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Bottleneck

As I’ve mentioned, I’m currently doing the research for my next writing project.  I intend this to be a submission to the next round of the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries competition – because that’s one of the few submission opportunities available during the Quarantimes, and because, after submitting two scripts to them in the past, I’m clearly a glutton for punishment.  The deadline for sumissions is in mid November; if I hope to have something by then, I’ll need to start drafting something in early September, so I’ll need to have finished the bulk of my research by the end of this month.

Making this all a little more difficult is the fact that, thanks to our current reality, I don’t have access to a library at the moment.  Some branches of the Brooklyn Public Library have re-opened for lobby service only, but my local branch is not one of them.  If I did want to pick up a library book in person, I’d have to walk about two miles or so to Coney Island, in the middle of a pandemic.  Not really an option.

It’s possible to do some of the research I need to do online, but most of the information I can find on websites and YouTube videos is piecemeal at best, or hidden behind paywalls.  No, to best process a great deal of information, I rely on these newfangled contraptions called books.  And since it’s the only means of getting any books, I’ve been ordering them online.  I’ve been placing orders for titles as my research has unfolded, three or four at a time, and reading them as soon as they arrive.

Or at least I would be reading them, if they arrived.

As you’ve no doubt heard, the Post Office has recently implemented a series of new procedures with the effect of slowing down mail service.  The stated reason is to keep the Post Office financially solvent – which is only an issue because of a 2006 law requiring them to fund seventy-five years’ worth of employee pensions in advance.  In practical terms, mail service has dramatically slowed down, imperiling many basic functions of our society (being 2020, the fact that these functions include absentee ballots seems a tad bit relevant).  We could complain to somebody about it, but the new Postmaster General – a major donor to the current chief executive – has just removed twenty three posts in senior leadership.

Given all these disruptions, my having to wait an extra week or two for my reading material to clear its bottleneck might seem a bit trivial.  And compared to the impending loss of our democracy, it is.  But at the same time, they’re linked – the material I’m reading and the play I’m trying to write exist because of our First Amendment right to free speech and to petition for the redress of grievances – a sacred tenet of the document that some of us seem hell-bent on shredding.

Saturday Night Apology

I did something bad this week, Constant Reader.  Nothing major in the grand scheme of things; barely something that would even register given the scale of contemporary villainy.  (Deliberately letting people die because they live in “blue” states? Seriously?!) But I feel bad about it nonetheless, and to the extent that there’s anybody to whom I need to apologize, I feel that I should come clean here and now.

This weekend, I failed to attend a reading for which I’d RSVP’d on Facebook.

Now, we are still in the Quarantimes, so this was a virtual reading I’d promised to attend.  And by “promise,” I mean that I’d clicked a button on my laptop screen when the invitation came over social media.  Many of us do this several times each week – several times a day, for the popular and profligate among us – and promptly move on without a second thought, forgetting what we’ve promised to attend as soon as the screen refreshes.

Only I hadn’t forgotten about the reading.  I had it marked on my calendar, I was looking forward to it.  And as 8pm on Saturday drew near, I sat down with my laptop ready to watch – only to discover that I couldn’t.

You see, with some things I’m used to, like my Sunday afternoon reading series, we send out the Zoom link as part of the original invitation.  That wasn’t the case here.  As it turns out, on a part of the original invite which I hadn’t read – you had to navigate to the comments to find it – there was an email address to which we were supposed to RSVP in order to get the necessary link.  By the time I realized that this was the procedure, it was already too late.

I only mention all of this because, in the few months in which we’ve moved to virtual readings for the bulk of our theatrical life, there’s been an abundance of different procedures that have evolved.  There’s direct links, and private groups, and secure YouTube channels, each with their own peculiarities.  Once you’ve accessed the stream, by whatever platform the reading is using, you then have a whole host of options in terms of how to view.  Are you watching in speaker view?  Gallery view?  Are you already muted, or do you need to mute yourself?  Do you already know how to do any of that, or do theater companies now need to give these instructions as part of their opening remarks, the way that ushers used to point out the theater’s fire exits in the Before Times?

Will there ever be a standard format for these virtual readings?

On the one hand, it would be nice if we had a treatment for COVID-19 sometime soon and didn’t have to worry about any of this anymore.  (Preferably a treatment that didn’t involve the injection of bleach – see that scale of villainy I mentioned above.) On the other hand, making theater accessible to people who couldn’t physically come to see it – because of where they live, disability, expense, or a host of other reasons – has been a problem that theaters have studiously avoided grappling with for years now.  The COVID-19 crisis has forced everybody’s hand in this regard, and it would be nice if we looked at the various emerging options for live streaming and remote viewing, and figured out a workable standard for all of us to use going forward.

Because it’s no fun finding yourself with nothing to do on a Saturday night.

A Very Loud Signal Boost

I posted last week about Beef and Boards Theater, Constant Reader, and their (in my opinion) ill-advised new production of Beehive! The Musical.  In the intervening week, the theater has experienced a significant amount of pushback, even deleting their Instagram account to the avalanche of commenters taking them to task.  Clearly, taking theaters to task online for poor decision-making can, and does, have an effect.

I’d love to be able to take some of the credit for that, but alas, I was just reporting on chatter I’d already seen online.  Likewise, it would be nice to take credit for other theatrical activist accomplishments.  Like, for example, the recent cancellation of an online Broadway fundraiser for Senate candidate Joe Kennedy III.  A number of prominent, progressive-minded artists such as Sara Bareilles, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul had pledged their support to his campaign, apparently without realizing – until it was pointed out to them online – that he was effectively running to the right of sitting Democratic Senator Ed Markie, notable for having co-authored the proposed legislation commonly referred to as the Green New Deal.

But alas, I hadn’t even written about that until the paragraph above.  No, I can’t take any sort of credit as an activist on these issues.  All I can do, Constant Reader, is point you in the direction of one who is.  A voice that is perhaps the most informed, passionate, and effective voice on matters concerning the intersection of American politics and American theater.

A fake Chef Gordon Ramsay on Twitter.

I am absolutely serious.  If you are not already following it, head to the Twitter website and follow the account @THTRNightmares.  Theater Nightmares purports to be celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, hurling criticism and invective at theaters in the same way the real Chef Ramsay berates inept restauranteurs on something like Kitchen Nightmares.  Tweets are even in ALL CAPS, to approximate the appropriate Ramsay-an volume.

It should just be silly gag.  And yet, consistently, this account has been on top of breaking stories in the theater (specifically in New York, although they were all over the Indianapolis thing).  The commentary has been insightful.  And as the cancellation of the Kennedy fundraiser has demonstrated, it gets results.  I’m consistently impressed.

To say nothing of envious.

All of us putting up this kind of commentary on the internet hope to have some kind of influence on the broader conversation (whatever the topic might happen to be).  It usually feels like we’re just screaming into empty air; that all of our carefully worded arguments and pithy insights are ultimately for naught, background noise at best.  And so we try and figure out ways to stand out, leverage whatever fleeting celebrity we might have, find some unique angle or gimmick.  Even that is a crapshoot; there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to what works, what rises to prominence, and what doesn’t.  On paper, having Gordon Ramsay be the all-caps avatar of theatrical critique doesn’t sound like something that would work.  But it works splendidly – and alas, I’m not the one who thought of it.

However, whoever DID think of it was nice enough to follow me back on Twitter.  So I’ve got that going for me.

Spoke Too Soon

One of these days I’ll learn my lesson.  It’s 2020, the year of riots, pandemics, and murder hornets.  To complain about any aspect of it is to tempt fate; point to any particular thing and say “this is bad,” and about 2020 seconds will go by before something comes to light that is exponentially worse

So I should have seen it coming when I posted last week about the upcoming production of Godspell, being mounted in August by the Berkshire Theater Group in Massachusetts.  Risking the health of the actors, the audience, and the community at large for the sake of – well, Godspell – struck me as the height of folly.  I could not imagine a more foolhardy theatrical adventure to undertake at this perilous time.

I had not yet reckoned with the Beef and Board Theater in Indianapolis.

Beef and Board Theater recently reopened with a production of Beehive, the jukebox musical showcasing songs associated with female artists of the early to mid 60s.  They aren’t preparing to perform; they’re open for business.  If you’re able to travel, you can go to Indianapolis to see this production.  And based on the coverage on social media, here is what you’ll be seeing:

  • The performers are wearing clear plastic face shields, as part of their costume, while singing and dancing, to avoid breathing on one another
  • The theater is a dinner theater, so even operating at less than full capacity it’s combining two of the most high-risk activities – restaurant dining and attending a large performance venue – into one event
  • The theater has ended its agreement with Actors Equity Association, specifically so it can put up this particular show.

So, yeah, that’s what’s going on in Indianapolis.  People are being asked to jeopardize their careers and risk their lives for the sake of a nostalgia piece about a presumably (but not really) more innocent time – which, admittedly, is a pretty darn effective metaphor for our current moment.

I mention all this here, Constant Reader, even though I’m not planning on performing in Indianapolis any time soon.  I mention this because we need to remember why this is happening.  It’s hard to blame performers who are desperate for work even when global pandemic hasn’t shut down most of the theaters.  You can’t even really blame the theater, making desperation moves in an effort to stay alive.  And it may seem churlish to blame the audience members, shut up these past few months and looking to have just one night of relative normalcy.

But I do.

Ultimately, this is on all of us; as with society at large, we get the theater we deserve.  If we insist on endless nostalgia trips, that’s what we’ll get.  If we’re so cavalier about our own health, to say nothing of the safety of the performers offering up those nostalgia trips, then this is what we’ll get.  If we want bloodsport – if we’re comfortable with the idea of people dying for our own amusement – then that’s clearly what we’ll get.

It’s nothing to be comfortable with.  Don’t be.

Restarting

At some point, this will end.  New York City had no deaths from COVID-19 yesterday, for the first time since this ordeal began.  Eventually the rest of this country will get its act together, and it will actually be feasible to start reopening our society (as opposed to being the pipe dream of certain politicians who shall remain nameless and spineless).  There will come a day when we can commute to work normally, when we can hang out at bars together.  And eventually, there will come a day when we can go to the theater again.

The state of Massachusetts seems to believe that day has arrived, and has convinced a number of influential parties to go along with that belief.  It was announced this past week that Actors Equity has approved contracts for two regional theaters in Massachusetts to begin in August.  The Barrington Stage Group will be mounting a one person show entitled Harry Clarke.  More ambitiously, in an outdoor tent stage, the Berkshire Theatre Group will employ ten Equity actors and two Equity stage managers in a production of Godspell.

There are all manner of questions to ask here – whether the proposed safety measures each of these companies have announced are adequate, whether it’s too early to be thinking about starting live theater performances again, whether live theater with its sweat and its spittle can ever be made completely safe.  Above all of these, however, there’s been one overriding question I’ve been asking myself since the moment I read this news:

Godspell?  Seriously?

Godspell is another one of those musicals, like Grease, that’s been permanently marred for me as a result of unpleasant early exposure to the material – in this case, a never-ending succession of hippie Sunday School teachers strumming endless choruses of “Day By Day” back in my 70s childhood.  I was encouraged to give the piece another chance later on; aside from its catchy tunes, I was assured that it was a beautiful expression of pure faith, free from the trappings of any particular doctrine.  I happen not to agree with this; the number “It’s All For the Best,” with its assurances that all the terrible things that happen in our lives are all part of a divine plan and therefore no cause for worry, strikes me as the absolute worst type of doctrine, pernicious social control disguised as celestial advice.

But it’s Godspell, and it’s catchy and it’s popular, and above all it’s safe.  And everything that has been discussed as a future theatrical production, when theatrical productions can take place again, has that same safe quality.  On Broadway, for instance, Spring 2021 productions have been announced both for postponed shows (the Hugh Jackman-led revival of The Music Man) and new revivals (the perennial Our Town, with Dustin Hoffman returning to Broadway as the Stage Manager).  The overriding philosophy is clear; when this particular ordeal is over – as well as the overall national nightmare of which it’s the culmination – we’ll all want to enjoy something safe, and comfortable, and pretend that none of this ever happened as we happily get back to normal.

I happen not to agree with this either.

At some point, all of this will end, but the memory of it will be with us forever.  The myriad and interconnected nightmares we’ve all lived through are now a part of us, like it or not.  Once we’re finally on the other side, we’re not going to need escapism so much as we’re going to need healing and catharsis, and the umpteenth revival of some programmer’s favorite war horse just isn’t going to provide it.  We won’t be able to go back to things the way we were, because that world, with all its naïve assumptions, is forever gone.  If we work at it diligently, we might – might ­– be able to build a better one, and our arts planning needs to reflect that.

Of course, we do need to make sure we’re all alive to see it.  First things first.

Summer Reading List

An update from last week, Constant Reader: despite the barrage of distractions (including the quite literal barrage of illegal fireworks outside my apartment), I made my deadlines.  The made-for-Zoom one-act play I decided to write, henceforth to be called Trivial, was completed and submitted the day before the cut-off.  I was able to complete the post-reading revisions to An Arctic Confederate Christmas on Friday, thus allowing me to enjoy the remainder of the Fourth of July weekend.  (Which I mostly did holed up alone in my apartment – social distancing is still important dammit!) For the first time this summer, I’m able to actually do, y’know, summertime things.

Like a little light summer reading.

Of course, there is another deadline coming up for me; a November 15 submission deadline for the next round of the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries competition.  So if I want to have a new piece to submit this year, I’ll have to start preparing it as soon as possible – meaning that my light summer reading is all going to be research.

And of course, all these books I’ll be reading for research are books I’m going to have to buy, since public libraries still haven’t opened yet here in New York City.  In some cases, the books I’m going to need to buy haven’t even been published yet; my pre-ordering game is on point.

Anyway, if you’d like to follow along with me, here’s the start of my summer reading list (alphabetical by author because that is how much of a nerd I am):

Barker, Juliet.  Conquest: The English Kingdom of France

Castor, Helen.  Joan of Arc

Gibson, D.W.  14 Miles: Building the Border Wall

Kurchak, Sarah.  I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder

Shakespeare, William.  Henry the Sixth, Part One

Simone, Rudy.  Aspergirls

Thunberg, Greta.  No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference

Is there any rhyme or reason to my selections?  Well, I think there could be.  There’s certainly a couple of recurring motifs in the list above – but how on earth do they all fit together? Sadly, I can’t give any sort of definitive answer to that yet, since the whole point of the research is to figure out exactly how to make them fit together.

In any event, I’d be liable to get funny looks from folks if I brought these to read at the beach.  Thank heavens for the aforementioned social distancing, then.

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