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You Countin’ At Me?

As customary, this year’s Valdez Theatre Conference concluded with the annual Monologue Fest, in which about a third of the conference’s actors take turns getting up on stage and presenting one-minute monologues written by that year’s attending playwrights.  Given that it’s only possible to see a fraction of the full plays being presented at the conference, this unruly kaleidoscope provides a marvelous opportunity to check in with and support all of the writers who’ve made the journey to Valdez to workshop their materials.  For this reason – and because I’m a ham who’ll get up and start emoting at the drop of a proverbial hat – I make it a point to participate in the Festival as an actor, as well as a playwright.

This year, I worked on a piece by Sacramento-based playwright Timothy Foley.  It’s a fun, pungent piece, featuring a cab company member showing a young new hire the ropes.  It’s explicitly set in New York City, in the grimy blue-collar milieu of such works as Taxi Driver.  That’s a large part of what drew me to the piece – not that I thought I was staking a claim for myself as the next DeNiro (the part in Tim’s monologue is more the Peter Boyle part anyway), but that I wanted to represent my hometown.

It’s something I’m conscious of all the time anyway, given the high percentage of New York arts professionals who come to the city of my birth from other places to attempt to make a living at their craft.  It’s even more pronounced when I’m in Alaska, working with a high percentage of West Coast and Pacific Northwest artists.  The rhythm is just a bit different, you see.  And the world of Tim’s monologue might seem exotic to them – with its punchy, casually suggested violence in staccato phrases, its confidences made in a syncopated sort of shorthand slang, all the things that come across as “edgy” or “pushy” or whatever people think about New Yorkers – but to me, that’s normal.  I wanted to be sure I was the voice delivering these words precisely because it feels normal to me.  It’s the world outside my apartment window, after all.

Except it isn’t.

Because the monologue is taken from a piece called Hacks: 1974, and as the title might suggest, it’s a period piece.  Set exactly fifty years ago.  Which means that what I think of as my New York – of blue collar stivers pitched against a grimy, impersonal landscape that you can’t help but love anyway – is something that has been gone for half a century.  I don’t want to believe this; if I squint hard enough, I can pretend that the New York city of my childhood is somehow unchanged and still the world my neighbors and I navigate today.  But of course, it’s not; the math simply doesn’t lie.

Oh well.  At least I’ve got acting – getting up and emoting for a minute, even if I have to travel across the continent to do it – to keep me warm.

Monday Morning Attire

Greetings from Alaska, Constant Reader!  I’m here in Valdez, attending the Valdez Theatre Conference.  I’m in a rugged outdoor landscape, in a small scrappy harbor town on the Prince William Sound surrounded on all sides by the snow-capped peaks of the Chugach mountains.  The air is brisk, and bald eagles fly through it everywhere you turn.  I’m staying in the closest hotel in town to the conference – a hotel which, when you look at the building closely, you realize was built out of reconfigured shipping containers.  Those shipping containers, of course, were what was left behind when the town rebuilt itself after being wiped out by a tsunami in 1964.  Yes, it is a town of hearty, earthy, rugged individualists, at home in a stark landscape of staggering natural beauty.  And this morning, I am starting my day in this magical place by doing something profoundly out of character for it.

I’m putting on a necktie.

Nothing too fancy – a good plain red tie, with some texture to it, tied in a good solid Windsor knot.  You wouldn’t look twice at it back home in New York – not even in the wilder parts of South Brooklyn where I happen to live.  But here in Alaska?  Nobody wears neckties.  Ever.  Formality is a meaningless affectation.  In a landscape like this, as long as you’re properly protected from the elements – which is a big consideration – there’s no reason not to dress as casually as you like.  Heck, last year all of the conference goers had a reception where we met the town mayor.  As formal an event as it’s possible to have in this remote corner of the world.  And there was not a necktie to be seen for miles around.

You don’t need them up here.

But I’m starting off the conference by playing a cheerfully corrupt politician in a piece called The Ripper Strikes Again by Mark Muro, the unofficial poet laureate of Alaskan theater.  You’ll not ordinarily find him wearing a necktie.  But I’m here to serve my fellow playwrights even as I show off my own work, and he’s writing a play about conspiracies and corruption.  And if I’m playing a rapacious, budget-slashing, id-driven governor, I’m going to need to look the part.

And so as I walk across the impossibly wide street at the base of the mountain, and cut through the open-air seating in the field where a portable coffee-shop truck sells its wares (that’d be Magpie’s on the Fly, and they’re awesome), the eagles and lynx and bears and unnumerable other fauna of this epic landscape will know me, as I walk along, by the incongruous red spot below my chin.

It takes a significant dedication to one’s art to pull up stakes and travel several thousand miles, over mountains and glaciers and landscapes beyond imagining, just for the chance to practice it for a few short days.  But I’d argue that it takes even more dedication to sport a bright red necktie while doing so.

Samhain in June in Alaska

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be returning to the Valdez Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska this month! This time, I’ll be presenting my short play How to Pronounce Samhain. If you’re not able to make it to Valdez to see its performance on Thursday, June 13, fear not – there will be a live stream of the performance, which you can view here. The script is also up on NPX if you’re curious!

Oddly, Spielberg’s A.I. Hasn’t Received the Same Treatment Yet

There’s a lot of worried discussion these days, especially in arts circles, about the rampant danger supposedly posed by artificial intelligence.  Being an elder geek myself, this sort of talk isn’t exactly new – we’ve been warning people about Skynet for forty years now.  But with recent advances in technology and widespread adoption by corporate America (and, most relevant to this blog, corporate entertainment in America), it’s never been a more prevalent worry than it is now.  Screenwriters and other creative types are convinced their jobs will be wiped out by programs that can now churn out “original” material.  Perhaps our new robot overlords won’t wipe out humanity, but they’re liable to wipe out our business models and livelihoods – or so the argument goes.  Personally, I’m not convinced of this yet – the “original” material that AI has created so far simply hasn’t been good, and there’s no point in creating an imaginary conspiracy theory to create new things to worry about.

Not when there’s so many real things to worry about.  And not when it’s possible to be afraid of the artistic achievements which AI has actually created so far.

A series of videos have been making the rounds on YouTube, TikTok, and all the various websites that then shrink and regurgitate those videos for the benefit of insomniacs trying to find things to do at three in the morning.  They’re put out by Abandoned Films, and present theatrical trailers from some alternate universe where Star Wars, Alien, The Lord of the Rings, and pretty much every iconic fantasy and science fiction title of the past fifty years was actually released in the 1950s.  The AI takes the existing footage (you can tell from the shots they use, and how they match up with the originals) and adjusts it in a thousand tiny ways to create the desired effect.  The cinematography and color saturation are tweaked to match the old Panavision epics.  The scenic décor is tweaked to match old pulp covers.  The actor’s faces are altered to reflect the ravages of the average 50s actor’s steak-and-whiskey diet and pack-a-day cigarette habit.  You get the idea; if you’re curious, there’s a more detailed article on the whole process in Forbes

The first time you stumble upon one of these, it’s hypnotic.  The AI has clearly been used in an intelligent, and somewhat creative fashion.  Plus there’s a weird charm to it.  As the article points out, there’s a level of comfort in seeing that lost 50s sci-fi world recreated, and it feels nice to bask in that warm, Technicolor glow.

The first time you see one of these.

Watch any more than that, think about them for any length of time, and they’re terrifying.

Not because those weirdly lined, blank-eyed faces start to look scary and disconcerting – they do, of course, but it’s not their fault.  And not because the AI has done anything malevolent – it’s just a tool, which the creators have used to execute their vision.  And their vision is of a world where all of the great pop entertainments of the past fifty years – or, to put it another way, of my friggin’ lifetime – have been wrenched out of their proper time and context, and completely drained of their meaning.  Where it’s the bleached-out, sanitized America of sitcom fame in perpetua.  Where the movies that were specifically created to imagine new possibilities, to question the status quo, are now transformed to just another part of the same candy-colored dream.

Or nightmare, as the case may be.

And I have no doubt that this sort of a landscape – where all social progress is stalled, where everybody but the exalted souls who own the AI, and the trusted minions who know how to program it, are kept in the same aesthetic cocoon for all eternity – is the goal of most of those advocating most strongly for AI in the arts.  That way, there’s no way to voice dissent or rebellion against the status quo – nothing except for a fever dream of a lost decade that wasn’t anything like what were were told it was in the first place.  It’s the sort of dystopian scenario – an entire populace kept trapped in a science fiction dream world – that might inspire a really good movie.’

The real one from 1999.  Not the weird AI pretend-fifties version.

Getting to the Other Side

This past Tuesday was the great big blow-out season finale at Tuesdays at Nine, the cold reading series which I co-curate and co-host. As we’ve done for the past thirty three years (with me co-hosting for the last five of them), we gathered together to read ten-page excerpts of works in progress, see how they played in front of a live audience – as opposed to around a classroom table or the like, discussing how a piece might hypothetically be staged or might be received in the rare and happy event of a full production. No, our feedback is raucous, immediate, and real (much like the drinking afterwards) – and we made sure to involve as many people as possible in all of that, given it was our last event of the season.

Except it wasn’t, really. This weekend, at Under Saint Marks, we finally got to see the full production of Bill Schaumberg’s Three Chickens Confront Existence, a play which we’ve workshopped at Tuesdays at Nine. (It’s gone through a number of names and drafts over time – you can find it on NPX under a different name, and in a slightly different draft, right here.) Its excerpts have always been some of the most promising I’ve ever seen – a barmy but heartfelt mash-up of Samuel Beckett and The Far Side – and right there, in all their feathered glory, were the three feathered protagonists.

After seven years.

Yes, I can’t really claim to have “discovered” this piece, since excerpts of it were read two years prior to me assuming my current position. Once I was in a position to select pieces, putting up excerpts of one of the most beloved stories to our community was something of a no-brainer. We put up excerpts throughout the years of covid quarantine, watching our chicken friends on our zoom screens, and used them to celebrate our return to in-person programming when that time came. We had a First Mondays reading of the entire script two years ago. So this weekend’s performance represents a seven year development journey through our program – which doesn’t take into account Bill’s years of planning and writing before that.

So for all the joy I felt in watching this production – and I did feel, if not a parental pride, then perhaps a godfatherly sort of affection – I couldn’t shake a feeling of dismay as well. Seven years. That’s how long the process takes these days. And that’s a long time for humans – just think of how many chickens’ lifetimes that represents!

NOTE: This weekend’s performances simply represented the New York appearance; this production is slated to go to this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe as well! If you wanted to help with travel costs and the like, or just really like chickens, feel free to help them out here.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

For the second time this year, I spent this weekend traveling up to Sherman, Connecticut, to hear a staged reading of a short script of mine.  (The first time was the debut of a piece called Norwegians Pay Half Price, which you can find on NPX here; I’ll let you know when I’ve gotten the second piece fully revised and sent out into the world.) It was in picturesque little theater – a converted church, naturally – in a picturesque little town just over the state border, and a good ways north.  Far closer to Poughkeepsie than Manhattan, in fact.  A two hour journey each way by both train and car in the best case scenario.  All so I could test out a twelve page script in front of a few dozen devoted theatergoers.

And I can’t really complain about the commute – one of the other writers in the line-up was coming all the way from Rhode Island, about double the length of the journey, for the exact same thing.

And it’s not like this is an anomaly for me.  In a few weeks, I will be heading back to Valdez, Alaska, to participate in the Valdez Theatre Conference for the third year in a row.  This will involve a flight across the entire North American continent, and then a seven hour bus ride around glaciers, over permafrost, and through mountain passes.  It takes more than a day to complete, and it is a lot – heck, simply getting from where I live to Newark airport is a lot for most folks.  And again, it’s all so that one script of mine (well, more than one script, actually – spoiler alert for the conference) can receive a reading in front of a few dozen people.  They’re really nice and savvy people – it’s a very good conference – but even so, the question is raised:

Why am I going through all this?

There are the usual responses, of course – then when this is your calling you’ll go to any lengths to follow it, that the creative journey itself is more valuable than the destination, and so on.  And all these things are true – and don’t really answer the question.  Because I am co-Creative Director of Tuesdays at Nine, a cold reading series in New York (and the longest-running one in the country I’ll have you know).  I could put up my own writing whenever the heck I wanted, right here where I live.  Why go through all this trouble?

Well, for one thing, if I forced the audience each and every Tuesday to listen to my own yammering, and excluded too many other writers in the process, everybody would start getting a tad grumpy.  Rightfully so.  But more to the point, the whole point of staged readings is get the necessary feedback for future revisions and productions of the piece.  To figure out what’s working, and more importantly, what’s not.  And as a friend of mine asked me last Tuesday, as we unwound at the bar afterwards, “how do you get honest opinions from people who feel they have to like you?”

(You can tell she’s my friend because she asked a good brutal question like that.)

It’s a fair point.  Honest feedback requires a variety of feedback, from a variety of sources.  And so the quest for those sources continues, by plane and train, through fields and over mountains, scripts in tow and ever at the ready.  All in the hope that one day, at journey’s end, there will be that rarest and most magical of prizes to be found:

A production with more than just music stands!

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