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Slice of Life

I received my second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine this past Saturday, and having refamiliarized myself with the terrain of Hudson Yards and Midtown Manhattan when I’d received the first dose three weeks prior, I knew exactly how I wanted to celebrate.  I walked the three blocks east from the Javits Center to 8th Avenue, then north to the southeast corner of 39th Street.  There sits a modest appearing pizza joint named Upside Pizza – if you haven’t been in the city for a while the name might not be familiar, since it only opened in 2019, but it’s the rare eatery in that generally desolate area to have genuine respect from foodies and pizza snobs.  After all, there aren’t many slice joints that receive a glowing news item in the New York Times.

Because that is what I did, Constant Reader.  I walked up to the counter and ordered two slices.  Something I haven’t done at all during these thirteen months of the Quarantimes.

It’s not like I haven’t eaten pizza, of course.  I’ve periodically ordered a full pie from my corner store here in South Brooklyn, bagging fractions of it to stash in my fridge to last me through a week.  Other times, I’ve made do with commercial frozen pizzas, adding pitiful smidges of turkey pepperoni and chicken sausage in an attempt to liven them up.  But purchasing a slice of pizza by itself, the most fundamentally New York of dining options, has been denied to me this entire time – or at least, I’ve felt obligated to deny it to myself.  It doesn’t make sense to grab a slice on the run, after all, if you’re not presently able to run anywhere.

The New York slice is a significant part of our mythology, our self-image; it occupies that rare place in the discourse where the popular image of the thing isn’t simply identical to the real thing, but the two blend into each other like a good mixture of mozzarella and parmesan.  By way of example: the stretch of road between the two closest subway stations to me is the exact same street that John Travolta is strutting down in the opening credit sequence of Saturday Night Fever.  A mere six tenths of a mile from my apartment, you will find the exact same pizzeria he frequents in that sequence.  Lenny’s is still there, at the exact same address, all manner of publicity photos and news clippings attesting to its place in pop culture from (shudder) forty-five years ago.  Anytime I want, I can theoretically march up to that same window and get that same order.  (Well, I wouldn’t, because stacking your slices double-decker style is weird to me, but you get the diea).  Anytime I want, I can theoretically become Tony Manero.

Except I can’t, because I’m trying to be conscientious during this pandemic, and so I’m not going anywhere.  Even for a slice.

As more and more of us are getting vaccinated – as of this weekend, a fifth of New Yorkers are now fully inoculated – we’re starting to figure out what getting “back to normal” might look like.  The plans discussed are all grandiose things, involving the return of Broadway productions and the like.  But it’s important to remember that for most of us, the “normal” we’ve been missing for over a year involves walking up to a counter, plonking down a few crumpled dollar bills, walking off with a slice of pizza, and silently judging whether the taste is worth all the hype.

(Is Upside Pizza worth the hype?  Honestly, it doesn’t matter – as it turns out, the new location for the soon-to-reopen Drama Book Shop is a few doors down from them.  In a few months, their business is bound to spike thanks to the renewed traffic to the area from eager theater folk – but that’s another blog post for another day.)

Planning Stages

I wrote last week about people anxious to restart New York theater, as part of the general push to resuscitate the economy a year into the global pandemic.  As of March 25, the ranks of those people officially includes the government of New York City.  On that day, Mayor de Blasio held a press conference to announce a number of initiatives intended to benefit the theater community.  Plans are underway for a vaccination site in the vicinity of Times Square specifically for Broadway actors, with other pop-up sites for vaccinations and COVID testing near off-Broadway venues as well.  It’s exactly the sort of initiative that we’ve been praying for since the start of the pandemic, and the city’s arts professionals are responding to the happy news in a predictable fashion.

With apprehension, distrust, and frequently rage.

It’s not because these were announced by Bill de Blasio, and it seems that New Yorkers are required by law to be angry at every single thing the man does.  And it’s not simply because, as I wrote last week, there’s legitimate concerns as to whether we’re opening things prematurely, and what the consequences will be for doing so.  No, the angst and unrest I’m feeling (remotely) from so many of my peers, the second guessing of this latest plan, the uncertainty and unease all stem from the same question that plague all of us regardless of whether or not there’s a pandemic raging:

Just who matters in this industry, anyway?

Remember, the initiatives described, and the rationales publicly given for their implementation, all focus around Broadway theater.  The goal is to get Broadway productions back up and running, to restore that pillar of the city’s tourist economy.  Which is understandable, of course – but it’s only a tiny fraction of the city’s theater professionals.  And while the vaccination centers are being set up to serve the theater community, there aren’t plans to make “Broadway actor” a category for who is eligible to receive the virus; you still have to qualify through some other way.  (Fortunately, I qualify through the nature of my day job, so my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine is scheduled for Saturday.) Now, here in New York, actors at certain of the Off-Broadway houses do qualify as “public-facing employees” of a non-profit – but you’d need to document that somehow.  How many people were on that sort of a contract when everything shut down last March, or happen to have one of their pay stubs still at the ready?

For an alternate model of how to proceed, consider that Actors Equity would provide free flu shots to members at the start of flu season; there’d be a series of dates throughout the fall when you stop by the union offices and receive a free inoculation as long as you could provide proof of membership in either AEA or one of the sister unions.  But there again, there are many thousands of entertainment professionals in the city who do not (yet) belong to one of these unions.  Are they less deserving of protection?

Furthermore, after the city’s plans were announced (and remember, these plans are still contingent on cooperation from the state to actually happen), Actors Equity sent its members a statement.  They were quick to take credit for these initiatives,  which they say they’ve been lobbying for since March 3, and proclaimed that this was a critical step towards restoring the national theater industry.  While this raises the question of what the union had been doing prior to March 3, what most industry folks I know outside of the city pointed out to their chagrin was that this “national” effort by definition did not involve them.  People can feel by their union even in the best of times, by virtue of not living in the center of Broadway production, and that get ratcheted up when it’s a literal matter of life and death.

It’s a matter of months; eventually, regardless of the order in which we receive our vaccinations, every American who wants one will get one.  (And then we’ll have to figure out how to handle the folks who don’t want one, but again, another post for another day.) But as I tried to say last week, we can’t be eager to “get back to normal” when for so many of us, normal wasn’t working.  We need to do better, for the sake of so many of us.

The Right Course of Action

I get it.  Spring is finally here, and at least where I am it’s a warm sunny weekend.  Some of us are vaccinated already, and vaccine production and distribution is ramping up daily.  We’ve been stuck at home for just over a year now; surely the end of our ordeal is finally here.  Time to declare the pandemic over and get back to normal, right?

Obviously this isn’t true (at least I hope it’s obvious).  If roughly 20% of the American population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, then that leaves 80% still to go.  There are new mutations and variations of the virus circulating among that 80%.  Here in New York, while infection rates have plateaued, they haven’t gone down, and we’re still seeing over five thousand new cases of covid each week – which is where the numbers were back in those terrifiying days back in April.  We’re thankfully better at treating the disease, so the fatality numbers aren’t what they were, but still – this is no time to insist that everything’s back to normal, right?

And yet I know a shocking number of people who are anxious – nay, giddy with anticipation – to return to life as it was in the Before Times, as if everything were magically fixed.  Now, without delay.  And I’m not talking about folks taking up a contrarian position about health policy out of some political ideology, conservative or otherwise – these are lefty artist types, who have presumably lived through exactly what I’ve lived through, who are nonetheless gung ho to throw caution to the winds.

And, since this is an arts professional blog, I feel like I need to point out that the arts profession itself might be helping fuel this urge to open things back up far before we’re ready.  Not simply because so many of us are out of work, though that’s obviously a contiributing factor.  No, I’m talking about the business models themselves.  I’m talking about how it’s impossible to wait for the fall to resume normal life, because in the arts, the fall is already here.

Think about it – this is around the time when theaters would be announcing their 2021-22 seasons.  That would presuppose that the details of those seasons – the scheduling, the contracts, the reservation of venues – had already been finalized.  Planning for these seasons customarily takes place years in advance.  So, with everything on hold due to the coronavirus, it’s not just the productions that were running as of March of last year which were affected – it’s everything in every possible stage of preparation after that.  Under the system we have now, even if we wait for a good while into the future to have our cultural activity back, we have to open things up now to actually achieve that.

Which is ridiculous.

It’s ridiculous because there’s still too many variables at play to make that call seriously.  It’s ridiculous because it hamstrings artists’ ability to respond to the world around them – you can’t react to current events when you have to wait three years or more for your reaction to be heard.  And it’s ridiculous because it’s rooted in a sense of complacency – the notion that you can safely plan that far in advance, with no disruptions or intervention by fate – which the past year should have done away with.  And if we ever do want things to get back to normal, we paradoxically have to get rid of that sense of what “normal” is.

Right?

Anniversary Travels

It was a year ago that I was last in Manhattan.  The Thursday of that week, March the 12th, I was meeting with my Tuesdays at Nine Co-Creative Director at the Pret-a-Manger across from Bryant Park.  We were deciding on the lineup for our next evening, making plans that were instantly undone as received text message alerts that the Broadway theaters were shutting down, effective immediately.  I took the long subway ride back to Brooklyn as the chain reaction began, shutting down New York City.  I took the long subway ride home, unaware of the dominos falling, to try and have some semblance of a normal weekend in abnormal times.  I made a return trip into Manhattan on Saturday, March 14; there were things I needed to retrieve from my day job to facilitate working remotely.  And since arriving home that Saturday night, held in place by the global pandemic, I have remained here in South Brooklyn.

Until this weekend, that is, when I braved the subway ride to the Javits Center, to receive my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine against the coronavirus.

I don’t really talk about my day job here, but as somebody who works as an arts administrator for a music school, I qualify here in New York both as an education worker and a forward-facing non-profit worker.  It took a good month or so of winding my way through the various websites and their procedures, but I was finally able to secure an appointment for this past Saturday.  The appointment was at the main vaccination hub in Manhattan’s Javits Center, so the vaccination itself was a quick an efficient affair (in and out in thirty minutes, including fifteen minutes of observation time after the inoculation to make sure there were no side effects, during which, at the Javits Center at least, volunteer musicians serenade you with chamber music as you wait).  The journey to the Javits Center was considerably longer – a little over an hour in each direction, by subway, which I have not ridden in a year.

The thing about the subway is that you’re never as isolated as you think you are.  I’m not referring to your fellow commuters – I’m talking about being removed from the rest of the world (and specifically its pop culture, since this is an arts blog I’m running here).  Usually, there’s billboards in the cars and the stations for movies, television shows, and theatre – arts producers of every kind hawking their wares to the captive audience.  There was one of that this time.  Every car was festooned exclusively with public service announcements about covid; there were no new signs of any kind plastered on the walls of any subway station, at least along the southernmost portion of the D line, or the westernmost portion of the 7.

Aboveground, it wasn’t much different.  New York is usually in a constant state of trying to sell you something; I witnessed none of that this weekend.  I walked from the Javits Center back to Bryant park, to get some recommended exercise after the shot; in that whole stretch of Midtown Manhattan I saw one billboard for a tv program debuting in April, another for a show that debuted several months ago, and some stray Book of Mormon signs on the lampposts adjoining Times Square.  And that was it.  Just a few stray phantoms of the media nexxus that once was.

It will be again, of course.  But the work to make it so is going to involve far more than just our innoculations.  It’s going to take a lot of effort to rebuild things the way they were – and that presupposes that “the way things were” is the goal.  If you recognize that it’s not – that we need an arts landscape that’s more accessable, more inclusive, more affordable, and therefore more dynamic – there’s a lot of work and planning to be done.

And unfortunately, none of that planning can take place at the Pret-a-Manger across from Bryant Park, because they’ve closed that location.  Stupid pandemic.

Tales From Second Grade

I like to tell people that I started acting in college, beginning with a production of Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy in the fall of my freshman year.  I’m proud of that credit; I even had it on my resume for a goodly number of years (which is not something you should generally do with your college acting credits, but be that as it may).  It feels like it should have been the beginning – but strictly speaking it’s not the case.  If we’re talking about any and all appearances I’ve made as a fictional character, on stages of every kind, then my theatrical debut was as Marco, the protagonist of my elementary School’s second grade adaptation of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.

If that title sounds familiar to you, then congratulations – you are one of the few who encountered this week’s alarmist stories declaring that “Dr. Seuss has been cancelled!” and read the full text of the articles.  If you haven’t been keeping up; the Dr. Seuss estate withdrew six of his titles from publication, citing illustrations and content rooted in ethnic stereotypes.  They haven’t disappeared; they’re simply now out of print, as are the vast majority of books in the English language.  And they aren’t books the general public is familiar with; none of them are the subject of animated specials or inspiration for plush toys.  Of the six, only two have any sort of lasting cultural footprint: If I Ran the Zoo, which introduced the word “nerd” into the lexicon, and And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, which has the distinction of being Seuss’ first published children’s book.

As well as the distinction of providing my stage debut, in second grade.

It’s abundantly clear, given how often they keep referencing Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, that nobody upset about this decision is familiar with the six titles in question.  Such disingenuous behavior is by no means uncommon in public life, unfortunately, but it puts me in something of a unique position.  I can actually tell you about And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.  Eight-year-old me poured his heart and soul into that production.

So what do I remember about it?

Not very much.  I mostly cringe at the memory of my singsong delivery of my lines, which is what you do when you’re trying to make yourself heard in a cavernous school auditorium and you’re only eight years old.  I actually didn’t have many lines, because the lead character of Marco is essentially an observer.  The book – and that subsequent elementary school adaptation – is basically a pageant, an escalating series of bizarre and exotic scenes that Marco sees on the street one day.  Of course, much of what makes those scenes “exotic” is rooted in stereotypical displays of different ethnicities, which is what makes it so cringeworthy to us today.

It should have been cringeworthy then.  It probably was.  My dim memory of that polyester-drench time suggests that there might have been a discreet word change here or there, a de-emphasis of any kind of national costuming, in favor of children’s gymnastics and other silly pageantry.  I can’t speak for what other children might have experienced; I assume the adults putting it together meant well at the time, but didn’t give the content of the piece much thought at all.

The cynic in me suspects that this has all been done in advance of some future Seuss omnibus coming out in a few years, collecting all his texts and illustrations (including this one) for archival purposes.  The dogged optimist in me hopes that this has all been a ploy to get angry conservatives to buy their children copies of The Lorax out of spite.  But in any case, this is far more thought than anybody gave these specific texts at the time.   I know.  I was there.  And I harbor no illusions about childhood, be it about Dr. Seuss books or any other element.

We’re all supposed to grow up, after all.

Care Package

I’m working on an educational project for Holy Cross Univeristy, which I’ll be performing this Wednesday.  (Remotely, of course – I can’t easily arrange a mid-week trip to Worcester, Massachusetts, even in non-pandemic times.) It’s a two-hander that we’re actually staging, in so much as you can do these things on zoom.  Rather than simply read the script into our respective laptops, we’ll be entering and exiting the scene.  We’ll have sound cues.  And most crucially, we’ll have props, and some semblance of a set.

For the informal zoom readings we’ve all been subsisting on this past year, we’ve evolved a convention of makeshift props from whatever we have lying around our apartments.  It’s fun, insofar as you can have fun during an apocalypse; it recaptures that sense of play and make-believe from our childhood.  But this presentation is far more adult, and is supposed to be far more polished; there’s background elements we refer to in the script, there’s props we’re supposed to hand-off from one actor to another.  That can’t be done with just the miscellaneous bric-a-brac strewn about the house.  That requires an actual design. 

And that requires design elements be sent to the actors.

The first item was shipped to me thru Amazon; it’s a grey fabric background, pinned against my “dining room” wall.  (My conventional bookshelf background is lovely, but not appropriate to this particular piece.) But there were maps and signs and posters that needed to be placed against this background, and prop folders and books and phones I needed.  (Actual hand-held phones, with cords and the like – none of us have those anymore, do we?) That was all put together in a single care package.

And rather than ship the thing to me, my friend, who’s directing (we don’t do anything these days except projects with our friends, do we?) brought it to my apartment in person on Saturday.

That’s right – after a year of lockdown, of remote work and remote performance, I finally got to be in the same physical space with a friend of mine.

It was only for about five minutes, at the curb outside my apartment building, as she drove up and unlatched her trunk, to hand me a suitcase with various bric a brac.  We both wore our masks, we maintained our social distance, but still – an actual person!  Who is a friend of mine!  That isn’t just another face on a zoom screen, but is right there!

It’s been a year since I could say that.

And it speaks to where we all are that, even though it’s a fun role and I’m getting paid for performing it, it’s those five minutes Saturday afternoon that I’m actually buzzing about.

I’d say more, but, y’know – got to prepare for Wednesday!

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