Faith in Democracy

It’s been a quiet weekend here in New York City.  The weather has been sunny and cool, the exact sort of end-of-winter days that tease the promise of a happy spring to come – though far more is set to happen in this city this week than the vernal equinox.  Nevertheless, the streets have been comparatively quiet – too quiet, in fact.  For while we’ve all gone about our regular lives these past few days as if everything was normal, we know that’s not the case.  We know that something momentous is about to happen, but there is no way of knowing the form it will take, and only so much we can do to prepare for it.  It’s sat with me all weekend long – this pervasive, tangible dread.

Part of it, of course, is a simple sense of helplessness.  Whatever life throws at you, you want to be able to maintain some sense that you can do something about it.  Take some action, be proactive, have some sort of contingency plan to implement.  But the simple truth of life is that often, there isn’t anything you can do.  You’ve got your own life to live, and the outside forces are too large for you to influence – even as those forces have the power to determine your fate.  And so you wait.  As I waited, this whole long weekend.

And as I sat and waited this whole long weekend, it occurred to me how shaken I was in things I’ve taken for granted, and how that uncertainty is the worst part of this whole grim vigil.  The strength of democracy.  The inherent wisdom of the public.  A certain baseline sense of fairness, whatever the vicissitudes of life might bring.  They’re comforting principles.  I’ve wanted to believe them my whole life.  But as the weekend drew on, with the inevitable news coming at any dread moment, these glorious platitudes began to ring ever more hollow, as I sat waiting, alone with my doubts.

Waiting, for the news to come, here in New York City.

And yesterday, it did!  I’m happy to announce that my short play Basic Cable Method Acting is moving on to the semi-final round of the Queens Short Play Festival.  I’m sure this means that it’s all sunshine from here on out, and nothing bad will ever happen again!

This Advice Holds True for Babysitters as Well, Now That I Think About It

Well, it’s that time of year again, Constant Reader – time for me to blog about this year’s Academy Awards ceremony despite not viewing it on television, or having watched many of the movies.  I’ve seen two of the nominated films, Everything Everywhere All At Once and Tar, which I think is pretty good considering that damn pandemic is still going on.  But I didn’t watch the Oscar ceremony.  I’m not the sort of snob who thinks that the Oscars are without merit; in my heart, I’ll always be that child growing up in the cultural desert of suburbia, looking to the list of awards as a starting point, a beginner’s guide to that larger culture I so desperately wanted to find.  But the ceremony itself?  In an age of social media I don’t need to watch it in order to find out who won what.  I don’t care about the glitz or the fashions; I don’t enjoy the production numbers.  And most of all, I find the whole politicking behind the awards distasteful.  If you believe in the arts as a noble pursuit in and of itself, if you’re an idealist, then the kind of behind the scenes jockeying and backstabbing that takes place is distressing.

Even so, sometimes an Oscar campaign manages to be inspiring.  There were a whole lot of inspirational stories interspersed throughout last night’s telecast (Ke Huy Quan, people!), and the usual share of disappointments and outrages, but I’m specifically thinking of Jamie Lee Curtis’ win as Best Supporting Actress.  Whether hers actually was the best supporting female performance of the year is, of course, debatable – Angela Bassett partisans have every right to be salty, as she really ought to have a statuette by now.  If you think back to Stephanie Hsu’s work you can argue that Curtis, whose work is wonderful, was nevertheless not the best supporting actress simply within that movie.  And of course, Curtis is Hollywood royalty in a company town, which clearly played a factor.  It still needs to be said, that Jamie Lee Curtis ran the absolute best Oscar campaign of any actor in many a long year.

Largely because she was never campaigning for herself.  At least, she never appeared to be.

Instead, all throughout this long campaign season, she’s served as Everything Everywhere All At Once’s head cheerleader.  She’s loudly and publicly celebrated Michelle Yeoh’s work.  She was on hand when James Wong received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  She’s noisily rejoiced at each of her costar’s good fortune and probably DJ’d a birthday party for one of the key grips at some point.  At every turn, she’s turned the spotlight away from herself and towards her collaborators – and last night, she reaped the rewards of the resulting goodwill.

Now, was this performative?  Probably, to some extent.  (And so what?  The woman’s a performer, dammit.) But it’s still the most instructive, most positive lesson to come out of this ceremony in a good long while.  Movies, like all performance mediums, are a collaborative art form.  You cannot possibly succeed alone.  No matter how strong your own work, you are entirely dependent upon the rest of your team – and they are dependent upon you.  Whatever glory you might achieve – be that artistic, or financial, or whatever you prefer – can only be achieved by elevating your colleagues.  Given the rampant egomania we tend to associate with Hollywood, it’s nice to see them remembering this, at least once a year.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go finish crying over Ke Huy Quan hugging Harrison Ford.

Deja Vu All Over Again

So there I was.  My latest short play, Basic Cable Method Acting, had enjoyed a successful opening performance.  I’d just posted the blog post from last week announcing that fact.  I was on my way to the staged reading of a pilot written by a friend of mine, produced as part of the First Mondays reading series by the Naked Angels theatre company – a program designed to showcase pieces workshopped in the Tuesdays at Nine series which I co-curate.  So I was feeling pretty good that evening – until I made a fatal mistake.

I checked my emails.

There, I saw a fateful message from one of my actors, saying that he wasn’t feeling well – he’d come down with a sore throat, was spending the day resting, and planned to get tested for covid the next day.  I said a few imprecations under my breath, and spent the rest of the evening mapping out contingency plans while only partially paying attention to the reading.  Nothing was certain, after all, and I’m of the school of thought which maintains that the more comprehensively you prepare for disaster, the less likely that particular disaster will actually happen.

Well, not this time.  The confirmation came the next day – four days before our next scheduled performance.  Four days to figure out how to put up the show with one of the cast members missing.  Fortunately, I’d figured out a choice for an understudy – somebody who’d already had a chance to see the script – and he’d agreed to do it by that evening.  But that now left us three days to put him into the show.

So we did the whole rehearsal process all over again.

We coordinated schedules with the rest of the cast – again.

We gathered at the director’s apartment for blocking and lunch – again.

The actors huddled together for line-thrus – again.

And this past weekend, I sat in the theatre, again, sweating it out to see if we’d actually pull this off.  Which we did, it was a fine show, the understudy did a magnificent job.  I was happy and relieved – again.

But it still feels pretty damn weird.

Because by this time in the process, the show should be set, the actors have time to get the piece in their bones, in their muscle memory, so they can just start kicking back and playing.  A show is supposed to grow over the course of its run, each performance building on what came before.

You’re not supposed to relive the beginning, over and over again.

But then again, we’re all reliving all of this, over and over again.  This all happened because of a virus that sparked a pandemic three years ago.  It’s still a disruption.  It’s still the same disruption, regardless of how we change our policies, regardless of who’s implementing those policies.  We keep promising ourselves that we’re moving forward and getting free of this predicament even as we find ourselves still in the exact same place.  Something has to give, because this state of permanent crisis is unsustainable.

Of course, that won’t stop us from putting up the show again next weekend!

Fairness Doctrine

Well, we’re up and running.  My new short play Basic Cable Method Acting had its debut performance on Sunday, at the Secret Theatre in Woodside, Queens.  It’s presented as part of the Queens Short Play Festival, which runs through the end of March, so we’re guaranteed at least three more performances of this work.  Like many short play festivals, it’s organized as a competition, with the audiences voting for their preferred plays of a given evening, and the “winners” moving on to subsequent rounds of performances.  It’s therefore possible that, after our “last” performance on March 18, we could have as many as two additional performances – in a semifinal round on either Thursday March 23 or Friday March 24, and then a final round performance on March 25 – if we have the votes.

Over the years, I’ve known many playwrights involved in these kinds of competitions, and performed in a few of their works as an actor.  I must admit, as much fun as they’ve been in the past, there’s always been a little bitter to mix with the sweet. These are, after all, popular votes deciding whether or not you move on.  That’s perhaps not conducive for heavy dramas, or experimental works, or in your face political satire – not in the place of crowd-pleasing comedy.  More to the point, in that sort of a festival setting, many productions come with their own built-in crowd.  If a playwright happens to have entourage of friends coming to whoop it up for their show, then there’s a pretty high likelihood that show will be seen again.  If you happen to be that playwright, great!  If not – if you and your two actors have spent a month polishing something you know is beautiful, only to have it overwhelmed by somebody else’s mob of supporters as – then you’re likely to find yourself stewing at the unfairness of it all.  Likely to find yourself flashing back to that familiar childhood sting of knowing that you’re not the popular kid.

For a long time, I’ve fallen in the latter category.  But is that still the case?

After all, I currently co-host the Tuesdays at Nine cold reading series; every Tuesday night, for the past few weeks, around a hundred people or so have heard me talk up this little show of mine.  This is the community from which I’ve pulled my cast as well, so community interest in the project is thereby reinforced.  And on top of that, I’ve got the whole network of writers and actors who I’ve worked with on many previous productions.  (Just how many? Over how many years? I’ll never tell.) Over the past few days, I’ve allowed myself to entertain a seductive thought – is it possible that the largest rooting section for any of the plays in my particular line-up might be mine?  Could it be that the inherent unfairness of what often winds up being a popularity contest might actually work out in my favor?

Well, the time for speculation is finished, because our first performance is under our belts and I’ve seen the show in front of an audience.  Which, of course, I counted.  And in the mostly-full fifty seat venue in which the show is performed, the number that came to support me personally was – seven.  About one sixth of the house, on a bill of six different pieces.  And each one of those pieces seemed to have about equal support.

So…we’re all on even footing.  It really is a fair competition.

It’s quite a lovely novelty.  Our next performance isn’t until Saturday, so I’m going to spend the next few days savoring it.

Queens Short Play Festival

I’m happy to announce that my short play Basic Cable Method Acting is part of the 2023 Queens Short Play Festival! Our performances start on Sunday, February 26, at 3pm at the Secret Theatre in Woodside, Queens. There are a total of four performances over the next four weeks – and, since the festival is a competition, potentially more if people like us! Check here for a complete schedule and to purchase tickets.

Unsolicited Advice

Progress on my short play Basic Cable Method Acting, which is set to be presented in the upcoming Queens Short Play Festival, is coming at a nice and steady pace.  This weekend, the show held its technical rehearsal at the venue where it’ll be performing, the Secret Theatre in Woodside Queens.  It’s a very simple show – only a few chairs for a set, no internal lighting or sound cues, just lights up and lights down – but it’s still crucial to hammer out those technical details, and make sure the intended blocking works in the performance space.  So after already trekking from South Brooklyn to Manhattan for my other commitments that day, I travelled into a third of our five boroughs, to be available for the tech rehearsal if necessary.

It might not have been necessary.  It was definitely boring.

Tech is always boring.  It always takes a long time to put all of the elements together, no matter how simple any individual one of them might scene.  It always runs longer than you’ve scheduled; this is especially true when you’re the last show in a program of six short pieces, and five entire plays had to tech before you did.  But if you’re a writer, or the director, or are involved on the production end, you’re actively doing something.  You’re performing, you’re setting lighting levels, you’re adjusting the position of props, you’re active.  True, you’re only active for a few moments at a time, and then are sitting around waiting for a nice long interval waiting for the next few moments.  But if you’re the playwright?  Your moments all occurred months, possibly years ago as you banged out the first rough draft.  You might have an obligation to watch the tech, you might be keeping your eyes out for any final changes that need to be made, you might simply have a morbid curiosity – but you have precious little to do.

So, with all that in mind, here is my completely unsolicited advice for all you scribes out there, as to how a playwright can survive the tech.  Classicist that I am, I’ve boiled it down to three crucial points:

  1. Bring snacks

I wasn’t kidding about techs running late.  Basic Cable Method Acting is a ten minute play.  We had a half hour budgeted for a tech rehearsal with only two light cues and two sound cues.  We wound up leaving the theater about an hour after the tech started, after waiting an hour and a half past our original call time thanks to those aforementioned other five shows.  This is normal.  The process takes as much time as it needs to, regardless of your normal meal schedule.  If it’s a large show on an Equity contract, then sure, there’s some meal breaks built in.  But for down and dirty guerilla theater in a festival setting?  Grab something from the nearest bodega whenever you have a chance, find a safe place in the theater to eat, and settle in.

2. Make friends

Remember that while the other people in that tech with you have jobs to do, and would like to do them as expeditiously as possible, you are all in this together.  So go to town with the small talk.  Whatever movie everybody’s seen that weekend?  Unleash all the opinions you’ve got.  It so happened that there was a checkerboard set up in the lobby outside the theater; I lost to everybody.  (Turns out I’m bad at checkers.  Alas.) You’re going to have a lot of time to pass and you might as well enjoy as much of it as you can, with as many of your colleagues and collaborators as possible.

3. Remember that at this stage of the process, you’re just a stenographer

That piece of advice is no doubt the biggest blow to the ego you’ll find here; it’s also the most important advice I have to give.  You see, if you are a playwright attending the tech rehearsal of your show – especially if it’s the premiere production – you actually do have a job to do.  And it’s not to write any changes – nobody is going to spend another few hours rewriting light cues for a scene you’ve only just decided needs to be a different spot.  No, at this point in the life of your script, you are not the primary creator.  It’s in the hands of your actors, and the director overseeing the production.  And if there are a few lines that are constant being tripped over, if there’s a particular moment you’d envisioned that doesn’t fit with the blocking, if a choice bon mot has been replaced in rehearsals by a shrug or other gesture, now is the time to record that.  It doesn’t matter if it’s what you originally had in mind, it’s the script now.  Did it feel like the characters were somehow always there, and speaking through you, as you sat at the keyboard writing that original draft?  Well now they’re speaking through the actors.  They’re speaking through the process.  The time has come to swallow your pride, listen to how the story is being told, and make the necessary notes for posterity.

Anyway, they keep telling us that “theatre is back!” so maybe this advice will come in handy to more and more of us over time!  I hope you get to swallow your pride and eat some unhealthy takeout food yourself in the next few months.  As for myself, I’m going to bed – I had to go to work early in the morning the day after the tech, and I need to make up those lost hours of sleep somewhere.  Gotta be well rested for opening night!

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