four former students of hers, now grown to adulthood, interrupt the proceedings to confront Sister Mary about the pain her teachings wound up inflicting on their adult lives. Sister Mary pulls out a gun (as nuns are wont to do) and shoots one of the four in self-defense. She then asks another of the group – a gay man – if he still attends confession. When he says he does, and had gone just that morning (and therefore hadn’t committed any acts she considered sinful in the interim), she deduces that he is still in a state of divine Grace and kills him in cold blood, declaring “I’ve sent him to heaven!” (Then she takes a nap while a seven-year-old child recites his catechism while holding the gun on the two survivors. It’s that kind of a play.)

    I mention all of this because of the horrific acts in Texas last week, and the subsequent national discussion about them. I hadn’t intended on writing about the church shooting, because it’s too immense of a tragedy for my little actor/playwright promotional blog here. But then I heard a strangely familiar argument – not once, but twice. To counter the criticisms that the usual platitudes about “thoughts and prayers,” instead of meaningful reform of our nation’s gun laws, were meaningless when people were being gunned down in an actual church, at least two people – Hans Fiene at The Federalist and Ainsley Earhardt on Fox and Friends – dared to suggest that the prayers of these churchgoers had been answered, since they had died in a state of divine grace. Seriously. The deliberately outrageous and blasphemous misreading of the Bible which Durang had used thirty-five years ago as the most confrontational ending he could think of? It was now being used for real in the face of an actual tragedy.

    And that’s not even the most blasphemous thing these folks said this past week. In the face of the molestation allegations against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, there have been repeated assertions, in the same corners of the right-wing media, that you can’t condemn attraction to teenage girls since it’s portrayed favorably in the Bible. That since Mary was a teenager when she was married to Joseph, you can’t condemn pedophilia because the Baby Jesus wouldn’t have been born without it. Even in his most bitter, vulgar, and outrageous satires, Durang never came up with anything this obscene, this insane.

    Seriously. Let that sink in a minute. In order to try and protect their favored politicians and policies, the contemporary American Religious Right is espousing positions that are too outrageous for a Christopher Durang play.

    Well, this is America. The Constitution may be under assault these days, but the First Amendment is still in place. These folks can believe whatever they want to believe, worship whatever version of God it is that they’ve come to understand. But these lunatics really don’t get to call theater people godless. Or anybody else.

  • In Which I Beg America to Come to its Senses

    It’s hard to believe it was just last year.

    It certainly seemed that we were willing and eager to embrace the full range of this nation’s diversity. That we were united in joyous celebration of what all Americans, of all conceivable backgrounds, could achieve. That our multicultural heritage pointed the way to a bright and glorious future. And it was such a glorious feeling, and we were so proud of ourselves for feeling it (and, perhaps, so smug and self-satisfied), that we assumed it would last forever.

    Obviously, it did not.

    The man in charge this year was very much a throwback to an older, more traditional way of doing things – depending upon your own particular traditions, of course. And clearly, many people seemed to want that. (Or at least, a few people in very particular positions seemed to want that.) Perhaps the world was changing too fast for them, and they wanted reassurances that the culture they grew up with was still the dominant culture in this nation. Perhaps they found that comforting. And even though profoundly unsettling rumors had been circulating about this man for years – for decades, really – perhaps that need for comfort was just too strong.

    But as he began doing this new job, it was impossible not to notice that this man’s behavior was somehow – off. He couldn’t help but make weird and uncomfortable comments at every opportunity. Rather than engage with the nation as a whole, he seemed obsessed with living out private fantasies and settling personal scores. He treated his employees as his own private army of sorts. Even his attire seemed, somehow, odd. It was clear to most onlookers that he was profoundly ill-suited for the new job in which he found himself – and yet, incredibly, he was allowed to continue.

    But this week, it became impossible to ignore how profoundly inappropriate and appalling a choice he really was. We’ve barely had time to read one account of shocking behavior before news of another account is posted. The sheer number of revelations make it clear that this is a man whose behavior is completely beyond the pale of anything which we call civilized. That he is profoundly selfish in his outlook, and (assuming the allegations are true) criminal in his behavior. That his transactional view of human relationships has fundamentally warped his own humanity. Perhaps, one might argue, it’s not really his fault – the appalling behavior of his father may have damaged him in ways most of us can’t begin to comprehend. But it ultimately doesn’t matter. If we really do care about what we think of as our “traditional” culture – if we believe that we’re a fundamentally moral nation, and that we value human dignity and personal freedom as much as we say we do – then we can no longer allow ourselves to be associated with this man.

    So please, America, I’m begging you – don’t let Kevin Spacey host the Tony Awards ever again!

  • Monday Morning Musings

    Ordinarily, I write these blog posts over the weekend, on either Saturday or Sunday evening – at least the rough draft of them, at any rate. I mull over ideas throughout the week, so that I have some sort of argument to make, or funny story to tell. That way, when it’s time to post on Monday morning, I have something reasonably polished to share with all of you.

    Not this week. I’m writing this shortly after Monday morning, and I have no idea what I’m writing about.

    And it’s not because I’ve spent the whole weekend carousing at Halloween parties. I mean, I did spend both Saturday and Sunday nights at Halloween parties, but they were fundraising and networking parties for various small theater companies – both low key affairs. (I didn’t even wear a costume to one of them.) And it’s not because I was busy with other writing projects – even though I am nearing the end of a new rough draft.

    No, the problem this week – the reason I’ve been unable to focus for more than ten minutes at a time, the reason I’ve only started this draft at 12:15am on Monday morning – is that I’ve been unable to tear myself away from the news. The alternately horrifying and hilarious soap opera that has been this presidency has hit a fever pitch of activity this past week - and that was before the announcement on Friday of the first sealed indictments of the Mueller investigation, the details of which we’ll only learn today. That hasn’t stopped me from spending what few free moments I’ve had in the last few hours from scouring news sites, just like most of you, trying to figure out just what the hell is going on.

    It’s funny. When this grotesque story began this year, this bizarre mix of Jacobean tragedy and a Mel Brooks movie, I was anxious to begin writing works of protest. Most writers were. (I even wrote at length about what we'd all be writing, right here.) But the thing of it is, writing takes time. Even these few half-assed paragraphs are going to take an hour or two write out. A full-length play, which is my medium of choice? That takes months to research and draft. The epic saga of this administration’s rise and apparent downfall is taking place too quickly for that. By the time we finish processing what’s happened this year, Mike Pence’s Vice Presidential pick is liable to be sworn in as the 47th President of the United States. And the mental effort of keeping up with what’s going on, in order to have something to say, is sapping away the time and strength needed to say anything at all.

    It would be nice to have a President I agreed with, but that’s not necessary for the republic to function, or for artists to function within it. But it would be extremely helpful to have a boring President. (It would also be nice if they followed the rule of law and weren't constantly stoking nationalist fears and risking nuclear war, but I'm lumping all that in with being "boring.")  Especially since there’s a top-down pattern to the behavior of this nation’s citizens; as Shakespeare puts it in Hamlet, “madness is catching.” (Seriously, about three or four insane news stories have broken in the 90 minutes or so since I started typing this.)

    If you’re reading this, on the morning of October 30th, 2017, it’s likely a quick digital detour for you – a brief palate cleanser in between reading the details of whatever these indictments are going to be. By all means, I’m not going to keep you. Let’s all just take a moment, get our bearings, and figure out just what the heck is going on.

    Then, speaking for myself, I’m going to get back to work. The latest draft is almost done…

  • You're Both Pretty

    Like all good New York artsy types, the bulk of my theater-going involves shows in which my friends are performing, in order to support them. If they also wrote, directed, or produced those shows, so much the better. Recently, a friend of mine had a new musical of hers accepted into the New York New Works Festival, which for the past five years has allowed new works to be viewed by a panel of industry insiders in a curated setting. It’s a really nice honor for a show to be selected for this festival. This festival is also a competition, with selected shows determined by audience vote to move on to each subsequent round. I was unable to come to my friend’s first performance (she was one of the four actors in the piece, as well as its author), but her show made it to a semi-final round performance on Saturday, and I was able to go to that, determined to help her advance.

    However, little did I realize that on the same Saturday evening bill for the NYNW semi-final rounds was a piece co-written and directed by another friend of mine. And thus, I was in a bit of a quandary – two of my friends were in competing shows, with only one likely to move on and be one of the six pieces presented at the final round. Who was I to root for?

    And why on earth do we have to think in these terms?

    The structure of the NYNW Fest is by no means atypical. Lots of festivals, especially for short pieces, use this exact competition structure, with audience voting determining who advances to the next round. The Samuel French competition, the Strawberry One-Act Festival, and countless smaller organizations set up these tournaments, with prizes like publication and stipends available to the “winners” (whether those be one show or several). It’s set up as if it were March Madness, with cultural engagement reduced to a betting pool.

    True, there are plenty of playwriting competitions out there, with all sorts of incentives being offered. Some of them – like the Yale Drama Series competition, and such newer prizes as the Relentless Award and the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries competitions – have awards in the five figure range. But by and large, these are jury prizes, with (hopefully) objective readers making the final determination. There’s a whole different element that’s added when we’re dependent on popular vote tallies to determine our artistic merit, and any ancillary prizes that come with it. We start campaigning. We start recruiting people to come to our shows solely for the purpose of voting for it. Theater is a collaborative art form, and in order for it to thrive we all need to help each other out – and a system like this makes that incredibly difficult.

    Especially if you have two friends’ shows in the same competition. How exactly is one supposed to choose?

    Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to. NYNW’s voting policy allowed each of us to vote for two shows to move forward – and since my two friends’ shows were also conveniently the most polished of the evening, it was an easy choice for me to make. I just feel ambivalent about being forced to make it in the first place.

  • Treated Like Royalty

    Two years ago, a short play of mine, Trumpets Sounding Over Harrisburg, was staged as part of a production of horror-themed one-acts. (It was October, after all.) As part of that production, all of the short plays involved were published online at Indie Theater Now, the website maintained by indie theatre stalwart Martin Denton. I was delighted to be able to say I was technically a published playwright, as were all of us who participated in the production – but since that was a modest little off-off Broadway production, which only ran three performances, I viewed the publication as a courtesy and wasn’t expecting much to come of it.

    A few weeks ago, the Indie Theater Now website ceased operations. This week, I received an email from Martin Denton, as I presume did all my fellow playwrights. The email contained a proposal; those of us with unpaid royalties (amounts under ten dollars, which hadn’t been sent to us yet) were being asked if we’d like to donate them to be part of one mass charitable contribution to All Hands Volunteers, a charity helping to fund disaster relief efforts throughout the world. This seemed like a reasonable request and a fine cause, but there was one pressing question uppermost on my mind:

    I had royalties?!

    Yes, in the two years in which Trumpets Sounding Over Harrisburg was available for download on the website, I had accrued royalties from purchases. A grand total of forty cents – one fat dime for each of the four people who had purchased a copy.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m not lamenting that only four people purchased this play during the course of two years. I’m amazed that four people purchased it at all. It is, if I do say so myself, a fine little play – but it’s only ever been performed three times, two years ago. It was the only play I had listed on that website. And I’m not yet famous enough (I’m working on it!) to warrant people seeking out my work – at least, that I know about.

    Who were these mysterious four? Were audience members of that original production so blown away by my piece that they felt compelled to purchase the script as a souvenir? It’s a piece for two actresses – were young women in scene studies classes looking for new works to use? Is there some obsessed archivist out there somewhere in Pennsylvania downloading everything with the name “Harrisburg” in it?

    And to what purpose? Were any of these scripts downloaded in order to stage the show somewhere? That would be fine with me – they clearly went to the trouble of paying me my whopping ten cent royalty, so they wouldn’t be stealing my work. But did such a production happen at all? If so, where? Some community theater? A university? I have no way of knowing – a google search on the title yields but seven hits, all tracing back to the original production.

    And yet, there are those forty cents. (Or there they were, before I donated them.) Proof that the play is out there, doing…something.

    If anybody has ever seen a production of this play (you’d know if you did – it’s two women meeting against the backdrop of the Three Mile Island meltdown, and things get bloody at the end), or sees it in the future, could you please contact me through this website and let me know how it went? I’d love to know those were forty cents well spent.

  • Words Fail Me

    It is really hard maintaining a professional blog these days, trying to write about the arts after spending the week watching the world go hell all around me. Part of me wants to forget about this site’s ostensible focus and write pages and pages about the seemingly unending stream of horrors we’re all facing, hoping to find just the right words that could help make sense of the issues we’re all facing. Another part of me, however, knows that most of what I’d have to say could be succinctly boiled down to “stop acting like a bunch of lunatics!” And no matter what I say, given the nature of this site, I have to somehow tie it in to theater or the arts, which can require some considerable mental gymnastics on my part.

    I thought I’d found a way to discuss the ongoing disaster in Puerto Rico, which began when Hurricane Maria made landfall nearly three weeks ago and still shows no signs of being resolved. As of this writing, almost ninety percent of the island is still without power, and full details of what’s going on are still hard to come by. The death toll is no more than an estimate right now, and seems bound to climb – not that we have any hard facts to go on, since the official FEMA website is being constantly edited to hide the worst aspects of what’s happening. But for all that, the one part of this awful story that I keep coming back to has nothing to do with the physical and personal toll of the storm. Just after Maria struck, a poll came out stating that more than half of Americans didn’t realize that Puerto Rico was a part of America, and that its people are United States citizens. With that in mind, it’s easy to read all sorts of ignorance and sinister intent in things like our president’s towel-throwing behavior during the recovery effort, the delay in helpful legislation (like waiving of the Jones Act), and general indifference towards our fellow Americans. And as soon as I read that statistic, I heard something in the back of my head. If you’re taking time out of your day to read a random actor’s blog in the internet, you’re probably hearing the same thing, brassy melody and all:

    Immigrant goes to America

    Many hellos in America

    Nobody knows in America

    Puerto Rico’s in America

    You know, from West Side Story, arguably the greatest of all American musicals? Even if you’ve never seen the show or watched the movie, you’ve heard "America" in commercials and cartoon parodies and elementary school band recitals. So here I was, all set to pen a nice jeremiad about how the fact that Puerto Ricans are our fellow Americans is a fact we’ve been exposed to all our lives, that’s been conveniently missed by the people who need to know it the most. I was going to argue that if people somehow managed to miss that lyric and its crucial lesson, and haven’t realized that Puerto Rico’s in America by now, it’s because, for whatever reason, that’s a lesson they don’t want to learn.

    But then, as I sat down to write this post, I decided to do some actual research (for once) and look up the full lyrics to America. And…well, here’s the very first words Anita sings in this number:

    Puerto Rico . . .
    You ugly island . . .
    Island of tropic diseases.
    Always the hurricanes blowing,
    Always the population growing . . .
    And the money owing,
    And the babies crying,
    And the bullets flying.
    I like the island Manhattan.
    Smoke on your pipe and put that in!

    Uncomfortable, right? If you’re like me, you can easily imagine some willfully negligent member of the federal government (hypothetically speaking, of course – can’t imagine who I could be talking about) having those words reverberating in their mind, justifying their indifference. If our current president does indeed have an internal monologue behind his actions, it might very well sound like that. But if that’s the case for folks like that, then they weren't totally ignorant of West Side Story.  They'd heard, and absorbed, the exact same song I did. But they'd conveniently forgot one part – and, I must confess, I’d conveniently forgotten the other.

    Obviously, when Bernstein and Sondheim wrote "America," they meant for it to contain the full range of the immigrant experience. That’s why the song’s the landmark that it is (that and some clever things it does with rhythm). And what’s depressing is that, despite all of their efforts, we all refuse to acknowledge that full range. We cherry pick the parts we want, and fashion our own half-baked and off-topic arguments out of them, mostly to justify our own prejudices.

    So I discarded the angry rant I was planning to write, and wrote this instead. And gave twenty dollars to the Habitat for Humanity initiative that will be focusing on Puerto Rico. Because oftentimes, galling though it is for a writer to admit, actions do speak louder than words.

  • Theater Story Night in America

    When I was in college, there was a requirement that a minimum of two of the classes you took in your four-year academic career had to be in the arts and humanities. For an English major theater type such as myself, this minimum was practically met by getting out of bed in the morning. For other students, however, who were in more science- or business-minded programs, this requirement was harder to meet. It’s hard for me to fathom, but there were folks who couldn’t handle taking a class in the arts and humanities at all.

    Fortunately for them, our theater department provided a comparatively simple way to meet the requirement. As part of the theater minor, there was a class in stagecraft, which covered the history and theory of theatrical design, with both academic work and a practical component. What that practical component meant, of course, was stage carpentry. They could fulfill the arts and humanities requirement by building the theater department’s sets.

    This was an especially popular tactic for scholar-athletes, especially members of our university’s football team. The Delta Upsilon fraternity, the designated “football house” on our campus, would routinely send whole squads of football players to register for this class at once. They’d help the tech department with building sets, and the tech folks would be sure to attend all their games in gratitude. And every once in a while, there’d be show whose scenic demands were such that we’d need them as the running crew as well. Half would be in their stage blacks backstage, pushing trucks and turning turntables, while the other half would find themselves pressed into makeshift Restoration garb, as they maneuvered furniture onto the stage in view of the audience.

    Football players and theater types tend to be very different sorts of people. Nevertheless, here we all were, successfully working together on these shows. We were glad to have their help. And on those rare occasions where they got a curtain call for their troubles, they’d stand alongside us, feeling a bit awkward about the whole thing, but happy to be there, goofy grins on all their faces. It felt good that, despite our many differences, we had this experience in common.

    Well, within the past few months, we've learned that Shakespearean actors and football players have something else in common. Apparently, we're both trying to destroy America.

    At this point, I’ve written about half a dozen blog posts and a whole short play on the subject, so you don’t need me to remind you about the Julius Caesar controversy at the New York’s Public Theater this past summer. For a few months, conservative media were denouncing that show, and theater in general, as an insult to our leaders and a disgrace to the country – never mind the Russia investigation, the debacle of the attempted ACA repeal, or anything like that. No, clearly the real issues facing our country were a bunch of actors at the Delacorte. But to every thing, there is a season, and as the chill winds of autumn finally begin to below here in my fair city, a new set of bogeymen have emerged to take the place of our beleaguered performers. Never mind the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Puerto Rico or the impending nuclear doom with North Korea – no, if there’s one thing this nation has to fear (we’re told), it’s NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality.

    If we’re going to subject actors and football players to this level of scrutiny, it would be nice if we could focus on the lessons of those long-ago shows of ours. That people of different temperaments, beliefs, and backgrounds can work together. That our shared culture matters more than our differences. That together we can solve all manner of problems.

    That’s probably not going to happen, though.

    Instead, I expect that once the winter comes around, yet another group of highly improbably scapegoats will be found to attempt to distract us from horrors yet to come. And I’m racking my brain trying to think who else was involved in those long-ago productions, that might be next on the list of unlikely boogeymen. Adjunct professors? Costume designers? Our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream had a cameo by a local cat – will we taking a page from the Middle Ages and going after cats next?

    (Crap. It’s going to be cats, isn’t it.)

  • Trojan Horse

    I have a friend named Liz. I worked on a show with her a few years ago; shortly thereafter, she moved to Washington DC to get her MFA in acting, and she’s been primarily based there ever since. Earlier this year, she was cast in a small DC theater’s contemporary version of The Trojan Women – that Euripides classic of political theater about the horrors of war. She posted some promotional pictures of herself and her castmates on Facebook one day. I clicked on them, gave my friend a silent “way to go!” for living the actor’s dream, and promptly went about my business.

    From that moment forward, for a good two months thereafter, not a day went by when I didn’t then see an ad for The Trojan Women. Mind you, I live several hundred miles from Washington DC, and have therefore yet to make regular theatergoing in that city a habit. Despite not being the target audience, though, the online banner ads followed me everywhere online, regardless of the site’s content. Checking out articles about upcoming Broadway shows on Playbill? There was the banner ad for this DC production of Trojan Women. Heading over to CNN.com to get an update on the never-ending chain of lunacy that’s been the news this year? Banner ad for Trojan Women. Unwinding after a stressful day with a little Plants vs Zombies? Over where the zombies spawn – the banner ad for Trojan Women.

    And though that show closed, other shows have continued to stalk me online. If I’ve clicked on an article about it, or if a friend is in it, or even if a friend has simply mentioned it in passing in an online conversation, the banner ads for that show take over any website I’m viewing.

    I’m not a tech wiz, but I assume what’s going on is that this is specially customized advertising space. The clicks we make, the sites we visit, are all monitored, all catalogued and categorized. So when I navigate to a site, it makes a decision based on my prior browsing habits, Google searches, comments, and so on, and – hey, presto! – up pops an ad for The Trojan Women, several hundred miles away.

    I don’t particularly mind having my browser history plumbed in this way; theater needs all the help it can get, and if these companies can afford whatever service provides this, more power to them. But obviously they’re not the only ones doing this; use of targeted ads like these by unscrupulous political groups are a large part of how we got in the current political state we’re in. And at the rate we’re going, we’ll need a lot more Trojan Women.

  • Warning: Graphic Content

    I still have posters from my college theater productions decorating the walls of my apartment. They have tremendous sentimental value, obviously, these relics of my youth in another century. And some of them are lovely in and of themselves – an arresting floating picture frame image, for instance, for my freshman year production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But they are what they are – posters whipped up by student volunteers, for whom enthusiasm for the work was the main prerequisite, and artistic acumen a useful bonus. They’re endearing amateur works.

    And compared to the graphic designs I’m seeing for off-off Broadway projects these days, they’re freaking Rembrandts.

    I don’t know exactly what has happened, but over the past two years or so I’ve noticed an alarming decline in the quality of the graphic design for independent theater. At least here in New York, the postcards, Facebook banners, and other promotional images have all started to look hideous. They’ve become sloppy jumbles of blurry headshots and text so small it’s almost impossible for me to read it, printed in a chaotic session of fonts better suited to church fliers from the mid 80s. There’s no obvious imagery at all, much less imagery that’s connected to the show’s plot or themes. And while the whole “don’t judge a book by its cover” phrase leaps to mind, the whole reason for these graphics to exist is to sell their shows, to get the attention of a public faced with hundreds of theatrical options at any given time. We know full well our books are being judged by their covers, like it or not. So why are we creating the ugliest covers imaginable?

    I’m sure part of it stems from the ready availability of printing and graphics software which we have today. It would be nice to think that such easy availability of technology would allow all of us to create beautiful images, or at least useful and marketable ones. But unfortunately, giving us all the power to draw doesn’t automatically impart the knowledge of how to draw. Same goes for lettering, graphic layout, and so on. The software has given more and more of us the power to make crap.

    But there’s more going on than that, since so much of the crap I’m seeing looks exactly the same. And I think it has something to do with the realities of theatrical production these days. Specifically, the fact that so many of the opportunities that exist for independent theater nowadays focus on festivals, nights of ten-minute one acts, and other occasions where multiple works are being performed. That means six or eight separate productions for each event – and at some point, we’ve decided that the complete information for each one needs to be crammed onto the poster.

    I get it – we all want acknowledgement for the work we do. But there’s a tipping point – if everybody demands equal billing, if we have to list the names of every dramaturg and assistant director and props manager in equal font size with everybody else, then the promotional materials become unreadable. And if the materials become unreadable, it stands to reason that nobody will read them. Which means nobody knowing about, or caring about, our work.  And yet, this “me too” mindset seems to have become so ingrained in the indie theater mindset, that we’d rather these materials be unreadable to the general public, than risk showing the slightest amount of disrespect to anybody within our insular circle of friends. I mentioned that the fonts being used remind me of mid 80s church fliers, and indeed the whole aesthetic of modern indie theater promotional materials seems to be that of a church bulletin board – and we’re only preaching to the choir here.

    This isn’t working.

    We’re trying to make ourselves known, and getting our work to the attention of the widest audience possible, and actively sabotaging our ability to do so.

    So, graphics folks, feel free to treat me with disrespect. Apart from spelling my name right and putting in that little AEA asterisk when necessary, you can make the typeface as small as yourself. And don’t worry about a one-inch square smudge that’s supposed to be my headshot. A little crawl of names on the bottom margin is just fine, as long as you’ve used the rest of the space to create a promotional image that actually works. That looks good. That fits the show.

    Come on. The actors, writers, directors and designers around you are making enormous sacrifices for the sake of their art. Honor it, and up your game.  At least give it the old college try.

  • Tempest

    I have, thus far, played one leading Shakespearean role in my career – Prospero in The Tempest. I was cast in the part by a friend of mine, John, with whom I’d worked a few years prior, at Paper Mill Playhouse. He was directing it for his outdoor company in Brooklyn, in a production where he was also playing Ariel. (He’s that kinda guy.) As it happened, I was living next door to his grandmother at the time. Indeed, I had called him up a few months prior to that show because I was going out of town, and since he clearly knew the neighborhood I asked if he’d look after the cat I was fostering, and somehow that conversation ended with me being offered a Shakespearean lead instead. (Yes, kids, that’s how casting works.)

    This was in the summer of 2012. A few months later, Hurricane Sandy struck, and John’s grandmother and I rode out both the storm and eleven subsequent days without power. Throughout the ordeal, I’d get periodic text messages, Facebook messages, and the like. They were from John, in character as Ariel, the words being to the effect of “verily, master, thou canst lay off with the storm. We get it already.” He’s an irrepressible joker, you see, and while power outages may come and go, Shakespeare jokes are forever.

    John moved to San Antonio a few years back, to work with a theater company there. And he’s been doing quite well out there. However, this put him directly in the path of Hurricane Harvey, a few short weeks ago.

    No jokes this time. Harvey and Irma, back to back – this is something new, something exponentially more dangerous, and even those of us who have borne the worst of past storms are at a loss for words.

    John’s doing fine, of course – San Antonio experienced significant rain, but was spared the kind of damage that Houston received. For that matter, another friend of mine was in Houston itself, on tour with a show. And she’s also safe, although after being sequestered in their hotel for a few days they were forced to pull the plug on the show. And that’s just my friends in the Houston area. I have a number of friends in Florida, in the path of Irma, and friends whose families are still there, and as of this writing I have no idea what’s happening with them. And none of us ill know until sometime today – and given today’s date, that thought fills me with a certain dread.

    And while we’re all worried – make that terrified – about the human cost of all this, and the environmental impact that’s unfolding before our eyes I’m also worried about the fate of the artistic institutions of these cities. As of this writing, one of this nation’s major regional theaters (the Alley Theater) and one of its major opera companies (Houston Opera) are underwater. That’s not hyperbole – their facilities are literally underwater. And for as long as we’re able to, we’ll obviously keep rebuilding. But the question is what we chose to rebuild. What we value. What makes a community a community.

    Like I said, things are exponentially more dangerous nowadays.

    If you think these institutions have value and want to help them rebuild, you can check out links here and here. I hope you can help. I can only do so much. After all, I only play a mad exiled sorcerer with power over the weather.

  • Face in the Crowd

    Theater for the New City, where I completed a festival run of the new play Village, My Home yesterday evening, is a remarkable facility. It has four separate theaters of various sizes within the building. It also has a maze of tunnels within its basement, which house not only one of the performance spaces, but rehearsal space and administrative offices. And mounted on the walls of those tunnels are a dazzling cornucopia of props, masks, and decorations, from decades of shows past.

    I mention this because it wound up affecting how a key portion of Village, My Home was staged. There’s a moment in the show when a group of tourists enter; they’re supposed to be in Times Square during the run-up to New Years’ Eve. The idea for that moment was for there to be a vast array of grotesque puppet faces mixed among the actors; a landscape out of a piece by Bread and Puppet Theater. Such an image was beyond our budget. Theater for the New City, however, allowed us to pull what we needed from their own supplies, down in that mysterious basement.

    When it came time to tech the show, it turned out that what Theater for the New City had for us to use in that scene consisted of two items. One was a Venetian-style mask on a wooden dowel, which one of the actresses held aloft. The other was a meticulously crafted, gigantic puppet of a disembodied head. Theater for the New City presents political street theater every summer, and this gigantic head was clearly made for use in one of those productions, thirteen or fourteen years ago.

    Because it was the head of Saddam Hussein.

    I looked around me as it entered, this gigantic head of a genocidal strongman, looking to the people around me to verify that this was indeed what they wanted. I kept wondering if a voice would cry out, “Oh my God, that’s Saddam Hussein!” But no such voice was heard. The youngest members of the cast (and when you’re my age, the youngest members of the cast seem very young indeed) weren’t entirely sure whose likeness was represented by the puppet. Some guessed it was meant to be Richard Nixon; others, Walter Matthau. Most of the rest of the company just shrugged their shoulders and said, “well, that’s theater. It’s always kinda weird.”

    And so Saddam Hussein became a member of our cast. And with each performance, as he made his brief cameo, I scanned the faces of our audience, wondering if the sight of this man, with whom this nation twice went to war, would provoke outrage. If people would be offended at our cavalier use of such an image. If people would storm out of our show.

    And it never happened.

    Only one review even mentioned that the head of Saddam Hussein made an appearance, and they assumed it was a moment of political commentary that we’d intended. Some of the folks with whom I spoke afterwards told me they’d shrugged it off as exactly what my cast mates had said, the weirdness of theater. But it seemed like a sizeable chunk of our audiences simply didn’t notice.

    And it made me think about the person who’d created this thing in the first place.

    Because here’s the thing – this was an incredibly well made gigantic puppet head of Saddam Hussein. Detailed, grotesque, a genuine work of art. And it would have been made, as I mentioned before, as part of a street theater performance during the Gulf War. (Well, during one of the two Gulf Wars – God, our history is depressing.) It would have been made to try and protest the war, to be part of a groundswell of popular opinion, part of a movement, to try and prevent our nation from making a disastrous mistake. It would have been a matter of real urgency for the artist who fashioned it, the most important thing they could possibly do in that historical moment. Whoever they were, they clearly poured their heart and soul, all their expertise, all their creativity, everything they had into making it. And now, all these years later, here it was as just another prop, being borrowed for a minute-long scene in some completely different show, before being brought back down to storage.

    All the masks of Trump and Bannon and Kim Jong-Un and the like, being fashioned in small plucky theaters throughout the nation today – is this to be their fate as well? Years from now, will they be grabbed by directors yet unborn for their Brecht plays and avant-garde Shakespeare productions, while the cast gathers around and wonders who they could possibly be? And will they then be returned to the basement, at the end of the show’s run, to rest with all the other props, masks, and decorations, from decades of shows past?

    There’s a lesson in here somewhere. And I’m not certain I want to know what it is.

  • The Sax Man Testifies

    I mentioned last week that I’ve been working in both of my artistic capacities, as writer and actor, throughout the month of August. This isn’t an entirely accurate statement; I actually have three artistic identities. As you can see in some of the photos here on this website, I’m also a musician; I play clarinet and saxophone. In Village, My Home, which opened yesterday as part of Theater for the New City’s Dream Up Festival, I play a quick chorus of Auld Lang Syne on the alto saxophone at the very end of the show.

    I started playing clarinet in third grade, and played continually through middle school, then sporadically for many years after that. And for all that time, I only played clarinet. It wasn’t until ten years ago that I picked up the saxophone, as part of a production of Happy End I was in at Theater Ten Ten. We were using the then-still-novel convention of having the cast play their own instruments in the show, and as we tracked out who was going to play what, it became clear that we’d only be able to cover the alto saxophone track if I did it myself. So I taught myself the instrument – if you play clarinet, the fingerings are similar enough between that and saxophone to adapt quickly. In fact, the fingerings are easier on the saxophone than the clarinet, since there’s no difference in those fingerings from the lower octave to the higher – there’s a middle register on the clarinet that requires some mental gymnastics on that instrument that you don’t need on the sax.

    What wasn’t easy was learning the thorny music of Kurt Weill over the course of a four-week showcase production rehearsal period. If you’ve never had to learn it, Weill has some deceptively simple moments – and others where he’s inventing clefs hitherto unknown to music. Plus some of the music had to be played during my character’s own onstage action – I was playing Captain Hannibal Jackson of the Salvation Army, so a musical instrument wasn’t entirely out of place, even if it was cumbersome and difficult as anything. But I did it. After four weeks, I played Kurt Weill, on stage, from memory. (This is me bragging, in case you’re wondering.)

    Prior to the show I’m in now, I also played saxophone in the same folks’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; I also played clarinet in that show and in Judson Arts’ production of The Bonus Army. Unfortunately, because I’m always doing so many things at once, I’m not able to play continually, and every time I get a gig such as Village, My Home I have to get myself back to that performance level. I can do it (don’t you fret, casting directors), but it takes effort, and it’s frustrating. And this isn’t a new state of affairs – it’s been the case ever since I stopped playing clarinet regularly, back when I was in high school.

    And the irony of it is that I stopped playing in high school because of the saxophone. I may have been inspired to study woodwind instruments by the example of Zoot on the Muppet Show (for, let’s face it, what musician of the past forty years wasn’t inspired to choose their instrument by the example of some member of the Electric Mayhem?) but I fell in love with the clarinet. And I was pretty damn good at it, and worked diligently at the instrument. But my high school had a policy that its musical program – full of performance opportunities, quite advanced – was only open to students who participated in marching band. Which they wanted me to do, and on saxophone rather than clarinet. Which outraged me – here I was, a would-be serious musician, and my right to pursue this craft was to be contingent on my support for our sports teams?! And when I said I’d prefer not to, they unceremoniously demoted me in orchestra, withdrew my private clarinet lessons, and so on. (High school’s a tough place, you know.) So I walked away. I’ve since met a number of Long Islanders around my age who have shared similar experiences with me.

    Writing it from a distance of so many years, I can see how it might seem kind of petty – walking away from something I loved simply because of the cliques I’d have to be associated with. But this is the eighties we’re talking about – a decade made of petty, and a decade of such pure roid-raging fury that walking away from situations like the one I describe above was a matter of genuine safety. I won’t go into the details here, but there were actions taken by members of those long ago sports teams, which I was being asked to march behind in support, which were utterly horrific. And I pursue the arts precisely to speak out against those kinds of actions, not facilitate them, even in the smallest of ways.

    I’m sure they’re much different people nowadays. I hope I am. And it would be great if I didn’t have to painstakingly put my embouchure back together again after every gig in my adult life. But it was the right choice back then, and since I was never going to have the time to pursue the instrument at a conservatory level anyway, I’m perfectly happy to deal with the repercussions of that choice in the here and now.

    It is, after all, a lesson for the here and now. You have to be so very, very careful who you march with.

  • Voices

    I bill myself as an actor/playwright, but I’m usually only one of the two at any given time. The one time I was both simultaneously was when I played a supporting role in my Fringe play Dragon’s Breath, and while that was demanding, I was at least focusing all of my energies on the success of one project. This past week, however, I’ve been splitting my time between acting and playwriting, and between two entirely different projects. My short play Morningside Heath was read (wonderfully) by Core Artist Ensemble on Sunday, and when I wasn’t rehearsing that, I was rehearsing a play by Marcina Zaccaria called Village, My Home, which debuts next week at Theatre for the New City’s Dream Up Festival.

    The two pieces couldn’t be more different (thus adding to the overtaxation of my already burdened brain). I told the story of my play here, and it’s heavy on story and backstory. The Dream Up Festival specializes in non-linear work, and so Village is far more rooted stream of consciousness technique rather than narrative. Even so, rehearsing the two projects back-to-back revealed something interesting about just how us writer/performer types work.

    I was very fortunate with Morningside Heath – I wound up working with a terrific director and three gifted actors, all of whom I already knew from readings at Naked Angels. Even so, in its initial read-thru, it still felt a bit sluggish. We all recognized the issue right away, and it was corrected in rehearsal – the actors were all used to working (and working very well) in a naturalistic mode, and Morningside Heights isn’t naturalistic. It’s a mélange of Shakespearean references and post-apocalyptic science fiction – both of which I've been devouring since I was a teenager, and which have shpaaed aesthetic for my entire life – and needed to be played in a more heightened mode.

    The way I myself would be inclined to do.

    With Village, My Home, trying to find the right tone to deliver non-naturalistic monologues has been a constant challenge for everybody. During Saturday’s run-thrus, one of our actors was absent, so our writer-director read the lines from her perch at the director’s table. And lo-and-behold, what had been thorny and disjointed syntax to all of the rest of us suddenly rang out, clear as a bell. All of a sudden this difficult piece made total sense.

    My take away from all of this? We naturally write in our own voices, as if we were the ones performing.

    Obviously we try (when appropriate) to create characters as unlike ourselves as possible, and as different from each other as possible. The three characters in Morningside Heights have wildly different backgrounds, and I took pains to give them distinctive speech patterns to reflect this. They still sound like me.

    Which is, of course, the point.  We're supposed to arrive at our own distinctive voices as writers.  And it's a lot easier for somebody else to understand that voice when they've heard it performing alongside you.

  • Somebody Had To Say It

    August has turned out to be a very busy month for me. I have a short piece, Morningside Heights, being read by Core Artist Ensemble on Sunday. The week after that, I open in another short play called Village, My Home at the Dream Up Festival, at Theater for the New City. I’ve just finished reading Falstaff in Henry IV Part 2 for a friend’s reading series. Before all of these gigs materialized, I had two drafts of dramatic projects in various stages of completion, to say nothing of my existing scripts which I’m looking to have produced.

    And I’m not going to write any of that today, because actual freaking Nazis are running amok in my country right now. This takes precedence, I should think.

    Note that I used the term “Nazis” rather than “white nationalists” or “white supremacists.” The thought’s by no means original with me, but it bears repeating: when you describe villains like this in terms of their stated goals, you make those goals seem legitimate. It’s the same reason counterterrorism experts caution against referring to ISIL as the “Islamic State,” since it accepts their ridiculous claim that they’re speaking for Islam. They’re not, any more than the domestic terrorists down in Charlottesville are speaking for “white people.”

    In that regard, I’d like to go about debunking another one of these stated goals, the one that falls within my area of expertise. It’s the one these knuckleheads whenever they say they’re defending “Western Civilization” against its many enemies, both at home and abroad.

    Really? Western Civilization?

    That’s funny, because I’ve never once heard these idiots quote Shakespeare.

    Or Victor Hugo. Or Charles Dickens. Or Tolstoy or Chekhov or Moliere. I’ve never heard them mention Michelangelo or Rembrandt or Picasso. I’ve never heard them play Beethoven or Mozart. Hell, I’ve never heard them hum a Wagner melody, and you’d think he’d be relevant to their interests.

    It’s not surprising, of course, because the great theme of Renaissance and post-Enlightenment Western art is one of universal brotherhood. The notion that our common ideals transcend boundaries of nation and race, and if nobly and industriously pursued, can unify us all in harmony. It’s not a theme that Western governments have always been good at realizing, of course. It’s a theme that can easily be perverted into dreams of conquest. And it’s a theme that’s evolved over time to cover a broader range of the human experience than even the greatest of those original artists could have forseen (as anybody can attest who immediately wondered why I didn’t say “sisterhood.”) But it’s still the ideal. Still our great hope, still the reflection of what’s best in us, still that glorious vision of utopia that blares forth when the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth begins to play.

    And it’s completely at odds with what these Nazis believe in. It’s at odds with what any fascist believes in – you can’t try and exert control over your little corner of the world, can’t extol your petty little tribe, if you believe all the tribes in all the corners are all in this together. It’s no coincidence that high on the to-do list of every dictator and would-be dictator – Hitler, Stalin, Cromwell, take your pick – is wiping out or controlling the arts. They can only survive if these higher ideals are belittled and stamped out.

    And again, I’m just talking about the arts here, because it happens to be my field of expertise. But you’ll find the same hostility and contempt when it comes to the other great components of “Western Civilization.” Science? These guys refuse to believe in climate change, even as catastrophe looms. Half of them are going around saying that the earth’s really flat. And when you call them on it, they make some bizarre argument about how their beliefs are justified by the fact that Neil deGrasse Tyson said something that sounded arrogant. (Ooh, “arrogant” – wonder what that could possibly mean.)

    Philosophy? Politics? These guys threw a temper tantrum on July 4th when NPR tweeted out the words of the Declaration of Independence. They assumed they were being insulted. And these would-be defenders of America have honestly come out against the Statue of Liberty. (It’s got a poem on it, after all.)

    They can’t possibly be the defenders of Western Civilization when they’re so intent on dismantling all of its component parts. So call them what they are.

    They are the barbarians.

    Actually, that’s not fair. Barbarians had to rough it, survive under the stars without benefit of technology; these clowns want to be barbarians who still magically have access to smart phones and indoor plumbing. But they have the same fundamental contempt for our values. And they’re every bit as willing to use violence to dismantle them.

    Our civilization isn’t built on a race or a “folk.” It’s built upon values. Upon ideas. Upon humanity’s capacity for creativity and search for justice. And yes, this civilization, and certainly this nation, makes a habit of falling short of those values. Indeed, whole chunks of it are built on systematic denials of those values. But the response of the civilized person is to acknowledge how we’ve fallen short, and continue the work of extending those humanist ideals towards all of us. All creeds, all colors, all genders. All of us. Because the good things, those cultural values and the achievements, do indeed belong to all of us.

    If you choose to reject that, then you’re choosing to destroy our civilization, not safeguard it.

    So if you’re one of those types who’s chosen to ignore everything of actual value about our country and our civilization, if you’re one of those louts screaming “blood and soil!” – let me finish by saying this. If you honestly can’t see this nation as anything other than your tribe’s own private clump of soil, then kindly stop contaminating it with your blood, or any other aspect of your presence.

  • Foul Papers

    I’ve mentioned that I recently finished drafting a play called Philostrate, which goes behind the scenes of not one but two Shakespeare plays (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Two Noble Kinsmen), using the most minor of characters from Midsummer as its protagonist. As I wrote in that previous post, I had to comb through my Arden editions of the two plays in order to try and reconcile their timelines, in order for my play to sync up with both of them. What I specifically did was sit down with a legal pad and create a three-column spreadsheet, one for each of the plays in question (two by Shakespeare, one to be written by little old me). I then wrote out a different line for each day in the time line, listing the events of the two Shakespeare plays in meticulous detail, each in its own box, then wrote down the events of my own play in the third column, lining up the incidents practically to the hour.

    It was a thing of pedantic beauty. I’d love to be able to show it to you. Alas, I cannot.

    I have a cat, you see.

    Chloe’s the sort of cat who likes to eat paper. And she doesn’t just nibble on it, leaving pointy little teeth marks for me to find. No, she tears off great chunks of loose papers and shreds them, leaving piles of debris in her furry wake. Knowing this, I try and safeguard my loose papers; for the legal pad in question, I thought I’d had it stashed safely in a standing wooden folder on my desk. No such look – I was woken up one morning to the sound of her physically digging out the legal pad in order to start devouring it. By the time I realized what was going on, a quarter of the page was missing; later that day, my beautiful hand-made timetable chart was reduced to confetti.

    Yes, my cat ate my homework.

    By then, of course, I didn’t need the chart any more – Philostrate is drafted, and even though there’s lots of revising to be done, nothing I change is going to affect the play’s timeline. Likewise, I don’t need hard copies of all of my drafts, or the brainstorming notes I make before starting a project – they’re all saved on my laptop. But it’s easier for me to hold the physical copies in my hand, just as it’s easier for me to jot down notes for current projects on whatever notepads are handy. And now I have to remember to take the time to implement a multistage security system for all these scraps of paper, to keep them from being devoured by my cat.

    Is this inconvenient? Mildly so. It’s certainly not going to stop me from writing. But it is swiftly putting an end to that beloved writer’s fantasy, whereby one’s notes are deemed so useful to posterity, so important in understanding the artist’s process, that they’re preserved with loving care in museums, to be viewed by scholars down through the centuries. Apart from the plays themselves, I’m not going to have much of anything to show future generations – unless they have some sort of disconcerting interest in the contents of Chloe’s litter box.

  • One For Arnie

    If you look to the left of my blog page, here on this website of mine, you’ll see the contacts page. That’s right, Gentle Reader, you can email me whenever you feel like! It’s there in the hope that casting directors will reach out to me (which I’m sure will be happening any second now), but anybody can message me through this website, for any reason.

    Something rather touching happened recently – an actor I’d worked with in Minneapolis, whom I hadn’t heard from in over twenty years, happened upon this very website and used it to email me. I hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye to him when I left the Twin Cities, and always regretted having lost touch with him (he’s not on Facebook). And after all this time, here he was, in my email inbox. It made my heart glad to catch up with him. And I was tickled to hear that he’d read, and enjoyed, my most recent blog post.

    But this got me to thinking. In previous blog posts, I’d discussed both of the shows which I’d done with my friend Arnie (that’s his name) in Minneapolis. And looking back at the tone of what I’d previously written about those shows, I began to have the sinking feeling that a reader might think I’d regretted doing them. That Arnie might think that. And that isn’t true at all, and I feel guilty that I might have given that impression.

    So let me revisit those two shows for a moment.

    The first of the two shows was Bullshot Crummond, a very broad and veddy veddy British spy spoof, in which I played the title character and Arnie played my sinister German nemesis (accursed Hun!). As I mentioned when I first wrote about this show, that was a production in which Murphy’s Law reigned supreme, and every possible thing went wrong. (Hell, the name of the post about it is “When Things Go Wrong, As They Sometimes Will.”) But that’s in the nature of that show, where most of the comedy derives from taking the wild cinematic panoramas of a World War I espionage tale and staging it in as bare-bones a fashion as possible. In its way, Bullshot Crummond anticipates the stage adaptation of The 39 Steps, both in its humor and in its theatrical construction (i.e. taking a classic British film and putting it on stage with a tiny cast playing all the roles, and having the ingenuity of the adaptation be half the fun). We had far fewer resources to work with, so many of our shoestring effects turned into actual mishaps, but the comedic energy never flagged. And I do truly believe that show was a turning point for me as an actor – having so many things to deal with in the run of the show taught me how to live in the moment in a way no conservatory training ever could.

    I didn’t have nearly as much to deal with in the next show I did with Arnie, which was a production of The Comedy of Errors which toured parks throughout the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs. When I last wrote about it, here, I included it in an overall list of Shakespeare productions which I did in the 90s which, taken as a whole, I said, “sucked.” Well, that’s not remotely fair. I tend to like more adventurous classical fare, but as a traditional staging of the piece, it was perfectly fine. No, the reason I included Comedy of Errors in that disparaging list is because, at one point during the run, we all wound up living out a moment from This Is Spinal Tap. The venue where we were performing listed its events for the week chronologically on its marquee, and had had a puppet show there a few days before us. So as we all drove up, we all saw the sign, exactly as it appears in Spinal Tap. We all got out of our cars, stared bug-eyed at the sign, and then, all in unison, cried out in Jeanine Pettibone’s cockney accent: “If I told them once, I told them a thousand times, Shakespeare Company first, THEN the puppet show!”

    Which is a great story, especially if you’re putting together a list of ignominious Shakespeare experiences, but really isn’t a reflection on the quality of the production.

    That we all responded and joked as one, however, is a reflection on the quality of that cast. And that’s a point worth making about any theatrical war story; no matter how odd the script or how dire the production circumstances, you’re almost always working with a good, strong, supportive cast. There’s so many actors, after all, such fierce competition for even non-paying gigs. When a cast comes together, they’ve already gone jumped through unimaginable hurdles to get there in the first place. They’re going to be creative, they’re going to be smart, and they’re going to have each other’s backs.

    This was certainly true of Arnie. He was there, keeping me safe, in our mostly improvised duels across a teeny tiny stage during Bullshot Crummond. He and I were the ones driving halfway from Minneapolis to Saint Paul and back, storing, packing and unpacking our portable Comedy of Errors set. He made both of those modest little shows a blast to work on. I’m glad he’s still doing this, still being a rock for theater companies out there.

    Here’s to another twenty years, friend.

  • The Falstaff Prophecy

    I took an Introduction to Directing class during my sophomore year in college, back in another century. The instructor was effectively a relic of the century prior to that – an aged British gentleman, an exemplar of the old rep system. As a result, his advice and instruction, while sensible enough, tended to be extremely old-fashioned. And furthermore, he wasn’t particularly diplomatic when he gave it.

    One day, the classroom discussion turned to the topic of casting against type. Not cross-gender or gender-blind casting or anything fraught with social and political baggage; no, we were simply talking about casting actors in roles for which they might otherwise not be an obvious choice. A Juliet who’s not a willowy ingénue, a Hamlet who’s not blonde and brooding, that sort of thing. Not an especially controversial notion, and something that usually has to happen in academic theater, where there’s a limited pool of actors and you’re trying to find ways for all of them to stretch their acting muscles. But our professor was having none of it. He thought that some actors were blatantly wrong for some parts, and that’s the end of it, and not to acknowledge that in casting could only lead to failure. “There’s no point in being ridiculous,” he said, in that plummy British accent of his.

    And then he pointed at me.

    “It would be like Michael playing Falstaff,” he said.

    Now, to my knowledge, I had done nothing to offend this gentleman. I was a good and conscientious student. I was also rail-thin in those halcyon days, and quite the nerd, and that’s a far cry from the boisterous fat knight of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays. So he might simply have been using me as the most obvious physical example in the room to make his point that an actor trying to “stretch” still needs to stay within the bounds of credulity. It still stung; it came out of nowhere, after all, and the titters of laughter I heard around me didn’t do much for my self-esteem (though most of my friends pointed out, safely after class, that the remarks were wildly inappropriate).

    I didn’t particularly care, though, because I’d never harbored much of a desire to play Falstaff. He’s not, as was pointed out, my “type,” but he’s also not a character I’ve ever identified with. He’s a deeply disreputable character – a belligerent drunkard, a thief, a compulsive liar – who still somehow has such a natural charisma that audiences insist on viewing him as the plays’ hero. Problematic, to be sure. And his humor is extremely difficult – somehow cynical and fanciful at once, his language both coarse and high-flown often in the same sentence, with no verse to help untangle the contradictions – the part is mostly in prose. In any event, my own Shakespearean bucket list (for you casting directors who might be reading) consists of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Iago in Othello, Angelo in Measure for Measure, and, at last, when I’m sufficiently old and grey, Polonius in Hamlet. Falstaff’s never been on my radar, and I never saw much of a reason why he should be.

    Recently, the American Shakespeare Center in Virginia a multi-year playwriting competition entitled “Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries,” in which they’re soliciting modern plays written as responses to the works in the Shakespearean canon. For the inaugural year, they’re looking for plays written in response to Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Part I. As a whopping $25,000 prize is being offered, we playwrights are scrambling like mad to come up with entries. One such playwright, my friend Erik Ransom (his show Coming: A Rock Musical of Biblical Proportions was something of a sister show at the Fringe Festival to my own Dragon’s Breath, and we cross-promoted each other’s work like mad), decided to put together a series of staged readings of the entire four-play Henriad, in order to prepare for writing his own entry. I was glad to help out; for June’s initial installment of Richard II, I read a smattering of tiny parts. I’m not sure whether it was my command of the verse in those small parts, or the experience of going out drinking with me after the reading, but Erik messaged me on Facebook the next day. After verifying my availability and schedule through the rest of the summer, he made me an offer:

    Would I be interested in reading Falstaff?

    Well, that’s not the sort of thing you say no to. And I had over a month to look over my old Signet anthology from college, to pore through the Arden edition, to really figure out Falstaff and Henry IV. A month to figure out a suitable voice, to make sense of his epic speeches, to pace his obscure jokes, to arrive at a characterization. A month in which to discover that, at least in theory, I could play Falstaff.

    Our reading finally took place yesterday, and I’m happy to report that I did indeed play Falstaff. Not that there was any particular judgment riding on this – we were all there to help Erik and have fun. But the folks around the table laughed heartily and encouraged me to play Falstaff for real some day. Considering the talent around that table, and my history with this role, this was immensely gratifying to hear.  And having gotten the reading under my (not yet as large as Falstaff's, thankfully) belt, I've discovered that I've gotten rather fond of the part, and want to give the fat night a go.

    Of course, this assumes that a future “some day” comes at all. During the month in which I’ve been preparing the part, our government has been engaged in a desperate effort to trash our health care system, tensions with foreign powers has escalated, and there have been no signs that we’re willing or able to avert looming climate catastrophe. The rapidly escalating Russian scandal threatens to plunge the nation into a second Watergate-style constitutional crisis. And I wonder – was that long-ago Intro to Directing professor really telling me I couldn’t play Falstaff? Or was he trying to warn us all of the terrors that awaited us in a world where, even if just for one day, I actually did play Falstaff?

    Hard to say. Prophesy’s a tricky thing.

  • Post Show

    Some years ago, I performed in an Off-Broadway production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (I’ve mentioned it before). One night, a number of friends of mine came to see the show, and we met up afterwards for drinks. Another friend of ours was working as a bartender at a midtown hotel at the time, so we ensconced ourselves in the lounge, ordered our drinks, and proceeded to hold court. We discussed the show; we talked about how we’d achieved the stage violence, the kinds of belief systems we’d ascribed to the witches, what exactly the play drew from Scottish history. We discussed how the story related to political figures of the time. It was at the height of the Iraq War, and another friend of ours had been deployed as a supply sergeant in the early months of that conflict, so we discussed that as well. Me being me, I also likely had to explain to them why I wasn’t referring to the play they’d just seen by name. (Not in a theater? Call it The Scottish Play, darn it!) The sort of happy, wide-ranging bull session that I’d imagine most of enjoy when our friends come to see our show.

    Apparently, I’m mistaken.

    There was a pair of gentlemen in the hotel bar that night. Father and son, I believe, from Ohio or Pennsylvania if memory serves. I could feel them staring at us for a few minutes before one of the two of them came up to us and said, “excuse me, are all New Yorkers like this?”

    I winced – I was sure we were about to be accused of being loud, or overbearing, or what have you, and be subjected to yet another tirade about Rude New Yorkers. But my friends, not as apprehensive as myself, asked the two strangers what they meant. The two then spoke admiringly of the wide-ranging conversation we’d been having (and which they thought nothing of eavesdropping upon, apparently), and said, “New Yorkers, you all, you know things.”

    Now, I’d love to say that this conversation we’d been having was so profoundly intellectual, so suffused with arcana and esoterica, as to warrant this admiration. And I went to a fancy college, I know plenty of intellectual types - I could easily have been having such a conversation. But this was not such a conversation. I was hanging out with my geek buddies, you see, hardcore gamers and fantasy nerds who’d just enjoyed ninety minutes of me swinging a broadsword. The part of the discussion I mentioned above, about achieving the stage violence? It focused on how LARPers and cosplayers might get the same results. Don’t get me wrong – my friends are quite bright, but buddies drinking and geeking out is not the height of intellectual achievement.

    Unless you’re these two strangers, who were convinced they were sitting in on Plato’s Symposium.

    We spoke to them a while, and it became clear that, wherever it was there were from, people focused on the particulars of their own livelihoods, and little or nothing else. All that a man was expected to know was his own business. The notion of having informed opinions on multiple topics, of having any sort of wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, was completely new to them, and they were looking at me and my gamer buddies as if we were unicorns or the like.

    I find myself thinking of this encounter often. More and more these days.

    I was especially reminded of this encounter this past Friday. As you might recall, our nation’s current president was visiting Paris this weekend, at a joint press conference with French president Emmanuel Macron, he stated the following: “France is America’s first and oldest ally. A lot of people don’t know that.” As this is one of those things you typically find out in grade school, when you’re first learning about America’s fight for independence, many of us came to the conclusion that Trump was speaking about himself when he referred to “a lot of people.” And lots of us laughed heartily at that thought – since it’s one of the few things you can laugh about these days without feeling deep pangs of dread immediately afterwards.

    But I wonder. And I think back to that long-ago encounter. And as much as it terrifies me to write the words, it may well be that Trump is right – “a lot of people” may very well not know. And it’s not because they’re unintelligent, or because they were taught poorly in school. No, they may very well believe, as those two strangers did, that if it’s not part of their immediate lives, there’s no reason for them to know about it.

    This. Is. Bullcrap.

    I say this as an arts professional – if we don’t have at least a smattering of knowledge on a broad range of topics, it’s impossible for us to do our jobs. But more importantly, I say this as an American – a nation built on an ideal of an informed public making intelligent decisions for itself. And in order for that to happen, we not only need to have that information, but we have to want to have it in the first place. Once we stop wanting it, we leave ourselves vulnerable to demagogues and scoundrels of every possible variety.

    So please, in these difficult times, don’t follow the example of our current president. Please find better Americans to emulate. Like my drunken gamer buddies.

  • Summertime Blues

    Of all the lonely places in this often lonely city, few are quite so lonely as audition waiting rooms in the summertime.

    There haven’t been very many EPAs over the past few weeks. That’s to be expected; the summer tends to be the slow season for auditions. It slowly picks up in September, as companies start casting for the season to come, and then really gets busy in January and February as auditions for summer seasons take place (yes, summer shows are cast that far out in advance). In July and August? Not much of anything.

    If you don’t audition here in New York, you might assume that a lack of shows to audition for would mean that those few auditions taking place would be swamped with actors. It would seem to be simple supply and demand; the fewer the number of jobs, the more heated the competition for them. And yet, in the summer months, the opposite is true. EPA audition rooms are frequently ghost towns, and even for auditions which are popular, I can usually arrive anytime I want and be assured of an audition slot.

    There are two interlinked reasons for this. One is that many actors simply aren’t here; if you landed one of those summer stock gigs back in January or February, you’ll be off performing somewhere where you don’t have to deal with our crumbling subway infrastructure or this city’s pungent summertime aroma. So the available pool of actors is substantially smaller than usual. The second, more insidious reason, is a cluster of assumptions stemming from the first. If an actor is here in the city over the summer, then surely (we assume, in our darkest and most paranoid moments) a casting assistant watching them audition is likely to assume that lack of ability is the reason why. And since we assume they’re predisposed not to cast us, we simply don’t show up. There’s already a pervasive sense that EPAs are meaningless (even though I’ve gotten jobs from them, as have many of my friends), and this simply gets worse as the mercury rises.

    As it happens, I’ve never had an out-of-town summer gig, stock or otherwise. I’m not really able to leave town in general these days; I have a day job with actual responsibilities, I live by myself and am the sole means of support for a demanding cat. So I’m not able to pursue those summer stock jobs. Plenty of other people are in the same situation, for one reason or another. And so we find ourselves in those lonely summertime audition rooms.

    And I must admit, it’s easy to succumb to the despair I describe above, when you’re one of a half-dozen people in a large holding studio, staring at large swaths of empty space as you wait for the one audition you might have that week. And if I were just looking to potential acting gigs to satisfy my creative urges, and just looking to casting assistants to validate my artistic existence, I might indeed succumb. But fortunately, I have enough writing projects to keep me busy for a while – I’m literally going to start drafting something as soon as I finish this post. And the long, hot, empty days of summer are a perfect time to sit down, with minimal distractions, and get some work done.

    Plus there’s fireworks. Those always cheer me up.

  • That Was The Week That Was

    Last week, I described the twenty seven-year odyssey it’s taken for me to come up with so much as a rough draft of my new Shakespearean pastiche, Philostrate. (For reference, that’s seventeen years longer than the actual events of The Odyssey.) And having done so, Constant Reader, I’m a little worried that I’ve given the impression that I’m a hopeless procrastinator. I mean, I frequently am a hopeless procrastinator, but not where my creative energies are concerned. So to that end, I want to tell you about my next writing project, a short play I’m tentatively calling Morningside Heath.

    Which I began and finished in the space of this past week.

    Yes, it’s possible even for me to create something in so short a period of time. How, you ask? Well, let me take a moment and tell you the story.

    Preliminary

    A number of friends who I’ve met through the Naked Angels reading series have their own theater company, the Core Artists Ensemble. Every summer, they put together a reading series of new 10 minute plays. This summer, they’ve asked that submissions take their inspiration from an episode of the author’s choosing of the podcast Radiolab. This has me in a bit of a quandary; these folks do good work and I very much want to participate, but I’ve never listened to a minute of Radiolab. And while the entire archive of episodes is online, I have no idea of where to begin, and less than a month from when submission guidelines were announced to the deadline – Friday, June 30.

    So I choose an episode at random. Heck, I’m enough of a geek that I literally roll dice to determine which episode I’ll listen to. The topic of the episode selected by random chance?

    Weights and Measures.

    (Yes, True Believers, there’s an hour-long podcast out there on the Interwebz dedicated to weights and measures.)

    There’s something of potential interest in one of the hour’s stories, concerning places where the universal standards for things like the kilogram are actually kept and safeguarded. (There is a physical standard for the kilogram out there under lock and key, as it turns out.) Something of a heist tale, in which somebody can somehow get rich by stealing or destroying that universal standard? Like Goldfinger, but for, I dunno, kilograms? It’s an elusive idea, and I’m not that crazy about it, and I’m trying to finish the Philostrate draft before the symbolic deadline of Midsummer’s Eve, so I let these ideas simmer on the back burner.

    Over the course of the month of June, the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar becomes a focus of national attention. (Maybe you’ve heard a little something about it from the three freaking posts I’ve already written related to it.) And as that madness grips our city, a thought occurs to me concerning this one-act. What if the universal standard at the center of this play was the one I’m most familiar with – a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio? What if all the right-wing commentators were right, and this production of Julius Caesar was the downfall of Western Civilization, and after the resulting apocalypse bands of survivors were trying to get their hands on the last original copy of the Folio?

    This I could work with. And a cursory Google search yields a potentially useful tidbit – that the one original copy of the First Folio lies in the rare books collection at Columbia University. I had a setting! And possibly a plot! And no time to work on it! For I finished the Philostrate draft on a Friday, and had to be at my day job the entire weekend afterwards – so any writing I had to do, the research, brainstorming, and actual drafting, would have to be done in just five days.

    Monday

    Having some time in the morning before I have to go to work, I take an impromptu field trip to Columbia University. I still don’t know exactly what I’m looking for, or what the heck this play is actually going to be about, but I’m hoping that being in the actual location will clear things up for me.

    I arrange a meeting with one of the chief librarians at the rare book collection. I don’t need to see the Folio itself, but I am curious about where it’s housed, how it’s secured, that sort of thing. This, of course, makes me look like some sort of international criminal, so I have to take a few moments to assure her that I’m simply a writer doing research. (Writers have to do this rather often.)

    For precisely these security reasons, she can’t actually tell me where the Folio is stored (it’s not exhibited with the main collection, obviously), or what kind of precautions are used in working with it. Apparently, there’s a whole network of storage tunnels and secret places, which I am not allowed to know about. However, she is able to tell me that the basement of the building we’re in, Butler Hall, is where repairs are made to rare books. This is useful. If I assume that at some point before my story begins, the Folio would have been brought there to try and preserve it, then I have a setting, and the beginnings of a plot. This, combined with seeing where Butler Hall stands in relation to the rest of the campus and the surrounding area, gives me what I need to begin.

    Tuesday

    I grab a notebook as I head out the door, and on the subway ride into Manhattan I sketch out a brief timeline of what has happened before my play, what apocalyptic events unfolded in the aftermath of the “Caesar Riots.” I have an audition in the morning and work in the afternoon and evening, and in the few hours I have in between the two I sit in the Equity Lounge and do a brainstorming exercise, making up as much information as I can for each of the three characters I’ve decided are going to be in this thing. The point of these exercises (which I learned from my playwriting instructor, Andrea Ciannavei, and which were pioneered at the Royal Court theater in London) isn’t just to flesh out the characters. By generating information about them as individuals, you also start to reveal the sort of relationships they’ll have to have with each other, and from there you reveal what the plot is going to have to be. I leave the Equity building excited, confident that I now have the building blocks of a play.

    Sadly, I hit a roadblock as soon as I arrive home that evening and start working on the piece. It turns out my copy of Final Draft is out of date, and I wind up losing the evening in a black hole of websurfing before I figure out how to download the necessary updates. Nevertheless, I do put down the opening stage directions, and fill out the all-important title page. I have a title. This is official now.

    Wednesday

    I have time to draft the first three pages in the morning before I have to go to work. My confidence starts to be shaken as I write, however. Despite all the rich and weird details I’ve amassed over the past two days, what’s coming out on the page feels rather generic. I feel myself losing focus as a result, and finish for the day not particularly satisfied with my progress at all. I tell myself that this is normal, and that the important thing is just to get the rough draft finished; whatever’s missing can be added in revision.

    Thursday

    I come home from work and begin the long holiday weekend by plopping myself in front of my laptop and forcing myself to finish the draft (it ultimately runs 15 pages total). Some of it feels like it’s working, but much of it still feels generic and unfocused, and I’m fairly certain I’ve left out most of what I wanted to put in. By fits and starts, I force myself to continue and type out “End of Play” sometime around midnight. I play a little Plants and Zombies to shut my brain off, and go to bed – the deadline’s tomorrow, but I’ll have the whole day to revise.

    Friday

    There are some authors who are able to summon supreme confidence when they write out their drafts, only to return to them later and wonder what the hell they were thinking. I’m the exact opposite; when I open up the draft this morning I’m shocked to discover it basically works. The story is there; though it’s only fifteen pages there’s a nice clear three-act structure and it says what I want it to say. Most of the work that needs to be done is in the beginning, trimming unnecessary dialogue and adding specificity to what dialogue remains.

    I also realize I need to change one of the character’s names and shorten the title, but then, that’s life.

    I email my submission at quarter past one that afternoon, and then it’s off to enjoy the FIVE DAY WEEKEND! (By which I mean I go off to run errands and take care of banking. My life’s pretty boring.)

    I have no idea if this piece is going to be accepted. I’m not even sure it’s good (though I think it’s pretty amusing). But after the months I’ve spent wrestling with Philostrate, it’s nice to be able to end the first half of the year by pointing to something and saying “There. I made that. Where once there was nothing but blank space, a new play now exists. I wrote that.

    “Moving on.”

  • Midsummer

    The summer solstice was this past week, and with it, one of the most sacred nights of the year for actors and Bardolaters everywhere. Sometimes it’s celebrated on the solstice itself, sometimes the weekend immediately afterwards; a Google search yielded this year’s official date as June 24th. It was Midsummer’s Eve, that night when a quartet of Athenian youths, a group of amateur performers, and a tribe of magical fairies met up with each other in a fantastical Shakespearean wood.

    I’ve mentioned before that I appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in college; it marked my very first experience with Shakespearean performance, and was among my first experiences with acting in general and with raging cast parties. For today’s post, I want to revisit one epic Midsummer cast party in particular, since that long-ago bacchanal is the only way to explain what I’ve been doing as a writer for this entire first half of 2017.

    I’m going to be circumspect and not name names here, since the two principal figures in this story are gentlemen who have gone on to run rather significant arts organizations. However, on that long-ago night, they were my fellow undergraduate actors, cast in the roles of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Philostrate, his master of the revels. “Philostrate”, a fellow freshman, was an exceptionally serious, reserved, and focused young man – much like the part itself, the court functionary who introduces the rude Mechanicals and their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. “Theseus,” however, was a senior, the BMOC in our little drama department, and he was in fulsome Dionysian mode that night. For whatever reason, “Theseus” decided that the loosening up of “Philostrate” would be his great project of the evening. And over the course of the night, “Philostrate” got as drunk as I have ever seen a human being get, while the Falstaffian cries of the Duke rang out, exhorting him to party even harder:

    “Philostrate, you dog!”

    I must have heard that war-cry sound a dozen times and more that evening. My poor classmate heard that phrase for a full three and a half years after that fateful night:

    “Philostrate, you dog!”

    All of which taught me two things. First, you learn a lot about people when they’ve had more to drink than you. Second, and more importantly: if I were ever to write a play in the vein of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, focusing on the lesser-known supporting players in a Shakespearean classic, it would have to be about Midsummer, and it would have to focus on Philostrate.

    I mean, after all that, how could it not?

    I proceeded to take this insight and do exactly nothing with it. I was in college, after all – I was extremely busy. Philostrate the play became something of a pipe dream. Maybe I’d do something with it, maybe I’d write a lead role for myself, maybe someday…

    About ten years later, in a friend’s Shakespeare workshop, I finally got around to reading Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen. Like Midsummer, Two Noble Kinsmen is set against the background of Theseus’ marriage to Hippolyta, and the revels taking place to celebrate it. And reading this play, I was reminded of my long-ago pipe dream, and another insight came to me. Philostrate would have to take place behind the scenes of both of these plays, somehow unifying their contradictory (and in the case of 2NK, baffling as hell) plotlines to tell the true story of the revels.

    And again, I did nothing with this insight.

    There’s a whole host of reasons why I wasn’t writing at this particular time of my life, but in the case of this particular project, there was one overriding issue. I had a setting, I had an idea, but I didn’t have a story. I didn’t know how Philostrate belonged in the world of the other play, and I didn’t know what his particular journey would be or why anybody should care about it. So a pipe dream it remained.

    I can’t remember what happened, but about two years ago it hit me – how exactly Philostrate could be connected to the most memorable character in TNK, the Jailer’s Daughter. And once I had that connection, after a quarter of a century, an actual full-blown plot presented itself. (And I’m not going to reveal either the connection or the plot here – no spoilers!) And so I went to my Ardens, trying to figure out how on earth it would be possible to connect the two plays in such a way as to weave an entire third play around them.

    It can, as it turns out, be done.

    I finished up other projects I was working on, did some further research, and at the start of this year, started a rough draft. An extremely rough draft. For you see, this play is written as if it were an Elizabeth play itself, the third and final installment of some unknown trilogy. And we’re about four centuries out of practice when it comes to verse drama. Nothing I’ve written this far has come this slowly, and I’ve been tempted to chuck it more than once – but after a quarter century, I figured if I’ve come this far there’s no reason I shouldn’t see it through.

    I finished just after midnight, in the early morning hours of the 24th. Midsummer’s Eve. Just as the iron tongue of midnight hath tolled twelve.

    It’s nowhere close to finished, of course. Huge chunks of what I wanted to put in are still missing, whole vast swaths of doggerel have to be turned into something approximating English verse. And it’s going to be a while before I get back to this; I have a number of other projects I’ve put on the back burner, and it will be better in any case for me to look at this script with fresh eyes once it’s time to revise. But after all these many long years, a draft exists. Broken and messy though it is, it’s an actual, tangible thing.

    It’s not just a Dream anymore.

  • Incendiary

    I’ve already written two blog posts about it, so I really have no desire to revisit yet again the controversy over the Public Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar, even though it’s been even more of a news item over the past week. (Protesting Shakespeare? Seriously?) And at this point, anything anybody might say or write would be irrelevant, since by the time you read this post, Gentle Reader, the production will have played its final performance – the regularly scheduled closing date having been Sunday, June 18. The one thing I do want to point out is that, regardless of whatever one might think about the production, it’s clear that the actors performing in it are having the time of their goddam lives. Partly it’s because they’re skilled performers getting to play on what may be the single greatest stage in this city – I’m talking about the physical stage, with actual lakes and castles for a backdrop, a giant amphitheater hugging a space that can still be astonishingly intimate. But mostly, it’s their barely-contained glee at getting away with it. Here they are, quite literally at the front lines of a major cultural clash, their work directly influencing the national dialogue, mattering in a way few actors ever get to experience. For these past few weeks, they have truly been living the dream.

    I envy them. I’ve never had that experience. Well, that’s not entirely true – some years back, I was in a show where we almost had that experience. Were supposed to have that experience. It’s just that things turned out…a little bit different than we were expecting.

    In the immediate days following September 11th, after processing their grief, the heads of theater companies throughout America met in their various offices and tried to figure out how best to move forward in this changed nation. Many looked at the figure of President Bush – once a wastrel youth, now charged with leading a nation at war – and saw parallels with Shakespeare’s Prince Hal; many productions of Henry IV and Henry V were mounted in those days. Most companies looked for plays which might reassert our values of community, of compassion; Wilder’s Our Town was an especially popular choice.

    And then there was the Classical Theatre of Harlem, where I was working extensively at the time. On the morning of September 12th, its directors looked at each other and exclaimed, practically as one, that the play they needed to do was Stanislaw Witkiewicz’ The Crazy Locomotive.

    For that small handful of you not familiar with avant-garde Polish drama: The Crazy Locomotive tells the story of a pair of criminals who hijack a train. Disgusted with the decadent world around them, and in thrall to their own mad ideology, the protagonists of this story decide to try and bring about the heroic world of the future by deliberately crashing their vehicle of mass transporation. (This play was written in 1923, by the way.) Yes, in the immediate aftermath of an event most of us viewed as shockingly, unimaginably evil, our directors wanted to remind people that such evil wasn’t unimaginable. That not only had we civilized Europeans entertained such ideas less than a century ago, but a good fraction of us had viewed those ideas as noble (the play parodies the ideas of the Italian Futurists, in case you’re curious). That until we reckoned with this aspect of ourselves, we couldn’t begin to address the world we found ourselves in.

    Intense stuff, right? Provocative, confrontational, potentially offensive. It’s what we did back then, back at CTH. I was down. I was ready. Ready to cause trouble, ready to be part of a controversy, ready for what I did to matter.

    We staged the play in the spring of 2003. It’s a highly stylized piece, so at that first performance, the audience was just staring throughout its opening minutes, not sure of what was going on. Nevertheless, when I made my entrance as the leader of a group of passengers trying to take back the train (I told you this was intense!) I felt a palpable sense of unease in the room. And as the plot neared its climax – as it became clear that the action was indeed leading to this staged terrorist act – I heard a commotion in the front of the house. It’s happening, I thought. We’ve offended people enough to walk out. We’ve started a riot. Dear god we’re really doing it this is really happening –

    My chain of thought ended with a strange whoosh, followed by a flash of white. The sound of a fire extinguisher.

    You see, a few minutes earlier, one of the leading actors had taken off his engineer’s disguise (it’s how he reveals he’s secretly a criminal mastermind, you see) and tossed it into “the boiler.” On our highly stylized set, the engine’s boiler was represented by a trapdoor on a raised platform, ringed by opaque plastic, in which was contained lighting instruments and smoke machines to create the proper effect of smouldering coal and billowing smoke. When the actor had tossed the costume into “the boiler,” it inadvertently landed on a 1000-watt klieg light, and proceeded to catch fire. The set unit, designed to hold in the fake smoke, did a successful job holding in the actual smoke and fire – which only caused it to intensify. That whoosh I’d heard was our director putting out the fire seconds before it would have broken through and started to engulf the theater.

    We stood in place for a minute or so, not knowing what was going on, bouncing in place – remember, we were passengers on a runaway train. The fire went out, the audience applauded their rescue, and still we bounced. Finally, despite every maxim that “the show must go on,” it was deemed impossible for us to continue that night. The action was halted just before the climax of the play – and the abrupt shift in tone from bizarre comedy to unspeakable tragedy that was the entire point of the production.

    As a result, when the reviews of The Crazy Locomotive came out, nobody even noticed the parallels to September 11th attacks. We weren't seen as a production responding to current events.  We weren’t a production that dared to confront the audience with unpleasant truths about the allure of evil. We weren’t offensive or provocative.

    We were the crazy sons of bitches who burned down their own theater on opening night.

    Nevertheless, the production had a successful little run. And the reputation of Classical Theater of Harlem as a troupe of fearless risk-takers was indeed cemented, and that reputation has served all of us well who worked there as performers. As we’ve moved on to other projects over the course of these wild and eventful subsequent years, our colleagues and employers know they can count on us to pursue our art to intense and difficult places, under all kinds of circumstances.

    After all, any decent theater artist needs to be willing to play with fire.

  • Mischief, Thou Art Afoot

    Here is the timeline, as I understand it.

    Back on May 23rd, the Public Theatre’s new production of Julius Caesar began preview performances in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. (The official opening night is tonight.) It is a modern-dress production, in which the character of Caesar is portrayed with a voice and mannerisms not unlike the current President of the United States. Being Julius Caesar, the play features – 2000-year old spoiler alert – Caesar being stabbed to death by Brutus, Cassius, and the rest of the conspiring Roman senators. Which means that, if you come and see the production, you will witness on-stage action that may suggest the assassination of the current head of state.

    Last week, the hosts of Fox and Friends simultaneously discovered that Julius Caesar is a play that exists, and that this production draws the contemporary parallels it does. They expressed that they were shocked by this, and offended, which itself is hardly shocking – their program exists for the purpose of telling like-minded people who and what should offend them. (Of course, the play makes it clear that this assassination brings ruin upon the conspirators and ultimately creates the very dictatorship they claim they fear, which would seem to be a sentiment they'd agree with, but never mind that for now.) What is notable this time is the immediate effect the broadcast had. Yesterday evening, an hour or so before the Tony Awards, Delta Airlines and Bank of America withdrew their corporate sponsorship from this production, and from the Public in general, severing long-standing relationships in the process.

    Among the many reasons I’m saddened by this is that the surprise and shock professed by all involved means that nobody read my blog post about all of this. Yes, Constant Reader, if today’s entry is prompting a sense of déjà vu, it’s because I already reported on this production two weeks ago. (I even made the same dumb “2000 year old spoiler alert” joke I make two paragraphs above!) So it seems I’m not getting the site traffic I’d like to be getting, and I’m going to have to ask all of you to share these posts a little more aggressively than you’re currently doing.

    Even if they hadn’t read my post from two weeks ago, the corporate sponsors of the Public should have made any decisions about this production several months ago, when it was first announced. Julius Caesar the play has been the story of a monarch’s assassination for four hundred years. Julius Caesar the historical figure has been a part of the Western consciousness for two thousand years. Whenever you stage a production, even if it’s scrupulous in its historical accuracy, or is set in Antarctica or the surface of Saturn or wherever, it’s going to prompt people to draw parallels to whoever is in political power at that moment. Set it in modern dress, whenever your modern moment happens to be, and the parallels become explicit. A production of Julius Caesar in the 90s would inevitably be about Bill Clinton, a production during the Gulf War inevitably about George W. Bush. Not only might a production from a few years ago be reminiscent of Barack Obama, with the conspirators coming across as Tea Party true believers, but the Guthrie Theatre and The Acting Company staged a production that did so explicitly, which (fun fact) Delta Airlines funded with no similar crisis of conscience, and which elicited not a peep except for the American Spectator magazine calling the production “riveting.”

    And this isn’t some modern affectation. Any Shakespearean play about a monarch is already designed to do this. He tells “sad stories of the deaths of kings” precisely because this was uppermost on the minds of the English of his day; his career spans the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, the growing anxiety as she had no heirs, and the dawning realization that James I was a completely inadequate successor. And he got in as much trouble for it as anybody staging a “Trump-ian” interpretation nowadays. In February of 1601, Robert Deveraux arranged for Shakespeare’s company to mount a revival of Shakespeare’s Richard II as part of the Essex rebellion.  The production was explicitly meant to draw parallels to the contemporary political situation in England, and rally public support to the cause of Essex and Deveraux.  And Elizabeth had them for it (Shakespeare and the players avoided this fate; then as now, it’s the producers who get in trouble), exclaiming “know you not that I am Richard II?”

    Don’t feel bad if none of this was covered in your high school English class. For that matter, it’s perfectly fine to be offended by this particular production, or find it a shallow interpretation, or whatever. The problem is that the people who are making decisions about this production, decisions which could have a larger impact on arts funding in this city and nationwide, are doing so out of blatant ignorance. And making decisions based on ignorance, on base passions and prejudices that have been deliberately inflamed, is something that never turns out well.

     I’m pretty sure Shakespeare has a play or two to this effect.

  • Audition Update

    A friend of mine is serving as casting director on an independent theater project right now. It’s non-union, so I can’t submit for it, or do much of anything other than offer online moral support. For you see, my friend has taken to venting on Facebook about the incredibly wrong-headed submissions and requests she’s received. Nothing inappropriate – no actors have been named, no public shaming has occurred. Just stories about people submitting candid photos with their pets in lieu of headshots, of people auditioning for a play for whose production dates they won’t be in town, for people claiming to be local hires when they live five states away. All presented with the exasperate cry of “Why?” Why on earth, asks my friend, does anybody think this is a good idea?

    And I can’t help but shake my head at the answer, which is that for just shy of forty years, actors have been explicitly taught that it is.

    Michael Shurtleff’s Audition has been a key acting textbook ever since it was first published in 1978. As the title indicates, it’s more specialized than the works of Stanislavsky or Hagen, focusing on how to hone your audition skills and give fully-fleshed out and compelling performances in such a short and artificial setting. In writing the book, Shurtleff drew upon his extensive experience as a Broadway and off-Broadway casting director in the 1960s and 70s – and the advice the book gives is rooted in the business realities of the theater world in that particular time and place.

    Advice like this, right at the beginning (p. 27 in the paperback edition):

    “I think an actor should audition every damn chance he gets. If you’re twenty-three and blond and you get a chance to audition for an eighty-year-old brunette grandmother, go and audition. If the part requires someone six foot three and you’re five foot two and they’ll let you, read for it…you need the practice.”

    Well, maybe if you’re still in college and there’s only a few dozen potential actors on your campus, this advice remains valid. But the rest of us have long since moved on from the off-Broadway world of the Sixties, when there was an explosion of production activity and a desperate need to find new talent and this audition-for-absolutely-everything credo made sense. Nowadays, there’s nowhere near the number of productions to find work for the glut of well-trained MFA actors currently on the market. Today’s casting directors are desperately trying to find precisely what they need, without anywhere near the appropriate amount of time or resources to do so. If twenty-three year-old you goes and auditions for that brunette grandmother, that overtaxed casting director isn’t going to admire you for having read your Shurtleff and followed his advice, isn’t going to extol your “gumption” or “moxie,” because we’re not living in that decade anymore. That overtaxed casting director is instead going to conclude that you’re nuts, and since insane people aren’t much fun to collaborate with in a theatrical setting, that overtaxed casting director is not going to cast you.

    Ah, but that’s just the business aspect of auditioning, I hear you say. Surely Audition still has value when it comes to the craft of acting itself, no? Decades of bright-eyed young performers can’t be wrong, can they? And true, there’s plenty of common-sense advice to be had about the importance of communication, establishing given circumstances and stakes, and so on. And the anecdotes about discovering and working with folks like Ben Vereen and Bette Midler at the very beginnings of their careers never fail to delight. But the book is so much a product of its time that it’s apt to distract a modern reader at crucial junctures.. Not mistaking things like physical condition and sexual identity for the essence of the character you’re playing is crucial advice, for example – but when the heading for that section of text is “Lesbians, Whores, and Gays are People, Too,” will a modern student be understandably too offended to read it?

    Moreover, the overall aesthetic of the book encourages actors to stand out by taking bold choices in their work. But this is terrible advice – if adhered to in a vacuum. Acting choices need to be rooted in an understanding of the text you’re performing, as filtered through your own personality and life experiences. Do that, and your choices naturally become bold and individual. If you try and manufacture the boldness without this understanding – if you try and force yourself to be an individual – you’ll just wind up looking like a lunatic.

    I don’t advocating giving up Audition altogether. There’s plenty of common sense advice within its pages, and it is, as I hinted, a legitimate historical document. But you can’t take its advice purely at face value. You have to read acting textbooks as critically as you read the texts you hope to perform. Otherwise, you shortchange your art – which isn’t worth it, no matter how enjoyable my casting director friend’s anecdotes may be.

  • The 2000 Year Old Spoiler Alert

    Some years ago, I had a small role in a production of Macbeth, which my family came to see. They enjoyed the production very much, and at the conclusion of the performance, my sister saw fit to exclaim “so that’s how it ends!” Like many of us, she’d had the Scottish play assigned in a high school English class, but she hadn’t bothered to read past the act which she’d been assigned for her oral report, and therefore the developments of Acts IV and V were completely new to her. Part of me – the pedantic part that majored in English literature in college – wasn’t particularly thrilled to hear that she’d blown off her long-ago reading. The other part of me – the part that had just been running around stage swinging broadswords for an hour and a half – was actually thrilled to hear it. With plays as familiar as the Shakespearean classics, the challenge for the actor is always to try and tell the story as if it were brand new, as if the audience didn’t already know every plot twist and could mouth along with every famous quote. And here was an audience for which this was indeed the case!

    I found myself thinking about this while watching the Public Theatre’s new production of Julius Caesar in Central Park. It’s an excellent production of precisely the sort of classic play I mention above, where you have to overcome the fact that the story is so well known. Indeed, Shakespeare himself acknowledges this very fact within the text itself, immediately after Caesar’s assassination, with this dialogue:

    Cassius: How many ages hence

    Shall this our lofty scene be acted over

    In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

    • Julius Caesar Act III Scene 1, lines 111-113

    In our particular state, director Oscar Eustis has directed his American-accented performers in a modern-dress production. And far from simply putting everybody in business suits and calling it a day, this production of Julius Caesar is explicitly set in and about the Trump era. The crowds of citizens are depicted as BLM protesters and given Occupy-style Guy Fawkes masks. Caesar has sky-high orange hair and a necktie that’s way too long. His wife Calpurnia sports a distinctly Slovenian accent. You get the idea. It works sensationally well, and turns the play from a fusty history lesson into a dynamite piece of political satire.

    Now, given that this is the story of Caesar’s assassination, you might think that such a production concept might be in poor taste, if not possibly illegal – after all, advocating violence against a sitting president is a federal offense. But as the Public’s own program notes point out, the assassination ultimately leads to the rule of Octavius Caesar and Marc Antony – meaning that the conspiracy to safeguard democracy from Caesar winds up causing the very dictatorship which the conspirators sought to prevent. In these frantic and confusing times in which we find ourselves, it’s a cautionary tale, and an invitation to contemplate the repercussions of our beliefs and choices. It’s tough, and funny, and cathartic.

    Provided that you know the story. (Heck, the program note gives it away.)

    But the reactions of the audience around me suggested that this wasn’t the case at all. The crowd gasped and hooted as if they were watching an especially poetic episode of Scandal. At first, I thought it was simply shock at the audacity of the production concept. It turned out, though, that the plot developments themselves were genuinely shocking to the audience. They were surprised by the assassination, genuinely uncertain of how history would turn out. There was a couple sitting next to me, and when Marc Antony delivered his “O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth” soliloquy over Caesar’s body, I distinctly heard one whisper to the other “uh-oh, I knew I didn’t trust her, she’s up to something.” (The role of Marc Antony is played in this production by Elizabeth Marvel, in case you’re confused about the pronoun.)

    I am once again of two minds about this.

    On the one hand, there’s nothing more thrilling than performing Shakespeare in front of an audience that is enjoying it, not as a rarified objet d’art to be appraised and contemplated, but as a story. Shakespeare wrote for the groundlings; for all their poetry, his plays are rip-snorting crowd pleasers if they’re staged properly. And when that happens, the energy you get from an appreciative crowd – especially one as large as you get at the vast Delacorte – carries you along as an actor, takes you to heights you’d never previously imagined.

    And yet…

    Julius Caesar isn’t just a text; the story is more than an assignment you might have blown off in high school or college. The story of Caesar’s power grab, assassination, and transformation of Rome from democracy to empire is one of the central stories of Western Civilization. It informs how our Founders put this country together; the events of this play are the specific things they intended the Constitution to safeguard us against. And we’re surprised by them? Genuinely unaware of how this story plays out?

    Is this not, perhaps, how we wound up with a Trump era in which to set this production in the first place?

  • The Room Where Something Else Happens

    Last Tuesday, after a day of errands and audition prep, I went to Theatre 80 in the East Village for that week's installment of Naked Angels' Tuesdays at 9.  This is a cold reading series (the longest-running in New York, in fact), where new work is workshopped each week with a cast pulled from that week's attendees - some regular members, some brand new, all seeing the words for the very first time that night.  A few excerpts of my work have been read there; usually I'm there as an actor.  And when I do read, which is sporadic, it's most often small parts or stage directions.  (Not a complaint - there's over a hundred people a night in attendance, and the wealth needs to be spread around.)


    This evening, however, I was presented with a marvelously juicy and convoluted piece of work. A historical fantasy about Ernest Shackleton, in which I got to portray the personification of the Empire for which Shackleton toiled and suffered - Winston Churchill.  Not a part I ever expected to play, and not one which I thought I could play - until I felt the plummy, rumbling baritone coming out of me and thought, okay, maybe I can pull this off.

    My friends complemented me, at least, and drank with me after the reading (there's a marvelous old bar attached to Theatre 80 - seriously, you should check it out one of these days).  When we were done carousing, I started home, and since I hadn't done so for most of the day, I pulled out my trusty iPhone to check my emails and Twitter feed.

    And discovered that American history had changed.

    While we'd all been reading, the news had broken that former FBI director James Comey had kept written records and memos of all of his meetings with President Trump.  Memos which directly contradicted statements made by the administration, and which supported claims of obstruction of justice.  Memos which, once made public, led to the appointment of Robert Mueller as special prosecutor.  (Yes, this all happened less than a week ago - keeping up with this stuff is hard.)  Which means that, what ever the ultimate end of this adminstration might be, the path to that ending can said to have begun Tuesday night.)

    While I was busy playing Winston Churchill.

    I've written frequently about the need for artists to confront the times in which they live, and try and exert what influence they can.  I've frankly been itching for a fight with this administration, and the social forces that gave rise to it.  I've talked a good game on the subject.  But now, at the moment the fight finally came, there I was completely unawares, drinking my customary weekly post-show Smithwick's.

    Part of me worries that I've missed out.  That at the moment of truth, I was somewhere completely different showing off my RP accent.  That I might even be a bit of a fraud.

    But then again, the piece I was reading concerned itself with the demands and drawbacks of Empire, and the compromises made in its name, and the effects the sins of our leaders have upon the rest of us.  And those are certainly worthwhile issues to be considering at this particular moment.  So perhaps, last Tuesday night, I was where I was supposed to be after all.  And if not, it seems clear that this administration will give us all many more opportunities before all is said and done.

    (Plus, it turns out that my Churchill is indeed rather good, so if perchance you need such an impression for an upcoming birthday or bar mitzvah, by all means let me know.)

  • Listen to Your Mother

    Happy Day-After-Mother’s Day, Gentle Reader!

    In the popular imagination, arts professionals tend to be grouped into one of two different camps. There are those who were introduced to the field by their artistically-inclined mothers, who took them to shows and museums every weekend, played cast albums to their babes in utero, and steered them towards the world of the performing arts in a hundred ways both large and small. Then there are those whose mothers wanted them to have nothing to do with the arts, who dismissed theatrical dreams as foolish and warned their children away from such wickedness; those who seem to have devoted themselves to this strange profession in order to spite their parents. Since my folks have been nothing but supportive to me (aside from the quizzical glance or two), you might therefore conclude that I fall into the former camp.

    You might further think this hypothesis definitely proven by the fact that, between her graduation from high school and her marriage, for a few years in the late 1960s, my mother worked as an assistant to Harlan Kleiman, co-founder of the Long Wharf Theater and working then as an independent producer off-Broadway. This was during the height of the Off-Broadway boom of the Sixties, and they were arranging the commercial transfers of some of the wildest and wooliest off-off fare of the time, like the scandalous Futz and the bruising race-relations piece The Ofay Watcher. Which means my mother had all kinds of theater stories, from one of theater’s most dynamic periods. Surely, this must have influenced my choice of profession.

    Here’s the thing, though. There wasn’t anything remotely romantic or inspiring about those stories. Mostly, my mother’s tales of what more histrionic types might grandly call “the THEE-uh-tah” involve placating demanding bosses, maneuvering around bickering designers, figuring out where to schedule lunch breaks in a day of auditions, and the like – the grunt work of production. She never said much about the content of these shows, and when she mentioned the well-known actors in the cast, they were always in the most mundane of contexts – snatches of water-cooler conversations and the like. And her stories tended to leave out some crucial details. For instance, she was an assistant on a production entitled Tonight In Living Color, which throughout my childhood I knew only as the source of the decal on a vinyl folder in which my mom kept her various papers. Did she mention that it was the playwriting debut of American master A. R. Gurney? Or that future Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham – Salieri himself – was in the cast? No, no she did not.  She had more to say about the logistics of copying the scripts, and ferrying the mimeographs about midtown Manhattan, than anything else.

    So, my mother’s war stories about her short theatrical career were fascinating, but in no way did they romanticize theater. At all. Quite the contrary, they made it sound like just another grinding, aggravating workplace – one she seemed to have no regrets about leaving. My youthful creative energies, as a result, didn’t tend towards acting in the slightest. I was focused almost exclusively on writing back then (as indeed I find is the case more and more these days). And theatrical life in suburban Long Island was focused exclusively on high school musicals, and I wasn’t much of a high school musical guy. It wasn’t until college that I tried out for plays, and started studying acting and theater in earnest, and then one thing led to another pretty quickly.

    But here’s a funny thing. While many of my peers have given up on the arts after youthful disappointments, I’m still here, still finding ways to create and have my say. I’m not the least bit surprised by the disappointments and the hundred mundane aggravations of the profession, precisely because I grew up knowing all about them. Instilling dreams in our children is important, but it’s just as crucial to let them know how difficult realizing those dreams is going to be, without killing those dreams in the process. And as it turns out, those childhood tales of backstage bickering did precisely that.

    Thanks, Mom.

  • Requiem for an Answering Service

    Once upon a time, the aspiring actors of New York City lived in a cruel and barren landscape, devoid of the technology we take for granted today. There were no convenient websites with professional resources at a keystroke. No email to check. No cell phones by which agents, directors, and casting assistants might reach us. Only PHONE phones – clunky, tethered-to-one spot land-line-employing telephones. Like a lovelorn teenager, if you thought there was a chance somebody was liable to contact you about acting work, you had to be sitting by the phone waiting for the call – which was of course impossible if you were out doing the legwork necessary to get people to make that call.

    The solution, back in those benighted times, was the answering service. For a nominal fee, the service would host an answering machine in your name, which you could check remotely. We did check them remotely, several times a day, from pay phones all around town as we made our rounds and from our houses and apartments when we made it safely back home. You’d call your own number, and if you heard no ring tone before your greeting, you knew there was a message awaiting you and you pressed the requisite series of buttons to access it. (If you did hear a ring tone, there were no messages, and you hung up right away to save the quarter.)

    Cell phones did come, and iPhones thereafter, and all manner of other wonders of technology. Casting offices found ways of moving the entire casting process online, bypassing this whole strange procedure. The answering service joined the telegraph and the rotary dial as an antiquated communication technology. I, however, continued to maintain my service, and pay the ever-less-nominal fee, even as I got myself an iPhone and joined the 21st century, and even as ownership of the company hosting the service changed hands three or four times over the years. Though the overwhelming majority of my professional communication was on my cellphone or online (or, nowadays, on Facebook), that service number was still there, just in case.

    That changed this past week. I called to check my service, as has been my daily wont so far this millennium, only to find that my greeting had been replaced without my knowledge. It turned out this was part of a redesign of the service, and as I investigated further, it was clear that this redesign was geared towards checking messages in an office setting, which was the primary mission of the company which now hosted my service. The days of actors checking their messages with them were so remote that even the technology designed for that purpose no longer knew how to support it. So, with my service no longer serving any function, I cancelled it.

    Why on earth did I wait so long?

    Part of it is that I still have headshots and resumes circulating with phone number on the upper right hand corner. There are still friends and contacts I know from shows long finished, for whom that old service number was still in their files, and I wanted to be certain I didn’t lose touch with them. And part of it is just inertia on my part. But the real reason lies, again, in something that technology has rendered practically incomprehensible.

    Namely, the importance of the right area code.

    You see, back in those long ago days of actors checking in on payphones and pagers, casting personnel didn’t want to be bothered with anybody they couldn’t get on a moment’s notice. And so, whether they’ll admit it or not, they were disinclined to reach out to anybody without a 212 Manhattan area code. A 718 area code might work, but they’d look at you funny. (The 646 area code didn't even exist yet – remember that there’s a 1998 Seinfeld episode entitled “The Maid,” which features distrust of and contempt for this new area code as a plot point, and you may consider Elaine Benes’ opinions to be emblematic of the casting professionals of the day). And at the time, I was living on Long Island – the dreaded 516 prefix, which might as well have been the kiss of death (even though my commute into Midtown was shorter than somebody living up in Inwood or Washington Heights would have experienced).

    So the need for that service was just as much about having a 212 area code to prove to potential employers that I was dependable and trustworthy. Which, if you think about it, is insane. I had to spend money out of my own empty pocket to try and conceal a basic fact of my existence, in order to come the prejudices of potential employers. And nowadays, with people maintaining cell phone plans from all over the nation and the average contact sheet a glorious jumble of digits, such prejudice can’t possibly exist.

    And so I express my hope that, contrary to the set-backs of the past year, we can all start living in a world where our advancing technology really does dissolve the prejudices that keep us apart, rather than reinforce them. And while there are many forms this hope may take, and many fronts on which to fight this battle, today I do so in a way that’s trivial to most people, but dearly relevant to me - by celebrating the long-overdue end of the answering service. 

    R.I.P.

  • Casualties of the First Hundred Days

    Well, we've done it - we've managed to survive the first hundred days of our nation's 45th president's first term.  It's been scary, to be sure, for immigrants, LGBT folks, scientists, and on and on - but here we are, still standing.  If you disagree with this administration's policies, there's a vital and growing resistance to point to with pride, proof of our still-vital democracy.  If you're okay with this administration's policies, you can point to the fact that, well, we haven't all died in a nuclear holocaust yet.  However, as we pass the hundred day marker, there is one sad, inescapable truth that must be faced.

    Namely, that a whole bunch of the plays I've written are now out of date.

    (I'm sure this was uppermost in your mind as well.)

    Writers may be constantly chasing the dream of creating something timeless, but we are still beholden to the opinions, assumptions, and prejudices of our own time.  There's no way around it - to completely untether our writings from our own time would be like trying to write them in a room without a temperature.  We usually don't even notice it - until a disruptive event comes along and upends everything we thought we knew, and renders what came before it instantly dated.

    (Warning - whole lot of spoilers ahead.  Do spoilers count for unpublished work?  Well, I'm warning you anyway.)

    As an obvious example - I spent much of last year writing an election-themed one-act entitled Blanketing Merillon Avenue.  Set in the Long Island Congressional district where I used to live, it involves a fictitious Republican campaign for the seat, and the tensions that arise between the candidate and his field operative.  The play ends just before the vote comes in on Election Night, so it's not clear which party wins the seat.  (Thought I was being clever there.)  However, the operative is the sort of person who holds beliefs and commits acts in the name of his cause which are, shall we say, deplorable, and the falling out between him and his candidate is rooted in the notion that this mindset is self-defeating, permanently keeping the people holding it on the outside looking in, unable to exercise any real power no matter how much noise they make.

    I'm no Nostradamus, apparently.

    So this one-act will have to be substantially re-worked to reflect the current political reality if I want to see it produced.  And I'm no longer certain I do - it might simply remain an exercise, gathering dust in my filing cabinet, an artifact of a political reality that might have been.

    Plays I've already had produced are affected too, though in less obvious ways.  My Fringe play Dragon's Breath was about a troubled young woman who turned her favorite YA paranormal romance novels into the bible of an evil cult.  It was a satire about religious extremism, and so I used the most ridiculous book I could think of to serve as this bible for comedic effect.  (Sexy teenage dragons are ridiculous, right?)  But this basic decision meant that the teenage girl had to be the instrument of fanaticism and repression - not because I have anything against teenage girls, but because that's the natural consequence of the decision.  Well, real life has proven the exact opposite.  The resistance against this administration's most repressive impulses and kleptocratic tendencies is being led by Teen Vogue, for heaven's sakes.  This is a terrific development for the future of the country, of course - but for the sake of future productions of my play, not so much.

    You'll note that in this case, the sea-change which has caused my work to become dated happens to be a good thing.  That's true of another play of mine as well, Necrotopia.  It's about a community of zombie cosplayers in Brooklyn (which should surprise nobody who's ever been to Brooklyn), and spoofs all manner of horror tropes.  The trope I'm concerned with here is my take on the inevitable evil government conspiracy.  In Necrotopia, the group I dub the "Piper Initiative" infiltrates resistance movements and subcultures to ensure they remain nothing more than fads, becoming passe and dying off before ever having an affect on society.  It was born out of my frustration with things like the Gulf War opposition, which seemed to simply be steam valves to vent frustration rather than channel it.  Stop trying to define yourself by the resistance subculture you belong to, I was trying to say, and concentrate on what you're trying to do instead.

    Well, lo and behold.  If you've watched or participated in any of the resistance marches this year, you'll have noticed that the usual subcultures are nowhere to be seen.  (Your friends on Fox News and the like may see it differently, but they see dirty hippies everywhere and they're not the most reliable of narrators.)  No, these are normal people shocked into action.  And if you've followed things like the spike in political candidates and donations at the local level, or the town halls against the proposed AHCA, you've noticed that this resistance activity is translating into direct concrete action for once.  So the lesson of my play has been learned.  Trouble is, it's been learned without the play having been produced.

    Obviously, the answer to my dilemma here (for which I'm sure the world's smallest violin is playing right now) is to concentrate instead on new work, dealing with our new reality.  But plays take months to prepare and draft, not even counting the time spent shopping them around and producing them if you're lucky.  And there simply hasn't been the time to do that yet.

    I mean, dear God, it's only been a hundred days.

  • Birthday Greeting

    It’s been another eventful weekend here on this planet; a crucial election in France, demonstrations on behalf of science funding, and rational thought and inquiry in general, on all seven continents. I’m therefore going to devote today’s post to the man behind the weekend event most important to the fate of the world’s liberal humanist traditions.

    Obviously I’m talking about Shakespeare’s birthday here.

    I was extremely fortunate; the very second play in which I ever performed, in my freshman year of college, was a first-rate production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was Quince, which is a terrific role for a fledgling actor – significant enough to make you work and push yourself, but not so taxing as to overwhelm your physical abilities to play the part. It was an ambitious production, helmed by an RSC adjunct and fueled with lots of early-90s experimentation and angst. It had a cast of twenty-five intensely talented students, all getting to flex their muscles with Shakespeare’s verse and rising marvelously to the occasion. It had raging cast parties. It was exactly the sort of production that serves as a kind of divining rod in a performer’s life, confirming to an idealistic thespian that this, indeed, is what acting is all about, and what you’re supposed to do with your life.

    And it’s a good thing, too, because for the next few years, all the Shakespeare productions I performed in sucked.

    There was a summer of three plays in rep, which sounds delightful – except that the company all viewed the classic parody The Art of Course Acting as an actual acting textbook. Then there was a production of Love’s Labor’s Lost with some of the same people, faux-Renaissance costumes that could not have been more decrepit had they dated from the actual Renaissance, and a half-dozen audience members at any given performance. There was a production of Cymbeline where the audience was routinely outnumbered by the rats which scurried into our outdoor courtyard around Act IV Scene I every night. (An uncut production of Cymbeline, mind you – not because the company believed in original practices or the like, but because the director hadn’t bothered to read the play before rehearsals started.) There was a production of Comedy of Errors which toured parks and outdoor venues, one of which listed its events for the week in chronological order on a marquis as you entered, and which had scheduled a puppet show a few days before our performance. Yes, Gentle Reader, our company joined the ranks of all the bands who have lived out This is Spinal Tap in reality – if we told them once, we told them a thousand times, “Shakespeare company first, then the puppet show!”  Indeed, we had it even worse than Spinal Tap - the puppets had a bigger dressing room than we did.

    It’s not enough to love Shakespeare. You have to have a kind of religious faith in him, in order to endure the kind of crap which is repeatedly done in his name.

    Endure I did. I was cast in the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s 2001 production of Hamlet. In following years, I performed in their productions of King Lear and Macbeth as well. And here, at last, I'd found again what I sought in Shakespeare – productions with something to say, filled with ambitious creative people rising to the challenge of the language and making it speak to today’s world. And lest you think I’m implying that only prominent companies can accomplish this, I’m happy to say that I’ve had this experience with the Shakespeare plays I’ve done since, even though they’ve mostly been guerilla-theatre productions with smaller companies. It doesn’t matter; the genius is always there, a source of power waiting to be tapped.

    But I still find myself thinking about that run of terrible Shakespeare I experienced in the nineties. (I can say that about a lot of things in the nineties, but that’s another story.) I keep wondering about why those productions failed as spectacularly as they did. There’s always convenient excuses – people are fond of throwing up their hands and saying that American actors can’t handle Shakespeare, even though actor training has progressed to the point where a well-trained actor from this country has the same skill set as his peers across the pond. And people love to mock directors for ruining Shakespeare with their wacky, post-modern, trendy ideas – but if anything connects the crappy productions I’ve done, it’s the fact that they didn’t have an idea in their heads.

    No – when a Shakespearean production is undone, it’s undone by laziness. The common factor of the bad productions I’ve been in has been a director who’s insisted the cast doing nothing but tell the story – and then not understand the story. Nobody is going to want to go to the trouble of heading out to a theatrical production if all they’re going to see is the Cliff’s Notes. And no actor can thrive in such a limited environment – either you go on autopilot and lazily recite your lines, or you flail as you try and come up with an interesting performance with no meaningful feedback to help you shape it, no larger vision to try and serve.

    Shakespeare’s not a talisman. You can’t brandish him around and call it a day if you haven’t gone to the trouble of understanding him, both in his context and your own. No, he’s a challenge, an ongoing effort to take this marvelous tradition of an idealized past and make him work today. And frankly, that’s true of all these wonderful Western traditions we’re so convinced are under attack today. They only work if we put in the effort of making them work. Trot them out lazily without understanding them, expecting to be hailed and lauded simply for knowing they exist, and you’ll wind up turning them to crap instead.

    And nobody needs that.

  • Den of Non-Equity

    You might have noticed that of late, there hasn’t been much discussion of acting gigs here on this actors’ blog of mine. The explanation for this is fairly simple. While I’ve done a number of developmental readings so far this year, I have yet to be cast in a full production. And it’s not as if I’ve suddenly started tanking all of my auditions (although that’s always a remote possibility). Things have simply been slow. Whether it’s a result of the economic difficulties of production, or simply the realities of getting older in this business, there haven’t been as many projects to audition for.

    Or so I thought.

    Recently, I’ve seen laments on social media from a number of different friends of mine, all to the same effect. They are producers and directors, and they’ve been complaining that it’s been impossible for them to find actors for their projects. This would seem to me to be a freak occurrence, since we all live in a city of ten million, at least a quarter of whom seem to have headshots and resumes. But no, comment after comment on their original complaints attested to the same thing – for project after project, people were finding it impossible to round up actors. And indeed, in the developmental readings I’ve done this year, there have been all manner of last-minute difficulties in finalizing the casts. How on earth is this possible? Actors are plentiful, and always looking for work – why has finding them become so difficult all of a sudden? And why the heck didn’t my friends ask me?

    To be fair, the friends of whom I’m speaking have been producing their work non-union, so they couldn’t ask me even if they wanted to. And as a union performer, my search for work mostly centers around the casting notices with Actors’ Equity, with a few additional notices emailed to me from Actors’ Access from time to time. I don’t check Backstage nearly as often as I did when I was first starting out, and couldn’t begin to tell you what might be found on other, newer websites. So it’s entirely possible that there’s more roles out there for non-union performers than there are qualified actors to cast them (which isn’t a bad thing for the performers).

    Now, my friends haven’t just been complaining about being able to find actors. It seems that the performers have been flaking out on them once they’ve been cast. And again, it’s hard for me speculate on what’s going on, since this is the exact opposite of my own experience. Does a world where you can find performance opportunities just by surfing the web produce a weakened work ethic (he said while shaking his fist at the kids on his lawn)? Or is this simply a function of a smaller talent pool, or at least one that’s stretched too thin? And are there really so many non-union shows, flying under my radar, that the talent pool of New York City could be stretched that thin?

    None of this directly affects me - again, as an Equity performer, I couldn’t be cast in any of this even if I wanted to be. But the non-Equity world is the incubator for the future generation of talent. Any difficulties faced by that world are going to result in difficulties for the larger professional community somewhere down the line. And it’s worrisome to think that there not only are problems with it, but that I could be so blissfully unaware of those problems.

    As if I don’t have anything else to worry about.

  • I Went Down to the Demonstration

    Last Monday here in New York City, a rally was held in front of City Hall at noon, in support of the National Endowment for the Arts and in protest against the current administration’s proposed defunding of the agency. (You can check out news coverage of it here.) A few days prior, Actors Equity Association informed its members about the rally, asking for volunteers to attend and provide a show of support. Since I’m displeased by this administration’s stance on the arts – as you might remember – I felt it was important for me to attend. Especially since it was conveniently taking place during my lunch hour. 

    I arrived just as the first representatives from the performers’ unions were starting to gather at a public square around the corner from City Hall. It therefore didn’t look like there were very many of us, as a handful of volunteers handed out buttons and T-shirts as tourists strode past all around us. However, as the time for the rally drew near and we all lined up to enter the square, it became clear that there were more of us than first appeared. We filled the area before the stairs, and still the line of arts professionals, looks of grim determination in their faces, snaked its way along Chambers Street.

    I mention a line to enter and a prompt start time, and from that you can safely conclude that this wasn’t a particularly fraught or raucous protest. Whether it was even a “protest,” properly speaking, is up for debate. It was organized by members of the City Council and tightly coordinated with local media and law enforcement. The testimonials from various industry professionals – headlined by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne – were all tightly stage-managed and on-message. And it’s not like the New York City council can actually dictate federal policy, or has anti-arts legislation before it. It’s not as if New York City is a hotbed of organized activity against arts funding. This was mostly a staged event to put our concerns on the record. Essentially, a photo op.

    They asked us to take up positions behind the various speakers, so that the cameras could see a united field of artists and citizens. And I’m in there somewhere, about five rows back. There’s no way to make me out; with a group of people that size, the people in the back are there to make clear the depth of field, not to stand out themselves.

    I was an extra.

    Protests have a habit of generating counter-protests, and I was curious to see if there were people so fervently in favor of this administration, or against the arts (perhaps a ballerina ran over their dog when they were children?), that they’d show up to try and shout us down. But there was none of that. We did have to try and be heard over a New Orleans-style brass band which was busking in the area, working its way around the block throughout. But mostly, what professionals there were walking past on their lunch hours, and what tourists there were on downtown walking tours, seemed quite content to let us do our thing. The gates around City Hall prevented them from either joining in or interrupting, so our event continued happily on, another thing to see in the big city.

    So, I was an extra in a staged event, on behalf of a cause which few if any people in this city would disagree with, during a week when there were a dozen or so other issues which should arguably have our attention instead. (You all noticed that we almost started World War III, right? Right?) And I took part in this event on my lunch hour, with no disruption to my life or routine. It was quite literally the least I could do – thus raising the question of whether I should have bothered to do it at all.

    The thing of it is, though, that while the event may have been staged, its participants were clearly sincere. No permanent protesters or radical chic here; we were a bunch of work-a-day performers, as regular as our kind can ever be, coming out in force. It’s been remarkable how mundane, how ordinary the protests against this administration have been thus far. Past movements have become subcultures, in which declaration of identity wound up mattering as much or as more than the issues. Not this time – it’s regular people who are frightened and upset who are putting together these events. And events such as these are cumulative. The more there are, the more the conversation about this administration is shifted, and the more people across the political spectrum can agree that something is dreadfully wrong. It only requires the patience to keep on doing this, to keep up the pressure on as many fronts as possible.

    And New York actors know how to be patient. We spend a lot of time as extras, after all.

  • Fake News

    April Fools Day has come and gone, blessedly free of any major pranks or hoaxes. I suspect that with the mad state of the world today, most of us viewed the day as redundant and let our inner practical jokers slumber for another year. However, I did view an amusing article on social media that day. It comes from a website entitled hackstage.nyc, which features parody news articles concerning the performing life here in New York. (The title is an obvious riff on the performer’s trade paper Backstage, which should be a tip-off.) The article in question was called “Fake Equity Card Laminating Ring Uncovered in Non-Union Actors’ Apartment,” and it’s about exactly what it says it’s about. It’s good for a laugh. Feel free to take a moment and read it. I’ll wait.

    As the day progressed, I noticed a curious thing. Despite the obvious fake name of the news source, despite the ridiculous content, despite the article being over a year old, despite the fact that they literally changed the design of Equity cards years ago so you no longer have to laminate them, despite years of precedent about not believing whatever you read this time of the whirling year, I kept seeing this parody being shared and commented upon as if it was real. Scores of reasonably intelligent people had fallen for it, and fallen hard. The scourge of “fake news” had struck again.

    It’s hard to talk about “fake news” without wandering into a partisan minefield; we’ve reached the point where anything that doesn’t agree with our political views is clearly an elaborate hoax perpetrated by some conspiracy or other (my money’s on the underground mole people). So it’s useful to see it happen in a partisan-free context like this, to get some kind of handle on exactly how and why it gets spread. And it’s not enough to just shake our fists and say “the internet!” Plenty of stuff, true and false, appear on the internet without going viral. (Like my blog posts, I’m afraid.) Why this story? Why now?

    For one, it takes advantage of a divide between two groups. How healthy the relationship is between union and non-union performers tends to fluctuate. When I started out, back in another century, relations were terrible; AEA performers never seemed willing to communicate to us, and we always seemed to ascribe the worst possible motives to them, convinced that they made it impossible for us to join the union in order to stave off any competition for work. As the nineties gave way to the aughts, it seemed that communications improved, as the union realized that the rise of non-union tours meant we needed to reach out to as many performers as possible to remain strong. Sadly, the pendulum seems to be swinging back the other way again. I think recent changes to the website have prompted this: the information on upcoming auditions is now in the members only section, and the new online sign-up system means that fewer slots are available on the actual day of an audition, making the odds of “future members” being seen even longer.

    All of which is to say that there’s a lot of people out there right now who are feeling left out of Equity’s world, having no idea what the union does for performers or how people get into it. A story about a fake card ring may well be plausible. And if there’s enough free-floating resentment and frustration out there, it may be exactly what they want to hear.

    Which brings me to the second thing about fake news; we believe it because we want to. It reinforces some existing prejudice of ours, manifests the fantasies cooked up in the darkest parts of our ids so that we can point to it and exclaim “ah-ha!” It’s worth remembering, when we mutter about Russians or what have you, that ultimately we’re the ones responsible for it. And if we want to fix things by stopping it, we have to start by fixing ourselves.

    As a wise man once said, it takes two to lie – one to lie and one to listen. Sadly, that man has often been regarded as quite the fool. An April fool, as it were.

  • Being Green

    If you’re taking time out of your day to read the blog of an unknown actor, there’s a better-than-average chance that you’re already aware that the New York Times has hired a new drama critic. For that small fraction of you who aren't (hi, Dad!), here’s a recap. Until recently, the two chief theater critics for the Times have been Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood. When it was announced that the Times had dismissed Isherwood from his post, there was much hand-wringing amongst us theater folk that the paper was downsizing its arts coverage and rendering itself irrelevant in an ever more digital world. However, it soon became clear that Isherwood’s position hadn’t been eliminated, but that he himself had been fired for inappropriate professional behavior. The details are still unclear, but it seems he’d had inappropriate contact of some sort with a Broadway producer – Isherwood has promised legal action, and eventually we’ll all figure out what’s really been going on. But regardless, there was indeed a full-time “second string” critic’s position at the Times to be had, and they were looking to hire.

    Since time immemorial (or at least since the paper’s founding), the Times drama critic has been an imposing arbiter of taste – and, not incidentally, a patrician white male. Since 2004, the post has been shared between two white men with exceedingly middlebrow tastes. With the news of an open position, in a time when theatrical voices are growing ever more diverse, most followers of this story were hoping for the new hire to reflect that. They wanted the Times to hire a writer of color, or hire a woman. And this would not have been hard at all; for several years now, Alexis Soloski has been a freelance third-string critic at the paper. She’s reviewed major Off-Broadway productions for them, and did so for the Village Voice for many years before that. As a strong and respected critic who already has a history with the paper, she would have been a sensible choice. Instead, to the chagrin of all those tired of white male theater critics, they hired Jesse Green, currently the drama critic for New York Magazine. An opportunity, say those who argue for diverse voices in the arts, squandered.

    Here’s the thing of it, though. Alexis Soloski is indeed a good writer. Jesse Green, many of us would argue, is the single best writer working as a critic in this city right now. (He’s also probably closest to my own aesthetic, which doesn’t hurt.) Where most critics’ writing is functional at best (and incoherent in the worst corners of the internet), Green writes a dandy line of English prose. His knowledge of theater history is second only to a legend like Michael Feingold, but he never becomes pedantic about it. Best of all, he’s great at pointing out the political overtones and wider context of a show without it ever seeming like he’s shortchanging the show itself to make his point. (If you want to read my favorite recent example of all this, and share my disdain for late-period Mamet, check out his recent take on The Penitent here.)  In fact, if you wanted to hire a critic who could write intelligently on diversity issues, and were going strictly by writing samples, Green could easily be your choice.

    This has led to plenty of arguments amongst my theatrical Facebook events, in which I have studiously avoided taken part, since both sides are essentially correct. It all depends on which premise you adopt. If you start with the premise that the Times, by virtue of its place in American culture, needs to feature the very best critical writing, then Green is the obvious choice. If instead you take as your postulate that the Times, as the pre-eminent critical voice of the American theater, should have writers that actually reflect the current landscape of the theater, the Green hire is a remarkably tone-deaf move.  Can you call something "the best" without regard to a broader social context?  Don't expect that debate to end anytime soon.

    The problem with both of these arguments is that they share certain common assumptions, assumptions so deeply ingrained that most people don’t even notice them. They assume that only two full time writers, at most, can serve as chief critic of this paper at any one time. They assume limited column space for theatrical coverage. And they assume that the primary focus of this criticism is Broadway, with some especially high-profile Off-Broadway assignments to provide sufficient work for the two – and only two – critics.

    Why not hire both Green and Soloski? Why not have Brantley gush over diva-tastic musicals (as is his wont), Green provide analysis of prominent current playwriting, and Soloski provide deep dives into what’s bubbling up in less obvious Off- and off-off Broadway venues? For that matter, New York will shortly be in need of a full-time critic – why can’t they hire two critics rather than one? We’ve all been going with the assumption that print newspapers are dying, and they have to restrict their coverage to try and survive just a little bit longer. But since the election, an anxiety-laden readership searching for understanding has driven the Times’ circulation sharply up – apparently somebody really is making America great again. And as uncertain times make the arts more essential, the coverage needs to reflect that, and there needs to be more of it, not less.

    When we fight over scraps, it’s because somebody has convinced us there are only scraps to be had. If we want to fight for more inclusive writing in American criticism, and American theater in general, we need to fight against this mentality as well.

  • Taxing

    I had it all planned out perfectly. So naturally, all of my plans fell apart.

    Actors’ Equity maintains a VITA office (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance), where union members may have their tax returns prepared for free. If you don’t have an advance appointment for this service (which my erratic schedule doesn’t allow me to obtain), you need to come by the Equity building early in the morning, sign up, and then wait to be seen by the volunteer tax preparers as time permits. They do their best to fit people in, and while there are no guarantees, they usually do a good job of doing so.

    Last Thursday, I had an appointment at 3pm and nothing else to do that day. This therefore seemed like the ideal opportunity to get my taxes done. I woke when it was still dark, travelled from my Bronx apartment to Times Square, and arrived at quarter to six. I’ve been doing this for years now, and based on turnout in those previous years at this time, a month before the tax deadline, I figured I’d be seen easily. I might even be first on the list.

    I was eighth on the list. The first people there had arrived at around 4:45 in the morning.

    And so I waited – outside at first, then in the 14th floor offices. Where I napped, and waited, and waited some more. Despite the first volunteer arriving at 8am to prepare returns, everything proceeded at a snail’s place, and it wasn’t until 1:30pm that they even asked to see my preliminary paperwork. By which time it was clear, given the amount of time each return was taking, that I couldn’t possibly be seen and get to my appointment in time. And so, after eight hours of waiting, I left.

    Resolving that this should not happen again, this morning, Monday the 20th, I awoke shortly after 2:30am and staggered out of my apartment building into the cold dark night, and once more caught a subway into Manhattan. I arrived in Times Square, as the first folks on Thursday’s list did, at quarter to five in the morning. Surely I’d be first on the list this time!

    I was fifth. I don’t know when the first person got here, but the second person helpfully wrote the time next to their name – 2:55.

    To make matters worse, at the deli across the street from the Equity offices where I went to get my breakfast of an egg sandwich, the upstairs seating section was closed. This despite the fact that the place was crowded at that ridiculous hour, more so than at lunch time. I couldn’t figure out why, until I listened to them talking and heard their tourist brogues.

    My god, I realized. I’m here so early that the St. Patrick’s Day weekend hasn’t finished yet.

    And so, Gentle Reader, I’m typing this now as I wait once more on the 14th floor of the AEA building, to get my tax return prepared. All around me, folks are snoring as they grab some needed sleep, waiting for the first preparers to arrive. Nothing has started yet, which is problematic - I need to be at work by 2pm, which needs I’ll need to leave here no later than 1:30pm, which means I need to be seen by 12:30.

    We haven’t started yet.

    Apart from the inconvenience, I’m distressed by how angry I feel. The preparers are all volunteers, doing this out of the kindness of their hearts, and I have no right to demand they be here to accommodate me – but then again, this service is a privilege of my union membership, and I should have every expectation that I may exercise it. Likewise, the people around me here are my fellow professionals, with whom I should have some camaraderie – but that gets difficult when they bring a giant tupperware container of receipts with them and occupy the one preparer on duty for a good two hours. We’re a community, we actors, and it’s a problem if the structures designed to support that community wind up seeding dissatisfaction within it instead.

    Still, it must be done. After all, our president’s golf vacations, all protestations to the contrary, are not going to pay for themselves.

  • An Honest Policy Discussion

    It’s a bit far down the list of things that are worrying most Americans about the present administration, but it seems that the National Endowment for the Arts is once again on the budgetary chopping block. Congressional Republicans, especially in the House, have long talked about removing the agency’s funding, and White House staff officials have indicated that the president intends to get rid of it altogether. Concrete budget plans have not yet been announced, and won’t be until May, but the writing – or at least the tweeting – seems to be on the wall.

    There are a few reasons why this hasn’t caused mass panic yet among my fellow arts professionals. One, as mentioned above, is that there is a vast list of other things for all of us to be worried about right now. Another, more cynical reason is that the NEA’s budget is already so pitifully small that most of us don’t receive direct benefit from it. But if the arts community seems somewhat blasé about this particular horseman of the Trumpocalypse, there’s one great underlying reason. Namely, that this has been going on for decades. For as long as some of us have been alive.

    The politicization of the NEA came to national attention with the so-called “NEA Four” – performance artists (Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, and John Fleck) whose individual grants were approved by the NEA’s peer review process only to be vetoed by its chairman for the projects’ political content. While the four won the subsequent lawsuit, the NEA stopped giving individual grants at all as a result of the attention. The notoriety of the case tends to make people think it’s the reason why, starting with Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, Congressional conservatives have been trying to abolish the agency outright. The NEA Four court case isn’t the inciting incident here, however. Instead, we need to look to an incident in Minneapolis in March of 1994, involving that city’s Walker Arts Center and the performance artist Ron Athey. And as it happens, I was living in Minneapolis that very year, and since I still remember the actual facts of the case I figure it’s my duty to record them here, before history re-writes them as it sees fit.

    Ron Athey is the sort of performer who subjects himself to extreme physical torture in his works as a means of political confrontation; there’s a portrait of the man here, if you’re not too squeamish to read it.  In 1994, Athey was touring a piece of his entitled Four Scenes in a Harsh Life. As part of the work, Athey made light cuts in the back of his co-performer, applied paper toweling to the wounds, then used a pulley to lift the towels into the air for all to see (I told you this wasn’t for the squeamish). In most cities where this played, this piece was reviewed by people who understood the work for what it was, and who published those pieces in their respective papers’ Arts and Leisure sections. Some responses were positive, some negative – it’s a free country, after all, and nobody has to like s&m-themed performance art if they don’t want to. However, in Minneapolis, Star-Tribune critic Mary Abbe did not bother to attend the piece herself. Instead, she compiled some second-hand complaints she’d heard about the show – complaints which turned out to be false. She reported that the HIV-positive Athey had used his own blood in this moment (he didn’t), and that he’d used the towels to flick the (not actually) tainted blood at the audience (he hadn’t). And this erroneous reporting made it not to the Star-Tribune’s Arts and Leisure section, but to the front page of its Metro section, the better to cause maximum panic. I distinctly remember reading that article while reading up on 80s performance art for one of my classes, and after the initial discomfort over its content (because c’mon), wondering just how such unsophisticated, biased, alarmist reporting could appear in a major metropolitan newspaper.

    Well, members of the United States Congress didn’t share my concerns over the Star-Tribune’s journalistic standards. Instead, folks like Jesse Helms read it into the Congressional record to serve as proof that these decadent artists were completely undeserving of support from the NEA, and that the agency was fatally compromised as a result. The House of Representatives did indeed remove the NEA from the federal budget, although the Senate re-instated it. One cannot imagine today’s Senate doing the same.

    Now, I can already hear some of you proclaiming that those Congressional squares of the mid-nineties were right, and you don’t want your tax dollars going to support something as outre as this. And I can’t really disagree with you – in terms of where I’d send my own contribution checks, there’s a long, long list of worthy causes ahead of this in the queue. But you know who also agrees with you? Ron Athey. In contrast to the NEA Four, he refused government assistance for his work on principle, not wanting any outside bureaucracy to have a say over his vision. The NEA grant in question went to the Walker Arts Space venue in Minneapolis, which didn’t even present the work themselves – it was staged at a place called Patrick’s Cabaret, which was co-producing with the Walker. The Walker used part of its own (NEA-supported) budget to assist Patrick’s Cabaret with expenses in bringing this project to their stage. In other words, they arranged a travel stipend.

    Of $150.

    Gas money.

    The whole two-decades-long crusade to do away with the National Endowment for the Arts? To scuttle programs whose primary purpose these days is to bring culture into inner city and rural areas which might otherwise not receive its benefits? It ultimately rests on $150 in gas money. And it rests on an accounting of events which bears no relation to the actual facts.

    We've spent twenty years patiently explaining the economic and social benefits of arts funding, and it seems clear that such patient discussion is beside the point  Because when people are making policy decisions based on inaccurate and willfully misunderstood facts, it’s a pretty safe bet that they don’t actually care about policy. They’re looking for an excuse to do what’s already in their hearts, and likely has been for a long time. And that’s as true of things like the drive to repeal the ACA or the implementation of the “travel ban” on Muslims as it is of the quest to defund the NEA. You can tell by the fact that, whether it's undoing the ACA or the NEA, the people who stand to lose the most from it come from the conservative rural areas whose representatives are clamoring the loudest for these things to be destroyed.  And you can get a sense of what’s driving all this based on the artists involved – Athey and the NEA Four specialize in provocative gay-themed work centered around confronting the AIDS crisis and a hostile cultural climate. We’re free not to like it – mid-90s performance art is pretty ham-fisted and obscure, after all. But the quest to destroy it has something much darker at its core. A desire to point at this gloriously wild cultural landscape of ours and say “okay, get rid of that, and them, and those folks over there, and we’ll finally have a decent country again.”

    And here I’m actually willing to give this administration some credit. One this one point, at least, they’re finally being honest.

    UPDATE:  Well, this wound up being a timelier post than I'd hoped.  Actors' Equity Association has a petition to preserve the National Endowment for the Arts, which you can sign here.  For further ideas and ways to help, you can check out the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, here.

  • It's the Internet, So I'm Required By Law to Talk About Comic Book Movies

    Don’t be fooled by last week’s Oscar analysis; my movie-going tastes are as low-brow as anybody’s, and as a patriotic American I do make sure to see the comic-book movies as soon as they come out (except for the DCEU, because seriously guys, c’mon). If you think these films aren’t intellectually stimulating, or that they can’t provide the material for my customary sociopolitical analysis, then I’m afraid you’re mistaken, Gentle Reader. In fact, this year has already seen the release of a “comic movie” which contains the most pointed and relevant political commentary we’re likely to see this year.

    No, I’m not talking about this weekend’s Logan, though it seems everybody else is. I speak, of course, of The LEGO Batman Movie.

    I’m surprised that more reviewers haven’t pointed out LEGO Batman’s political content. The original LEGO movie wound up being hailed as a brilliant allegory by pundits across the political spectrum, seeing in that sweet little fable whatever they wanted to see. The villain is Lord Business – surely this is a brilliant anti-capitalist tract ironically disguised as product placement! No, wait – Lord Business is disguised as President Business, so this must be a libertarian tract about the dangers of an intrusive State! It’s feminist! No it’s not! I’m surprised there’s not a think piece out there explaining in laborious detail how Vesuvius is really a stand-in for a return to the gold standard.

    But so far, the reviews of LEGO Batman I’ve seen have all focused exclusively on its comic book plot, viewing it as a send-up and critique of years of Batman lore and pop cultural representation. And that’s true, obviously – when your supporting cast includes the Eraser and Condiment King you’re obviously taking a deep dive into bat-lore. But it’s worth looking at how Batman’s portrayed in this movie – egocentric, oblivious, an embodiment of alpha-male certitude in plastic form. A man with the absolute certainty that his outlook on the world is the only correct one. A man who can’t bring himself to engage with the more diverse, pluralistic society around him. It’s not an accident that the film’s two major authority figures – the mayor, and the new Commissioner – are women, or that the movie’s narrative arc involves Batman learning to work together with, and accept, this new society. Heck, Barbara Gordon explicitly uses the phrase “it takes a village” when describing this new paradigm.

    It seems clear to me that the makers of LEGO Batman thought they were making one of the first films of the new Clinton era, and that the movie exists on some level to reach out to men of a certain mindset and say, “there’s nothing to fear. It’s okay.”

    Well, clearly that didn’t happen.

    So instead, here we are in the Logan era. And sure, it’s clear why it’s being embraced as a film for this moment – there’s plenty of parallels to where we are right now. Logan’s world is one where the U.S. – Mexico border is fraught with tension and suspicion, where big Pharma and big agribusiness are running roughshod over civil rights, where our citizens have little hope but escaping to Canada. But it’s not an allegory – these parallels wind up being rather superficial, in my opinion. At heart, Logan’s just an old-fashioned western, with the angry loner seeking redemption in one last battle. It’s a story we’ve heard many times before, frankly. And in its defeatism, in its extolling of the man who can’t engage with the world around him, it actually reinforces much of the mindset that gets us into messes like this in the first place.

    I’d rather play with LEGOs, to be honest.

    That movie’s lessons may have been intended for a world that didn’t come to pass, but that doesn’t mean the lessons aren’t valuable. We do need to figure out how to move beyond our past baggage, how to embrace and work with those with whom we don’t always agree. Better to dream of a future where we can all lock together to create beautiful new things, than one where we can do nothing but claw it all to shreds.

    And if that’s all a bit much to take in, fear not: in a few months, the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel comes out. Baby Groot’s in that one!

  • About Last Night

    In hindsight, it was inevitable.

    We are a divided nation. Half of us dream of a world that’s more inclusive, where society is constantly evolving to be ever more welcoming of people of all backgrounds, faiths, and philosophies; the other half, apprehensive of the changes caused by such an evolution, seek refuge in an idealized world of the past. And so we dream of some event where one side or the other will emerge victorious once and for all, even though we are so deadlocked that no such victory can ever take place, and the contests we create for such a victory to occur wind up resulting in confusing, inconclusive fiascos.

    Obviously I’m talking about the Oscars here.

    I have to admit, given that I’m a struggling artist of limited means and free time, I haven’t seen most of this year’s nominated films. But frankly, that doesn’t matter – we naturally project upon movies our politics, our ideals, our sense of how the world should be, and come Oscar time these become our vicarious champions every bit as much our local sports teams. I’ve been watching with fascination these past few weeks as narratives were constructed around the films by people with strong beliefs about how our aesthetics should mix with our politics. And they really didn’t care for La La Land (in which the world’s prettiest white people bring back 1950s-style musical choreography in order to save jazz, or something), and rallied around Moonlight (a low-budget labor of love which takes the black LGBT experience and makes it a universal statement). And through a month’s worth of think pieces and status updates, it’s been amazing to see just how elaborate the narrative around these films and this contest has become. It’s as if the fate of the nation was at stake; as if the election of the current president, and all that represents, would either be triumphantly negated or tragically confirmed based upon who won a trophy.

    So naturally, the Oscar victory came in such a bizarre fashion that neither of these narratives could come to pass. La La Land won – but no it really didn’t! And the insane circumstances by which we learned Moonlight actually won prevented that movie from having any traditional moment of Oscar triumph. And once again, a nationally watched election, while it had a definitive winner, ended on note of grotesque inconclusiveness, as we tried to figure out just what the heck happened.

    Of course.

    As I note above, this shouldn’t be surprising – we’re too fractious a people for any one competition’s outcome to decide anything, and should expect a long succession of contests instead as we try and figure out just who we are, what we believe in, and what movies we should watch.

    (Incidentally, if you’re curious just how those future contests might unfold, I recommend paying closer attention to the truly significant part of any televised event – last night’s commercials. It’s one thing for celebrities to espouse liberal and multicultural values, but when major corporations take out expensive ad time at the Oscars to do the same thing, you know that something significant is occurring. The road to victory may be rocky and full of set-backs, but that victory is likely already won.)

  • Online

    I’m still slowly making my way through the rough draft of my current writing project, but it appears I’ve settled on a project after that. Recently, a friend of mine was at a musical audition, and one of the grizzled showbiz vets at said audition told him he looked like a young Vic Damone. (The grizzled showbiz vet wasn’t wrong – my friend does resemble a young Vic Damone, and boasts a similar old-fashioned baritone.) When once he shared this on Facebook, I replied with the jest, “well it looks like you found your one-man show!” (Actors are constantly on the look-out for these, after all.) A few google searches later, and it dawned on me that there actually was sufficient material for an interesting one-man show, to say nothing of an actor willing to play the part. And so, this yet-unnamed piece jumped to the head of my on-deck line of writing projects.

    If I do follow through with this plan for the Vic Damone piece, it will mean that of my last four scripts, three will have had their genesis on social media. Bay Ridge Lotus was inspired by a similar back-and-forth with a friend of mine on Twitter; Blanketing Merillon Avenue is a dramatization of an Election Day status update of mine from a few years back. (My current script actually stems from a much older inspiration, one pre-dating even my first email account. But that’s another story.)

    All of which begs the question; am I spending too much time on Facebook?

    To those worried that online interaction is both supplanting and poisoning our real lives, it probably seems like I’ve just supplied anecdotal evidence to support their worst fears. But artists have gathered in cafes and salons for centuries, having conversations precisely like the ones I describe above and fueling their inspiration in the exact same way. Is there really a difference?

    Perhaps not. But perhaps, by moving the conversation into a digital landscape, it all becomes a little more unreal, and it’s easier for these ideas to peter out as daydreams rather than turn into real scripts and other works of art. It’s all a little early to tell, and we’re all still painfully learning just what we’re dealing with now that Mark Zuckerberg has opened Pandora’s box for us all.

    In other news, if you haven’t already, please feel free to like my Facebook page.

  • Saga Symphony

    A blizzard shut the city down this Thursday, and holed up in my apartment, I resolved to get some writing done on my next play (I managed a rough draft of the first scene). To try and facilitate the old creative juices, I went through my CD collection to find some music. I found a comparatively obscure 20th century symphonic work to listen to as I typed away. A work by the Icelandic composer Jon Leifs, known as the Saga Symphony.

    The story of Leifs and this symphony is actually an interesting one, and tragic. Though Icelandic, Leifs was employed as a conductor in Germany for much of his career, and was there as the Nazis came to power and World War II broke out – along with his wife, who was Jewish, and their children. Leifs was well-placed enough to protect his family; so long as he remained a member of Berlin’s Composer’s Council, and assisted in the broadcasting of Nazi propaganda aimed at his home country, he was able to shield his family from persecution. By remaining outwardly compliant, he kept his family safe. Privately, he holed up in his proverbial garret and composed the Saga Symphony, an intensely patriotic (and by extension, anti-Nazi) work, which harkened back to the legendary figures of the Icelandic Sagas for inspiration. Here’s how the composer Hjalmar H. Ragnarsson describes it in the liner notes of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra recording I have:

    “He shut himself in with his ideas, losing himself in the world of the old Icelandic manuscripts, that to him, was more real than the terror outside his door. In this world the characters in the sagas became magnificent heroes that no adversary could defeat and no power could force into submission. Only death could vanquish them, which these heroes met standing erect with a smile on their lips.”

    The music manages to live up to this description. It bypasses much of the harmonic language of Western symphonic music, instead invoking something more ancient, primal. Its melody lines are so rugged and craggy as to barely qualify as melody. It has sudden bursts of percussion over ever churning strings. It even has tuned rocks and Viking shields as part of the instrumentation. (Perfect to have playing in the background while wrestling with one’s recalcitrant muse.)

    But what are we to make of this work of art, and its composer scribbling in secret with the Nazis outside the door? Clearly Leifs’ hope (and the view of his admirers) is that this would be heard as an act of secret resistance, its ancient heroes providing inspiration to the modern world. But the figure of Leifs himself, at least in this portion of his life, reminds one of a helpless teenager, shutting out a world he’s powerless to change and seeking refuge in fantasy. He had Njall and Kari Solmundarson; we have Captain America and Iron Man. Is there much of a difference?

    And did he, in the end, make a difference?

    The question preys on my mind because of what I’ve been holed up writing myself. I’ll go into the specifics in another post, but it’s a mock Shakespeare play. It’s an idea I’ve been toying with for a long time, but finally figured out how to make work recently. And I’d like to think, as I map it out, that the final result will have things to say about the frightening world we’re living in right now. But it’s just as easy to point at me, in my cozy apartment, away from the rest of the world, and say that I’m retreating into a fantasy world based on an idealized past.

    So which is it?

    Hard to say. I’m still working on the script. Events around us are still unfolding. And nobody’s written my liner notes yet.

  • Zombie

    I had such plans.

    After a particularly frantic week at my day job, I’d meant to hunker down on Friday, and for as much of the weekend as possible, working on my next playwriting project. I’ve only just started the actual drafting, but I’ve been researching and planning it out for a few months now (and thinking over the idea for several years now). And this was to be when I made my first real push.

    And then, Thursday evening, I felt it. The first tickle in the throat. A cold. And blossoming fast at that.

    Not to worry, I thought to myself. I have off Friday anyway. Take care of a few errands, then sit down and write in between sips of herbal tea and chicken soup. Not a problem.

    But this was one of the bad colds. One of those 48-hours of wooziness colds. One of those colds that make everything taste different, and makes it feel like you’re walking through jello. One of those brutal, mind-fogging colds, for which the only cure seems to be blatant procrastination.

    So, a few clicks and keystrokes, and my internet was up, and a quick computer game was to be had. And while I’d thought I’d only distract myself for a few minutes, the fetid miasma rapidly enveloping my brain made it impossible for me to concentrate on anything else. Several hours passed by, with me as mindless as the undead creatures I was battling in Plants vs. Zombies.

    I felt guilty. All the work I’d planned to do was going undone. And not just work on my own projects. Just about everybody I know is lobbying and protesting and engaged with our trouble world in one way or another, and any chances I had of doing so over the past few days was rapidly fading. But I had to face it – this cold was bad enough that I couldn’t do these things even if I wanted to.

    Well, it’s out of my system now.

    So I promise, Gentle Reader, this time next week you’ll be reading about new projects aplenty. Which is as much a promise to myself as anything.

  • Confessions of a Part-Time Semi-Professional Racist

    If you look at my resume, you’ll see that I’ve worked with some regularity at African-American theater companies; I recently worked with Negro Ensemble Company, I spent many years working with Classical Theatre of Harlem, etc. If you then navigate over to my photo gallery, you’ll probably notice that I’m Caucasian. It’s therefore safe to infer that I’ve spent a good portion of my acting career playing the “white” roles in black theater pieces.

    I play a lot of racists, is what I’m saying.

    This isn’t a particularly hard thing to do. Oftentimes these roles are fairly small, there to provide a moment of menace and either provide context for the story or fuel its conflict. If you’re playing the corrupt policeman who busts the title character in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, or are menacing the lead as the second guard or third townsman from the left, you typically don’t have to do much besides shout, glower, or sneer. This holds true even with a more complex character, like A Raisin In the Sun’s Karl Lindner. I don’t believe there’s a more finely drawn miniature portrait in American dramatic literature than Lindner, and the essence of it is the contrast between the polite face he’s putting forward and the fear, resentment, and racial entitlement which is just below the surface. But it’s those negative emotions which are the character’s fuel, some version of which you’re tapping into in order to play the character.

    Simple, right? Racism is just the most negative elements of our psyche, which we turn against people who look different from ourselves. If you’re playing a racist, just tap into your own inner reserves of anger and hostility – we all have them, so you might as well put them to constructive use. You get to purge them from your system by performing the character, the audience gets a timely reminder to keep their own worst impulses in check, and the world grows steadily more progressive and enlightened.

    Evidently not.

    Not only is racism on the rise in a way I’ve never seen in my lifetime (seriously, read a paper or look around you, it’s freaking terrifying), but the folks we once would have dismissed as racists are demanding that we begin taking them seriously. Insisting that they have legitimate grievances informing their world views. Building whole edifices of political, economic, and social philosophies atop their beliefs. Stating with a straight face that the act of calling them racists is itself racist and therefore something only racists would do. And underneath it all, insisting that we empathize with them, and saying that our refusal to do so proves they have the moral high ground after all.

    Well, fine.

    A few weeks ago, I took part in a developmental reading of a new play. It’s called Class, and it’s about a frustrated young student confronting a professor whom he believes, not without reason, to have sabotaged his academic career. The professor is African-American, while the young white student, a lifetime of his father’s bitter rhetoric still ringing in his ears, has embraced the most feverish elements of white rage and racialist nationalism. The playwright herself is African-American, and constructed the play as a sincere investigation into the phenomenon, giving the student legitimate grievances and allowing him to expound on his beliefs in detail while giving the professor serious flaws of her own. The play functions as a debate between two equal participants – precisely the sort of respect and consideration these disaffected white voices say isn’t being afforded to them.

    I played the student (since it was a developmental reading, we’ll conveniently ignore the fact that college was a loooooong time ago for me). I read that rhetoric allowed, used every tool in my arsenal to empathize with this lost soul, allow him to speak for himself. And in whatever official capacity I may have as professional empathizer, let me say this. A good faith effort to understand the hurts, frustrations, and grievances fueling this portion of our society doesn’t excuse them, doesn’t ameliorate the racism at all.

    It makes it a thousand times worse.

    I have never been more physically pained by the words I’ve been asked to speak. No cathartic bursts of anger here, no – this was a gnawing, poisonous ugliness that I’m still having trouble shaking. Providing a rationale for his behavior, providing a context to humanize him, did nothing to mask that ugliness. It only amplified it. I mentioned “edifices of political, economic, and social philosophies” above to describe this sort of rhetoric, and that may be how these people see their ideas, but the foundation on which those built is too twisted to be stable. It is, instead, a funhouse hall of mirrors, with their own ugliness endlessly reflected back at them.

    Again, look around you. Look at the damage these people are causing to our society, our institutions, everything we say we hold dear.  We’re past the point where we need to wring our hands over whether calling them “racist” is hurting their feelings. Empathy and understanding may be critical, but only insofar as they help the rest of us to figure out how to defeat this ideology. And we have to be willing to say that defeat is indeed the ultimate goal.

    Because I’m getting tired of playing these jackasses.

  • Once More Around the Sun

    Today is my birthday. This planet has gone around the sun (redacted) times since first I appeared upon it.

    I must admit, that (redacted) number gives me a little pause. Not for the reasons you might think, though. Unlike some actors, I’m not particularly worried about how that (redacted) number might make people think I’m old – I am old, dammit, and if I do say so myself I think I’m in half-way decent shape for a man aged (redacted). It’s not the number of the years itself – I’ve lived through, hell I’ve earned, every one of them. No, it’s the content of those years that weighs upon a person every time they know they’ve taken one more trip around the sun. Or more accurately, what we perceive as the lack of content.

    One more trip around the sun, and I still haven’t booked a Broadway gig.

    One more trip around the sun, and I still haven’t had a professional production of one of my scripts.

    One more trip around the sun, and I still haven’t been published.

    One more trip around the sun, and I’m still in the same place.

    And this is just my own private, personal insecurities here. The whole planet takes the trip around the sun with me, of course. And looking at this world of ours after (redacted) years is an even more depressing prospect.

    All these trips around the sun, and economic inequality is worse than ever.

    All these trips around the sun, and racism and sexism still exist.

    All these trips around the sun, and we haven’t found a better way for powering our lives than burning everything we can possibly dig out of the ground.

    All these trips around the sun, and we still haven't realized that despotism is not a good thing.

    All these trips around the sun, and now the corrupt real-estate tycoon we all used to mock is…well, you know.

    Looking back can’t help but be depressing. And yet, we move forward anyway. Our hopes and dreams have merit, and there is but one way to realize them. Taking the leap of faith that each fresh chance might be the one that actually changes the outcome - for ourselves, our communities, our country, our planet.  We can never know how far we are from our destination, but we can still do what we can to head towards it.

    And so, once more around the sun.

  • Backlash to the Backlash

    The week ahead is going to be eventful, stressful, even terrifying, for all of us. (And no, I’m not referring to how we’ll probably crash the AEA servers when the Public Theater advance EPA sign-up goes live on Wednesday.)

    For the past two months we’ve all watched the realization of many of our worst fears, a slow motion car-crash we’ve been powerless to stop. We’ve seen a parade of blatant incompetents nominated to head critical government agencies, with the clear goal of dismantling those agencies and throwing the lives of millions into chaos as a result. We’ve seen a grotesque coarsening of our national discourse the likes of which we’ve never seen. We’ve seen evidence of collusion with hostile foreign powers, and we’ve heard the reporters of that evidence mocked, berated, and denounced. And through all of this, there’s been one notion that some folks have clung to as a desperate source of hope: propelled by a need to serve as the resistance, as the backlash to what’s to come, a moribund arts scene is about rediscover its sense of purpose. Film, music, theater – it’s all about to get good.

    Lately, however, I’ve seen some tremendous backlash to this notion, outlined in a number of essays and spread far and wide online by friends of mine. How dare you? they cry out, in one way or another. It is, after all, the height of privilege to look forward to all the amazing protest art, since it implies that the terrible things you’re protesting – the scuttling of our social safety net, the likely assault on the civil rights of our most vulnerable populations – don’t directly affect you. That you can view these things with bemused detachment while evaluating the desperate protests against them on aesthetic grounds. Plus, the argument continues, did these works of art we fetishize so actually solve the problems they protested? Did Woodstock actually stop the Vietnam war, or British punk the Thatcher administration? Did the artistically fertile Weimar era stop what came next in Germany? Shouldn’t we focus our energies on protests that actually work?

    These arguments have substantial merit. And they make me feel a little guilty, since I’ve been writing quite a bit here about the merits of artistic protest. Heck, I’ve been doing it since back when Nate Silver and company were assuring us this couldn’t possibly happen – back in September, I wrote a post called “Silver Lining,” looking back at my time with Classical Theatre of Harlem and expressing my belief that similarly exciting work would spring up once more, should the need arise. Was I really being so flippant, prizing my own artistic fortunes over the fate of our nation?

    I hope not. And I’d like to return to a point I made in that post, and find myself making frequently – that there are more extraordinary playwrights working today than at any point in my lifetime. This is true in the major regional houses, and it’s true in the forgotten hole-in-the-wall theaters where new voices are truly developed. Even if we weren’t about to backslide on decades of social progress, even if we weren’t about to give the nuclear codes to somebody with reputed mob ties and a gnat’s attention span, they would be creating great art.

    But would anybody care?

    Times of crisis don’t change the arts so much as they change the things people feel they need from the arts. And clearly, it shouldn’t take…this…to make it matter. It shouldn’t be this hard to make people listen to the voices of others around them. It shouldn’t take fear of this magnitude to make people care. But history, and my own experience, states quite clearly that it does.

    And as we ramp up our plans to protest, to engage and debate, I think we should take a good hard look at why this is the case – where this solipsism comes from, and how we go about dismantling that. This seems to me like a fine thing to protest.

    While we still can.

  • New Year, New Rules

    A new year is upon us, and so last week, I attended my first EPA of 2017. For those non-actors among my readership, an ‘EPA’ stands for “Equity Principal Audition,” and refers to the required calls which theatrical productions are required to hold for any production under an Equity contract, and which are open to any member of the union (and any non-member who’s willing to put themselves on a wait list and stick around for the day in case an extra audition spot opens up). I’ve been going to these for many years now, and I’m familiar with the routine – arrive at the audition location, sign up for a time slot (assuming any remain), come back at the appointed time to do what you do. It’s always pretty much the same.

    Except for last week, when everything was totally different. Not in terms of the audition itself, but in terms of the sign-up. The grid format of the old sign-up sheet was gone, replaced by this strange, linear layout. And the white index cards which were once given to us with our time slot, to be returned when we actually auditioned, were no more; there was pad for writing ourselves reminders if we wanted to, but by and large we were on an honor system.

    The ultimate cause of these changes was something that was actually implemented last month, but which I hadn’t experienced firsthand until now. After years of discussion, online registration for the EPAs is now possible (it’s been implemented in other cities before now). It only applies to a portion of the audition slots, but we no longer have to trudge in at the crack of dawn to sign up for them – we can do so from the comfort of our home.

    Or so I’m told. As with any innovation, there are all manner of unexpected consequences. One, as mentioned above, is that the various sign-in sheets are completely different now that they’re accommodating the print-outs for the on-line registrations. The other, of course, is that all of these on-line registration slots are taken about two minutes after registration goes live. So I’ve never actually signed up for these shiny new slots.

    Naturally, there is a percentage of membership that says this is unfair, since if you don’t happen to be at your computer or mobile device at the moment a particular’s audition goes live, you won’t be able to grab an online audition slot. However, most of what I’ve seen of the discussion thus far centers around whether the time it goes live is the factor. At the moment, registration for a given audition goes live at noon, one week prior to the audition date. Debating whether it should go live at 9am or midnight instead implies that early birds or night owls are somehow inherently more deserving of an advance audition slot than folks who have a convenient noon lunch break.

    And it’s this debate, this sense that a new system isn’t magically working as perfectly as it was envisioned, that may have led to the strangest unintended consequence of all. I only have anecdotal evidence for this, but my non-union friends have reported to me that it’s now easier for them to get seen as standby candidates at EPAs now that the online system is in place. You’d think the opposite would be true, since fewer slots should be available on the day of the audition. The likeliest explanation seems to be that Equity members, on realizing that the online slots are gone after 90 seconds or so, have grown discouraged and chosen not to come to the calls, even though there are slots available day-of as well, and non-members have been able to claim them as alternates.

    (Or that it’s been too damn cold out. It’s been pretty cold the past few days.)

    Does this mean that the improvements to the system have backfired? Or worse, is it all a sinister plan, a way of undermining member support for the EPA system so that it may be sneakily replaced at some point down the road?

    Hard to say. 2017 only just started, after all.

  • To-Do List

    First off – congratulations! If you’re reading this, you’re one of my fellow survivors of 2016. Everything around us may have gone to hell in hitherto unimaginable ways, but we’re still here. Let’s all try and take care of each other.

    Towards that end, we need to acknowledge that this new year of 2017 is going to pose challenges the likes of which most of us have never seen in our lifetimes – and that’s on top of the usual challenges, hopes and goals of a new year. It would seem that New Year’s resolutions are more important than ever this year. Trouble is, New Year’s resolutions never work. It’s a function of how we think about them; we have some general notion that we need to get in shape, we miss that first day at the gym at some point in January, then assume that we’ve failed and abandon the project. It’s a way of thinking that’s practically guaranteed to backfire, and I can’t afford for that to happen.

    So I won’t call them resolutions, since I’m sure my resolve will be tested, will ebb and flow, throughout the next 365 days. But all of the following are things that need to happen, that I’ll be working on this coming year at whatever pace turns out to be possible. Let’s call it the to-do list:

    • Get new headshots. It’s been a while.
    • Start the next writing project. I’ve been primarily researching for the next few months, and the time has come to get stuff on paper. Here, at least, I can point to a modicum of progress – I set aside some time on New Year’s Day to start the series of Royal Court brainstorming exercises with which I work out the details of the plays I write.
    • Submit more. I’m currently at what I refer to as the “stockpile” stage of my writing career; I’ve written a bunch of scripts over the last five years, only two of which have been produced. And part of the reason for that is a reluctance on my part to submit to companies unless they met certain arbitrary criteria on my part – proximity to New York, a certain professional profile, and so on. No more – playscripts that aren’t being read aren’t being produced, and playscripts that aren’t being produced are just especially elaborate doodles.
    • Be more aggressive about seeking representation. This has never been my strong suit – I’d rather not sell people on my ability to do the work if I can just do the work instead. But this isn’t the most helpful strategy, and now that I’m involved in two creative pursuits which require people to advocate on my behalf in order to accomplish my goals, I have to get over this internal hurdle.
    • Try and prevent my country from being completely taken over by fascism, and my planet from being rendered uninhabitable from human greed and stupidity. (Ideally, this would go hand in hand with number two, above.)
    • Eat more fruits and vegetables.

    You’ll note that I didn’t mention the usual “lose ten pounds.” It’s not that I don’t need to – I figure that if I get anywhere close to doing all of the items above, I’m bound to have burned some calories along the way.

  • Holiday Message

    Happy Holidays, Gentle Readers!

    I had planned on writing a snarky think piece about Hallmark Christmas Movies this week; I’m visiting my family for Christmas this week, and whenever I do that I tend to be exposed to an alarming number of the things. But as I’ve remarked before, 2016 has just been too brutal for snark. (I mean, dear Heavens, it felled the man who sang “Last Christmas” on Christmas Day itself. That’s sadistic beyond imagining.) So I scrapped those plans. Perhaps another year.

    Besides, it’s Christmas, and I’ve been too busy seeing my family, and baking pumpkin pies, and chaperoning small animals, and opening my presents to do much writing. (I got a new toaster, a tool set, and some slacks, and was delighted, which shows you how old I am.) I also managed to steer family viewing away from those Hallmark films and towards the classics, and it’s an exchange from one of those – Miracle on 34th Street – which I’ll offer as my day-after-Christmas Christmas message for everybody:

    "For the past 50 years or so I've been getting more and more worried about Christmas. It seems we're all so busy trying to beat the other fellow in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less that Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle."
    "I don't think so. Christmas is still Christmas."
    "Oh, Christmas isn't just a day. It's a frame of mind."

    See you in 2017, everybody!  Hopefully we'll all be in a much better frame of mind then.

  • Fun With Spreadsheets

    I just finished submitting Bay Ridge Lotus to a theatrical production company. It’s an online submission process, as is the norm these days (at least for those of us who don’t have high-powered agents who can take care of all this for us with a simple phone call). And as part of the submission process, I was required to submit a proposed budget for the production.

    Now, it’s hard enough for my brain to handle being both writer and actor in the first place. And I’m still recovering from paperwork I had to do in order to self-produce my Fringe show Dragon’s Breath back in 2014. So a not-inconsiderable part of me wanted to simply enclose a note which read, “how am I supposed to know what the budget’s going to be? You’re the producer, that’s your job!”

    However, even I know that’s not a particularly good idea. And it’s far from an unreasonable request; a prospective collaborator needs to know that I’ve thought through production issues, and am knowledgeable concerning the needs of my own script. That I’m worth the risk. And since it turns out I am familiar with production issues, I figured it would be a simple matter to look up the costs of necessary items online and create a budget spreadsheet for my needs. Indeed, it should be possible to look up an entire sample budget online, and simply tweak it as necessary.

    Should be, that is.

    In reality, every search I did for sample production budgets led to links which were wildly out of date. If you want to put together a Broadway budget for 2002, there’s sources a-plenty on the Interwebz. But costs have skyrocketed wildly in the past few years, and material from fifteen and twenty years ago is a useless guidepost. Heck, with material that old, they’re not even factoring how social media affects how you promote a show, and the impact that has upon promotional costs. That’s an entire category of production costs brought about by the very technology which is somehow preventing me from researching those same production costs.

    As a general rule, scarcity equals profitability, and if something can’t be easily found out it’s because somebody somewhere benefits from keeping that information secret. And indeed, the few websites I found which had a current year for their copyright didn’t divulge financial information for theatrical production, but promised that this information could be learned if you were a remember of whatever particular organization maintains that site. And while this is understandable, it’s decidedly inconvenient to those of us who are actually generating the material to be produced.

    In the end, I put together a simple budget proposal for a developmental reading, whose costs are much lower and easier to find out. And since it took me the whole weekend to do that, I’m probably not the best person to put together what I’m about to propose – namely that somebody put together sample budget spreadsheets for Off- and Off-off Broadway theater models, then put them online and keep the information updated regularly. There’s already services like Audition Update making sure that actors have as much information as possible; a similar service for self-producing playwrights could be a godsend.

    If anybody has any ideas as to how to do this, give me a holler.

  • Don't Applaud, Throw Money

    You’ll have to forgive me, I’m afraid, but between the final three performances of Day of Absence, a closing-night reception yesterday evening, and two shifts at my day job as well, I haven’t had time to put together much of a blog post this week. In fact, I’d thought seriously of simply typing out “zzzzzzzzzzzz…” and leaving it at that.

    However, there were a few instances of something at the talk-back during the reception last night, following our (pretty darn successful) production, and it’s a something I do want to address. There were any number of people telling us which we had to either extend our run, or remount the show at a performance space in such-and-such a community. On top of that, there were any number of folks telling individual performers that we absolutely had to be in movies or on Broadway.

    Evidently people believe that when we hear these helpful suggestions, we actors and producers are going to smack our foreheads and exclaim, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

    Here’s the thing – no matter how good we are and how diligently we hustle, it’s always somebody else who casts us. (Even if it’s a solo show, unless we’re multimillionaires, it’s somebody else who foots the bill and provides the performance venue.) And it’s a whole host of somebody elses who generate the funds for theatres to produce their work.

    So why not be one of the somebodys? If you like what you’ve seen, be it NEC’s Day of Absence or anything else, make a donation to that theatre. See more work they produce. Let people know that you like such and such an actor or playwright and that you and folks like you will pay good money to see them again. You’re ultimately the ones with the power here.

    I’d say more, but I have to be at work in a few hours.

  • When Things Go Wrong, As They Sometimes Will

    When I started acting, back in college, my performances were as meticulously crafted as you can imagine. I’d use multiple-colored highlighters to mark my lines, in order to map out the emotional beats. I’d spend hours fine tuning the specific voices and mannerisms I’d use for walk-on parts. I calibrated every moment I had on stage, trying to achieve what I hoped would be perfection, trying above all to make sure that nothing went wrong. While the kind of preliminary work I was doing is of course crucial, there was a critical lesson I still had to learn – how to leave it all behind when the need arose, how to truly be spontaneous on stage while still maintaining the discipline of performance. How to embrace it when things went wrong.

    The breakthrough for me came a few years after I graduated. I was playing a rare leading role for me, the title role in a play called Bullshot Crummond, an obscure theatre's revivl of an obscure spoof of an even more obscure series of veddy veddy British spy movies of the 1930s and 40s featuring the character Bulldog Drummond (Turner Classic Movies will show some once in a very great while). The central gag of the show is that the wide panorama of an espionage thriller is being presented with the most comically bare-bones theatrical conventions possible; we pushed this conceit to the edge of disaster with the flimsiest, most rickety sets imaginable, and wild fight choreography on a stage about the third the size of my living room. My cast members would share their anxieties about some particularly difficult in one of their scenes, and I could only laugh, because every single scene I was in had something ridiculously difficult, and there was literally not one minute of that show in which something wasn’t on the verge of going cataclysmically wrong.

    I’m not sure of the precise moment when it happened, but somewhere in the course of that unheralded little run, a feeling of Zen calm descended over me. Of course something was going to go wrong, there wasn’t anything that I or anybody else could do to stave off disaster, so the only option was to embrace the chaos. Find ways to use it. If I knew my character and the story I was telling – and I assure you, Gentle Reader, I did – then anything unforeseen could be incorporated into the performance, as necessary. I like to think I got good at this, over the course of that run. It even became a twisted game – can you come up with the suitable ad-lib to cover when the crucial props are misplaced, or when the wooden flat depicting the “woods” falls down?* When I realized that I was able to play this game, I also realized that, under the right circumstances, potential disaster can be fun. And at the very least, it can be absorbed into the show so that nobody in the audience is the wiser.

    I mention all this because yesterday was the opening performance of Day of Absence, which you may have noted has been something I’ve been looking forward to, in which I’ve placed a great deal of emotional investment. The sort of performance that I desperately would want to be perfect. But it’s a difficult text, knotty and densely packed, and we had a showcase production’s ridiculously truncated rehearsal period to master it. There were line flubs and gaffes, scenes that could have gone off the rails – but didn’t. The show was still a raucous success, in large part because none of the line snafus derailed the forward motion of the play. And where those snafus happened within earshot of me, I’m proud to say I was able to help fix them. Hell, it was fun to fix them.

    Of course, I hope this doesn’t happen again. I do want this show to be as close to perfect as we can get it. Plus, the whole point of acquiring the skill set I describe above lies in making you never have to use it. Which is another lesson I didn’t learn until I was out of college.


    *The answer, of course, is “Look! An uprooted tree!”

  • The 19th Time's the Charm

    As I mentioned two weeks ago when I announced that I’d be part of Negro Ensemble Company’s upcoming revival of Day of Absence, I’ve previously worked with director Arthur French on eighteen different projects over the past fifteen years. I can understand your incredulity, Gentle Reader, and indeed I share it – that number is ridiculously high, isn’t it? Indeed it is – but what’s preposterous for you or me is an ordinary week for Arthur French. His most legendary characteristic, as anyone who knows him can attest, is that he is the biggest workaholic in this city. There was one day when I worked with him – to pick one day out of thousands – when he rehearsed a show in the morning, did a reading of a separate show in the afternoon, performed our show in the evening and did yet another reading immediately afterwards; four separate productions on the same day. By that metric, eighteen shows over fifteen years is nothing.

    As I stated before, I first met Arthur when we both appeared in Classical Theatre of Harlem’s 2001 production of Hamlet. Arthur was the Player King (I was Guildenstern) and the first thing I noticed was that, at full outdoor Shakespeare volume, Arthur’s voice has such force that it literally caused my own chest to vibrate. This was the first of a series of summer Shakespeare productions there in which we both appeared, with King Lear in 2002 and Macbeth in 2003. The next year, Macbeth was invited to tour Germany (Arthur and I spent a day with our directors on a boat trip down the Rhine), which made remounting it at CTH the most cost-effective thing to do. I count each of these Macbeth iterations as a separate production, since they each had different casts and had to be rehearsed separately. So that’s five right there.

    Also in 2002, CTH asked Arthur to direct their production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. (I played a policeman. I do that a lot.) Previously, Arthur’s work as a director had mainly been confined to HB studios, where he teaches; the production’s acclaim – it won AUDELCO awards for the production and for Arthur himself - launched him as an in-demand director throughout the city. He directed me in two one-acts the next year; Medication, a multi-character dispatch from the front lines of our failing mental health system which is still the best performance I’ve ever given, and Workday, written by his son. That latter production was part of a one-act festival; we were scheduled to run two performances, but the second performance wound up being cancelled by the Blackout of 2003, which wound up seeing the author and I walking from Manhattan’s Producer’s Club all the way to Jackson Heights in an effort to make our way home.

    We each tried our hand at filmmaking the next year; Arthur cast me in a film he was producing called Bellclair Times, and I cast him in a script I’d written called Akhmed right after that. Somewhere in here, Arthur also went to Vermont to direct a production of Fences, and asked me to do some research for the sound design; I’m counting that as well. I’m also counting the final show (to date) I performed in at CTH, The Cherry Orchard (wherein I got my Equity card by being beaten up by The Wire’s Wendell Pierce!) Earle Hyman played the elderly servant Firs in that production, but was sick one night, and Arthur graciously agreed to step in for him at the last minute. (Arthur had understudied both Earle and Morgan Freeman in the original production of Driving Miss Daisy, so this wasn’t unfamiliar.)

    We’re up to twelve already.

    Over the next few years, Arthur would periodically call me up to participate in a staged reading of somebody’s new work. I did three such pieces; one in a mostly empty theatre, one in a larger company’s developmental offices, and one as part of an outdoor reading series at Manhattan’s Waterfront Plaza (which I’m not sure had ever happened before or has happened since). It wasn’t quite the Rhine, but it was fun nonetheless.

    Another friend of ours from CTH, James Rana, cast the both of us in two small projects of his; an Instant Shakespeare reading of Henry VI Part 2 in the New York Public Library system, and a piece of his own called Cafeteria. And a few years ago, Arthur called me up and asked me to assess the definitive role for all Caucasian actors who find themselves working consistently with African-American companies; Karl Lindner in A Raisin In The Sun. (Courtney Vance saw that show and said I was a great racist!)

    I worry, as I type these posts in my Spartan living room, that I’m not leading a particularly exciting life. It’s the whole reason we keep scrapbooks, the whole goal of maintaining our resumes (this has been a particularly deep dive into mine) - to convince ourselves we actually did something. That all of our frenzied activity and show-biz hustling wasn’t all for naught, that we somehow mattered. But if Arthur has any such angst as this, he does not show it, and he absolutely does not stop. Not for him the kind of wallowing in the past which I've done here - there's still too much to do. He’s been spending the past few years as something of a Horton Foote specialist, appearing in Broadway revivals and subsequent tours and broadcasts of Dividing the Estate and The Trip to Bountiful, while juggling a hundred other things all the while. He knows that the secret to a meaningful artistic life is to keep moving forward, no matter what the circumstances. And now, here in 2016, he’s directing the revival of Day of Absence.

    Number nineteen.

    Better make it count.

  • First Things First

    “Factories standing idle from the loss of non-essential workers. Stores shuttered from the absconding of uncrucial personnel. Uncollected garbage threatening pestilence and pollution…”

    These are the first words the Announcer speaks in Day of Absence. It’s the start of a three minute monologue (I timed it), which is the first thing I do in the show. And from that moment, about half-way through the piece, I don’t seem to leave the stage and don’t ever seem to shut up. Which means that I have a lot to memorize. All of it written in that same dry, tongue-twister fashion. And as there’s no shortcut for this, the past week has been me going over these lines, drilling them, over and over again, trying to get them into something I can naturally and plausibly say.  The necessary drudgery of putting a character together and getting off-book.

    “Factories standing idle from the loss of non-essential workers…”

    As you might have noticed from my post last week, I’m anxious to perform this. Spoiling for a fight, you might say. After all, the piece is somehow more relevant than ever after fifty years. (Nice job, America!) As the conversation about race in America intensifies in the election’s aftermath, it feels to me like we have a critical argument to add, and need to add it now. But we can’t join the conversation now, despite the rapidity with which it’s unfolding (what Paul Virilio calls the “speed of discourse.”) We’re still in rehearsal, after all. We don’t have a lot of rehearsal left – we open in two weeks – but it’s clear that an awful lot is going to happen over these next two weeks, and rather than comment on them as they happen, I’ll still be drilling lines.

    “Factories standing idle from the loss of non-essential workers…”

    And it’s frustrating, seeing all of my friends taking various actions in reaction to unfolding events. It’s frustrating seeing the theatre become a battle zone once more in our ongoing culture wars, and not being able to directly participate. (I wasn’t originally going to write about the whole kerfuffle with Vice President-elect Pence and Hamilton, because while the right of theatre to engage with our politics must be defended, I feel this fight was deliberately staged in order to distract from all manner of other things, acts of potential criminality at the highest levels of what’s soon to be our government, and I don't want to take the bait.  But even so, why should Hamilton keep having all the fun?)

    But I’m busy, learning lines.

    “Factories standing idle from the loss of non-essential workers…”

    It’s ironic…at the moment, I’m not saying all the things I could be saying, because I’m too busy memorizing the lines of a character who refuses to shut up. But that’s the job. There’s no other way to do this.

    “Factories standing idle…”

    I have to have faith that, in two weeks’ time, once we are up and running, what we have to say will be worth the hearing. But rehearsal comes first.

  • The Next Thing

    I first met Arthur French in the summer of 2001, when we were both in the cast of Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of Hamlet. For those of you don’t know him, or have somehow been active in New York theater without meeting him, Arthur French is a true living legend of our community. He was one of the founding members of the Negro Ensemble Company, appearing in such legendary productions as The River Niger, Song of the Lusitanian Bogey, and Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, which marked his Broadway debut. He has not stopped since; he’s been perhaps the most active performer and acting teacher in the city for fifty years. I’ve now known him for fifteen of those; we’ve worked together on eighteen projects thus far (I’ve counted), sometimes alongside him as an actor, and sometimes with him directing. There’s lots to say about him, much of which I’ll save for a future post. The two important things to bear in mind right now are that he’s worked with companies that have fearlessly engaged with the politics of their time, and that he’s my friend.

    A few weeks ago, Arthur French called and left me a message. It was to offer me a remarkable opportunity with a production he’s about to direct. The Negro Ensemble Company is mounting its 50th anniversary season, which kicks off with a revival of the play which formed the original germ of the company, Douglas Turner Ward’s Day of Absence. Though written for an African-American company, it has one role intended for a Caucasian performer, and Arthur was offering it to me.

    Day of Absence is a satirical vaudevillian fantasy, rooted in the Civil Rights politics of the Sixties. It tells the tale of a Jim Crow-era town which wakes up one day to find that all of its black residents have mysteriously vanished, leaving them with nobody to exploit. (The terrified racists are all played by black actors in clownish whiteface, which is that satirical vaudevillian element I mentioned above.) I play a character from outside the town – as the situation worsens, a member of the national broadcast press comes to report on the situation, speaking to people like the local leader of the Klan as if they were legitimate political figures, treating hatred and bigotry as if it’s perfectly normal.

    Oh, wait. Did I say that this was rooted in the politics of the Sixties? Because that was last god damn week.

    I’m sure you remember.

    A man with no experience in public service, a man who explicitly called for the curtailing of freedoms of citizens based on their religion and their ethnicity while campaigning for the highest office in the land, was elected our President. His vice-president-elect is on record as supporting forced conversion therapy for LGBT youth. Yesterday, he appointed as his chief strategist the head of a website which actively promotes bigotry, the “intellectual” figurehead of the so-called “alt-right.” Instances of racial harassment, of spray-painted swastikas and vicious invective, have skyrocketed, even in such liberal bastions as my home town. Many of my friends genuinely fear for their safety, and they have genuine reasons to do so.

    I had my moment of gloom and despair, of course. But my job as an artist is to fight back against this. Not by saying “hey, I’m an artist, you should do what I tell you to do,” because that clearly didn’t work out too well. No, my job – all of our jobs – right now is to create work that confronts head-on our capacity to rationalize hate. To understand it, to mock it, to mourn it, to denounce it – and hopefully, somehow, to defeat it. That was the reason Day of Absence was chosen in the first place, several months ago – all that’s happened is that the stakes have intensified.

    The fight is real. And I will be fighting it, as best I can, under the leadership of my friend.

    I'm proud to announce that Day of Absence is the next thing I'll be doing as an actor.  And right now, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

  • American Mousetrap

    I’m sure that by now you’ve seen the cold open to this past weekend’s Saturday Night Live, but just in case you haven’t: midway through a mock joint interview with Cecily Strong-as-Erin Burnett, Alec Baldwin breaks from his Trump character as he’s hurling a vicious stream of invective, to say he just can’t do this any more. It’s too ugly. And Kate McKinnon-as-Hillary Clinton agrees, and they “abandon” the sketch before going off to frolic with citizens of all political and ethnic stripes in Times Square, and then coming back to the studio to implore us all to vote, and choose the sort of country we want to live in. It’s the most nakedly emotional I’ve seen Saturday Night Live since their first show back after the September 11th attacks – which tells you a lot about this election cycle.

    Now, obviously this was all staged (the fact that the pre-taped Times Square bit was scored to Arcade Fire should be something of a clue). But look at Baldwin and McKinnon’s faces – the exhaustion, the disgust, the fear, is real. The desire to abandon this vicious rhetoric is entirely genuine, not a function of the performance at all. These are two of America’s most prominent political satirists, artists at the top of their form – and this election has broken them.

    I think that’s how every creative person feels at this point, as they’re trying to deal with all of it. It’s certainly true for me, even in the limited context of this blog you’re reading. I’ve been trying for a week now to come up with a hook for this post, mulling over a whole slew of arguments and conceits, and I can’t. There’s nothing more to be said, nothing that shouldn’t be obvious to even the most casual observer of this democracy. And I don’t have much stomach left to keep engaging with the ugliness coming out of this campaign. And let’s not engage in false equivalencies here – when the orange-stained candidate of one of the major parties engages in racist and sexist rhetoric as easily as breathing, and gleefully whips his crowds into calling for the incarceration and execution of their supposed enemies, it should be clear where the ugliness is coming from, regardless of how you feel about anybody else.

    It’s customary to lament, at times like these (though have there ever been times like these?) that satire has been rendered irrelevant. That the narrative of events is so crazy that no work of fiction could top it. While this is true, there’s another, more dangerous way in which art and satire has been rendered irrelevant this time around, primarily by He-Whom-I-Refuse-To-Name. The goal in satire is to construct some sort of fictional argument to get at a deeper truth, to expose the darkest aspect of the subject to ridicule. The hope is that by exposing this truth, we can force some kind of crucial moral realization, like Hamlet using the players to confront his murderous uncle Claudius with his crimes by means of their play, The Mousetrap. But what happens when Claudius is proud of murdering Hamlet’s father? What happens when everybody already knows, and nobody seems to care? What happens when people actively enjoy having the most repellent aspects of their country’s id displayed in such a grotesque fashion? What happens when a third of the population, and possibly (we’ll find out tomorrow) the majority of the electorate, is running around wearing red caps reading “Make Denmark Great Again?”

    As I said, I’ve spent a week trying to figure out what to write here today, and wondering if there’s even a point. And I’ve written one election-themed short play this year, and am mulling over another, and am overwhelmed by the futility of it all – of trying to craft a conventional dramatic argument in a time when we seem to no longer have the luxury of artistry. It’s enough to make any artist throw up their hands and run about Times Square – though I live in the Bronx, so I’d have to settle for White Plains Road. But we can’t – a significant portion of my friends genuinely fear for their lives should the country give in to this year-long flirtation with proto-fascism, and they are genuinely right to do so.

    So forget the artistry, forget any subtlety. We’ll just go with a direct eleventh-hour plea instead. If you’re reading this, please do everything you can tomorrow to make sure we still have a republic the day after. Don’t let our hard-won civil rights be cast aside, don’t let our basic norms of civil decency be trashed, don’t let the Shining City on the Hill wall itself off from the rest of the world. I don’t ask you to vote for one candidate in particular in order to stop this (though, seriously, c’mon), and I’m not telling you what to do, but whatever it is comfortable for you to do, do it and do it quickly.

    With luck, I’ll have more pleasant things to talk about next week.

    With any luck.

  • Happy Halloween

    There is a basic, fundamental truth which I have known since childhood; Halloween is the greatest of all holidays. It doesn’t matter if you’re a child jonesing for candy, or a randy young adult with a jones of a different sort. It doesn’t matter if you’re an outgoing party animal or an introvert looking forward to a classic Universal Horror movie marathon. It doesn’t matter if you’re a left-leaning, out-and-proud activist looking to unleash your inner freak, or a conservative type romanticizing the rituals of a Norman Rockwell-era America gone by. And it doesn’t matter what your ethnic and religious background is, or how long you’ve been in this country; since it’s not a religious holiday except for a few very dedicated neo-Pagans, there’s nothing to exclude anybody and everybody from taking part. I loved trick-or-treating as a child, and I love scaring trick-or-treaters as an adult; I love costumes and jack o’lanterns; I love good horror and cheesy horror and everything in between. Like most of my fellow countrymen, I love Halloween.

    That’s why it’s been rather dismaying to find, this year, that it’s been hard for me to muster up my usual levels of energy and enthusiasm as the 31st has come around again. And it’s not just me – it seems like this has been a comparatively muted Halloween season for everybody. Part of that is surely due to the calendar – is there anything less conducive to festivity than having Our Greatest Holiday fall on a Monday? And in my own case, part of that probably has to do with a change in my living situation – since I’m in a Bronx apartment now, rather than Long Island, I don’t have the space to put up my usual epic decorations, and I’m still not sure how the heck trick-or-treating works here. But more than anything, it’s hard to celebrate the fanciful fake horrors of Halloween when 2016 has hurled such a demented succession of real horrors at all of us. We’re all mourning way too many people to be able to joke about ghosts and goblins. And the greatest anxiety is yet to come – we can’t give ourselves over to wild celebration when the election is still eight days away, and with it the likelihood of further division, chaos, and even violence. There’s a real chance that our democracy itself is next on 2016’s kill list, and it takes the fun out of carving a death’s-head into a squash.

    So it is, perhaps, worth remembering just how this holiday got started centuries ago, when my Celtic ancestors were celebrating a festival called Samhain. (Which is pronounced SOW-uhn, by the way – sorry, but Halloween 3: Season of the Witch has been lying to you all these years.) Celebrating the end of the harvest season, and the onset of the cruel winter, Samhain was the start of the Celtic New Year. Its status as the time when the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest stemmed from the very real fact that many of our long-ago ancestors would indeed die during the coming winter. Faced with the stark realities of life, the Celts lit some bonfires, prayed for their departed ancestors to ward them against evil, and hunkered down. And inevitably, the seasons would progress, the earth would go around the sun, and spring – and life – would come again.

    Essentially, every holiday is a New Year’s holiday. A reminder that however bleak things get, the sun will rise and set, the seasons will progress, and good fortune – or at least the hope of it – will come again. So while 2016 may be too bleak and unsettling for a light-hearted Halloween, perhaps it would be wise to look to the wisdom of our ancestors and light our own bonfires this Samhain, to steel our resolves against the challenges we face, and hope that the new year will indeed be better.

    Of course, that ancient Celtic society died off. Crap, now I’m depressed. Good thing I’ve got all this Halloween candy.

  • Fair

    If you’re friends with enough New York theater actors, you have by now seen ubiquitous appearances of the #FairWageOnstage hashtag in your various social media feeds. The current AEA Off-Broadway contract is set to expire on November 6th, and negotiations for its renewal are currently underway. You can examine the current terms here.  As you can see, this contract contains five different salary tiers, depending on the size of the performance venue; the smallest currently offers a weekly salary of $566, which works out to a rate of $14 an hour*. Should that minimum salary still be in place on December 31st, 2018, it would be below the legall minimum wage in this state. Even the largest salaries are problematic – while they’d be just fine for a single man like me, it’d be difficult to raise a family on that in this country at this time, and well-nigh impossible here in New York City. Naturally, AEA is attempting to negotiate for higher salaries to reflect this. The union’s initial offer was rejected by the League of Off-Broadway Theaters and Producers, and in the weeks since that happened, the hashtag mentioned above has begun appearing as a form of grassroots lobbying, an effort for working stage actors to attempt to secure a living wage.

    Now, being an actor myself, I’m hardly going to argue that we shouldn’t receive a living wage for our work. And if you crunch the numbers, I think it’s clear that commercial producers can afford the increase. But I would still like to scrutinize this a bit further – starting by pointing out that it is indeed the commercial Off-Broadway contracts that we’re talking about here. There are a great many Off-Broadway theaters, and only a scant few of them operate on a commercial model. The bulk of them are organized as non-profits, and have a whole host of separate contracts with AEA to govern them. The largest of them are comparable to the largest of the commercial contracts; the smallest of them, governing the youngest, smallest, and scrappiest of companies, offer weekly salaries less than half of the smallest commercial contracts. A friend of mine is currently playing a title role in a company operating under such a Letter of Agreement (one of these types of contracts), receiving rave reviews, and is still making less than minimum wage* despite her two degrees and years of devotion to her craft. The #FairWageOnstage posters and lobbyists may well want to change this, but the current contract negotiations wouldn’t do so.

    But should they? Again, while we deserve a fair wage, we also need to ensure that these youngest smallest and scrappiest of companies are able to survive – and grow to the point where they can pay their actors a little more. I shed no tears for the commercial producers, and even fewer for those large non-profits which exploit LORT contracts to mount what are effectively Broadway productions (I name no names, and apologize for my propensity for roundabout parentheticals). But the smaller, experimental companies are crucial to the health of theater at large, and we need to make sure we have a model that accommodates them. And simply saying that they should produce Off-Off Broadway instead is disingenuous, if at the same time we’re working to raise Off-Broadway salaries we’re taking no actions to keep the showcase code workable.

    It's easy for actors and producers alike to view everything through the lens of commercial theater.  But theater doesn’t work on a one-size-fits-all model; every company is different, not just in their economic needs, but in their artistic goals and aesthetic. And as we work towards more equitable salaries for actors, we need to keep this in mind as well. Focusing solely on commercial offerings leads us to miss the bigger picture, where we’re drifting towards one of two possible theatrical landscapes. Either we’ll need a massive infusion of subsidy to keep all of our smaller theaters going (which would be wonderful, but not terribly likely), or we’ll have a theatrical landscape that’s exclusively commercial, with new works and classics relegated to amateur societies and reading series. And if that happens, with these avenues for new works permanently closed off, then commercial theater will inevitably grow stale and lifeless, no matter how well it pays.

    We need to be honest about what we want, and choose wisely.

    *Hourly rates determined by dividing the weekly salary into a 40-hour workweek.  Since in most contracts, actors work fewer hours per week than this, such a determination is, strictly speaking, inaccurate.  However, given that the working actor's down time is spent in preparation and maintenance of their role, not to do so is disingenuous at best.

  • It Helps to Have a Telekinetic Bald Girl On Your Side

    (Note: SPOILERS ahead.  Lots of 'em.  You've been warned!)

    Although it was released to Netflix a full three months ago, on July 15th, the 1980s-set supernatural thriller Stranger Things continues to dominate popular culture. Its characters make surprise appearances on awards shows, its credit font continues to appear in memes, and internet petitions are still going around demanding justice for Barb. It makes sense that this show should have become such a phenomenon; apart from simply being good, well crafted television, its Spielberg and Stephen King-influenced retro vibe is catnip for genre fans like myself who grew up with the original influences. And apart from that, the characters (and performances) are all solid. We all love the quartet of kids, we all cry when Winona Ryder cradles the Christmas lights, we all (as mentioned above) demand justice for Barb.

    There’s another pair of characters, however, who have been overlooked in much of the discussion about the show, whom I think are absolutely crucial to the impact and resonance it's had. That would be Troy and James, the two bullies who torment our main young heroes (Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Eleven). Sure, a pair of school bullies may not seem like much of a threat in a town where the government is conducting clandestine experiments and Demogorgons are roaming the countryside – but the emotional impact of their story arc is crucial to the show’s effect, rooting everything in an emotional truth we might otherwise not want to face.

    When first we meet this pair, they behave in ways familiar from a hundred other shows and stories. Troy and James are bigger kids, our heroes are smaller and nerdier, and so the bullies go to work. We’ve seen this so many times that we’ve allowed ourselves to believe this is a perfectly normal rite of passage. But as the story progresses, we sense that something is off – these bullies are nastier than we’re accustomed to seeing. They’re not just mocking our heroes, after all – they’re mocking their missing friend Will. They hurl homophobic slurs at a classmate who is presumed by all to be dead, and they do it at his school memorial service. When confronted by it, they’re quick to violence. And when Troy is humiliated by Eleven at that service, the conflict escalates into something I don’t think I’ve ever seen presented as starkly on television.

    In Episode 6, seething and vowing revenge, Troy and James stalk and physically attack Mike and Dustin as they’re riding their bikes by the quarry outside of town looking for Eleven. Grabbing hold of our heroes and holding a switchblade to Dustin, they present Mike with a psychotically sadistic choice – commit suicide by leaping into the gorge, or watch his friend be murdered in front of him. That Eleven is there to save them in the nick of time hardly mitigates the shock of this set-up – the sheer hatred emanating from these bullies, the raw fear in the eyes of these kids (who are already dealing with government forces and monsters, mind you) who know their lives genuinely hang in the balance.

    This scene isn’t the only one of its kind, mind you. Stranger Things’ 80s source material has many bullying scenes for the Duffer Brothers to have drawn from. Sometimes, these bullies realize they’ve gone too far and repent – sometimes Johnny is sorry his sensei made him sweep the leg. But sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes they’re exactly this homicidal. One of the key reference points for this show is the Stephen King novella The Body – later the film Stand By Me – and it too features a bully with a switchblade, advancing on our young heroes with every intent to kill a child in cold blood.

    Nowadays, the very word “bully” has become politicized. Mindful of larger themes of oppression, we see issues of racism and homophobia involved in the act of picking on those who were different. (Even as regards this specific show – see this Advocate think piece here.) And in response, there are those who have crawled out of the woodwork to claim that “bullying” somehow represents masculinity in crisis, a normal aggressive impulse that’s become misplaced precisely because “social justice warriors” have been trying to stamp it out. But back in the 80s, when these discourses hadn’t quite come to the forefront yet, and the authors of those classic horror tales knew they were talking to an audience who truly understood, we were perhaps a little clearer about who bullies really are. Not misguided kids who needed direction, not a set of symptoms to be medicated, not a set of social problems to be solved.

    Bullies are murderers who haven’t succeeded yet.

    Do they need understanding? Sure. Are there larger forces at work? Of course. Do these need to be addressed? Absolutely. But none of that changes the impulse at work. The need to dominate those weaker than ourselves is never healthy, never good. And left unchecked, it leads to behavior more monstrous than anything to be found in the Upside Down. You don’t attack somebody if you believe they have any worth, and if they have no worth you can indeed hurt them, kill them, with impunity. Does it always escalate like this? Of course not. But the whole point of civilized behavior, of any kind of community, is to ensure that it doesn’t escalate. That this behavior is not celebrated, not condoned, not allowed to continue. Ever.

    In other news, the presidential election is now three weeks away. Please vote responsibly.

  • Interregnum

    On September 30th, the producers of the New York International Fringe Festival made the surprise announcement that they would be taking next summer off, and that there would be no Fringe in 2017. The reasons are still somewhat nebulous (see the announcement here), although given the small and overworked staff which oversees the Festival, it’s amazing it hasn’t happened before now. Considering the size of the Fringe, and the prominent role it’s carved out for itself, this should be shocking news. Due to skyrocketing rents and other economic factors, the number of Off-Off Broadway companies and venues has been steadily declining over the past twenty years – and as that’s happened, the Fringe has been taking up the slack. At this point, the Fringe practically is Off-Off Broadway, the last place where theatrical newcomers and iconoclasts have a place to make their voices heard, and its loss would seem to be a catastrophic blow.

    But I’ve noticed something striking as I’ve read the ongoing coverage, and spoken to fellow actors and writers most directly affected by this. Rather than fear or sorrow, the overall mood in the theater community seems to be one of acceptance. And not the final-stage-of-grief sort of acceptance, but the acceptance that comes when a long-expected outcome has finally arrived. Not only does there not seem to be much a surprise, there’s almost a sense of welcome to it, that this is something of an intervention whose coming was inevitable.

    A lot of this has to do with the sheer size of the Fringe. My play Dragon’s Breath appeared as part of FringeNYC in 2014, and it was one of two hundred shows appearing. 2015 and 2016 each had comparable lineups. Two hundred productions per summer, each with a minimum of five performances. That’s a thousand shows, spread over sixteen or seventeen venues, over the course of two and half weeks. Everything from solo shows to large-scale musicals, new straight plays to dance pieces to avant garde clown shows, local works to productions from around the globe. I remember, at the end-of-Fringe party in 2014, the organizers proudly announcing how they’d made a point of seeing 25% of the shows that had gone up. And this is a huge achievement – but it meant that three quarters of the productions had gone unseen by the organizers of the very festival meant to celebrate their work. No matter how well meaning they are – and the team behind the Fringe is as well-meaning as it gets – you can’t develop a show when you’re spread that thin.

    Development is something of a sticking point with the Fringe, actually - they seem to be of two minds on the subject. On the one hand, they’re justly proud of shows like Urinetown and Matt and Ben, which debuted at the Fringe and moved on to commercial productions. However, during my year, we were routinely admonished that focusing on commercial productions was antithetical to the independent spirit of the Festival. This is certainly true, in terms of maintaining a spirit of mutual cooperation and a spirit of camaraderie throughout the festival. It’s nevertheless a mixed message to send to writers and independent producers who know that the Fringe represents their best opportunity to break through and reach an audience. And this isn’t the only aspect of the Fringe where I encountered mixed messages – I often felt like I was caught in crossfire between the Festival and Actor’s Equity Association, as they were negotiating and re-negotiating their agreement with the Fringe while production work on all of our shows was already underway. Nobody’s to blame for this – it’s inevitable when dealing with institutions and bureaucracies. But it is another sign that institutional fatigue had begun to set in as the Fringe ballooned in size, to the detriment of its mission.

    I want to be clear – I truly love the Fringe, I loved my time being part of it, and most of us who have ever been a part of it feel the same way. We all hope this hiatus proves temporary. We all want the Fringe to continue, but at the same time we know that it’s grown too big to function properly. And as we’ve been discussing the upcoming hiatus, many of us have come to the same conclusion – the Fringe should scale down, focus on a smaller group of curated shows, and being more actively involved in their production and promotion – making the best possible case for them.

    This may seem unfair to the shows left out – and for all I know, mine could have been among them had this been the model last time around. But I don’t think that has to be a problem. There are other, less high-profile theater festivals here in New York, and over the past few years they’ve been growing in size and prestige as well. There’s no reason why they can’t share space in the cultural landscape, each perhaps with its own well-defined aesthetic, each presenting their own strong line-up of productions, each helping to keep the idea of Off-Off Broadway theater alive.

    And really, that’s the best solution – figuring out how to keep Off-Off Broadway alive in the first place. Addressing the economic issues that are plaguing it, figuring out production models that will allow it to remain vital. So long as the Fringe isn’t trying to take the place of the entirety of the Off-Off Broadway landscape, it can focus on being itself.

    And if you’ve ever done the Fringe, you know that being yourself is the entire point.

  • Long Island, America

    I’m researching two potential writing projects at the moment, one of which would be set in the Long Island town where my mother grew up. In order to view the research archive concerning this town, it was necessary for me to travel to the Long Island Studies Institute at Hofstra University. Which is why I traveled there this past Thursday, three days after it played host to the raucous first presidential debate of 2016 – and close to a year since I thought I’d left Long Island for good.

    I have deeply ambivalent feelings towards the place where I grew up. My family is from there, of course, as are friends and plenty of decent people, so I can’t condemn the place outright. It nevertheless never felt like a decent place while I was growing up there in the 70s and 80s. It seemed vulgar, ugly, and obnoxious, a world where I never felt at place. My feelings were confirmed when I left home for college and graduate school in the late 80s and early 90s – the height of the Buttafuoco saga, and a time when every big-haired, loud-mouthed caricature of Long Islanders seemed freshest in the public mind. I couldn’t tell people where I was from without them looking askance at me, and why not? Hofstra’s impressive library and our lovely beaches aside, it was clearly a terrible place, and the rest of America seemed happy to let me know it, and I spent much of my young life looking around me wishing I were someplace better than this.

    With changing demographics and the steady progress of time, though, the Long Island of the popular imagination is gradually ceasing to exist. While I was out there this past week, it struck me as remarkable how quiet the place was. No rudeness, no Lawn Guyland squawking, none of the loud vulgarity with which I’d always associated the place. Granted, I was reverse-commuting early in the morning and spent most of the day in a library basement room reading microfilm, so that’s not the best sample size. Nevertheless, the place where I grew up is changing, and to my mind, indisputably for the better.

    But a curious thing has been happening over the past few years; since the debut of Fox News in 1996, ultimately, but intensifying with the election of President Obama in 2008. Even as Long Island itself has become a more muted, tolerant place, its most unpleasant stereotypes have been embraced as no-nonsense truth telling by the rest of the country. Bill O’Reilly (pride of Levittown) and Sean Hannity (hometown Franklin Square) have positioned themselves, if not as the voice of America, then as the voice of a significant fraction of it. And if we extend Long Island’s cultural borders past its usual definition of Nassau and Suffolk County, into such Queens enclaves as Jamaica Estates (there’s not that much difference, really), you find the birthplace of the political candidate they’ve sought to champion this year, whose blustery style and xenophobic approach reeks of that world where I grew up. And the very people who used to recoil from this sort of behavior, who let me know in a thousand subtle ways that it was beneath the dignity of this nation, have now embraced it and claimed it to be the nation’s only hope.

    Well, this border area between eastern Queens and western Nassau is where I grew up. I was educated in its schools, played on its playgrounds, learned to drive on its roads. I’ve listened to the opinions of its voluble loudmouths on more LIRR train rides than I care to remember. I know it cold. So please, America, believe me when I say:

    You had it right the first time.

    Again, there are good people to be found there, and things are changing all the time, but at its heart, Long Island is an awful, awful place. And it’s not awful because of problems like its many cancer clusters or its high tax rate (though those aren’t fun), and it’s not awful because of cosmetic details like our notorious accents (you folks talk funny yourselves, each in your own way). No, the awfulness has deeper roots than that, by far:

    One - white flight. At heart, this is the whole reason the place exists – people who viewed New York City as so irredeemably awful that it was better to flee from it, and set up enclaves to protect against its encroachments. And viewing the city as that awful, let’s face it, has nothing to do with poor subway service or high prices at the bodegas – it’s about who your neighbors are. It’s been like that even before the post World War II-housing boom, as the 20s and 30s era articles I was reading can attest. And the problem isn’t so much that this is Long Island’s past, but that its residents can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that this is the past. (Sound familiar?) You can’t move forward if you refuse to admit where it is you’ve been.

    Two – as the cost of my round-trip train ticket can attest, it’s hard for Long Islanders to access the culture and resources of New York City. It’s there, dominating our culture, providing our incomes, but unless we work there and commute on a daily basis we really don’t have the means to access it. A fantasy of power and success that we claim as our geographic birthright, without properly understanding it. The warped perception that tends to take root in my people leads us to believe that all you need to enjoy the fruits of the city, to achieve whatever your dreams of wealth and accomplishment may be, is to have an ego large enough to claim it. To be more blustery, more obnoxious, than the next person.

    Finally – because the amount of land on that island is finite, because there’s such a tribal mentality in these enclaves designed to keep the rest of the world at bay, it’s easy to develop a zero-sum mentality to life. That somebody else’s success can only come at your expense. That efforts to improve conditions somewhere else are an elaborate scheme to steal from you, and nothing more. Granted, the taxes are extremely high and it can be hard to make ends meet even with a good salary – but there’s more than that going on if you truly believe that the people around you, other than your own friends and family and “tribe,” are potential adversaries and nothing more.

    People can’t live like this. Not well, anyway. And not with anything resembling dignity.

    I couldn’t live in a place like that growing up. I don’t want to live in a place like that now. I want to see that mindset gradually fade away, not spread across the nation. So please, America, if you’re reading this, please consider these things, from someone who knows.

    Life is not a zero sum game.

    It takes more than bluster and hostility to live it well.

    The people around you are not automatically your enemies just because they’re different from you.

    Their efforts to safeguard their lives and dignity are not an attack upon you.

    Come on, guys. You’re America. The country that beat the Nazis, that gave us Tennessee Williams and Aaron Copland and Steven Spielberg, that invented wi-fi and post-it notes. The shining city on the hill.

    You. Are. Better. Than. This.

  • Judgment

    Fall is here, and with it, here in New York City, are all the previews for the upcoming theatrical season. I grew up here, so I’ve watched and read these hungrily ever since I was a kid. Since becoming an arts professional myself, I’ve had the extra pleasure of seeing the names of friends of mine listed in the announcements for upcoming shows, and companies where I have worked. This year, though, there was an odd and bittersweet first to be found in the New York Times arts coverage. For the first time, in the cast of a prominent upcoming show, was the name of a performer whom I myself had auditioned – and not cast.

    During the EPAs for my Fringe production of Dragon’s Breath two years ago, we saw a remarkable young actress who, to avoid any embarrassment, I’ll refer to here as Jane. Jane was just starting out, but she had impeccable training and had done workshops with a bunch of prominent theatres. Moreover, her monologue was electric, off-center and memorable. We called her back that very night, eager to work with her. However, it became clear during the callback that she wasn’t right for the secondary female lead, and she didn’t quite fit our concept of the show’s three-person chorus. So we removed her from consideration after that first callback, even though it broke my heart. (Seriously – I cried out that my heart was broken to Jane’s headshot as my creative team met for dinner after that first callback. You can ask my director.)

    Last year, Jane was cast in a supporting role in an off-Broadway production which wound up receiving a large amount of press. Uniformly, Jane was singled out by the reviews as the high point of that production. And now, in the fall previews of the upcoming season’s highlights, there is an even more high-profile revival, at an even more prominent off-Broadway theater, and Jane’s name is featured prominently in the cast.

    I am truly happy for Jane. It’s hard enough for anybody to “make it” – goodness knows I’m still slogging away, as are the performers which we did cast for Dragon’s Breath. I’m glad that somebody with clear talent is seeing that talent rewarded, and in a timely fashion. But now, I’m forced to question my own judgment. I could have cast this rising star in my own play, and I didn’t. Did I blow it?

    Dragon’s Breath had a remarkable cast – don’t take my word for it, check out the archived reviews here. Putting that cast together required making a bunch of heartrending decisions, given the size of New York’s talent pool. After seeing the final result, and working alongside my castmates* in that show, I’m sure we made the right decision. But I can’t help thinking of things from Jane’s point of view, and wondering if she ever thinks at all of this show that doesn’t appear on her resume. Does it prompt regret for what might have been? Or – my deepest fear – does it bring to mind that scene from School of Rock where Jack Black denounces his treacherous ex-bandmates by declaring them “a funny little footnote on my epic ass?” The history of the arts is full of critics and fools who’ve failed to recognize genius when they saw it – am I one of them?

    I do hope not. And the problem with this whole line of thinking is that it’s based on a model of scarcity – only so many actors, only so many productions, only so many opportunities to make the right call. This model doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in overall life, and it doesn’t work at all in the arts. Rather than agonize over a particular audition, production, or choice, we need to work at all times to expand the number of productions and auditions available for everybody. That way, every genius truly does get their moment in the spotlight.

    *Yes, I know, I cast myself in the show. It was just a supporting part, and I was right for it! Don’t judge me!

  • Silver Lining

    I spent a lot of time last week bemoaning how I’d felt estranged from a theatrical and cultural golden age in late 90s New York City, so I wanted to show a little more gratitude this time out. For indeed, there was a period of great cultural ferment in which I did get to take part, enjoying the most professional and artistic success I have known thus far in my career. Trouble is, nobody’s anxious to revisit it.

    In spring of 2001, I was underemployed, embittered by the recent election, and sitting at home with Backstage, reading an article about an Obie grant being awarded to an emerging new theatrical company called the Classical Theatre of Harlem. I was vaguely recollecting that I’d mailed them a headshot and resume when they’d begun producing a few years earlier, when at that precise moment, a phone call came in on my answering machine (it was 2001, we still had those). A sonorous baritone voice announced itself as belonging to the artistic director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, and said that they’d like me to come in and audition for their upcoming summer production of Hamlet. I looked at the machine, then back to my paper, then incredulously back to the machine, and back to the paper (it’s a shame I was home alone, where nobody could see my perfect double take), then called back the theatre and scheduled an appointment. I was cast in the show, we were seen by large and enthusiastic audiences, reviewed widely, and all involved had a great time.

    A few months later, the world ended.

    And while the initial shock was difficult for the theatre – it wasn’t high on anybody’s list of worries at the time, but in the first few months after the attacks it was impossible for anybody to attract an audience – over the next few months and years it was enormously successful. And the horrifying political climate of those years – the prospect of endless war, the horror of Katrina, the sheer ineptitude – only served to galvanize the theatre and those of us working there. We produced brutal, confrontational work, confronting the realities of race in America in a hundred different ways, confronting man’s natural instincts towards war and destruction, confronting anything and everything we could find. And the audiences came. And loved us. And more than that – it was clear that, in those dark days, they needed us.

    If the late 90s were the golden age of scrappy, odd-ball indie theatre in this city, the early 00s were the hey-day of smaller, non-profit off-Broadway houses – the ones with the freedom to have an agenda. Classical Theatre of Harlem. Keen Company, with their mantra of producing “sincere” plays. A surge of overtly political works at the Public, Playwrights Horizons, and more. Our audiences were so desperate for somebody to address what was going on in the world around them, and so desperate for a community of the like-minded, that they embraced all of us with a fervent zeal. If you produced a show with some sort of variation on the themes of “Bush = Dumb” and “War = Bad,” you’d be hailed as a genius. And it’s amazing how being treated as a genius, and given commensurate resources, can allow you to produce genius work as a result. It doesn’t always happen – it’s easy to coast on your reputation, to believe your own hype – but those of us who lived through those days know it is indeed possible.

    In more recent years, the overall quality of playwriting has, if anything, gotten even better – I truly believe that there are more extraordinary playwrights working today than at any point in my lifetime. But the audience attention just hasn’t been the same. Major works are seen for a few weeks, get a polite pat on the head, and then are never heard from again. Transfers fail to materialize, plays get permanently stalled in the development pipeline. Economics can’t take the blame for all of it, and certainly doesn’t explain the overall audience malaise I sense. My feeling is that, in order for people to truly care about their culture, to be invested in its art and the valiant folks trying to create it, they need an outside catalyst. They need a boogeyman. George W. Bush and company provided that for the average New York theater audience, and we who worked in the arts reaped the benefit, whether we realized it at the time or not. It’s that galvanization that’s missing right now. Even if you disagree with Barack Obama’s policies, you probably don’t view him as the boogeyman – and if you do, you’re probably not going to New York theatre. (You’re probably watching right-wing documentaries and Christian-market films, two artistic markets which are experiencing boom times right now, because it isn’t just New Yorkers who need a boogeyman.) So the extraordinary work which has been happening in the last few years simply hasn’t registered.

    Which brings us to the present day.

    When the boogeyman has returned.

    There is a terrifying possibility – maybe even likelihood – that the citizens of this great democracy are going to embrace a full-blown demagogue. That we will flirt with fascism in ways not seen in generations, only now with advanced technology, climate-destroying appetites, and nuclear weapons thrown into the mix. Even if the worst doesn’t come to pass, regardless of who’s elected, we’re looking at several years of brutal partisan strife, with crucial issues left ignored by all the infighting, and entropy’s relentless march causing all manner of world problems to get worse and worse.

    To the extent that there can be a silver lining in all of this, it’s that we’re going to need the arts more than ever.

    And not as a distraction – a relentless parade of comic book movies, remakes, and singing competitions has distracted far too many of us for far too long. No, we’re going to need the arts as a focal point, a place where people can come together to make sense of the chaos, to try and channel their fears and frustrations into something else. To spark the resistance. To make things better. To make us ourselves again.

    I truly pray it doesn’t come to this. But if it does? Like I said, there are more extraordinary playwrights working today than at any point I can remember in my lifetime.

    We’ll be ready.

  • Golden Age

    My writing group recently started up again, after a summer hiatus. On our first session back, we read the beginning of one of our members’ film scripts, a story of young artists working and loving in various clubs while trying to stage their theatrical magnum opus. The author had been working on the script off and on for many years, and while a few iPhones and the like had been added along the way to update it, it was clear to all of us reading that its heart lay in the New York City of the late 90s, when the first draft of it was written. Indeed, we were all in agreement that it would work best as a period piece – that in this era of The Get Down and Stranger Things, the best thing for this script would be to lean into its nostalgia factor, and fashion it as an ode to a world gone by.

    If you talk to New York theater folk around my age, you’re certain to hear this sort of nostalgic description of the late 90s. Compared to today, rent was cheap, and there were many more small rental theaters for off-off Broadway productions. The explosion in MFA and BFA programs meant that there was this new influx of young artists desperate to make their mark. Everyone thought they were living out the plot of Rent (minus the dying), and why not? That show’s cast was a bunch of unknowns whose tiny workshop hit the big time, and such a career trajectory seemed possible in ways it hasn’t really felt since. We look back on it now, when it’s far more difficult and more expensive to make theater happen, and view those years as a lost golden age.

    I wish I hadn’t felt miserable during most of them.

    After various misadventures, and after a number of other plans of mine had failed to pan out, I returned to New York City in 1997 and started pursuing work as an actor. I was doing so in the midst of the fertile climate I’ve described above, and I can’t complain about not working, because I was cast in my first show after a week of auditioning and continued to work on something of a regular basis. In the sort of non-union kiddie theater that exists to service the birthday parties of affluent Manhattanites. In outdoor Shakespeare in rat-infested courtyards, whose distracted director slept through the bulk of the dress rehearsals. In all manner of productions whose audiences numbered in the single digits, comprised of the cast’s corralled friends. We tell ourselves that the work is the important part, and a true actor will take something of value from any experience, and that’s true as far as it goes. But I was young and ambitious, desperately hoping to do something that mattered, and for all the shows I did, it seemed most of them had little or nothing to say.

    I don’t think I’m the only one. Many of the truly extraordinary actors I worked with back in the 90s have long since given up the profession; the one genuinely interesting and talented playwright I worked with back then has since put his typewriter away and left the city, and is now living in Virginia with his rockabilly guitar and his dog. Part of this is the difficult nature of the profession, of course. But I believe that part of it is also the frustration of living through a time of peace and prosperity, of unprecedented opportunity, and having little to show for it (other than some admittedly awesome war stories). And it’s hard, then, to mythologize this brief moment in time when that’s your experience of it. As someone once said, the past ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

    And I feel terribly, terribly guilty about writing this.

    Because like anybody else, I’d give anything to have this time back again.

    I’m writing these words in the last hours of Sunday night, September 11th, 2016. The fifteenth anniversary. My city has endured, but the particular iteration of it I describe ended that day, and I want it back. I want the lost lives back. I want the skyline back. I want cheap storefront theaters and manageable rents back. I want the audiences back who fled to the safety of their suburbs and still haven’t returned. I want peace back. (I’d say I want “peace and prosperity” back, but I’m an actor-writer, and we’re never prosperous.) Like all of us, I want my city back.

    But I can’t pretend that it was a utopia, because it definitely was not.

    And I have to hope that the golden age is yet to come; that the creation of works of art with genuine meaning to them is something that still lies before me, and before all of the rest of us still crazy enough to try and do this; that there is more fulfillment to be had in the future than the past. Assuming, of course, we get out of 2016 in one piece.

    And the way 2016 is going, that’s by no means guaranteed.

    But we can still hope.

  • Labor Day Weekend Beach-Travaganza

    There’s a moment in Act I of the new play I’m revising, Bay Ridge Lotus, where one of the characters describes childhood days spent at the beach. I’d already established that he grew up in the Bronx, it allowed for a bonding moment with one of the other characters, so I wrote a few lines of dialogue in which he talks about Orchard Beach, the major beach in the borough where I currently live. I’d never had the chance to go to Orchard Beach myself, but I grew up on Long Island, and was at Jones Beach and Robert Moses State Park all the time, so I thought nothing of it – a beach is a beach, right?

    Perhaps not. Playwriting is much like boxing as described by Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby – it’s all backwards. If you need to move right, you push off with your left foot. If a moment isn’t working right in Act II, it’s probably because you didn’t set it up properly in Act I. Perhaps in that dialogue exchange where the characters are talking in easy generalizations, because you don’t have your own personal details about the municipal beach in question.

    So this Saturday, the last day of the Labor Day weekend before Hurricane Hermine closed everything down, I went to visit my local Bronx beach. And having finally seen Orchard Beach for myself, there are quite a number of differences from the generic “beach” I’d imagined:

    • The waters are much calmer than I’d thought. It’s on Long Island Sound, after all, and protected. Given the approaching storm, the seas were probably choppy by local standards – which would be barely noticeable surf where I’m from. Not much of a tide, either – so if you build a sand castle (as my character mentions), it’s going to stick around much longer than if you build one at Jones Beach.
    • There are islands surrounding Orchard Beach, and if you look out at the water, you’re looking out at them rather than the open sea. It’s a much different vista than I’m used to, and along with item 1. above, it reinforces that this is a much safer, more sedate beach than what I’m accustomed to.
    • Very few seashells on the beach. No clamshell drawbridges for the sand castles! (Banners and tapestries made of seaweed are a real possibility, though.)
    • Very different in terms of marine life as well from beaches on the open water. Schools of small fish (not sure what kind) leaping just out of the surf was a common sight right at the shore’s edge, whereas I’m more used to seeing dolphins and other larger fish from afar.
    • An abundance of tennis and basketball courts. This is a major surprise for me – where I’m from, the beach is the beach, extending miles in all directions, and if you go there, you go for that and that alone. I hadn’t considered a “beach” to which one might go for completely different activities. It’s actually significant for the character, then, that he’d be at the surf rather than playing on the courts – it makes it a more active choice, potentially makes him the odd person out in his childhood peer group as he builds his sand castles instead. None of which I’d initially considered, all of which I clearly should have.
    • Most of the social activity takes place away from the beach itself – the beach was only sparsely attended, but there were grassy picnic fields (again, this is much different topography from what I’m used to) where everybody was congregating. So as with 5. above, if you’re playing at the shoreline instead, it says more about you than I’d realized.

    So now that I’ve gone and done the research I should have done earlier, now that I’ve gotten some new insights into the character, how much does this actually change the play?

    The dialogue exchange in question takes up maybe half a page. That’s how much is directly affected, how much needs to be revisited – half a page. As I mention, changes to that half a page may cause things to be adjusted later in the script as well, but still – half a page. And keep in mind, while Orchard Beach is only about three miles or so from where I live, there’s no direct route from my neighborhood to the beach by bus or subway, so it took me two hours to get there. And two hours back. And several hours exploring Orchard Beach itself. For half a page.

    But I got to go to the beach, so, y’know, there’s that.

  • A Blog Post-Length Act of Procrastination, Really

    There’s a liminal state with which I imagine writers are well aware; there’s revisions and polishing to be done on an otherwise completed project, but the mind has already moved on to preparations for the next one. Stranded between two fictional worlds, the overtaxed writer’s brain can’t seem to properly concentrate on either, with the result that no work winds up getting done. It’s like sitting in front of the shelves of some vast library, so overwhelmed by the choice in front of you that ultimately you don’t read anything.

    That’s where I am at the moment, I’m afraid. I’ve drafted two plays so far this year – an election-themed one-act set in my home town, and a full-length play about sibling white rappers from Bay Ridge. Given the timeliness of the former, that’s what I’d concentrated on revising. That piece is now as polished as I can make it on my own (an awful lot of additional work happens once you’re in production, which by definition can only happen once you’re in production). Logically, I should therefore focus on the revisions needed for Bay Ridge Lotus. (Yes, that’s the title. I’m rather proud of it.) But apart from some cosmetic adjustments – untangling wordy dialogue, cutting redundant scene beats, that sort of thing – the work that needs to be done requires rethinking characters that I’ve already worked out, and inserting moments into a dramatic framework that’s already full as it is. Rightly or wrongly, my brain has classified this piece as “done,” and it’ll only go back to work on a new draft if I drag it there kicking and screaming.

    The easier choice would be to dive into the research for the next play. I’m going to be coy about exactly what it’s about – I don’t want to ruin the surprise – but I’ve been making significant progress in terms of mapping it out mentally. And I have already done some preliminary research, all of it on topics well loved by me, so it’s far from a chore. No, it’s the sheer amount of reading awaiting me that gives me pause. Here’s the reading list as it stands right now, and as with all such research reading lists, it’s growing all the time:

    Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England

    Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment

    Bocaccio’s Decameron

    Spencer’s The Faerie Queene

    Plutarch’s Lives

    Arden Shakespeare editions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Two Noble Kinsmen

    Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (in Middle English, obviously)


    It’s a good thing the Labor Day weekend is coming up. I need the free time.

  • Something or Other

    This summer, the website Show-Score.com is partnered with the New York International Fringe Festival; if you review a show on their website, you can receive a discount to another Fringe show of your choice. Show-Score represents a means of democratizing the critical process, much as the Fringe itself represents a democratic ideal of theater production. Print and online reviews of a given piece are aggregated, and placed side-by side with posts from the general public. The resulting numerical scores are a little too J. Evans Pritchard for my taste (there’s an adaptation of Dead Poets Society coming to Classic Stage Company this fall if you didn’t catch the reference), but the goal of fostering a lively critical community is an admirable one.

    It was in such a spirit of intellectual and aesthetic community that a friend of mine recently posted a review of a Fringe show he’d seen. It’s not a show I’ve seen, nor one in which any of my friends are appearing, so I have no personal investment in it; rather than bring it unwelcome or unwarranted attention, I’ll refer to it here as Something or Other. As it turns out, my friend wasn’t particularly fond of Something or Other. He had no vendetta against the show or its company, nor was he inclined to unleash trollish vitriol for the sheer nihilistic glee of it (“for the lulz,” the kids say nowadays). He simply didn’t like Something or Other, and posted a few brief words to say so, on this public forum actively soliciting feedback such as his.

    His post was reported, flagged, and removed, on the grounds that it was a “violation of community standards.”

    Now, if my friend were engaged in an active campaign of hatred against Something or Other – if he were a resentful rival playwright, or the stalker ex-boyfriend of the stage manager, or what have you – this would be a perfectly understandable response. Far too many artists find themselves the victims of coordinated online harassment, for reasons ranging from the political (they’re women, they’re liberal, they’re artists of color) to the petty (most of the same things, if you think about it). But that wasn’t the case here. My friend was offering honest criticism, solicited by the website itself, and was even offering it under his own name – Show-Score isn’t anonymous. But it was still reported and taken down, presumably at the request of the other people reporting on Something or Other. People who, judging by their gushing feedback, were friends and family members of the company of Something or Other, zealously lobbying on its behalf, and scrubbing any digital dissent.

    I understand that this is how things work nowadays, that the business model for creative work requires “reviews” be numerous and gushing. Publishing provides the clearest example of this, especially at Amazon.com. In order for a title to be heavily promoted on their site, and thus be picked up by outside advertisers as well, it needs to receive a set number of positive reviews and a high overall “star” rating. As a result, any writer who’s not already an established bestseller is forced into the position of imploring their readers and friends to post favorable reviews in order to have any chance of a wider audience. And not just favorable reviews, but gushing raves, since the “five-star” label is all-important. In the current landscape, glutted with authors and facing dwindling readerships, it’s the only way to stand out. And it makes perfect sense that the folks behind Something or Other would have taken this lesson to heart.

    The problem is that an avalanche of hyperbolic raves is every bit as destructive as an army of angry online trolls. Healthy critical discussion is necessary to the artistic process, to provoke new work and create a framework by which it can be understood. If it’s drowned out by knee-jerk venting, regardless of the side that venting is coming from, that crucial discussion can’t take place. Instead of a lively critical community, what results is a noisy wasteland. And from the point of view of building an audience, having every show be “the very best ever!” causes the same problem as mocking every show as terrible, in that the potential audience has no way of determining whether any show is worth seeing - leading to the ultimate conclusion that no show is worth seeing. So instead of creating an environment where all artistic perspectives are welcomed, this democratized model of criticism is currently contributing to a landscape where nobody can properly flourish.

    All of which is to say that we really do need to get a better sense of how to make democracy work, and sooner rather than later. Otherwise, it’s liable to be replaced by something or other.

    (UPDATE: After reviewing the incident, Show-Score did determine that my friend did NOT violate their community standards, and his review has been restored to the site.)

  • Fit To Print

    A little over a year ago, a friend of mine put me in contact with a reporter from the New York Times, who was preparing a piece on the New York Fringe Festival. I emailed the gentleman, received a questionnaire, filled it out, and went back about my business. A few days later, I awoke to a swarm of emails and Facebook messages from friends, saying I was famous. My emailed answers were featured in a one-year retrospective of shows from the preceding Fringe festival, investigating what the experience was like, what we’d learned, and whether we’d do it all again. (The curious may find the article here.)

    Flattered though I was to be featured (especially since, as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, I do love to ramble on about things in print), the whole enterprise struck me as a little odd. The Times was acknowledging the start of the 2015 Fringe with a piece about four shows from the 2014 festival. While welcome, this coverage did not make it possible to extend the runs of any of the four featured shows – indeed, there was something infuriating about such marvelous publicity for shows that no longer existed. Meanwhile, there were two hundred or so 2015 Fringe shows about to open, all of whom had spent months getting their productions into shape, all which could have benefited from recognition from the Paper of Record, all of whom must have been perplexed that such valuable column space was being lavished on Fringe shows long since closed.

    This year, the Times’ start-of-Fringe think piece can at least provide material support to current shows. Four shows, to be precise. The Times has run an article detailing these productions’ efforts to secure free rehearsal space leading up to the Fringe.  (You can read it here.)  Having produced on the Fringe and knowing how expensive rehearsal space can be, I do find this a fascinating topic. However, this information comes a little late for the other Fringe shows, all of which have presumably finished their rehearsals by now. And since the secret turns out to be “know somebody who can do you a favor,” it’s not necessarily advice you can act upon; and as a criteria for which shows get included in the article, it’s more than a little arbitrary. Nonetheless, these are four current shows, so if the article piques your interest, you can actually go and see the productions in question. It’s a step in the right direction.

    But you know what would be an even bigger step? Actually reviewing the shows. To the best of my recollection, none of the Fringe shows in my year were reviewed by the Times, nor were any of last years’ productions. It’s not unrealistic to think that they could be reviewed; I have friends whose Fringe shows in previous years did receive reviews from the Times, which had a significant impact on their ability to mount future productions. Clearly, not every one of the two hundred shows can be covered.  And it clearly won’t be Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood doing the reviewing – indeed, they’re usually out of town in August, posting dispatches from London or the like. But there are so many third-stringers on the payroll who’d be happy for the byline, and so many shows desperate for the attention, so you’d think they’d be able to arrange at least a few pieces in the next few weeks. And yet, if the past two years are any indication, they probably won’t. The Fringe shows will be covered by bloggers and online reviewers, while the Paper of Record concerns itself with other, presumably loftier fare.

    I respectfully suggest this is a mistake. With other newspapers severely curtailing their arts coverage, the Times will soon find itself alone in terms of providing in-depth arts coverage of any kind. Since the hunger for the arts hasn’t been driven out of our society quite yet, I maintain that the Times would do well to cover more shows, not less, and extend its coverage to the off-off-Broadway and “Indie” world (at least to a greater degree than it does now). None of these shows exist in a vacuum; the health of these Fringe productions affect the health of commercial theater even if they don’t follow the path of shows like Urinetown and transfer to Broadway. The Times is fast becoming the only outlet with the power to keep this fractured community healthy, and as a noted New York cultural figure once remarked, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

    In the meantime, I should point out that since last week’s blog post, I’ve learned that three other Fringe shows this summer feature former colleagues and co-stars of mine. These include the fantastical The Troubador Struck by Lightning, the drag extravaganza Brandonna Summer Lives, Live, and the energetic show-biz farce Walken on Sunshine. By all means, try and seek these shows out during these few short weeks of the festival. And if you do, feel free to post a review somewhere.

  • Fringe Dwellers

    Two years ago, I was preparing my play Dragon’s Breath for the New York International Fringe Festival, which runs for three weeks every August here in New York City. (If you’re interested in learning about or revisiting the whole epic story, it’s all documented here.) As part of the Fringe, we were one of over two hundred shows, with the Festival providing only a photocopied booklet to explain what we were all about to prospective audiences. In such a free-for-all, you have to do everything you can to make your show stand out – and the great paradox is that the best way to accomplish this is to make other shows stand out. The more cross-pollination that occurs, the more people recommend the work of their friends and peers, the stronger a community is able to emerge from the chaos from the Fringe – and from that community, your audience will emerge.

    I’m not involved in the Fringe this summer, but members of the Dragon’s Breath team are returning with other shows. For instance, Andrea Alton, my publicist from that show, is a performer herself, and her popular character ‘Molly “Equality” Dykeman’ is featured in her new piece, A Microwaved Burrito Filled With E Coli. (Click on each title to learn more about the show.)  And an actress who helped workshop an early draft of the play, Sara Minisquero, is stage managing an audacious new clown piece by Maddy Campbell, The Coward: A Madcap Fairytale.

    Sara and I worked with Andrew Rothkin and his White Rabbit Productions last fall, in the show that featured my one-act Trumpets Sounding Over Harrisburg; he’s producing and performing in a piece by one of my fellow playwrights in that show, Max Gill, called The Debriefing. And two actors who have helped workshop other scripts of mine, Anthony Lalor and Tomike Lee Ogugua, are appearing in the crime drama Off Track. And another friend of mine, Nick Raio, who was developing his first script when last I performed with him, is finally seeing the debut of that piece, Sheila and Angelo. Clearly, of all the wild kaleidoscope of options to be had this summer, these are the five pieces you should see.

    But Michael! you exclaim. These are all new pieces, you couldn’t have seen them yet! And these are just friends and colleagues of yours! You’re a fine blogger and a nice guy and all, but are we supposed to go to these Fringe shows, sight unseen, based solely on these being your friends? Isn’t there a better, more reliable way of recommending Fringe shows?

    Well, no, there isn’t. With so many shows, most of them brand spanking new, there is no truly reliable way of knowing what to go and see – and anybody who says otherwise is grossly misrepresenting themselves. Most of the buzz that generates around shows is the result of carefully crafted publicity campaigns (seriously, if you’re thinking of producing one of these, hire Andrea Alton – she’s good). And the recommendations of “experts” are often based on flimsier criteria than what I’ve offered here; there’s one Big Name Producer who’s on record as saying he won’t go to any Fringe show that doesn’t take out a full page ad in the Fringe brochure, since they’re clearly the only ones who take themselves seriously. Against such mindsets, I’m inclined to think that my “go see my friends” method of Fringe show selection is indeed the one you, Dear Reader, should use.

    After all, I’m not friends with just anybody.

  • Train In Vain

    I grew up on Long Island, and lived there the better part of my life. In order to come into Manhattan, either to work or to get more cultural stimulation than was to be found at the shopping mall multiplex, I had to take the Long Island Railroad. My family home was only a mile or so from the track, and if weather conditions were just right I could hear the wail of its horn (LIRR trains don’t really have whistles) and its rumble as it barreled along the tracks. My every action was dictated by the train schedule I had to live by. Day after day, day after year, I braved crowds of surly commuters and drunken sports fans in order to do anything other than vegetate at home. I spent a significant fraction of my lifespan – possibly months, when it’s all tallied up – standing on platforms, cursing the ineptitude of the MTA as trains were consistently announced as late, waiting for trains that never seemed to come. Every moment of this felt like a defeat, a failure – for has any artist ever composed their masterpiece while dealing with the miseries of the Huntington line? When I finally moved into the city proper, my chiefest source of delight was the thought that I’d never have to deal with the LIRR again.

    This past weekend, I played the lead in a low-budget short film. I don’t normally play leading roles, and was delighted to have this opportunity, no matter how modest the circumstances. And the production was indeed modest – a skeleton crew filming in the director’s Kew Gardens apartment. This is by no means unheard of – New York is filled with resourceful aspiring filmmakers, putting their projects together on borrowed time with borrowed equipment, turning their homes into makeshift studios in order to cut down on costs. And the director’s apartment was ideal – spacious, with enough variety in its rooms and layout for us to get all of the shots we’d need.

    The one drawback? The apartment building was right next to the Kew Gardens LIRR station, directly overlooking the train tracks.

    We began shooting the first scene on the day, featuring my longest monologue. I found a good groove with it, felt my performance working – then heard the cry of “hold, please.” Followed immediately by the sound of a commuter train barreling along, rattling the walls and spoiling any audio being recorded at that moment. And then another commuter train pulling into the station, squealing to a halt, and then barreling along. And on and on it went – we shot on Friday and Saturday, and at the height of Friday rush hour we could just manage a thirty second take between the roaring, howling, hateful trains.

    After all this time, the Long Island Railroad trains were still dictating my life, still thwarting me, still frustrating my hopes and aspirations. Would I never be rid of them? Were they to be a permanent, metallic, smelly albatross about my neck? I seethed in frustration – but did not let it throw my focus. I’d spent many long years dealing with these trains – I could practically guess their routes by the different sounds they made – and all the mental discipline I’d acquired along the way was brought to bear at this moment. I kept the scenes going, kept up the rapport with my fellow performers, kept getting my director usable footage to work with. And ultimately, we managed to complete the film without hassle, in less time than we’d scheduled. (I’d say “on time and under budget,” but that implies that we had a budget.)

    So the answer to my question – could any artist produce a masterpiece while dealing with the miseries of the Huntington line? – may well be answered in a few months. It’s all up to post-production now.

  • Fight Club

    The Public Theater’s new production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida began previews in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater this past week. Since it’s still in previews, and I’m not a reviewer, I will hold off on reviewing a production still in its rehearsal process – there are chat rooms if you like that sort of thing. I will, however, point out one particularly noteworthy aspect of this production – one that’s already the case this early on, and certain to remain the case as the run progresses.

    Namely, that this Troilus features the best theatrical fight scenes I’ve ever seen.

    Troilus and Cressida is Shakespeare’s bitterly ironic take on Homer’s Iliad, covering a period of the Trojan War ending in (2000-year-old-spoiler-alert) the death of Hector. As such, a considerable amount of stage violence is called for. The choreography, by Michael Rossmy and Rick Sordelet, boasts tremendous variety, incorporating knife fighting, hand-to-hand, and extensive firearms (the production is modern-dress, and most effectively so). It’s well done in-and-of itself – the fights are creatively staged and well rooted in character and plot. What makes this show’s fights truly extraordinary, however, is the company’s level of commitment to them. These actors do a terrific job performing the fights, revealing as much about their characters through their fighting styles as they do through the verse, and are better drilled than any other company I’ve ever come across.

    To give you an idea what I mean, there’s a moment in a fight between Hector and Ajax which is genuinely terrifying. It involves Ajax making a sneak attack on Hector with an improvised weapon – should you head out to Central Park to see it (and you should), you’ll know the moment when it comes by all the screams around you. What’s terrifying is the speed of the strike – rather than the half-speed ballet of most stage fights, this blow is swift enough to be potentially lethal. The only way to do it is for the actor to strike where he knows his partner won’t actually be, the illusion being that he escaped in the nick of time. This sort of fake-out is usually easy to spot, but in this case, there are a dozen or so other actors on stage watching the fight, all choreographed in such a way as to make the move seem to come out of nowhere. It requires a tremendous amount of discipline, and this company clearly has it.

    It shouldn’t be surprising – this is the Public Theater, after all, and they can afford the rehearsal time and resources to make these fights work (the budget for the all the blanks in the climactic firefight probably exceeds most Americans’ yearly salary). Yet plenty of other companies have access to comparable resources without producing work of this quality, and it ought to be noticed and applauded.

    I mention this now, while the show is still in previews, because I’m genuinely curious as to how this aspect of the show will figure in its ultimate reviews. Not whether the fights are praised to the degree which I’m doing here, however, but whether they’re even noticed at all. Because fight choreography is one of those elements which seems to get taken for granted. (It’s not alone – I used to work as a sound designer, and hoo boy could I bend your ear about that.) Theater is a collaborative art, requiring dozens of different elements to work and click together, yet audiences and critics only ever seem to focus on a tiny handful of those elements in any given show. Worse still, they may completely dismiss them, no matter what their quality – one of those chat rooms I mentioned above already has somebody complaining about the show’s astonishing climactic firefight as “too noisy!”

    And that’s why this is the subject of this week’s blog post. I’ve worked on enough shows in enough different capacities to see how the different elements work and click together. I’ve done my fair share of stage combat – I got my Equity card being hurled across the stage in a production of The Cherry Orchard (by The Wire’s Wendell Pierce, no less!) Others might not recognize the degree of the achievement of this show’s fight choreography, but I do. Hopefully, now that I’ve pointed out what to look for, you will as well.

  • The Divide

    I don’t live in Los Angeles – was only there for a few days in my entire life, on a childhood vacation – but my Facebook feed has been filled with rancorous updates from that city nonetheless. On July 14, for those non-performers among you, a group of L.A.-based stage actors formally served Actor’s Equity Association with the lawsuit which they’d filed against them back in October. This drastic move occurred in response to AEA’s plan to radically reform its code for small theater in that city, and do away with its waiver system for 99-seat houses. (The issue has been going on for too long and is too complex for me to summarize it here, so I’ll let this handy link do the talking.)

    Again, I don’t work in that city and can’t speak to every detail, but as someone who’s worked in New York on many a Showcase code – the rough equivalent to L.A.’s 99-seat Equity waiver – I think I understand both sides. Certainly, here in New York, there are plenty of dynamic and worthwhile theater companies which can only function because of the code – as well as plenty of unscrupulous producers who love to push its restrictions to the breaking point, to mount seasons of would-be commercial theater on the cheap. So if my fellow actors have had a similar breadth of experiences, and can see all the details and issues involved, they and their chosen leadership should be able to revise the waiver code (and ultimately the Showcase code) in a way that acknowledges both the need for a living wage and the realities of producing small theatre, and is as fair as possible to both sides.

    If you believe that’s what’s happening, then you clearly don’t have any actor friends on Facebook (and haven’t been paying attention to this year’s overall lunacy). The viciousness of the rhetoric, the twisting of facts and deployment of straw man arguments, the escalation of conversations among friends and peers into hateful name calling rivals anything the presidential campaign has offered up thus far. And like any political shriekfest, there’s an underlying division fueling all of this rancor. It might seem that there shouldn’t be – after all, this is a dispute among actors, among union actors, who all have similar outlooks on labor, workplace issues, social issues, and the like. But there is a stark division nevertheless, and until we are honest about it and acknowledge it, such rancor is apt to keep tearing us apart.

    The division, of course, is that dramatic plays and musicals have different needs, and require vastly different business models.

    When you get down to it, most of the policies AEA has in place are specifically designed to protect musical performers. Prohibitions against raked stages (without certain conditions in place, like contributions to the health fund) are infuriating to anybody trying to revive La Bete, but if you tapdance on one of those things for eight shows a day your career will be over within a year. Actors deep into their rehearsal process might object to an interruption due to a mandatory break, but those breaks are crucial to folks drilling a dance routine all day. It’s understandable – primarily musical performers are the largest bloc within the union, and musicals on the Production and SETA touring codes are the largest sources of income. Unfortunately, it’s led to a state of affairs where the differing types of performers have split into opposing camps, each viewing the other with suspicion.

    Look again at the list of actors in the L.A. lawsuit – they’re primarily dramatic actors. The movement on behalf of the 99-seat theaters has been spearheaded by such prominent companies as Tim Robbins' Actors Gang, which specialize in confrontational contemporary plays. On the other side of the divide, the union leadership lobbying for the change in the code is primarily made up of actors with experience focusing on musical theatre, and specifically for-profit musical theatre. One side is convinced the other is out of touch and out to wreck their artistic community; the other firmly believes that such intimate theatre is nothing but a scam, allowing producers who seek to exploit the code a means to produce commercial-aimed theatre without having to pay rehearsal or health costs.

    As we’ve hopefully noticed by now, polarization this extreme makes it impossible to function. As a nation, as a community, as an industry. Performers need to be able to move from drama to comedy to musical, classical to contemporary, both for artistic and professional reasons – they can’t do their job properly if they don’t. We as a union need to acknowledge this, and we need to facilitate it for our members.  And a one-size-fits-all mentality, assuming that a Broadway mounting of a golden-age musical is the natural end point of any production, is a poor way to do so.  We may need - we certainly need - to reform the wide variety of contracts under which we operate, but we need to embrace the variety.  Without it, we can't develop new work or cultivate new voices.  Without it, we risk rendering theater an inert art form even as we claim to defend it.

  • One Fourth of a Day in the Life

    Ordinarily, I write these blog posts the Sunday night before I post them; I spend a few hours drafting, get some sleep, then do a final edit before the final copy and paste.  This past weekend, however, was an extremely busy one for me, as I spent all my time arranging a table read for the first draft of a new play.  By the time it was done, and I’d made my way home, it was already late Sunday night – and I was looking at only a few hours of sleep before I’d have to make my way into Manhattan again for an important audition.

    For those who don’t already know, AEA arranges something called Agent Access Auditions; agents who are franchised with the union are required to hold open calls to see unsigned members at periodic intervals.  Today, such a call is taking place between 1:30 and 4:30 in the afternoon.  In order to be seen at this, AND have time to make it to my afternoon/evening shift at work, I need to be among the first few people seen.  And that means a very, very early day.

    So, in case you’re wondering what a very very early day is like for New York’s stage actors, I offer up this timetable in the name of the public interest.

    3:00 AM.  My cat has decided that this is when she’s supposed to have breakfast.  I tend to be upset by this development, but since the Equity building opens at 6 AM and I’ll have to be there by then to guarantee the audition slot I’ll need, I’m letting it slide today.

    4:00 AM.  I’m taking a shower instead of trudging back to bed for another few hours of sleep, which is what normally happens when my cat wakes me up at three in the morning.  She has taken note of this deviation from the routine, and is none too happy about it.

    4:30 AM.  Arriving at my local subway station, way up in the northernmost part of the Bronx.  Considering how early it is, there’s a surprising amount of activity on the street; there’s a mosque on the corner near the station, and it turns out that morning prayers are letting out for the day.  Having “morning prayers” take place a good hour or so before the sun’s even up seems a bit problematic to me, but then again I’m not a religious scholar.

    The subway tracks are elevated where I live; ascending to the platform, I can see the first glowing lines of blue in the (soon to no longer be) night sky.  It’s the sign you’ve either had a long night or are about to have a long day – it’s the latter for me.

    4:45 AM.  My train finally arrives.  (Such a wait is all too common on my particular line – thanks a bunch, MTA.)  It gets surprisingly crowded rather quickly.  I’d experienced this living on Long Island as well; anybody who needs to start work in the city by 6AM needs to take these early trains, usually folks in construction or service industries.  We all sit, zoning out as best we can, the city’s exhausted employees.

    5:35 AM.  Times Square.  The sun has risen by now, and there’s a good amount of activity already – food carts setting up, the Good Morning America crew preparing for broadcast, a pair of errant joggers.  The only thing missing are the costumed performers, who clearly haven’t woken up yet, and I have a brief vision of how lovely the area could be if we were somehow delivered from their scourge.

    5:45 AM.  Arriving at the Equity building.  It seems there’s nobody there, and I’m actually going to be first – and then at the last moment, as I drag my exhausted bones to the door, an impossibly well-groomed gentleman steps out of a cab and stands by the door in front of me. 

    5:47 AM.  The well-groomed gentleman gets himself buzzed into the building – turns out he works on one of the other floors.  Another gentleman buzzes himself in as well, looking almost identical – dress shirt, shaved head, skin glowing with product.  Maybe there’s a factory somewhere in the building where they’re mass produced?

    6:00 AM.  The building opens to AEA members.  (I am indeed the first of us on line – huzzah.)  We’re shepherded to the holding area on the fourth floor, where we sign a preliminary list.  The actual audition appointments will be assigned later, and take place on a separate floor of the building – what I’ve signed is a list to sign up on the actual sign up list.

    6:05 AM.  There’s six of us here to start the day – proof that, since I can only audition at that one particular time, I did indeed need to wake up at such an ungodly hour.  I plant myself on one of the chairs and attempt to get some sort of rest.

    7:00 AM.  Try as I might, stiff-backed plastic chairs aren’t conducive to napping.  I turn to the work I’ve brought with me – the drafts of my recent plays, which now need revising.  The full length play, Bay Ridge Lotus, is freshest in my mind, since the table read was yesterday.  But the task ahead with this play is daunting; I had worried, given the diverse range of characters in the piece, that I might have failed to do justice to or accurately depict one of them, failed to fully flesh out their background.  It turns out, though, that the play’s major problem right now is the opposite – there’s too much depiction, too much dialogue interrupting the flow of the story.  To fix this, I’m going to have to go through the dialogue line by line and prune it as necessary.  It’s a daunting and time consuming task – and I also have a much shorter one-act with an election theme, and revising that piece instead is the only chance of having it be heard by anybody before November, when it might still be timely.  What to do?

    7:15 AM.  Since I’m still far too tired to think clearly, the obvious answer is to hold off on revising anything right now and play a little computer mah jongg instead.  

    8:20 AM.  They start lining us up.  I am indeed first on the list, and stand and watch as a great throng of people – some seventy or eighty strong, more than can possibly be seen in three hours – begin to corkscrew around the room.  One of the names called is an actor I’d worked with many years before – I won’t name names, but he had the title role in a major Off-Broadway production.  And now he’s here with me, on the line for actors who lack representation.  It’s too depressing to contemplate this early in the morning.

    9:00 AM.  Sign-up is concluded.  I want to relax and bask in the achievement, but the fact is I haven’t actually accomplished anything yet.  The audition isn’t for another four and a half hours – all of this has been one to secure the one audition slot that would allow me to get to work on time afterwards. 

    We don’t always have to go through this, but for especially popular calls, or things like VITA tax preparation, every AEA member in this city puts themselves through a morning like this.  And we keep on doing it and doing it, until, for some reason, we stop.  And in the interim, we can only hope that our reason for stopping is a happy one.

  • 4th of July

    I spent all of Sunday wondering what to post today – whether or not to put up some sort of deep thinkpiece about The State of America On This Independence Day.  And indeed, there’s an awful lot to be said about our nation at this particular historical juncture.

    None of which you want to read right now, because you’ve got cookouts to go to and fireworks to watch.  I mean, it’s a holiday – why are you reading an actors’ blog post?  It’s a lovely summer day!  Put down that tablet or iPhone or whatever and go live a little!

    That goes for me too.  The next few weeks for me are rather busy, as I get ready to shoot a short film, try and revise an election-themed one-act in time for the fall, and put together a developmental table-reading of my newest full-length play.  Hopefully, all of The Important Things I Have To Say will make themselves heard there.

    We declared our Independence in July of 1776.  But it took many years of strife and struggle before we reached December 15, 1791, when these sacred words were written:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    So everybody have fun peaceably assembling today.  I’ll probably be joining you for a while, before heading back to my keyboard to turn my various grievances into something worthwhile.  If I succeed, I’ll be sure to speak of it here.

    Happy 4th of July everybody!

     

  • Of Course I'm Going To Find A Way To Make This All About Shakespeare

    Some years ago, I was cast in a production of Macbeth which wound up doing a short tour of Germany.  A few days before performing in one of the venues, a replica of the Globe Theater located next to a racetrack in Neuss (Germany’s a bit…different), a few members of the company and I went to see the preceding show at the venue, to get a sense of what the space was like.  The show wound up being a production from Great Britain - a Shakespearean burlesque which offered up a low-budget staging of the classic 60s heist film The Italian Job with all of its dialogue replaced with lines of Shakespeare (and called, imaginatively enough, Bill Shakespeare’s The Italian Job).  I was mildly amused; my friends were outraged.  They couldn’t understand why anybody would go to the trouble of mounting a Shakespearean production of any sort only to inflict that sort of mockery upon the Bard, and by extension, England’s cultural heritage as a whole.  I wasn’t quite so surprised; I’d spent my semester abroad in London, and had been exposed to a number of similar burlesques of England’s cultural heritage.  It’s a subgenre unto itself; here in the States, we’re only ever aware of acknowledged masterworks like Holy Grail or Blackadder, so we don’t realize how large the subgenre is, how crappy it can get, or the audience it serves.  In speaking to Londoners, back in the 90s, I’d been struck by how many of them straight-up resented that cultural heritage with which I was so enamoured, feeling that they lived in a museum and that the approval and adoration of the world was a hollow prize, when they’d rather just chuck it all and do whatever the bloody hell they wanted.

    In other news, Brexit passed this week.

    The full consequences of Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union won’t truly be known for some time.  We don’t yet know its full ramifications for the global economy, for the future of Europe as a whole, for the social issues underlying its vote.  However, it’s becoming clear what the consequences are going to be for the arts in Great Britain, which has been one of its defining glories for decades (if not centuries).  And as this summary demonstrates, it’s not good at all.  Basically, the arts now face a direct loss of funding through lost access to European programs, and indirect loss of funding due to economic fallout from the vote.  In addition, the ability of artists to travel to and from Britain with the same ease which they may do so through the rest of the EU is now in jeopardy.  This threatens not only the ability of artists to work, but to train and to learn – to become artists in the first place.

    The arts aren’t simply a pillar of the British economy.  They’re also an essential component of the British identity, the through-line of cultural heritage stemming from Chaucer through Shakespeare all the way down to Sarah Kane and Monty Python (betcha never thought you’d hear them in the same sentence).  And whatever their motives, the majority of the English people looked at the sociopolitical structures which maintain that cultural heritage today, the institutions that allow those artistic ideals, and the broader humanistic ideals underlying them, the ideals which our own society is ultimately based on – they looked at all of that and said, “No.  Not worth the effort.”

    Better, perhaps, to chuck it all.

    And it’s this which I fear about the news out of Great Britain these days, more than the specifics of how withdrawal will play out over the next few years, or how it might impact elections over here.  I fear that impulse I encountered in jaded Londoners years ago; fear it, and understand it, because I’ve been surrounded by it my whole life (or at least whenever I used to ride the Long Island Rail Road.)  The sense that arts, culture, the true essence of our “heritage,” is a luxury, to be abandoned when times are tough or scary, to be viewed with suspicion.  It’s not – and I’m not just saying that because it provides my meager income.  It’s what’s best in us.  It’s our dreams and values given form, given life with which to make their way through the world.  And it’s dependent on people turning outside to embrace and engage with the world, not withdrawing from it in fear and disgust, not attempting to vote it out of our lives.

    Withdrawal is a terrible, terrible idea.

    We’ve emulated Great Britain in a great many ways over the years.  When it comes to building the arts community, and public engagement with the arts, which Great Britain used to have, I hope we do so again.  But in this instance, that would be about as sound an idea as a Shakespearean pastiche of The Fast and The Furious.  (On second thought, I probably shouldn't give anybody ideas...)

  • Meanwhile, In Chicago...

    It’s been overshadowed by all the other news going on in the world of late, but if you’re a theater artist, you’re probably aware of the controversies surrounding, and recent closing of, Profiles Theater in Chicago.  If you haven’t yet heard about the controversies swirling around this “edgy” storefront theater, they were precipitated by an expose in the Chicago Reader, the text of which can be found here

    To briefly summarize (because the article isn’t brief), the piece describes a long history of dangerous working conditions, manipulative behavior, and sexual abuse at Profiles by its leading actor-slash-artistic director.  I need to be careful here; I don’t live in Chicago, and from a legal point of view these are all just allegations, but the overall portrait is consistent and damning.  And as the story has made the rounds throughout the theater community, it has prompted a number of calls for changes and reforms – for reporting and addressing sexual abuse in the theater, for establishing a code of professional conduct for non-Equity theaters.  There is a tremendous amount of hand-wringing and soul-searching, prompted by the feelings of shock at this outrageous story.

    I must confess, however, that I didn’t respond with shock to any of this.  It all felt distressingly familiar.

    After all, if you’re a struggling actor, how many would-be Svengalis have you encountered, holding court in their own little companies, teaching sketchy workshops and classes that seemed to be a weekly exercise for their own egos?  How often has the line between the professional and the personal blurred, usually in a hundred small ways?  And how many companies have put together seasons of “edgy” plays that, regardless of literary value, provided an excuse to indulge in precisely the sort of behavior detailed in the Chicago Reader article which has prompted all this disgust?

    Because it’s worth noting how often the stories about Profiles have pointed out how it was the go-to place for a certain kind of “edgy” theater.  It’s a type of theater that has dominated this level of low-income, independent, frequently non-union theater for decades now – grubby tales of brutal, near-feral fringe-dwellers and their mating habits, John Osborne’s class revolution in Look Back In Anger filtered through Sam Shepard’s aesthetic.  Like any theatrical aesthetic, there’s still the capacity for literary merit and powerful work if the inspiration is there – if the artist has a larger point to make and has chosen the best means to make that point.  But if the inspiration is not there, it can become an empty exercise in bad behavior, indulged in by people looking for an excuse to behave badly.  And there’s an audience for watching bad behavior for its own sake – indeed, a recurring motif in the Profiles coverage is that many critics and theatergoers seemed to suspect what was going on but looked the other way, assuming it was the cost of doing business. 

    So, now that we’ve begun talking about organizing theaters and establishing codes of conduct, I wonder if there’s something my fellow playwrights and I could do to help in all of this as well.

    Namely, could we declare a moratorium on writing this stuff?

    Could we stop pretending that unpleasant sex scenes and scuzzy displays of fake machismo, in and of themselves, represent some deep sort of artistic truth?  Could we stop providing companies like this with the excuse to indulge their worst impulses?  I don't ask this in the name of censorship (self- or otherwise), but in the name of pushing ourselves as creative artists.  Could we stop and take a moment to realize that, if all we have to say as artists is “I’m alpha and I’m horny,” we might not actually have anything to say?

    And there’s a hell of a lot to say right now!  And there’s a lot of extraordinary playwrights who are alert to what’s going on in the world today – socially, politically, philosophically - and are working towards a new, equally vibrant theatrical language to engage with our strange and beautiful new world.  A language that, just maybe, has no further need of the kind of grunting and groaning that’s been celebrated for too long, at far too great a cost.

    Time to listen.

  • A Million Things I Haven't Done

    I’ll be honest – I really didn’t want to post anything this week.  The horrific news from Orlando yesterday, and the appalling state of our national discourse in general, warrants something more substantial, more meaningful than a mere blog post on some actor’s website.  I can’t think of anything to say right now that wouldn’t come across as frivolous, and to really grapple with what’s going on in the world right now, I’d need more space, and a hell of a lot more time, to do any sort of justice to the theme.

    But I’m committed to this whole post-a-week thing, and I’m primarily writing about a life in the arts, and the arts are supposed to be the means by which we cope with the world around us.  Besides, here in the world of New York theater, last night was sort of a big deal.  And so, looking for entertainment and inspiration, I sat myself down and Tony Awards.  For once, it was a genuinely entertaining telecast.  Sure, it would have been nice to have seen real excerpts from the non-musical plays (somebody like me says this every year), but the musicals seemed genuinely inspired, the people were all delighted to be there, and unlike some awards shows we could mention, the diversity and vitality of our community was obvious and visible for all to see.  And it all culminated in the awards triumph of Hamilton, a labor of love which has reclaimed the American narrative for all of its citizens, breaching demographic walls and breaking records in the process.  Surely, an inspirational night all around.

    So naturally, I was depressed as hell.

    The thing that had me depressed was Hamilton – and specifically, the production chronology of the show.  As we all learned last night (because really, they talked a lot about that show), Lin-Manuel Miranda made the momentous decision to read the Chernow biography about Alexander Hamilton right after his Tony win for In The Heights, in 2008.  Given that he’d been writing and workshopping the piece continuously after that, this means Hamilton took eight years to create.

    Eight years ago.  That’s a two-term presidential administration.  (Specifically the rather eventful administration of the president who introduced the Hamilton clip last night.)  That’s enough time to get a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree (and maybe a PhD too, depending on your program).  That’s a little more than one tenth of the average American’s life span.  That’s a rabbit’s entire life span.  That’s a large chunk of time, is what I’m saying.

    Obviously, it takes a long time to develop and hone one’s craft, whatever it may be.  And nothing with the depth and complexity of what appeared on that telecast last night can be thrown together in a day.  So it shouldn’t be surprising that the origins of Hamilton, the show of the moment, took place in that long-ago world where most people hadn’t yet heard of Sarah Palin, but knew who Heidi and Spencer were.  These things take time.

    The question is, do we have that time?

    Because at the rate 2016 is going, an awful lot of us won’t.  And there’s an inevitable conflict between the urgent need to say something now about the madhouse around us, and the length of time needed to develop an artistic response to that madhouse.  It’s depressing to think about, especially since there’s no guarantee that when we go through our own individual process and create our response, that anybody will elect to listen to it.  Or that there’ll even BE anybody around to listen.  If it takes me eight years to see a production of the election-themed piece I'm working on now, or a response to religious extremism or our environmental woes, will it matter to anybody?  Or will it already be too late?

    We have to somehow press forward anyway, hoping against hope that the apocalypse won’t arrive until sometime after we’ve finished that novel or staged that play.  We have to maintain that hope at all costs, believe that the long odds of our creation helping to stave off that apocalypse are worth seeing our visions through, worth not giving up our shots.

    Time’s a-wasting.

  • Extraordinary How Potent Cheap Television Is

    When I first joined Equity, and started spending significant periods of time in its audition Lounge, I discovered something peculiar. I would frequently hear people discuss having seen things “the other night” on television – things like the latest episode of Kojak, or a notable guest on the Dick Cavett Show – which I knew to have aired some decades prior. Though older, these folks weren’t losing their faculties, they didn’t seem confused. How, then, could they have conflated time to such a degree, as to think large swaths of programing from the 1970s had happened just last weekend?

    Now that I’m a cranky old recluse myself, the answer is abundantly clear.

    A few months ago, I moved to the Bronx, and as part of a number of cost-cutting and life-changing measures, I got rid of cable. Despite living in the so-called Second Golden Age of Television, when all manner of groundbreaking programming is to be found on the channels I can no longer see, I find I don’t miss it at all. Not having to be subjected to the 24-hour cable news cycle makes up for a great deal. And true, if I really wanted to watch the rampaging dragons and direwolves of Game of Thrones in real time, I could set up Netflix or HBO Go with a minimum of fuss. But I’ve been busy the past few months working on a variety of writing projects, and the lack of distractions has been welcome, so I simply haven’t bothered. I haven’t been able to say goodbye to television completely, however (and as an actor interested in the current state of pop culture, I don’t believe you should), and I wound up getting a digital antenna.

    It’s here where the answer to our original riddle presents itself. For in addition to the basic broadcast networks, the digital antenna picks up a number of channels which don’t usually appear on the cultural radar, and may be otherwise unknown to god or man. Here in New York, there are of course a wide variety of foreign language channels. But there are also a number of strange nostalgia networks – networks whose daily programming is indeed the enormous swath of 60s and 70s cheese to which those mysterious conversations were referring. This past weekend, there was a marathon showing of a Tarzan TV show from 1966-68 which I otherwise had no idea existed. Previous weekends have shown marathons of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and the illustrious 70s classic Celebrity Bowling, because we must not be allowed to forget that this society of ours once allowed televised celebrity bowling to be an actual thing. And throw in talk shows and other news broadcasts from the period which get thrown into the mix, and the time warp illusion is complete.

    I admit, all of this is strangely seductive – largely because it’s trafficking in forgotten bits of flotsam from my childhood. Chance upon a nostalgia station after coming home from a weary day, home alone, no other outside stimulus coming in, and it truly is as though I have stumbled back into my room as an 8 year old, ready to slip back and relax in its comforts and hide from the big scary world outside. This, of course, is the terrifying part – how easy such a retreat can be.

    We need to engage with the world around us – as artists, if such we are, but more importantly as humans. TV has long been accused of making this engagement impossible. That’s not always the case – the best of what it does facilitates this engagement instead – but the nostalgia channels have an amazing way of finding the worst of what TV has been and feeding it to us in great 48-hour long chunks. Not that there isn’t value there as well – I’ve managed to find some old Playhouse 90 broadcasts in its rotation, a treasure trove to actors and students of history – but at its worst, it’s turning those of us with more modest means into the cranky folks who hear about the daring and richness of today’s medium and decide we’re better off with Kojak, and who back up our opinions with the arguments we heard on last night’s Susskind show.  We're the ones who most need to make our voices heard, and the digital antenna is beaming in this constant reminder in washed-out color that it's better not to bother - just sit back on the couch and vegetate again, like you did when you were eight.

    All of which is to say that, if somebody wanted to subsidize performing artists by letting us get free satellite upgrades, all issues of economic feasibility aside, I’d be hard pressed to say no.


  • Cruel Summer

    Today is Memorial Day, a solemn day of remembrance which we’ve decided should be the kick-off to all of our summertime festivities. And here in New York, the past weekend has indeed been sunny, steamy, and hot, the first such of the season. Thousands upon thousands have flocked to our beaches. At the Delacorte Theater, Phyllida Lloyd’s production of The Taming of the Shrew has opened the 2016 season of the Public Theater at Central Park. We even have the first tropical storm of the year (it’s dumped lots of rain down where my parents live). Clearly, summer has begun.

    But in many ways, summer is already over.

    The many, many summer Shakespeare productions which will be seen all throughout the city in the next few months – of which those at the Delacorte are merely the most prominent – are already deep into rehearsals. Most of them are already cast. Indeed, most of this summer’s shows in general are already cast – the Fringe NYC shows, which will go up at the end of August, are putting up their casting notices now, if their production wasn’t cast to begin with. So, if you’re an actor looking for something to do, summer isn’t really an option any more – it’s already time to prepare your auditions for upcoming Christmas productions.

    If you’re simply an audience member looking for a summer show, your options will soon be narrowing as well – at least as far as outdoor Shakespeare is concerned (I’m harking on the outdoor Shakespeare a lot, but it’s kind of my thing). The production calendar for these shows tends to be frontloaded in June and July; perhaps half of these ‘summer’ shows will be done before the actual vernal equinox rolls around. A good chunk of the audience is off recreating in the Hamptons and travelling abroad for the second half of the season, and shows with short runs schedule themselves in order to catch folks while they’re here. So from a production point of view, summer tends to be shorter than you think.

    This is, of course, built into the system. Shows need time to prepare their productions and rehearse. Seasons are prepared well in advance. In order to reach an audience, you need time to publicize the show properly. Regional houses cast for whole seasons at a time, so it’s not uncommon to go to a seasonal EPA to audition for a show that will be produced in a year-and-a-half’s time.

    The problem with this system is it becomes difficult as an artist to respond to the larger world in a timely fashion. It’s not impossible – the framing device of the Taming of the Shrew production mentioned above is about as of-the-moment as it’s possible to get. (No spoilers, but its impact is yuuuge.) But for most of us, it’s impossible to react in real time as an actor or writer to issues and events surrounding us. For instance, I’ve just started sketching out an election-themed one-act play. Short though I expect it to be, it will be next to impossible to mount a production of it when it would have the most impact, which would be the right before the upcoming election (which, at the rate we’re going, could wind up being our last). And I’m a grizzled veteran who lives in New York City – a kid finishing their spring semester at college, arriving in the area for the summer, and looking for some role to challenge them and allow them to vent their feelings about their world, is pretty much out of luck.

    Of course, all this assumes that we want to find projects to work on and productions to see. It’s entirely possible that you’d like to just chill out during the long hot days again, and enjoy a nice rest. And that’s fair enough. Considering the way the world’s going, we’ll all need to be nice and rested up before this autumn comes around.

  • They Got That Big Statue of Paul Bunyan Up There, You Betcha

    I’ve been blogging here at this website of mine for a little over three months now. And for all the fun I’ve had opining on all manner of topics – and hopefully, for all the fun you’ve had reading me as I yammer on – it’s worth remembering that there is a professional reason for all of this. In the world we live in now, an artist’s presence online is as important to their career as their actual artistic work, if not more so. Casting directors attempt to gauge our box office draw by counting the number of our Facebook friends and Twitter followers; potential collaborators and employers Google our names to get a sense of who we are and what we can do. And thus, one of the things this website is meant to do is boost my presence on the Internet. Enter the name “Michael C. O’Day” into Google, and hopefully, the accounts of my artistic triumphs will fill the screen.

    To test this, I just did a Google search of my own name. The results were not exactly what I’d hoped for. As of Sunday evening, May the 22nd, the first entry which comes up when you Google my name does indeed pertain to me – it’s a link to my Twitter account. (Which, if you don’t already, you’re welcome to follow – it’s @michaelcoday.) But the second entry that comes up – the second entry, right at the top of the screen – is also a Twitter account. The account of an entirely different person who happens to share the name “Michael C. O’Day.”

    A chiropractor. From Brainerd, Minnesota.

    Now, I do realize that it’s not impossible for other people to share my name. It seems that half of the men with my last name have a first name of “Michael,” and it stands to reason that a percentage of them would have the same middle initial as well. (At least two percent, I reckon.) But this name has been mine for as long as I can remember; I’ve had it since birth. Since my father has the same first name as I do (told you half of us were named Michael), I’ve used my middle initial to claim my own identity as far back as kindergarten. All the work I’ve done since – creative, academic, administrative – has been done in that name, to build that identity. I’m loath to share it with anybody.

    And with a chiropractor?! Yes, sure, it’s a noble profession, and proper alignment is certainly something I appreciate as a performer. But I’ve written plays! Produced in New York and everything! I’ve performed with award winning companies and gone on wacky adventures! Once a week, I put out witty essays about the artistic life of between 500 and 1000 words in length! Am I to meekly accept the aggregate judgment of the Internet, that all of these pale in importance to a chiropractic practice in the Upper Midwest?

    I am not prepared to do that, and must therefore ask a favor of all of you, Gentle Readers. Please share this post, far and wide. Share as many of these posts as you like. Click on the links contained in this site to my Facebook and Twitter accounts. Sound my barbaric yawp throughout cyberspace, so that my artistic life and work is what people think of when they hear the name of Michael C. O’Day.

    Unless you live in Brainerd and have a slipped disc. Then you should probably talk to the other guy.


  • The Humblebrag of Broadway

    To date, I have not performed on Broadway.  (Working on it.)  A fair number of my performer friends have, however, and I’ve usually been able to see them and cheer them on.  It shouldn’t matter so much that it’s “Broadway,” of course – art is art, and the craft is the craft, and the other terrific performances I’ve seen my friends give are in no way diminished for having been given in smaller venues.  But it’s hard to deny the cache of the “Broadway” designation, the physical allure of those gloriously gaudy houses – to say nothing of having a living wage for a paycheck. 

    Usually, when I’ve seen a friend in a Broadway show, they’ve been a face to pick out in the ensemble.  (Which certainly isn’t a slight – to be considered for even the tiniest role or smallest chorus track on Broadway requires a jaw-dropping amount of talent.)  This weekend, however, I had the happy privilege of seeing a friend of mine performing a major role in a Broadway play.  Zainab Jah, with whom I’d done a number of developmental readings at Classical Theatre of Harlem back in the day, is playing (and indeed creating) the role of Maima in Eclipsed by Danai Gurira.

    Zainab’s part and performance are crucial to the play.  I won’t spoil it here (though if you live in NYC and haven’t seen this play yet, you really should), but the play hinges on Lupita N’yongo’s character “Number 4” being lured into a particular life by the example of Maima.  Maima has to be alluring but dangerous, understandable but frightening, in equal measure, in order for the show to work.  That Zainab pulls this off isn’t surprising at all to anybody who’s worked with her; the remarkable thing is the effortlessness with which she does so.  You never see her straining for effect, never see her expending unnecessary effort in trying to sell the performance or fill the space, even as she does so with ease.  She makes the play’s most extreme character authentic, which is critical to the play working.

    I’ll admit to a twinge of jealousy here, seeing a friend enjoy a moment of Broadway triumph as I still toil away in comparative obscurity (though I somehow doubt I would have been considered for the role of a female Liberian guerrilla fighter).  But in reality, the overwhelming emotion when witnessing a friend pull off what Zainab is doing here is neither jealousy nor pride, but hope.  Because the whole mystique of “Broadway” all too often serves as a barrier, a way of treating the performance as something rarified, remote, “other.”  Zainab is doing the exact opposite by bringing this character to rich, recognizable life, and this achievement is even clearer to those of us who’ve worked with her, however modest the capacity.  It proves that it can, indeed, be done.  That it’s not a wish or pipe dream, but a worthy and achievable goal, one which all artists can and should strive to achieve.

    Like I said, I’m still working on it.

  • Harlequin Romance

    Once upon a time, here in New York City, there was a gloriously decrepit rehearsal studio in Times Square called the Harlequin Studios. You won’t find it today – it was demolished a little over a decade ago – but it enjoyed a good decades-long run as the cheapest and sleaziest rental space in the city, and probably on the eastern seaboard. The floors buckled, the ceilings were cracked. The vending machine in the lobby was stacked with brands of candies which had been discontinued some time before I was born. They used a fifties-style accounting book to rent rooms even as smart phones were first coming onto the market, and the cramped studios they rented had red and orange carpeting mounted on the wood-paneled walls, as if a 1960s car dealership had mated with a nineteenth century brothel.

    Recently, a friend of mine and I were swapping stories about the bad old days of Harlequin, as folks like us are wont to do. She spoke about auditioning for a non-union Shakespeare tour there, one for which the director had instructed the actors to be as physical as possible only to then book the tiniest of audition rooms, leaving the performers without room to so much as outstretch their arms. This director, sitting in this tiny sleazy room, didn’t so much as look at my friend during this audition (despite not having much of anything else to look at). Instead she started a timer, placed it in full view of my friend, stared at it the entire time, and growled a curt dismissal when its duration had come to its end.

    I couldn’t help but smile in rueful recognition. I’ve had countless auditions of much the same variety, especially in my misspent younger days. And beyond auditions, plenty of encounters with that sort of gruff, sour, often vindictive theater “professional.” Inevitably, if somebody is going to do something to profoundly undermine your confidence as a performer – be it through a rude dismissal, a strident declaration that you’re not really an actor if your headshot isn’t stapled just so, or the classic threat that “you’ll never work in this town again” – it will be somebody like that. And it will be in a seedy place not unlike the long lost Harlequin. And the first time you hear something like that – indeed, the first several times, especially if you’re the sort of performer who actually takes what you’re doing seriously – it’s deeply shaking and troubling.

    But I’m telling this story of long-ago auditions and run-down facilities for a reason. The moral of this particular story is that the people who feel the need to belittle and bully and make these sorts of threats are precisely the sort of people who conduct crappy auditions in Harlequin studios. People who are truly successful, or indeed just happy in their work at whatever level they happen to be, have no interest in tormenting actors in such a fashion. They have too much other stuff to do, too many projects they care about to waste their effort. Even if they are subjected to the worst audition imaginable, they smile and say thank you and move on with their life, because they care about the things happening in their life. It’s only resentment, the extremes of disappointment and self-loathing, that ever cause people to lash out at others.

    Harlequin is gone, and a part of me is saddened by this, because as a rite of passage a performer should audition in the most run-down studio imaginable at least once in their life. Just don’t let yourself live there.


  • By The Numbers

    This past week, I finished the rough draft of my current playwriting project.  (Well, I almost finished it – there’s a small final section that I won’t put down on paper until everything else is complete, so that when I write that out and finish it with the magical phrase “end of play,” I’ll mean it.  But that’s another story.)  Rough it most certainly is – there’s a whole lot of stuff that simply didn’t make it onto the page, whole sections and chunks which need to be reshaped.  Indeed, the part of me that knows what the final result is supposed to look and sound like has a different name for it, based on the disparity between what it presently is and what it should be – the “crap draft.”

    Note that I didn’t coin the phrase “crap draft” myself – it’s from a workshop I took a few years ago, as I began writing in earnest, and it involves giving yourself license to write whatever crap you need to in order to get the words on the page, so that you can shape it properly afterwards.  Most writers I know use some variation of this phrase to describe the initial draft, the “rough draft.”  If you’ve been following Wil Wheaton on Twitter (and if you’re reading this, you clearly have internet access, so why aren’t you following geek icon Wil Wheaton on Twitter?) you’ve recently seen him describe his recent efforts with a new science fiction story as his “puke draft.”

    The one thing you never hear us talk about nowadays is the “first draft.”

    Long ago, when I was in school, after a five miles’ walk in the snow uphill both ways, I was taught to write the “first draft” out in long-hand, double-spaced, on loose-leaf paper.  That done, corrections would be made in the spaces between the original writing.  From that, the second draft would be written, and thence to a third, and so on and so forth until the final draft was complete.  An orderly, logical progression.  This was the habit of writing which had to be learned, which would guide us in our future academic careers, which would guide us in our future writing, which had guided writers since first pen was put to paper, which had guided literature’s great masters, and which would guide writers for all time to come.  And yet, I don’t know that these categories even exist anymore.  Thanks to modern technology, I can write and rewrite sections as many times as I want almost instantly.  (You can’t see it, but I just did!)  The idea of numbered drafts, this basic writing habit which has guided writers for as long as literature has been, is almost meaningless at this point.

    It may seem that this is a trivial thing to fixate on.  It may also seem that I’m about to complain about how technology is destroying the habits that made literature great, and how it should get off my lawn already.  Instead, I’d like to suggest that this is an immense boon to creative types.  For you see, the entire first-second-third paradigm implies a certain linear approach to writing, even to thinking.  Get hung up on a detail as you’re writing out that first draft, and you find yourself unable to progress further.  The whole phrase “writer’s block” implies a linear path, for what else can be blocked with such brutal ease?

    I know that being hung up on such logical, linear progressions of thought hindered my own creativity for too long than I’d like to think about, and only by training my brain to work around those preconceived notions have I been able to start producing the work I’ve always wanted to.  We need to recognize that as we all think differently, we create differently, and should embrace whatever models of creativity best suit our needs.

    So forget about the numbers.  It’s time to clean up the crap.

  • Knights and Princes

     

    This past Saturday, April 23rd, I treated myself to something special – both parts of Henry IV, presented as part of a history play marathon by the RSC at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Despite being there on Shakespeare’s birthday (and the 400th anniversary of his death), it wasn’t the plays themselves that brought me there, nor the company performing them – I’m not such a Bardolater or Anglophile as to automatically genuflect towards everything they do. No, the allure of this marathon was the opportunity to see one particular performance – the Falstaff of Antony Sher, one of my artistic heroes.

    A lot has already been written about this interpretation; if you’re able to take in theater in New York, or by some chance take frequent trips to Great Britain, you’ve hopefully been encouraged to see this performance long before you clicked on this blog post. If you have a chance to see it, note how Sher is willing to bring out the parasitic nature of the character, his casual cruelty, without ever sacrificing the humor (it’s a comedic Shakespearean character who’ll actually make you laugh!). Listen to how the details of the language are used to their fullest without ever derailing the forward momentum of the performance. Pay special attention to the voice he creates for the decrepit knight – practically gargling with phlegm and drink, except in the quiet moments where he contemplates his mortality, especially the renunciation by Prince Hal at the end, as if it’s an armor that’s been pierced.

    But as marvelous as he is, Sher isn’t a hero to me because of the performances of his I’ve seen – apart from this, I’ve only had the chance to see him once before (though it was a doozy – the now-legendary production of Uncle Vanya with Ian McKellen at the National Theater). No, it’s because I know of no other actor who is as good at writing about acting as he is. In addition to the recent Year of the Fat Knight, which discusses his Falstaff, there’s Beside Myself, Woza Shakespeare, Primo Time, and the book which first caught my attention as an impressionable theatre student – Year of the King, which discusses his Richard III for the RSC in 1984 and which is still the best book on acting I’ve read. Partly, it’s because his warts-and-all description of the process – his obsessive research, his insecurities as he gets his voice and body into shape to play the part, the navigating of rehearsal room and theater politics - is the most accurate you’re going to find. Partly, it’s the literary quality of the writing itself – you’ll find fewer characters in late 20th-century literature who can compare with Sher’s depiction of the dresser Black Mac. And partly, it’s because the world he describes is so incredibly seductive – so much so that I have difficulty with Sher’s other books precisely because I always want it to be the RSC in the mid-80s, where passionate artists are railing against apartheid and Thatcher but have the luxury of this marvelously-funded base of operations, and there’s always carousing to be had at the Dirty Duck at the end of the day. Sher’s description of a conversation with his mother could apply to any of us readers diving into his pages, wanting to live in that sort of an artistic world:

    “We have one of our talks. A familiar pattern. She begins by interrogating me very thoroughly about life in England and in the theatre, savouring every detail. It’s so clearly what she would have wanted for herself, had the choices been available. So she listens in wonderment – a curious reversal of roles – like a child hearing of the joys and thrills promised in adult life.”
                                                                        -Year of the King, p. 75
    Moreover, what comes through in his writing is a strong overall artistic perspective at work. Sher is both an insider and an outsider – a gay Jewish South African, growing up painfully aware of his outsider status yet also profoundly insulated from the realities of apartheid. As he comes to political awareness as an adult, he continually describes what he refers to as the “persecuted becoming the persecutor” syndrome as he tries to make sense of his background, and it’s an insight that fuels his characterizations. (It’s an insight that contemporary American artists should take the time to read and think about as they wrestle with modern questions of “privilege.”) It’s a thru-line for his work, and it’s clearly important to him that such a political thru-line exists. Here’s his tale of receiving life-changing advice from a hero of his own, Liverpool Everyman Theatre Artist Director Alan Dossor:

    “’Bollocks,’ retorted Dossor. ‘You won’t become a really good actor until you put yourself on the line, till the job’s vital – which plays you do, why you do them, how you do them – it’s got to mean something to you, man, before it’s going to mean something to the audience. Otherwise just go be a plumber – y’know, if it’s only a craft, a skill – just go ride a bike. If it’s only talent you’re offering, don’t bother us with it – there’s plenty in this country – only bother us if you’ve got something to say!’”
                                                                        -Beside Myself, p. 118

    And this is the point, the thing about artistic heroes. We don’t just admire them for what they’ve done; we admire them for demonstrating that what they’ve done can be done in the first place. This has been brought home in recent days with the death of Prince, as we’ve reminded ourselves of his boundary-shattering creativity (be they boundaries of musical genre or personal identity). With Sher, it’s his hyper-detailed dedication, the obsessiveness with which he researches his creations and his willingness to plumb the most unsettling parts of his own psyche for fuel. And it’s that, the chance to see the end result of such a journey, which made the seeing of it more than worth a long subway journey of my own.

    We need to see our heroes while we can.


  • Battleground

    I have no idea how the citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire survive it.

    For the past few weeks, my home state’s primaries assuming a rare importance for both political parties, the remaining presidential candidates have been stumping here in New York City. You’ve surely heard their speeches and their debates, most likely seen footage of them strolling and speechifying, playing dominoes and attempting swiping metrocards. Surely, this is an exciting time for us New Yorkers, to have ourselves at the center of national debate in so spectacular a fashion.

    Except the thing of it is, we New Yorkers view ourselves as the center of national debate anyway. Heck, the five boroughs are the center of the known universe as far as we’re concerned. So having this attention from the candidates doesn’t seem surprising, or validating. To me, at any rate, it simply seems wrong.

    After all, much of what they’re doing in their staged photo-ops is the sort of stuff a tourist would do on their trip to the Big Apple. (Better informed tourists than most – heading to Arthur Avenue to sample local Italian delicacies, as Kasich did, means you did more research than simply watch the Food Channel, but still.) We’re a proud people - what true New Yorker is inclined to vote for a tourist?  These candidates are asking us to entrust them with our very safety - they should at least be able to find the buildings around here without asking directions!  Plus, as these famous personages come to town, even as they shop and ride the transit system, they insist that we look at them – it doesn’t work as a photo-op if we don’t. And this goes against a basic code of our city – should you pass them by on the street, you don’t look at the famous people.


    Furthermore, the whole essence of modern politics, sadly, is spectator sport. We’re sorted into teams, encouraged to cheer for our own without question and to lustily boo the opposition. And again, we’re too proud to think of ourselves as spectators. We’re New Yorkers, dammit – we debate ideas and set agendas. Even when it’s in service of candidates with whom we agree, to be reduced to props is a cruel blow to our ego.

    This may seem like a trivial analysis – after all, I haven’t endorsed anybody, for all those undecideds who were looking to an actor’s blog to make their final decision. But this carnival-slash-spectator sport aspect to modern politics isn’t just bad for New Yorkers’ self-esteem – it’s BAD FOR THE ENTIRE NATION. Addressing looming climate catastrophe, dealing with structural social and economic issues, all these require a level of critical thought and engagement in order to begin to make headway, and that level needs to be sustained long past the election. Our shrieking at rival camps, our endless pep rallies and Facebook smackdowns, are not designed to facilitate that engagement; they’re designed to make sure that engagement never happens in the first place. Angry sports fans, after all, are not known for critical thought.

    So I’ll be glad when the circus leaves town. There is, after all, real work to be done instead.

    (One additional note to the candidates – as long as you’re here in the city, you might wish to schedule a session or two with one of our many excellent vocal coaches, because you all sound terrible. Public speaking is your profession, folks – learn some breath support techniques!)


  • Let's Do The Time Warp Again

    For the past two weeks, I’ve been taking part in private readings with a new writer’s workshop. (None of my own scripts to read for it yet – I’m still plodding away on that front.) Since it’s a new group, the readings have been somewhat nomadic, taking place in different rented studio spaces. Not the well-trafficked NYC studio spaces like Ripley-Greer and Pearl; no, since we’re poor simple folk without much fancy folding-money, we’ve been grabbing well-worn, cramped, grubby rooms wherever we can find them.

    Or perhaps I should say, WHENever we can find them.

    New York studio spaces seem to exist in some sort of time warp. Even at Ripley-Greer, probably the most upscale and up-to-date of Manhattan’s studio rental facilities, posters of the same mid-to-late 90s shows have adorned the walls since before I got my Equity card. It seems that Toni Braxton-as-Aida and Barry Williams-as-Captain Von Trapp will be gazing protectively from the walls at young actors for many more years to come. Over at Nola Studios (our new group’s first port of call), there’s a poster for an “upcoming new film” that has, without exaggeration, been there for at least eighteen years. And over by its elevator, there is a massive headshot wall containing the headshots of scores of 70s and 80s tv shows, as if trying to decorate with my childhood memories. For heaven's sake, half of them are still in black and white.  It has looked this way since I can remember, and my memory is long and winding.

    Why is this the case? Perhaps it’s a simple matter of economics – if you own and maintain one of these studios, you have many things to spend your money on before you get around to upgrading the décor, so whatever’s on the walls when you start out is liable to stay there indefinitely. But then it stands to reason that there’d be stuff on those walls from even further back, and that rarely seems to be the case (even though it would have considerable historical interest were it to be there). No, inevitably the stuff on the walls (apart from the grime) clusters in a very specific range, from the late 80s to the late 90s and early aughts – i.e. my misspent youth. All these signed posters, these playbills, these flyers and banners and other Proustian madeleines – could they possibly be directed at me?

    It’s not necessarily as paranoid as it sounds – I’m the age and demographic of folks who are actively trying to rent spaces and produce work, to try and convert our youthful artistic endeavors into some kind of regular career and/or lasting legacy. We’re the ones who go prowling the studios, looking for a temporary home for whatever we’re up to, and we’re the ones plunking up the cash – perhaps it makes sense for them to make us feel as comfortable as possible, to calm and assuage us with grubby, well-worn familiarity. But once we accept that sort of a premise, it’s easy to get even more solipsistic and paranoid with our thinking. Hell, maybe the fact that the pictures on the studio walls haven’t changed in nearly twenty years means that I’m really trapped in the proverbial Matrix, and our machine overlords haven’t seen fit to provide an art upgrade in all that time.

    If that’s the case, I hope the Matrix can download the finished draft of the script I’m working on directly into my brain. It’s the least it could do.


  • Idolatry

    This week, after fifteen seasons on television, American Idol will air its final episodes and bid the airwaves farewell. It has dominated American cultural discourse throughout many of those fifteen years, and there’s an awful lot which could be said about it – how it has rewarded ludicrously melismatic oversinging, how its flooding of the airwaves with glorified karaoke has stifled interesting and challenging new musical voices, how it has promoted knee-jerk jingoism at a period in our history where such jingoism has been incredibly dangerous, how it permitted mean-spirited snark and repeated utterances of the word “pitchy” to substitute for real critical thought. But I try and run a positive blog around here, and rather than insult American Idol on its way out, I’d like to try and say something nice about it. To thank it, even.

    So thank you, American Idol, for absorbing so much crazy over the past fifteen years.

    When I first started auditioning on a regular basis, back in the mid and late 1990s, the act of waiting for an audition was itself a horrific endurance contest. Even if it was for unpaid, outdoor non-Equity Shakespeare in a rat-infested alley, there would be hundreds upon hundreds of people for every call. And it’s not that they were so dedicated to their craft that they would aim to develop it wherever and whenever they could, as acting teachers have instructed their charges down through the decades. No, sadly, the bulk of those throngs were, simply put, delusional. On line with them, I heard a hundred variations of the exact same thing; they were certain they were meant to be famous, and if there was an audition to be had – even for a community theatre Agatha Christie production – then clearly that was where that fame would finally be granted. It didn’t help that every once in a while, brief fame actually was grasped – famously, the three principals of The Blair Witch Project were cast from an open call advertised in Backstage. And so every audition, I’d sign my name on a sheet of paper torn from someone’s spiral notebook, sit among dozens of wildly flamboyant, unstable folks who could barely speak, and patiently wait my turn to audition for poor souls who had been too bombarded by all of this to be able to think clearly anymore. And I’d hear the folks around me, alternating between random rants and declarations of how certain they were to become famous, and I’d wonder what the hell was wrong with me for being there. I’m sure I’m not the only one – I knew many genuinely talented folks whose artistic dreams never made it out of the 90s, their flowers choked off by the weeds of other people’s delusions.

    Then came American Idol, and everything changed. Gradually, the people I was surrounded by on audition lines were rational, clear-eyed, comparatively sane. They were prepared, they understood how the business worked, they cared about their art. Meanwhile, the more flamboyant, more clearly doomed folks I’d been surrounded by previously were now on television, where they always knew they belonged – to be mocked for fifteen seconds by a sneering British man in a tight black T-shirt for the delight of a TV audience that clearly wanted bloodsport as much as, or more than, pop music.

    Now, I did join Actor’s Equity Association at around this same time, so you might be tempted to object to my statement above by saying that I was just surrounded by more professionals. Sadly, receiving an AEA card doesn’t automatically make one sane (would that it did). Moreover, since focusing on playwriting in the past few years, I’ve once again found myself working with young non-union performers hungry for credits and looking for new work – and have found them to be far better prepared, far more clear-eyed about what they were doing and what the real artistic benefits would be. That flamboyant mix of narcissism and ineptitude just isn’t there – at least not to the degree to which I remember it, before the coming of Idol.

    I therefore have to conclude that the most flamboyantly crazy of the would-be artists, who craved the validation of fame without having any sense of the art behind it or the hard work required, all bee-lined for that television program when it first appeared, leaving Off- and Off-off Broadway behind as it did. And regardless of how that show may have debased artistic discourse in the general public sphere, it left my personal artistic sphere a more focused space, with fewer distractions, and more people who genuinely had something to say and were honestly trying to find opportunities to say it.

    So Godspeed, American Idol. You may have mocked Broadway as an art form even as it was the best fit for many of the artists you found; you may have subjected gay or questioning contestants to tiresome gay panic banter from your host and judges; you may have helped solidify corporate media’s stranglehold over popular music, perhaps forever. Nevertheless, you indirectly caused my audition lines to be ever-so-slightly less insane, and for that, I thank you.

    Now stop destroying my culture, and get the heck off my television.

  • North Carolina

    As you’ve likely heard by now, last Wednesday, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory signed ‘House Bill 2’ into state law. It rescinds any and all local laws within the state providing LGBT protections, and forbids any such local laws from being enacted in the future (and, of course, protects us all from the terrifying scourge of transgender people going to the bathroom). It’s sweeping legislation, blatantly discriminatory, wildly overreaching in its scope – and thus to many people (self included), profoundly un-American. Because of that, leaders in many industries, including my own, have threatened to remove their business from the state. Surely the threat of such a negative economic impact will cause the legislators of the state to see reason.

    I fear, however, it might not be as simple as that.

    Over the past few years, for a variety of reasons, the bulk of my family has moved to Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s a small city, featuring lots of picturesque beaches and the childhood home of Woodrow Wilson. Since the 1980s, Wilmington has also been home to a rather bustling film industry – Dino Di Laurentiis took advantage of the state’s tax incentives and right-to-work laws to build his own film studio, and it’s been home to film and television productions ever since (Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill both shot there, so it’s clearly the mark of quality).

    In 2014, however, the state of North Carolina’s system of tax incentives was removed, by the same State Legislature and Governor Pat McCrory who are making news today. In its place was created a grant fund, to which filmmaker would have to specially apply to have any subsidies approved. This fund only had ten million dollars allocated to it, however – plenty of money for you or I, of course, but not to serve as the basis of a local economy. As of last year, only three productions total were left filming in an area that once had far, far more than that.

    There’s no good economic reason for such a change to have been made - tax incentives for film production have a well documented track record for generating enough economic activity to pay for themselves. A state-run fund actually offers more opportunities for abuse, so it’s not like this change satisfies any sort of libertarian or anti-corruption objections. No, the reason for this change, as well as the reason for HB2, is the religious prejudice of the law-makers. The film industry is inherently immoral, after all, and any moneys given to filmmaking projects should only be given to projects meeting specific (i.e. conservative Christian) moral guidelines. This isn’t hyperbole – one of the lawmakers spearheading the change was Phil Berger, who specifically pointed to the filming of the 2007 film Hound Dog in North Carolina (in which the actor Elle Fanning filmed a rape scene, if you’ll recall) as a reason to create an appointed political panel to decide which films deserved funding.

    Estimates from last year suggest that the amount spent by the film industry and pumped into the Wilmington economy, once amounting to $170 million, was down to $50 million as a direct result of this change. You’d think that this would suggest to somebody that a mistake had been made. But so far, no such change is in sight – and this is why I fear that economic boycott by itself won’t have an effect on HB2, either. Since the election of 2012, a veto-proof Republican supermajority has controlled the North Carolina legislature, and that supermajority has been dominated by religious conservatives. (This is an important distinction to make – after all, I grew up among Republicans who understood economics, and would be aghast by all of this.) They’re true believers – and true believers can rationalize away such things as economic downturns – especially if they’re centered in more “liberal” parts of the state whose have clearly brought it upon themselves by their iniquities. No, the economic damage would have to be so great, and so widespread, that the citizens themselves, tired of dealing with its constant effects, would rise up and remove their inept legislators from office. (Presumably at the ballot box – I run a civilized blog around here, after all.)

    Fortunately, this may still come to pass. North Carolina is at risk of losing $4.5 billion in Title IX funding as a result of HB2, which is an economic hit that really can’t be ignored or confined to one city. The citizens seem to be aware of this – a recent PPP poll reports only 25% of state respondents approving of the legislation. And it may well be that those family members of mine of whom I spoke at the beginning may have much to do with this. The population of North Carolina has been increasing over the past few years, its numbers swelled by new arrivals from the Northeast just like them, who have a far more secular and pragmatic outlook and no patience for false religious grandstanding, regardless of their party affiliation. So perhaps the moment of reckoning for North Carolina’s legislature is at hand, and the changing demographics of the state may indeed hasten that moment’s arrival.

    I only hope that moment arrives soon, because I’m running out of family members to send down there.


  • Top O' The Mornin'

    This past Thursday was St. Patrick’s Day. This is probably not news, and indeed, here in New York, this fact is always particularly hard to miss. If nothing else, the sudden appearance of rivulets of green-tinted vomit winding their way through the gutters makes it clear when this particular day of the year comes round again.

    In case it isn’t clear, I hate St. Patrick’s Day.

    There are plenty of obvious reasons for this, of course. The displays of public drunkenness that have become associated with the day are apt to drive anybody nuts. But even when not downing pint after pint of cheap green-dyed beer, there’s a certain boorishness to people’s behavior that somehow manifests itself as soon as those bagpipes sound. And this behavior always seem to be done by people in cartoonish green hats and orange fright wigs, sporting grotesque fake accents that wouldn’t be out of place in a particularly vicious Restoration-era anti-Irish tract, designed to make its audience wonder if Cromwell hadn’t had a few valid points after all.

    And as someone from Long Island with an “o” and an apostrophe at the start of my surname, this is the real source of my distaste. For as long as I can remember, whenever March comes around, I’ve been presented with this horrific display and told that this is who and what I am, somehow. That this barbaric behavior, which to my mind constitutes an ethnic slur, is something to embrace as my identity. That my unwillingness to participate constitutes some sort of defect on my part.  That not conforming to such awful stereotypes means I'm not really Irish.

    This past week, St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Thursday – a day I have off from work. And so, having no desire to subject myself to it again, I barricaded myself in my apartment, never setting foot outside it once. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m at the start of a large writing project, a rather idiosyncratic and difficult piece of work that will require my utmost concentration. And so I spent St. Patrick’s Day sequestered from a hostile world, sitting at my work station, scribbling away furiously for the sake of my art. Not unlike such forbearers as Joyce, Yeats, Synge…

    Well, what do you know. I guess I am a real Irishman after all.


  • Outsourcing

    As I mentioned last week, I began drafting my newest full-length play last Sunday, March 6th.  Although there was still plenty of research and preparation to do, I felt I couldn't hold off work on the actual draft any longer without risking that the play never get written at all.

    However, that doesn't mean there aren't still plenty of topics for me to research for this project even as I'm drafting.  But since there are only 24 hours in most days (I'm still bitter about daylight savings), and since I do work and sleep as well, I'm not sure when I'll be able to master all the information I'll need for the sake of this complex plot. 

    So I turn to you, Gentle Readers.  Feel free to contact me with information and helpful suggestions in the event that you are particularly knowledgeable about any of the following subjects:

    • The art and mechanics of turntable scratching
    • Synesthesia
    • The logistics of digital filmmaking
    • Avant-garde cinema
    • Tesla coils
    • The Israeli-Palestinian Science Organization
    • The New York City Marathon
    • The New York City Housing Authority's adminstrative policies
    • The New York City garbage strike of 1968

    (This is nothing.  You should see my browser history.  Though on second thought, you probably shouldn't see my browser history.)

     

  • BWAAAAM BWAAAAM BWAAAAM

    It started, as things often do these days, on Twitter.

    A friend of mine tweeted a half-joking wish list of what, in an ideal world, some enterprising playwright might include in a play written for her.  Remembering that, in addition to being her friend, I was an enterprising playwright myself, I tweeted back to her, asking what this hypothetical opus should contain.  We brainstormed, had a merry laugh, and then went on our digital way.

    Except the more I thought about the exchange, the more I realized that the idea we’d concocted would actually make a good play.  Possibly even – excuse my hubris – a great one.  I was otherwise occupied at the time, however – preparing what would become my Fringe show, Dragon’s Breath – but I kept thinking about the play, its ideas and characters and plot points.  I would do what research I could in between other projects, trying to keep the inspiration alive as life events conspired to distract me.  And because this all originated in a Twitter conversation, I recently did an advanced search to look at the original conversation, and remind myself when the inception of this idea had taken place.

    September 6, 2013.  Two and a half years ago.

    Ideas are organic things; they are born, they grow, they can age and wither, and if not properly cared for, they can die.  So even though there’s still more research and planning to do – and this particular play is sufficiently complex that I could do preparatory research for a decade or more – I realized that I could leave the idea untended no longer.  Especially since the play in question is meant for somebody else, who has their own life to lead quite apart from my own dithering.

    Page one of the rough draft was written last night.  Two and a half years to the day after the idea for it first came to me.

    With any luck, it won’t take that long to get to the last page.  I’ll be sure to let you know.

    (Sorry to be so vague as to what the idea for this play actually is, but I need to keep something secret for subsequent blog posts.  Not to mention for, y’know, the play itself.)

  • Semi-Obligatory Post-Oscars Blog Post

    I had it all planned out.  I was going to go to an Oscar-themed trivia event with my fearsome trivia team, and use that as the hook for the semi-obligatory post-Oscars blog post.  I would have gone after Hollywood’s Biggest Night for being out of touch with American tastes, demographics, and realities by coining the hashtag #OscarsSoTrivial, and everything would have been terrifically satirical and witty.  But then my fellow teammates wound up getting stranded out of town, scuttling that brilliant plan.

    So instead, I returned to my Bronx apartment to watch the telecast by myself, figuring I could post a detailed, insightful analysis of the telecast.  But just as Chris Rock’s already legendary monologue began, my digital antenna conked out.  So as he lit into the systemic benign racism of the film industry, I was only able to make out isolated words through a fog of broken pixels.

    It’s around this point that I began to wonder why I was even bothering.  It’s the same argument we have with ourselves every year at Oscar time – why watch a bloated, self-congratulatory, frequently cringe-inducing ceremony simply for the sake of saying that we saw it?  Especially when the industry it’s celebrating keeps on demonstrating shocking tone-deafness towards crucial aspects of the society it’s attempting to entertain – race in America, gender in America, any political outlook beyond a narrow set of comfortable platitudes?  And when that industry only ever notices a slight fraction of the vast amount of work its artists are making?

    (These two things are linked, but the way.  Take one example, the failure to nominate Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation which seemed to crystalize the whole #OscarsSoWhite backlash.  I’ve lost track of the number of conversations I’ve seen among industry insiders in which they say they didn’t know whether they could nominate him in the first place, given the digital distribution deal that was in place for the film.  Expect to see this more and more, as non-traditional means of distribution become the means for more and more diverse voices to get their films out to the public, disrupting the traditional filmmaking model in the process.  Since the Academy exists to celebrate and defend that model, the films it celebrates are bound to get less and less diverse as it circles its wagons, even when this doesn’t reflect the beliefs of the individual members.)

    And yet – what became clear from the bits of the telecast my malfunctioning antenna allowed me to see was that this was far and away the best ceremony in some time.  People love to mock celebrities for embracing trendy causes, but nothing about this year’s telecast seemed the least bit trendy or shallow.  This ceremony mattered to the people on stage this year.  Representation mattered.  Issues mattered.  The state of our nation mattered. 

    And believe it or not, the Oscars really do matter, petty and trivial though they frequently are.  They don’t make a movie great – indeed they have an alarming habit of ignoring greatness – but they provide a starting point for people searching for greatness.  Many is the budding student of film history who starts out with a book of past winners as a way of starting that lifelong conversation.  This year, a whole slew of other conversations managed to become part of the ceremony as well; hopefully they won’t end now that the show is over, and Chris Rock’s daughters’ Girl Scout cookies are being happily consumed.

    Plus Mad Max won a whole bunch of stuff, so that’s pretty cool.

  • By Way Of Review

    “Don’t read reviews.”

    If you are a writer, actor, or most any other creative type, you hear this early and often in the course of your career. Don’t read reviews. They can only cause you to second-guess yourself. The need for their approval only nurtures narcissism and vanity. They represent a distraction from the purity of your art. Whether you hear it as a dictum from a stern drama teacher, or as advice from a cherished idol, it’s one of basic tenets of the creative life. Reviews aren’t good for you; don’t read them.

    As you’ll notice from the quotes scattered throughout this website, I have not heeded this advice. 

    As this site is largely intended for professional promotion, it contains as many sentences as I could find, from as many sources as possible, stating that employing me as a professional artist is a good idea. And since I am an honest man, I combed through as many reviews as I could find, reading each and every one of them, in order to find these testimonials. (We call them “pull quotes” in “the biz.”)

    It isn’t enjoyable, of course. For the problem with a review isn’t that it might be bad – it’s that it’s invariably and ineffably wrong. Questions of merit aside, you know the details of your performance, story, or what have you better than anyone (or so you think), and so the outside perspective is almost always disorienting. It’s as if you were preparing a gourmet meal for an important person and worrying over the details of its preparation – whether you cooked it thoroughly, seasoned it properly, served it with the appropriate wine – only to have them taste it and exclaim, “This tastes like purple!” Regardless of whether this is said with delight or disgust, your response upon hearing is most likely a simple “Huh? What the heck does that mean?”

    And yet we force ourselves to read them. Because what those stern drama teachers and cherished idols and other authoritative voices need to understand is that ignoring reviews is not a choice, it is a luxury. It is what one is able to do when one’s next project is already assured, when one is a prize pupil or a leading player of an established company or a star of the highest magnitude. The rest of us can only dream of living in such a rarified state, while we go through the daily drudgery of finding our next gig, our next paycheck, our next meal. And so we comb through these strange funhouse mirror reflections of our efforts, extracting whatever we can find for marketing purposes, and hoping against hope for some flash of insight along the way.

    Like what exactly purple tastes like, anyway.

  • The Most Literal First Post Ever

    Welcome, everybody!  This is the professional website for my work as an actor and writer.  And, while there’s plenty of places on the website where you can see what I’ve done in the past, this blog – the inaugural post of which you’re now reading - will detail, among other things, what I’m working on right now.

    So, what am I working on right now?

    Well, I’m writing this blog.

    Flippant as that sounds, it’s the truth – right now, at this moment, this blog is what I’m writing.  I have other writing projects in the works, but I’m not working on them during the time in which I’m writing this blog.  And in order to get other people to know about and care about those other projects, I need to get the word out about them – hence the need for this blog, which, instead of those projects, is what I’m writing now.

    Now, writing a blog instead of the other projects they intend to write is the sort of thing that can make a person feel, deep down, that they’re a fraud – just pretending to be a writer.  But the thing of it is, I’m also an actor, and pretending to be a writer is a perfectly plausible thing for an actor to do.  Especially since, as actors know, the best pretending requires an element of truth in it, so acting like a writer means you are indeed a writer.  And as an added bonus, promoting your acting on the blog you’re writing means you might be able to generate further acting work.  Of course, time spent acting means time not spent writing, unless you’re acting like an actor by writing your blog.

    So I’m writing this blog about acting and writing in order to act like a writer, which is what I am when I’m not an actor, even though I’m acting right now by acting like a writer, even though I have to actually write about acting in order to act like a writer, in order to generate further work as a writer and an actor, about which I’ll then write in this blog in order to act like a writer.

    Oh, well.  Beats catering.

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