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End of an Era

Ever since the pandemic began, my theatrical activity, like that of most folks in the arts, has been confined to zoom.  (Except for the one-day digital film shoot I did a little while ago, but I already wrote a post about that.) Private readings, public readings, academic readings, all done from the confines of my Brooklyn apartment, for an audience of pixels in little boxes on my laptop screen.  Said audience, of course, seeing me as nothing but a mass of pixels in a little box on their own little screens, all of us alone together.  For a large portion of these events, this audience has been my fellow members of the Naked Angels theater community, and the performances have been the weekly Tuesdays at Nine cold reading series for which I serve as co-Creative Director.  For the past twenty two months, with the exception of a holiday get-together in December, our ongoing readings have taken place over zoom.

Well, this Tuesday’s meeting will mark the last of these regular zoom readings.  We’ll still have them on occasion, but beginning February 1st, we will be live and in person at our new venue (the Center at West Park – if you’re in New York, feel free to come check us out).   This strange interregnum, these months of our dependence on zoom, is at an end.  And this seems to be the case for many of the smaller theater organizations – as the omicron wave (knock on all kinds of wood) begins to recede, long-term plans for in-person programming are resuming.  It feels like the entire industry is giddy at the prospect of leaving digital theater behind as a distant memory.

Which I get; I’m as anxious for this ordeal to be over as anybody.  I feel my theatrical muscles atrophying by not being up on stage.  I miss the feedback of an actual audience.  My cat is getting really annoyed at having her routine disrupted every Tuesday night.  I will breathe a sigh of relief when remote theater is no longer necessary, as will most of us.

But still – we invented a brand new performance medium.  Because make no mistake, that’s what zoom performance is.  It’s a strange hybrid; calling it zoom theater is a misnomer, since it has little to do with theater at all.  It borrows more heavily from television’s smale-sized closeups and radio’s theater of the mind, with a dash of vaudeville’s anything-goes attitude thrown in.  But there’s a unique connection with the audience in this new medium – instead of all being in the theater together, we are all of us, performer and spectator, in the same bizarre predicament of using this jury-rigged business software to share our stories.  And in the past two years, many of us have written stories specifically for this fledgling medium.

A medium which so many of us are gleefully ready to destroy.

Are these new stories good?  Who knows?  (Full disclosure: I’ve written three such scripts myself – Trivial, Ascension Monday, and For the Benefit of Jimmy Mangiaroli – which you can check out at my New Play Exchange profile if you want to judge my contributions to this medium.) In all likelihood, the bulk of them are strange, awkward things that will quickly be forgotten.  But that’s true of any new performance medium.  You don’t see a lot of commercial movie houses booking screenings of the Edison shorts, or Broadway revivals of Gammer Gurton’s Needle.

I feel that we’re at the embryonic stage of something that, decades from now (assuming humanity survives that wrong, ha ha, we’re doomed), we’ll take for granted.  I have no idea what that might ultimately be, but my natural inclination is to be excited to find out.  Which is why I find it so bewildering that so many want to snuff out this strange new thing before it has any chance to develop.

I get that we want to forget that this nightmare ever happened – but forgetting our misfortunes never works.  We came together and improvised a new way of storytelling into being, developing odd new skills along the way.  I think that’s worth remembering, and worth celebrating.  Because I have the strangest feeling we’re going to need those skills in the future.

Hyphenate’s Creed

Not much new to report this week, Constant Reader.  There rarely is in January, even in the best of times, and we are clearly not living in the best of times.  With much of New York’s independent theater scene still dark, without many productions on the horizon to audition for, and with long-range playwriting submission opportunities still unclear, I am at least blessedly free from distractions.  I’m still working on a rough draft for a February submission; what I thought was a February 1st deadline turns out to be February 28 instead, so I have a whole additional month in which to work on the script.  In which to pound my head on my desk in frustration.  In which to slave away over a few sentences a night, only to delete my work the next work.  In which to wallow in doubt and wonder if the product of all this work is any good at all.

In talking with my fellow playwrights, we’re all feeling the same frustrations.  We wrestle with our doubts even in the best of times, and as I mentioned above, these are not the best of times.  We worry if our work measures up both to our own standards – which at least we know and can define for ourselves – and those of the anonymous gatekeepers we’re constantly trying to second-guess.  Thanks to the pandemic, and the loss of theatrical productions it’s caused, we’re more aware of those hurdles than ever, and more anxious than ever to be rid of those hurdles somehow.  Time and again, in our conversations, I keep hearing my fellow playwrights express the same utopian thought – of a world, of a theater company, where gatekeeping didn’t happen at all.  Where theaters took a chance on a writer because they knew what that writer was capable, and gave them all the resources they needed, regardless of their level of fame, regardless of box office vagaries.  To use the wishful phrase I hear time and time again, a place “where we have the freedom to suck.”

And I understand this – we need laboratory spaces, we need to write without fear of judgment, we need to experiment.  And often those experiments will fail.  So the writer in me hears this and exclaims, “right on!  Preach it!”

But the actor in me listens to this and goes, “what the hell?”

Because there’s few things worse for an actor than being in a play they don’t believe in, being in a show that’s not “working,” putting themselves out on the line in the service of a script that doesn’t resonate.  You’re looking to say something as a performer, to use the playwright’s words as a springboard for your own soul to take flight, and if the playwright hasn’t built that springboard for you, you won’t get off the ground.  At best, you’ll flail about in an entertaining fashion.

Is this a fair thing for a writer to take into account?  I absolutely think it is, because theater is a collaborative art form.  Everything you write is intended for other people to say, hopefully eight times a week. And for them to say it to throngs of other people, come to hear a story that might illuminate their lives and the world around them.  There’s definitely moments in your life when you need to scribble out “I don’t know what the heck to say but I’m still important, darn it.”  We’ve all been there.  But our collaborators aren’t there to give us that validation.

They’re there to do their jobs, not ours.

(Feel free to use that sentence as a guide for delineating “there,” “they’re,” and “their,” by the way.)

I don’t mean to sound as harsh as this might come across; again, we’re not living in the best of things, and we could all use a little encouragement.  But we’ve been cooped up in our apartments by ourselves for a long while now, and writers are solitary creatures anyway.  It takes more of a leap of faith than ever to believe that collaborators and an audience are out there, somewhere.  But they are, and believe it or not, they need us.  And they need us at our best.

We won’t reach our best without failing along the way, of course.  But to the extent that it’s possible, out of respect for those collaborators, we need to try and fail on our own time, not theirs.  Our freedom to suck shouldn’t come at the expense of their freedom to soar.

Hypothetically Speaking

By way of a shameless plug; like many playwrights, I have unpublished work available to read on the New Play Exchange, a website devoted to the promotion of new work by emerging writers.  My profile is here, if you’re interested (note that there’s a reasonable yearly subscription fee if you’re not already a member.) 

It’s a place where you can find pdf copies of scripts that might hypothetically be staged one day, perhaps by you if you’re a producer or artistic director;  you are able – and indeed encouraged – to leave recommendations on pieces which you’ve read (and hopefully enjoyed).  I don’t have everything I’ve written up here – my general rule of thumb is to only post works that have had a production or developmental reading somewhere – but there’s a decent selection of my scripts looking for a nice production home.  Or at least, a friendly pair of eyes to read them.

In the past few weeks, a number of my playwright friends have found my one-act Gun Safe, and have been kind enough to post recommendations about it.  Gun Safe, as you might suspect from the title, is a disturbing little tale about our nation’s gun culture, set during a parent-teacher conference in a school district which has voted to arm its teachers.  (Of course, school shootings aren’t quite as much of a concern when the schools are closed for a pandemic – you’re doing great there, America – but then again we seem desperate to keep the schools open anyway, so I guess the script’s still relevant.  But I digress.) The titular gun safe is in the classroom, with the loaded weapon inside.  Complications ensue.  The folks who have reviewed the piece – favorably, I feel I should point out, since this is a shameless plug – have referred to it as tense and disturbing.  That’s what I was going for when I wrote it, so while I hope my friends weren’t too distressed I am glad they responded the way they did.

I am a bit puzzled, however.  Because this piece, as with everything I currently have up on NPX, has been presented before.  It was read in three ten minute installments a few years ago at Tuesdays at Nine, the weekly cold reading series I participated in (I’ve since come to be named co-Creative Director, so I guess they liked the piece).  And those audiences howled with laughter.

Now, without getting into spoilers, there is a certain amount of dark humor built into the piece.  It’s built on a series of reversals as to who has possession of the weapon, how the power dynamics shift as a result, and so on, and it’s easy for the resulting tension wind up releasing itself in nervous laughter.  But those live audiences just kept on laughing, well past the point where the piece becomes really, really dark.  (No spoilers here – go ahead and click on that link if you’re curious what I’m talking about).

It has me wondering: why such a distinct difference in responses – both favorable, but very, very different – between those live audiences and my newest readers?

Is it because of the difference in expectations between reading and live performance?  A reader sitting down with a script is likely to be more analytical and contemplative, while a live audience is out for the evening, looking to have a good time.  But they’re still listening to the piece, after all, and at a certain point a writer’s more serious points should become clear, no?

Has time caused a shift in perspective, as we’ve come to realize just how bad things are and are less inclined to see the humor in our nation’s tragic circumstances?  Perhaps, but the bad things we’re dealing with now are bad things we’ve been dealing with for many years at this point.  Surely most of the audience would have noticed by now?

Perhaps this question can only be answered by putting Gun Safe, or any other piece, up on its feet again, and seeing how it plays in front of a brand new audience.  But it’s clearly going to be a while longer before anything like that can happen.

So in the meantime, I’ll keep posting new work to NPX, and facilitating zoom workshops, and doing all the other things we’re doing to try and determine how theater might hypothetically work in front of a live audience again.

The First Twelve Pages

Happy New Year, Constant Reader!

As mentioned last week, there’s a submission opportunity I’ve been eyeing which has a deadline of February 1st.  I’ve been doing my customary research and prep over the last few weeks, but if I want to submit a draft I’ll need to actually, y’know, write the draft.  As a result, my 2022 New Year’s Resolution has been an atypically pragmatic one – write a play (a long-ish one-act play, but still) in the month of January.

As with any proper New Year’s resolution, I started promptly on the first of the month.  Best time to start something new, right?

In some ways, New Year’s Day was the perfect time to start the project.  I had the day off, with no other obligations; it was raining here in New York, so I had no incentive to distract myself by going outside.  A day for nothing but writing.  And I was, I suppose, successful – by the time I was done I had twelve pages drafted.  Essentially, the whole of the first scene.  If I were able to maintain that pace indefinitely (which, spoiler alert, I can’t), I’d be finished with the draft in a week and a half.  So far, so good.

And yet…

For a good chunk of the day, I wasn’t doing much writing at all.  There were the usual household chores to distract me, of course, and the online researching and online searching that comes up once the typing has begun.  There were the typical moments of conscious procrastination.  But mostly, there were long stretches throughout the day of pure, unadulterated stupor.  Of me knowing that I had a deadline (self-imposed though it might be), of knowing exactly what story I wanted to tell and why, but being completely unable to do anything about it for long stretches at a time.

Now, of course, you have to take those moments of not doing anything; it isn’t possible to write at a furious clip indefinitely.  Your brain has to recharge from time to time. And when it comes to the need for the brain to recharge, especially in relation to time, there’s a hard truth for people starting a New Year’s project to face.  New Year’s Day is perhaps the absolute worst day to start something new.

Not because of the day itself, but because of the week before it.  The holly jolly week and a half before it, actually.

For myself, I had a holiday reading series to run on December 21st (the solstice!), then a day after that to wrap up as much as I could at work, then a full day of driving after that down to my mother’s house for Christmas.  Then five days of presents and holiday sweets and family business and all the usual sorts of Yuletide mayhem, and then another day of driving back home, and then a day of confused errands, and then the festivities (such as they were) of New Year’s Eve.  A disorienting whirl, unmoored from normal routine, surreal even in times when you’re not trying to avoid the killer virus that’s been tearing through the country for two years.

It’s hard to commit to that big New Year’s project – to do much of anything ­– when every atom in your body is screaming at you to stop, to take a day to breathe, to recharge, to sleep after everything it’s been through during December. Well, I managed to scrape together enough moments of lucidity on the first to get the project started.  I doubt I’ll have enough such moments over the next week – as we all get back to work and our regular routines, while still attempting to avoid omicron – to maintain that sort of a pace.  But then again, there’s always the Martin Luther King weekend!

Another Year-End Review

Well, we did it, Constant Reader – we made it to the end.  2021 comes to a merciful end this week, and with it, the second year of this pandemic.  Yes, we’ve all now spent multiple years of our lives trying to survive Covid-19, so the usual soul-searching and second-guessing we all do at the end of December has a new component for us to deal with.  A new question for the end-of-year checklist: have I gotten better or worse at surviving a plague?

I would have hoped the answer for me would be “yes.”  I’ve started to get the hang of the whole zoom theater thing.  I managed to have one of my pieces produced at a real live theater this year (just for a single night, during a lull in the whole raging pandemic thing, but still it counts).  More and more of my life has come back “online,” as it were.  I’ve been able to see my friends again, and even collaborate on new projects.

And yet – I haven’t exactly been able to write those new projects.  For the calendar year 2021, I’ve managed to write two 20-30 minute one acts, one intended for live theater and one intended for zoom.  And that’s it.  About fifty pages total.  Which isn’t nothing, but isn’t exactly the proverbial “Lear in quarantine” we keep holding up as an example of how we should be productively using our time in quarantine.

What chagrins me is that I’d written significantly more last year, when we were all still in shock and denial at what was going on and scrambling to find ways to stay focused and productive.  I wrote two short one acts then as well – again, one for zoom and one for in-person performance – but also completed a one-act and wrote another one-act from scratch.  And I don’t seem to be alone – many of my writer friends have told me similar things, that it’s this second year of the pandemic that’s sapped their energies and reduced their output.

The reason, I think, is that it’s hard to stay motivated without specific goals in mind, even if those goals are just “get produced somewhere.”  So far this pandemic, the only play I’ve written without a specific home in mind was the first full-length, which was already underway and which I wanted to finally finish while I had the chance.  Everything else was written for a specific contest or production opportunity.  They might not have been accepted for those, but at least there was an incentive for their creation. There was a particular thing to shoot through, to guide us through the fog and murk of a world in limbo.

Without those incentives?  In a world where we keep exclaiming “Broadway is back!” only to cancel performances left and right due to omicron outbreaks?  In a world where theater companies in precarious financial conditions scale back their productions and their outreach to new writers?  Where the challenges of the pandemic are causing a profound retrenching, a revanchist movement towards the most basic fare?  The fog and murk is returned, and often seems stronger than ever.  Much of my non-writing time has been spent in aimless researching, doing preliminary readings for projects that I know I want to tackle eventually, but for whom an actual chance of production seems nowhere on the horizon. At least, that’s been the general pattern of the year that’s coming to an end.  A month or so ago, I found a submission opportunity suitable for an idea of mine, with a deadline of February 1st.  So whatever the rest of 2022 may bring, it looks like I’ll at least have a busy January.

Christmas Stories

It’s Christmas this Saturday, Constant Reader, what a certain stop-motion animated snowman refers to as that holly jolly time of the year.  Of course, here in New York, nothing is particularly jolly at the moment.  The omicron variant is running rampant, bringing back the sickening dread we all felt back at the start of this pandemic.  Broadway shows are closing left and right, as breakthrough cases keep occurring in their companies.  Despite this, fear of losing holiday revenue is prohibiting a second lockdown – which has the effect of heightening the unease and dread.  Indeed, the timing of all this has added an element of rage as well – an almost primal fury that the Christmas season is once again being taken away from us, which we seem to have no ability to cope with.

Which is incredibly weird, because for as long as I’ve been alive (and I’m old), Christmas stories have been explicitly telling us how to cope with things like this.

Note that I’m not referring to the religious aspects of the holiday here (although this would be an excellent time to start looking at Jesus’ “love thy neighbot” message again).  I’m talking about the Christmas of our holiday movies and television specials, some of our major cultural touchstones.  I’m talking about the animated specials we grew up with as children, the beloved stories we continue to tell each and every year.  Stories with messages that would seem to have useful guidance for us at the moment.

Like how the Whos gathered together in their public square on Christmas morning, even after the Grinch had stolen all their belongings, and sang a joyful song of thanks.  And how the sound they made reformed the Grinch, as he realized that “Christmas, perhaps, didn’t come from a store.”

Or how the Cratchits came together to support each other as a family, despite their poverty and the health crisis their youngest son was facing.  And how Scrooge realized the error of his ways, and realized the best use of his wealth was assisting this struggling family and providing their son with medical care.  Remember that one?  There’s usually a half-dozen adaptations playing on television at any given time (best one is the Muppets, obviously).

The Baileys of Bedford Falls knew years of privation, stifled dreams, and tragedy; the happy ending of It’s a Wonderful Life occurs when their community comes to their assistance, in recognition of all the different ways George Bailey had come to their assistance through the decades.  Any chance we might view Bedford Falls as a model to emulate, and not just a pretty little upstate New York town?

We gather round and hear these stories every single year.  Every year, the Ghost of Christmas Present chides us for airily dismissing the “surplus population,” and bids us to beware of Ignorance and Want.  Every year, the community at the North Pole expresses their shame in bullying poor misfit Rudolph all his life.  Every year, Charlie Brown laments the overcommercialization of the holiday, and the dangers of unchecked capitalism (and in demanding “tens and twenties” and then plaintively moaning upon being rebuffed that all she wants is her “fair share,” his sister Sally provides an astoundingly prophetic portrait of what contemporary discourse calls “privilege”).

Shouldn’t we have learned any of these lessons by now?

Because alongside the fear and desperation currently rampaging as unchecked as the omicron virus, I see a profound selfishness.  Lack of community.  Indifference.   A nation full of people seeing the suffering of their fellow citizens and shrieking to the heavens in rage that their Christmas toys are being taken from them.

I’m not sure what to do about any of this.  I believe in storytelling as much as I believe in Christmas, so I’m sure all of these lessons can get through.  Maybe it’s a question of actually paying attention to them again, not letting them be the white noise in the background while you’re trimming the tree, but actually listening to them.

Because they’re good stories.  It is a lovely holiday.  Have a good one, Constant Reader.

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