Return Visit

This past week, for the first time in fifteen months, I set foot inside a theater.

I wasn’t there to see a show; New York may be recovering from the pandemic but we’re not quite there yet.  No, this was simply a visit, part of one of my first real nights out since the Quarantimes began.  I was with a number of the actors from my Tuesday night cold reading series, enjoying some tasty beverages in the sidewalk stalls that have been set up outside the Lower East Side bar that adjoins the theater where we meet, or at least where we met back when we did things in person rather than zoom.  (Expect these sidewalk stalls to be a permanent addition to the New York landscape, by the way; after the capital investment these businesses had to lay out in order to have some sort of income these past few months through outdoor seating, they’re lobbying the city to change the zoning laws so they can remain in place.  But I digress.) As the evening wore on, the owners of the space came out to us, chatted, and invited us to come and see our old stomping grounds.  And so, round about midnight, and suitably masked up, we went in to view the theatrical space we’d vacated a little over a year ago, waiting for us all this time.

Except, it hasn’t exactly been waiting.

We wound our way through stacked chairs and cleaning products to reach the theater – so far from some lost crypt, a silent monument to the theatrical lives we used to lead, the space was an active construction site.  A common, almost mundane sight to see – just work going on in a theater, as if everything was normal.

Inside the theater itself, however, things were far from normal.  The space in question had held about a hundred and fifty seats, in eight banked rows built on stacked platforms.  Apart from the first and last rows, the seats had all been removed.  The reason for this was to ultimately put in cabaret-style tables where the missing seats had been.  The objective for this was two-fold.  One was to make it possible for the venue to host a wider range of events, like cabaret.  The other was to make it possible to hold events and adhere to social distancing rules – even as they’re beginning to be relaxed in New York, there’s unfortunately no guarantee that the trend will continue.

I mention all of this because my friends, like most of the theatre folks I know, were champing at the bit for things to get back to exactly the way they were before the ordeal of this pandemic began.  And yet here we were, staring at concrete evidence that such a thing isn’t possible.  It’s not because things aren’t getting better – slowly but surely, they are.  But we’ve all had to adapt in a hundred different ways since we started this long journey towards “better,” and those adaptations aren’t going away.  In this particular case, we’ll have to adapt to new capacity in the space and a new audience dynamic from the reconfigured space.  In other cases, we’ll have to adapt to the new remote systems we’ve put in place, the new theatrical vocabulary we’ve evolved for remote theater, and the new stories that only exist because of the pandemic that we’re going to want to tell.

We’re moving forward, to be sure.  But there is no going back.

Not So Fast

The day finally came, Constant Reader.  After fifteen months of the Quarantimes, trying to conduct my entire life from the laptop on my desk in my Brooklyn apartment, I finally got the call to report back in person to my day job.  I’ve made it into Manhattan during this period of exile before, of course – twice before, to be precise, in my two sojourns to the Javits Center to receive my vaccination.  (House Pfizer, baby.)  But this was the first time since this whole ordeal started that I had a chance to experience what had once been a routine day for me.  And that included not only my day at work, but my typical morning errands before reporting to work.

I do my banking with Actors Federal Credit Union; their local branch office is in the Actors Equity building in Times Square.  This means that for the past fifteen months, I’ve been unable to do any in-person banking.  (I spent the past two months with exactly three one dollar bills in my pocket.  It’s been fun.)  It also means that, for the first time in fifteen months, I was able to step foot in the Equity building, one of the main hubs for people in my profession and in my city.  I was excited!  We’ve all heard the stories of New York theater being back, of Broadway shows announcing their grand re-opening dates.  Surely it would be a blast to be back in the center of all that activity again, to see the audition studios and waiting rooms and offices, to soak in the energy of the theater world coming back to life.

Well, not exactly.

The credit union offices are open again, it’s true.  You can’t just drop by anymore – you need to call and make an advance appointment, which I’d done two days prior.  But aside from some more plexiglass and hand sanitizer than was previously there, and more people manning the phones in their cubicles then providing teller service, it’s recognizably the credit union office.  That is indeed up and running again.

But the office just behind the credit union office?  The member services office, where those of us who don’t trust the mail go to pay our union dues?  Where temporary replacement union cards are issued?  Completely shuttered, with no signs of activity.

The VITA offices on the same floor, which provide volunteer tax prep?  The chamber adjoining it for general membership meetings?  The doors to that whole area locked, with no signs of activity.

The cafeteria on the fourth floor, in that area we (and we alone in the history of American architecture, it seems) refer to as the “sky lobby?”  Sealed off by metal shutters, with no signs of activity.

The waiting area on that same floor, where early risers wait for the rest of the building to open up and non-union performers spend their days waiting for the remote chance to be seen in an open call audition?  Sealed off by metal shutters, with no signs of activity.

And on the door to the sixteenth floor studios, where those auditions happen?  A sign, a sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper with words that were printed out in what now seems the distant past, stating that the Equity offices were closed for the foreseeable future, and that while the pandemic continued all Equity business would be continued remotely.

There is, course, still Equity business to conduct.  (Quite a lot, actually, but that’s a whole other post.) There’s contracts to draw up for all these returning shows, there’s dues payments to process, there’s the basic tasks and drudgery involved in running an office.  That office is still there, waiting, silent, inert, sleeping in the cold and the dark and the grey.

It’s worth remembering, as we make fanfare about each Broadway show posting its re-opening night, that those shows represent only a small fraction of the theatrical activity in this city, let alone this country.  The rest of us are still out here, like that shuttered office, waiting.

At least we get to do our banking again, though.

Twitter is a Special Place

I should know better; Twitter has become a means of coarsening dialogue and spreading disinformation and propaganda, and is directly responsible for the political upheavals and general insanity for the past few years.  So I really should stay away from the site, and ignore everything I see there.  But that isn’t possible; if nothing else I’d need to log on once a week to post the link to this very blog you’re reading now.  Plenty of theater practitioners and theater companies I respect post regular updates there; in order to keep track of them, I need to force myself to wade through the rest of twitter.

Recently, a friend of mine, connected to the theater world, voiced a concern that many of us have been feeling – that as much as we want to get back to live theater after close to a year and a half of the Quarantimes, he had some misgivings about how that return was shaping up.  Whether we wish to admit it or not, I think a lot of us are having these sorts of misgivings as we hear plans for theater to come back as if the seismic changes of the past several months never happened.  We worry that producers are only paying lip service to the calls for diversity and inclusion so passionately raised last summer; we worry that ambitious new works are being ignored in favor of stubbornly forging ahead with revival plans made in a very different climate.  In the case of my friend’s remark, the worry is that all of the innovations we’ve been forced to make in creating remote theater – which have had the happy side effect of making theater available to people who otherwise couldn’t afford the ticket price, or whose schedule or mobility issues made attending impossible – would be cast aside in the rush to reopen, without any thought or provision for those who’d actually benefited from these innovations.

As is wont to happen on Twitter, my friend’s remarks prompted all manner of misunderstandings, recriminations, and accusations.  The one that’s stuck with me is the person who exclaimed that she didn’t want these remote accomadations to continue because she thought that the physical act of going to the theater should remain “special.”  That if it was something you could just log into while reclining on your couch, the essential magic of a live performance would be tarnished.  Left unspoken was the implication that any barriers to economic, be they physical or economic, were a small price to pay for keeping that magic in place, for keeping it all special.

My friend, being a better man than I, declined to engage further.  However, I’ve got a weekly blog post to write and there’s not much by way of actual productions to discuss, so let me state my controversial position here:

Theatre should NOT be special.

I’m not saying that theatre isn’t or shouldn’t be wonderful, that its transformative properties and ability to engage with difficult subjects don’t border on the magical.  I’m not being cynical, my capacity to experience that magic dimmed by years of working in the theater, knowing how the tricks are performed, and being disillusioned by them.  No, what I’m saying is that making theater a rare, occasional thing – an expensive and rarified treat – makes the quality of what’s being performed worse.

The Greek dramas were performed at yearly festivals, to which all of Athens would come.  Commedia dell’Arte was performed by travelling troupes to the general public.  The Globe theater, where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, was frequented by London apprentices taking a break from work, with vendors and prostitutes working the crowd.  The mid-20th century plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were written for a middle-class audience who were able to make Broadway a regular habit, and expected to see their concerns reflected on the stage.  Every period of drama which has proven to be influential and artistically vital, to have stood the proverbial test of time, has corresponded to political and economic circumstances where the general public had the wherewithal to actually see that drama.  It spoke to their lives because it was a regular part of their lives.

The opposite?  Grand and opulent spectacles performed rarely, and catering exclusively to the wealthy?  They’re not a sign of a thriving theatrical culture.  They’re typically a sign that that culture is in decline, their decadence and divisions unable to be sustained.

So no, I don’t blame anybody who’s reluctant to risk a still-raging pandemic to see an overproduced jukebox musical.  If I wanted to witness a sign that my culture was in decline, I’d spend my day on Twitter.

Lost Weekend(s)

I don’t want to jinx anything.

Since the start of the Quarantimes last March, the Tuesdays at Nine cold reading series for which I serve as co-Creative Director and co-host has been operating virtually, on Zoom.  We are, of course, one of the many theatrical programs forced to exist in this strange, artificial way; we’ve conducted our entire season through remote video conferencing.  Tomorrow, May 25, will mark the final reading of the season – and since we’re taking an actual summer break this time, and since things are opening up all over the city and all signs indicate that theatrical venues will be shortly following suit, this will be (most likely) be the last time we hold an online cold reading.

Which means this is the last time I’ve had to prep for one of these online cold readings.

Ordinarily, when we’re in person, the series is a cold reading series, and therefore we don’t cast anything in advance.  We open our doors at 8:30, and then we cast the pieces with the actors in attendance that evening, handing them their scripts on the spot.  That’s not logistically possible over zoom, so we’ve had to do more advance work for each reading than would normally be the case.  Now, pdfs of the scripts are emailed to confirmed participants the night before, along with the zoom link and instructions.  Each week’s writers are reached out to and confirmed the Friday before each Tuesday’s reading; once we know our casting needs, we look at our spreadsheet of literally hundreds of potential participants, and reach out to them over the weekend, emailing and texting until all of the roles are refilled.  A few weeks of vacation aside here and there, that’s what we’ve been doing each weekend of the Quarantimes.

The thing of it is, as much as it feels like this pandemic has been one undifferentiated blob of time (which you can refer to as something ominous but catchy, like the Quarantimes), as far as casting virtual theater goes there have been two very distinct phases.  In the beginning, when everything was shut down and we were all isolated and confused, we were all desperate for any opportunity to see our friends, to perform in any capacity, to do anything but stay locked in our apartments alone with our fears and anxieties.  It was a nightmarish situation – and one in which it was really easy to get a cast together with a few emails.

But things changed over time.  Some of those changes were good, as film and television production began to ramp up again with safety protocols in place.  Some of those changes were far from good; actors with day jobs in food service, for instance, found that when they were called back to work, aside from the potential dangers they were facing, they were in a situation where understaffing and covid protocols made it impossible to adjust their work schedules.  It was one more element of difficulty in a climate that doesn’t value labor, putting people in extreme stress as they hang on to jobs that don’t pay anywhere close to what they should.

So I feel a little churlish in adding my own complaint, but nevertheless it made casting way more difficult.  I had to reach out to significantly more actors to secure what I needed, and it took significantly longer for these stressed-out, overtaxed souls to respond.

As a result, my weekends for the past several months have all been one continuous blur of me sitting by my laptop, waiting for email responses.  Staring at screens and waiting, as the world has fallen down (and possibly started picking itself up?) around me.  A haze of permanent anxiety, from both current events and deadlines, that never seemed to end.

Hopefully it’s ending now?

I do love my job, and serving my theatrical community – but like all of us who are getting more than a bit stir crazy right about now, I’m looking forward to a summer vacation, whatever form that might take.

Formatting Question

Nature is healing, Constant Reader, or at least submission opportunities are starting to appear after over a year of theatrical inactivity.  My plan for this past weekend – one of the few stretches of free time I’ve had in a while, or will have coming up – was to hit the various websites, see what deadlines are coming up, and email some scripts for consideration.  But this plan hit a snag – nothing catastrophic in the grand, pandemic-ridden gasoline-hoarding scheme of things, but something we need to talk about nonetheless.

Like a lot of writers, I work in Final Draft.  It’s certainly not the only option – there’s a lot of cheaper programs on the market nowadays that accomplish a lot of the same things – but my common consensus it’s an industry standard.  My drafts are therefore formatted in their templates – specifically the New Dramatist format, which, again, is an industry standard.  (Right-formatted stage directions, centered character names appearing above the dialogue – you’d know it if you saw it.) I won’t mention the name of the theater, but the opportunity I was most interested in pursuing required all submissions to be formatted in what they referred to as their standard format.  One with character names at the left, just before the dialogue began on that line, and other specifications for stage directions.

This is not the format my script was written in.  This format is not offered by Final Draft at all.

So, if I want to submit to this company, I’m going to have to re-type the entire script into this format.

And this is but one example, focusing on how the text is formatted.  I haven’t even touched on how some companies require blind submissions, with no contact information, while other companies require detailed contact information on the title page.  Or how some companies require a cast list be included on that title page, while some require it as a separate attachment, and some demand a synopsis or mission statement or astrological horoscope.  All of which wind up requiring a completely separate draft of the script be prepared, at length, each time you’d like it to be considered for something.

Here’s the thing – I’m one of the people doing that considering.  The one regular theatrical position I’ve held through this entire pandemic has been Co-Creative Director for the Tuesdays at Nine reading series here in New York.  I read script submissions on a regular basis, and I can tell you, from personal experience, that none of the above is necessary.  Useful, certainly, but all I actually need is to be able to read the script, and to be able to get in touch with you if I like it.  As far as readability is concerned, a 12 point font and reasonable margins are the essential things – both so I don’t have to decipher a massive blob of text, and so I can gauge how long the piece would run in performance.

That’s it.  Anything else isn’t just unnecessary, it’s gatekeeping.  Because it presupposes that the writer either has enormous amounts of free time at their disposal, or has the money to invest in a never-ending cascade of software hacks, or has somebody – some agent’s beleaguered assistant – to whom these tasks can be delegated.  The percentage of writers for whom any of this is the case is miniscule at best, and has nothing to do with ability.

And if you’re actively looking for new writers – as everybody loudly proclaims that they’re doing – does it make any kind of sense to restrict the submission pool like that?

Old Habits

I finished up my most recent writing project last weekend, Constant Reader.  (At least as far as the rough draft – the re-writing, as we all know, never stops.) A number of my usual “social” commitments were cancelled last Sunday, so I had the entire day in which to bang out the last pages.  My self-imposed deadline for the piece isn’t until later in the month, so for once I’ve managed to be ahead of schedule.  As a result, I felt a particular sense of satisfaction when typing out “End of Play” this time around.  Hopefully the draft is good, but my time management skills were on point.

I lament to say that it was not always like this.

We’ve all been there, I think.  If you care about what you’re writing, then you’re going to worry about whether or not you’re writing it well – and as I’ve mentioned before, procrastination typically stems from a fear that you’re not able to complete a project as well as you want to, making you question the value of trying in the first place.  And when we’re first honing our writing muscles, in high school and in college, there’s plenty of things to distract us while we’re doing all that questioning.  Many’s the time in college when I’d come back to my room, after a day of classes, an afternoon of rehearsals for one show, and an evening of rehearsals for a separate show, to then sit at my word processor for four hours straight, staying up until three in the morning to finish the paper I’d only just remembered was due the next day.  Once, at the end of my senior year, I wrote about ninety pages of a fiction writing assignment in the span of about forty-eight hours, at the end of the term.  It may be an achievement, but it’s not an achievement I’m particularly proud of.

I think I’ve gotten better.  I certainly hope so.

But the thing of it is, the part of my brain that handles the writing doesn’t seem to realize that the other part of my brain, the one that handles time management, has gotten its shit together.  In terms of when I’m actually creative, when I’m able to sit at the keyboard and get those fingers flying, my internal clock is still set the way it was back in those long-ago student days.

Let’s go back to that recent productive Sunday.  I had the whole day free; I could have written from sundown to sunup, treated it as a nine-to-five job (not that those really exist during the Quarantimes, but you get the point).  But my brain didn’t want to do a damn thing when I woke up; those first beams of morning sunlight hurt, dammit, and it took me a good while to even get my breakfast together.  Late morning and early afternoon were spent with emails, social media, and YouTube rabbit holes.  I opened up my Final Draft document at around two, but spent a good chunk of time just staring at the screen reminding myself what words were and how I was supposed to use them.  It wasn’t until around four o’clock that I started making any progress; if this were still winter, the sun would already be going down.  And it wasn’t until after I’d my dinner, a little after six pm, that my juices really started flowing.  And once that happened, I kept on going and going, a burst of creative energy that lasted me until typing out that blessed phrase “End of Play,” just before midnight.

Four pm to midnight.  That’s when my brain wants to write.  It’s too busy with basic life functions to want to do anything else in the morning or afternoon, and it starts to lose its focus and descend into a groggy miasma (or turn into a pumpkin, if you’re a Disney fan) once midnight is past.

And of course, this could simply be my natural circadian rhythm.  But I have to wonder if it’s the permanent after-effects of my heavily-overscheduled academic days.  If this is how I’ve trained my mind to work, without realizing I was doing so.  One of the many lessons from a person’s school days that they never realize they were learning, until they stop and realize just how long that lesson has been a part of their life.

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