Movie Magic

After several months dealing with a cracked iPhone, the fissures in the display screen becoming more and more pronounced with time, I finally braved the journey to the Apple store to get it fixed.  This turned into a day-long affair, as I needed to set up an appointment once I arrived at the store – which I couldn’t do remotely, since my phone was broken, which was the whole reason I went to the Apple store in the first place – and then needed to wait several hours after that for the repairs to be done.  As there was a multiplex directly across the street from the Apple store, I finally decided, after almost two and a half years, to take the plunge.  I entered a theater to sit down and watch a movie.

As luck would happen, the next showing of Everything Everywhere All At Once was about to start, and its run time neatly fit the span of time I’d need to wait.  (This blog isn’t a review site per se, and Everything Everywhere All At Once isn’t the real subject of this post, but it’s as wonderful as you’ve heard it is and you should see it whenever you feel comfortable doing so.) I bought my ticket, which is now a strange and completely automated process except for the part where an attendant guides you to the only touchscreen that’s actually working.  I bought a bag of popcorn and doused it in artificial movie-theater butter, the first I’d tasted since before the pandemic.  And then I went and sat down, in the center of a crowded theater.

(It’s been several days since then and I’m still alive, knock wood, so I’ve got that going for me.)

We all sat in silence for longer than I remember – those movie-theater advertisements that have bombarded audiences at the chain theaters since the start of the millennium were severely truncated, no doubt as a concession, however small, to the pandemic.  (After all, five fewer minutes in the theater watching commercials would surely make up for the risk of sitting through a two and a half hour move.) Then, per custom, would come the trailers, commercials of a different sort, for upcoming films.  However, before that, came something I’ve heard discussed for the past several months but had yet to actually see.  A commercial for the idea of movies itself.

It was one of those inspirational pdfs about how the need for movies, and the collective moviegoing experience.  Nicole Kidman appeared on the screen, eyes all a-quiver, artfully shot in a darkened theater of her own.  She delivered a supremely earnest monologue about how movies were dreams, and the thing we most desperately needed to hold on to, and we needed to share them with everybody, so gosh darn it it was so important for people to go to the movies right now.  It was a ham-fistedly manipulative attempt to get us to do the thing we were already sitting there doing – and the sort of earnest celebrity appeal that’s fallen so far out of favor of late (Gal Gadot’s Imagine video, meant to keep our spirits up during the pandemic, is still roundly being mocked.) I rolled my eyes, chuckled ruefully to myself, and looked around at my fellow movie-goers…

…who all applauded rapturously, tears presumably in their eyes.  (It was a darkened movie theatre, so I couldn’t be completely sure.)

Now, I’m both a jaded New Yorker and a cynical Gen-X’er, so perhaps my perspective is a bit skewed here.  But come on, people! These kinds of PSA’s – or, really, advertisements masquerading as PSAs – are the most obvious kind of emotional manipulation I can think of.  It would be bad enough in ordinary times – but there is still a pandemic going on, and this solemn bit of inspiration porn is trying to get us all to engage in risky behavior!  And they’re not even hiding that fact!  Are we so desperate to get out of the house, to do anything that feels remotely “normal,” that we’ll fall for such a cloying piece of treacle?

Well, now that I think of it, yeah, clearly we are.

And I got all teary-eyed when I tasted the fake butter topping, so I guess I’m not one to talk.

Schroedinger’s Normal

It was Tuesday, and the Naked Angels theatre company was once again set up at Theatre 80 for that week’s Tuesdays at Nine readings.  We were coming out of the theatre to claim our spaces at the adjoining bar – pandemic, Putin, and subway shooters be damned, we were going to quench our thirst.  As I made my way out, I saw a friend – one of our number who had just returned to the city.  She’d been travelling ever since covid-related restrictions had ended; prior to that, her attendance had been exclusively virtual, popping in on our zoom meetings throughout the pandemic.  Realizing at last we were together, again, in person, we hugged and cried and laughed and cried again.  There was that thunderous revelation that now, at last, this long crisis was over, and there, in that moment, things were back to normal.

Of course, the exact same thing happened the week before, and will happen again this week as well.  And we’re still nowhere close to normal.

Our cold reading series, for which I serve as Co-Creative Director, has been back in person since February.  After a month-long stint at a different venue, we’ve been back at Theatre 80 – where we were before the pandemic, where we’ve been for as long as I’ve been attending – since the start of March.  That’s two and a half months; this week will be our eleventh week back there.  And each week, there’s at least one person who I haven’t seen in two long years of pain and pestilence.  At least one person with whom I’ll have a tearful reunion.  At least one opportunity to feel that yes, we’re finally saved, before being jerked back to our ever-more-unhinged reality.  (There’s also at least one person who I’m meeting for the first time in person after a year or two of meeting with them virtually, just to make things even more surreal).

And of course, this all presupposes that we’re acknowledging that the pandemic exists, and that we’ve been affected by it – something people still have a hard time dealing with.  Broadway is removing its audience vaccination requirements even as cases are going up.  After spending two years evolving a performance vocabulary for remote platforms, we’re giddily anxious to turn our back on the new medium and pretend it never existed even as the need for it remains great.  Heck, even speaking for myself – and I try and be a thoughtful, considerate, and protective sort – there’s the absurdity of me diligently wearing my mask during the readings and then taking it off to drink.  I’m well within my rights to do so, I’m following protocols – but there I am, in the exact same room with the exact same people, and nothing changed except the glass in my hand.

We’re in an exceptionally strange time.  A liminal time.  The pandemic both is and is not over; it’s somehow getting better and worse simultaneously.  Each week is a new end to the misery which somehow doesn’t have an end; each performance is a new beginning for something that still hasn’t managed to start quite yet.

This is why I drink each Tuesday.

Paradox at a Witches’ Sabbath

It was Walpurgisnacht – a night spoken of in whispered tones throughout European folklore, feared as a night when devils walk the earth.  As the night wind howled outside, I was engaged in devilish work of my own.  In those last few hours of April 30, I was seated at my desk furiously typing away.  Forcing myself into a final burst of creative energy before the stroke of midnight came, I was able to type out those magical words, “End of Play.”  My eyes were bleary, and I was only half conscious of what I was actually writing, but I had succeeded in my task.  As I mentioned last week, April was the month in which I needed to put together three ten-minute plays for a variety of projects.  And with the final minutes of April ticking away, I frantically completed my self-appointed task – or at least, had a rough draft of the third piece in the triptych.

The next day – May Day, Beltane, whatever you want to call it – I looked over the draft from the night before.  It was the part of the writing process I enjoy the most – when you look over what you were certain would be incomprehensible garbage and decide it isn’t entirely bad after all.  It still needed work – but by the end of Sunday night, the work was completed, the revisions were finished, and I didn’t have to worry about writing anymore.

(Well, except for this blog post, but that goes without saying at this point.)

Now, next month, I’ll be going to a theatre conference.  I’ll have further details in a few weeks, Constant Reader, but for now the important thing to know is that this is a significant opportunity for me.  I’ll be presenting one of my recent-full lengths; I might be presenting one of the three short pieces I wrote last month.  (Which is why I needed to finish it last month, you see.) I’ll be networking with fellow playwrights, and potentially producers and directors as well.  There will be drinking, it should be fun.

Now obviously, since this is a fun and important opportunity, I’ll need to prepare for it.  And I’ve done the basics – my plane ticket and accommodations are booked, my paperwork is all taken care of.  But I’d like to do a little more research on my fellow conference-goers, to know what their pieces are about and have a better sense of how we can support each other.  I’d like to get business cards made up.  I’d like to get back into slightly better shape – it’s been a rough pandemic, after all.  I’d like to prepare for panels and readings and make sure I’ve made the most of this upcoming week in June.

And I haven’t been able to do any of that this past month, precisely because I’ve been writing those three short one-act plays.  There are, after all, only so many hours available in the day.

And I mention this, not because you need to know every detail of my upcoming itinerary, but because I think there’s an issue here that the theatre is going to need to address at some point.  Namely, that the fundamental act of writing makes it harder to be a writer.  It takes time away from the development and the workshopping and the networking and all the miscellaneous housekeeping and other busywork that we’ve made a part of the process.  If you can’t devote the necessary time to these additional steps, you can’t properly sell our work – but then you don’t have the time to write that work in the first place.

At any rate, these are the demonic thoughts that go through my head at midnight on Walpurgisnacht.

All Too Brief

If you’ve been following along with this blog on a regular basis, Constant Reader (I mean, it’s right there in your name), then you know I have a tendency to blather on.  For the past two years of this pandemic, there’s been hardly any theatrical activity to speak of, and yet I’ve still managed to churn out a few hundred words each week on such scintillating topics as doing revisions and finding a library book.  When writing the stuff I actually write (you know, the stuff I write other than this blog, which is what I’m writing now – it’s an old joke), I favor full length forms.  I take a few months to research, then wrestle my thoughts into largish two-act structures.  Even my “short” one-acts tend to come in around half an hour; for my full length plays, it’s all I can do to hold them to the customary two hours.

So the past two months have been something of an anomaly for me.  I’ve been writing pretty steadily; a number of companies on my radar have had submission deadlines for ten minute pieces, all coming up back to back to back, and I’ve actually had viable ideas for them.  So I’ve spent these past few weeks working on three ten-minute pieces.  Actually, two of them are less than ten minutes, or at least they should be – the opportunities in question had formatting guidelines which writers had to meet, so one clocks in at eight pages, the other at seven.  It’s been a two-month intensive course of independent study in this ever-popular form, which most of my playwright friends work in with regularity.  I have friends with dozens, possibly even hundreds, of these dramatic miniatures in their portfolio.

And to them, I ask, respectfully – what the heck is wrong with you?  How on earth can you stand it?!

The maxim goes that any story cam be told in ten minutes.  The ruthless effort needed to condense the narrative, to eliminate everything extraneous, will naturally result in the most economical and compelling story possible.  And that’s true, if all you’re concerned about is story.  But it begs the question – what exactly do you consider extraneous?  Digressions that elaborate on the worldviews of the various characters?  Political and social context for their actions?  Poetic language and flights of fancy?  If you’re like me, these are the sorts of things that make you want to write in the first place, and the ten minute form – which, again, is an extraordinarily popular form in the current playwriting market – offers you precious little space for any of them.

And it’s only getting worse.  Over at New Play Exchange, I find that the most popular format these days – or at least the one that gets folks to actually read you – is the one-minute play.  One page, maybe two.  At that length, you don’t even have a chance to tell a story – you’re essentially stating a premise, and that’s it.  And the thing of it is, premises and ideas aren’t remarkable in and of themselves.  They’re rather common, dull things.  A good play is going to have several premises bouncing off of each other; it’s how they’re developed, how they interact, that generates the real meat of the work, the stuff that’s truly worthwhile.  And in a world that’s constantly catering to shortened attention spans, and the desire of producers to put up evenings of a dozen or so writers to guarantee an audience of all their friends and well-wishers, that’s precisely what we’re missing out on.

I’d say more, but I’ve already written six hundred words on this subject, and that’s probably more than anybody has any patience for.  . 

This Is Not What We Mean By Community Engagement

So, as you probably noticed, my hometown was in the news this past week for heartbreaking reasons; a lone gunman committed a terrorist act last Tuesday, setting off smoke grenades and opening fire with a semiautomatic handgun inside a subway car at the 36th Street station in Brooklyn.  By some miracle, nobody was killed, but ten people were shot, seventeen more were injured, and the gunman was at large in the city for over a day afterwards.  Whatever hard-won peace we’d gotten after coming through the pandemic (which still isn’t over yet c’mon everybody) was violated, as we were plunged into fear and chaos once again.

Thing of it is, though, New York is a very big city.  (I have a gift for understatement, I know.) And it’s a resilient city.  Even in the face of our worst catastrophes, life goes on.  And depending on where in the city you happen to be, and what you might be doing, something momentous could be happening a few blocks away and it wouldn’t necessarily affect you.  You might not even notice.

Not this time.

I live off the D line, one of the three subway lines that go through the station where the attack occurred.  I was just arriving at my own station, further south in Brooklyn, when train service along that line was shut down in response.  It would still be a while before any of us learned precisely what had happened, and realized the enormity of the situation, so at that moment it was simply a transit problem to solve.  In order to solve it, I had to walk a few blocks to catch a bus to Coney Island, so I could catch the Q train there (that line experienced delays as a result of all this, but was otherwise unaffected), and take that all the way to my day job on the Upper East Side.  It was an odyssey, to be sure, but hardly anything to complain about under the circumstances, and I’ve certainly endured worse.  So it just took me an extra hour or so to get into Manhattan to start my day – which, after my day job, involved me heading to Theatre 80, to serve as co-host for that evening’s Tuesdays at Nine reading.

And Theatre 80 sits on the corner of First Avenue and Saint Mark’s place, in the Lower East Side – which is where the gunman was arrested, the following afternoon.

Just a few yards away.

The Tuesday night readings – the only live performance outlet I’ve had during this whole pandemic, my primary way of socializing with my peers – have been one of my main lifelines throughout the past few years.  Most of our members feel the same way, I think.  And it was a particularly cathartic night – we’d all been processing the day’s events, we all needed to gather together and unwind in the company of each other’s words.  (Which included mine that evening – we wound up presenting some of my own pages.)  We stayed into the wee hours, carousing after the reading, in defiance of the chaos around us.

And that chaos wound up coming within steps of where we’d been, only a few hours afterward. I’m fine.  We’re all doing fine – or at least as well as can be expected, under the circumstances.  But those circumstances keep coming closer and closer to home.  In my opening remarks on Tuesdays, I always exhort writers to engage with the world around them.  I just wish the world wasn’t trying so damn hard to engage with us.

Weekend Stroll

I should be riding pretty high, Constant Reader.  Granted, we’re still in a pandemic, there’s war in Europe, gas prices are high, and there’s mobs of howling fascists everywhere – but other than that I’m doing pretty good.  By which I mean that I successfully completed a short one-act in time to submit it to the prominent opportunity I was keen to submit for, one for which I’d never submitted anything until now.  I also spent much of the past week making travel arrangements for something I’m doing later in Jun e, involving another of my scripts – I’ll have more information about that in coming weeks, once I’m absolutely certain that none of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are galloping along to disrupt my plans.  So, with the proviso that the world could any time, I had a good week.

So naturally I went and ruined it for myself on Saturday.  Or not.  It’s debatable.

You see, I have another submission deadline coming up at the end of the month for another ten-minute one-act, for which I’m now starting the research.  And for this research, it turns out I need to track down an out-of-print book on the occult, which the New York library system happens not to carry.  (It is highly unlikely that anybody who knows me is at all surprised by that sentence.) Not to worry, I thought – I had the day free Saturday, and New York has the miles and miles of stacks to be found in the Strand bookstore.  Surely, a jaunt into Manhattan (pandemic notwithstanding) would do me good, and anything I might want could be found in the Strand’s stacks.

Except for this book, apparently. 

No matter – there’s an occult knick-knack store down the street from the Strand.  A short walk over there, and – I was still out of luck.  And heading back home, I saw that I could switch trains and get off at an earlier stop to check out a similar store in Brooklyn – which also didn’t have what I needed.  So now, having struck out three times and being completely off of my usual route, I walked all way down Coney Island Avenue to Brighton Beach, to wander along the Boardwalk until I could catch the D train there, walking for hours to no effect, the sunlight waning, the day wasted.

Except it wasn’t wasted, of course.

Some days – especially after being trapped indoors for months on end – you need to walk your city.  You need to explore.  You need to taste a vegan cookie from the farmer’s market.  You need to see what the street vendors are selling now.  You need to learn the shops and restaurants and weird cul-de-sacs on streets you haven’t walked down before.  You need to see the Coney Island Beach before the tourists have returned and remind yourself it’s still there.  And if this all sounds like p4rocrastination, well at least it’s procrastination that clears the head and gets in your daily cardio.

Plus it turns out I can order this book online.  I’ll probably do that tomorrow.

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