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The Lonely Death of Rapture Boy

Periodically, I receive emails from Twitter, telling me about all the things I’m missing out on and asking me to come back.  This week, I’ll be informed that it’s been ten years since I last used Twitter, and my friends are all patiently waiting for me to return.  This may seem strange, Constant Reader, for a number of reasons.  We may have come to take it for granted, but it’s weird that companies and corporations email us directly.  It’s weird that anybody would feel that not being on Twitter – an ever more noxious website that’s helped coarsen our national discourse and precipitate our headlong plunge into fascism  – could possibly be considered “missing out.”  But if you’ve come to this blog through the link I post to Twitter every Monday, then there’s a bigger question you’re asking yourself – Michael, aren’t you on Twitter?  How else am I reading this?

And the answer to that is that the Twitter account in my name, the one that’s linked to my website and to all the other activity in my life, was the second Twitter account I ever established.  Prior to that, I created a separate account for a fictitious character, intended for satirical purposes.

Though it pains me to say it, in modern parlance, I was a troll.

In the spring of 2011, I started seeing a huge number of doomsday preachers wandering around my city, holding placards and infesting the subway system with handmade billboards.  If you live in a large city, you get used to seeing these sorts of folks periodically, but this was different.  They seemed organized, coordinated.  Many clearly seemed to have come to New York for the express purpose of telling us we were all doomed.  And they were strangely, absurdly specific about when doomsday was set to take place – May 21, 2011, at 6pm.

It turned out that these folks were all followers of the Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping, who’d made a career out of fanciful doomsday predictions.  Now, with the aid of fancy new online toys like Twitter to spread his message, he had his flock convinced that the Rapture of Biblical prophecy (except it’s not actually in the Bible, but we’ll let that pass for now) was imminent, and unleashed them on my home town to annoy us all to death before the Big Moment.  And making my way past their ridiculous signs, growing ever more frustrated at their antics, I wondered if there was any way to retaliate.  Any way to turn their own techniques against them.

And so, I logged onto this newfangled Twitter thing, and created the @RaptureBoy2011 account.  Rapture Boy was born.

My plan was to live tweet the bungling antics of a fictious Camping follower, preaching in the subways and making questionable life choices.  (He quit his job and gave away most of his goods in advance of his anticipated ascendance into heaven – which was an actual thing a number of these folks were doing at the time.) The hope was to make it preposterous, and amusing to most readers, but just barely plausible enough to fool a True Believer.  Then, my intended masterstroke – at the appointed hour, poor Rapture Boy would be stuck on earth – but he’d witness his annoying neighbor floating up to heaven.  He’d live tweet his anguished cry, any Camping followers would have a horrible fright at the thought of being Left Behind, and the rest of us would have a good sadistic laugh at their expense.

Of course, as is often the case with these things, Camping revised his Doomsday prophesy immediately after the deadline.  We’d all simply been judged on May 21, you see, and the actual physical component of Armageddon wouldn’t happen until October 21, 2011.  Which raised the question, of course, of how much longer we’d have to deal with all his followers pestering us on the subway.  It also left me in a bit of a quandry, since I’d already tweeted out the punchline of my ridiculous joke – should I pack it in and move on with my life, or should I somehow find a way to keep the joke going?

Enough friends of mine had been following Rapture Boy’s fictitious antics, and enjoying them, that they convinced me to keep up the gag.  And so the account wound up evolving into an absurd science fiction story, with Rapture Boy, now a lost soul convinced he’d been abandoned by God Almighty, encountering survivalist camps on Staten Island, disapproving family members, ancient artifacts, the Occupy Wall street movment, ninjas on the Staten Island Ferry, bdsm enthusiasts, and all manner of preposterous events.  This was all tweeted out live, as if he was narrating the story in real time – as if it was really happening.  And it kept being tweeted until the stroke of midnight on October 21, when – spoiler alert – poor Rapture Boy was sacrificed by space aliens in the American Museum of Natural History, in order to trigger the countdown to the 2012 Mayan Apocalypse.  (It was a really weird time, now that I think about it.)

Anyway, that’s the reason Rapture Boy hasn’t tweeted in a decade.  I killed him off ten years ago this week.

Why on earth did I create him in the first place?  Well, I didn’t start playwriting in earnest until the following year – I clearly had a lot of creative energy with a desperate need for an outlet.  And as a writer, the outlet proved to be useful.  I learned an enormous amount about narrative structure, as I forced myself to develop, intertwine, and resolve plotlines as my real-world deadlines ticked inexorably away.  Many of the themes I found myself playing with, like how our desperate need to convince ourselves we’re special winds up warping our perceptions and our lives, are themes I’ve returned to in plays and other more respectable pieces.  So in terms of my creative development, the Twitter experiment was a success.

Which is good, because in all other respects, Rapture Boy was an abject failure.  The account is still there, if you’re curious.  (You’ll have to take your time scrolling back to the beginning if you want to read “the plot.” ) The numbers are dismal – only 24 followers, out of all of the Twitterverse.  Whatever the secret is to going viral, Rapture Boy didn’t have it.

Moreover, he didn’t succeed at the initial task of fooling Camping’s followers.  (The only people who ever did think he was real, interestingly enough, were the militant atheist types who scrolled through Twitter to find True Believers to ridicule, and who never once caught on to the ever-more -obvious joke.) And I think it’s worth considering why that’s the case, since it’s continued to be the case as ever more dangerous and unhinged extremists have risen up to take their place online. 

People don’t actually use Twitter to communicate.  It’s a lousy medium for storytelling, for the exchange of ideas.  It’s purely a numbers game.  There’s a reason why the Camping followers, and their spiritual descendants, all write in what looks like gibberish, strings of hashtags with no content or context.  They’re just trying to inflate their online presence, to make the various algorithms think they’re the most noteworthy thing in the world at that moment.  The “conversation” is an ongoing intimidation campaign, nothing more – and the ever more belligerent nature of real-world discourse makes it plain that they’re well aware of the fact.  So farewell, poor Rapture Boy.  You just weren’t made for this world – though hopefully the world can learn from your failures, before it’s too late.

In Which I Am Reduced to Making T-Shirt Commercials

I have a playwright friend whose husband has a sideline business designing T-shirts.  What with him having married into the theatrical life – he’s got plenty of his own theatrical experience, too, but I know him as my friend’s husband so that’s what I’m going with here – the bulk of his T-shirt designs have some sort of relationship to the performing arts.  A few are keyed specifically to his wife’s productions, or to companies she’s worked with.  Some of them are riffs on iconic theatrical logos.  The bulk of them are text based, featuring inspirational sayings or playful critiques of the current theatrical scene.  And one of these, a commentary on the gender disparity among playwrights produced on Broadway, reads simply, “More Vogel Less Mamet.”

My friend’s wife is seeing a boom in business these days. 

Largely, this is because of the recent announcement that, after a year-and-a-half delay due to the pandemic, David Mamet’s Obie-winning 1976 play American Buffalo is being revived on Broadway.  (That’s the “Mamet” part of the shirt design.  I hope you folks know who Paula Vogel is; if not, Google is your friend.) This is thirteen years after another Broadway revival of the piece played for one week in 2008.  Prior to that, there was an Atlantic Theater Company revival in 2000, as well as another Broadway revival in 1983 and a previous off-Broadway revival in 1981, which occurred only four years after its Broadway debut in 1977.  And that’s just this one play – start counting up the innumerable revivals of Glengarry Glen Ross, the scores of classroom productions of The Duck Variations, and the parade of new and (pretty-obviously-but-I’ll-be-diplomatic-and-say-arguably) lesser new works this decade alone, and it’s pretty clear: Mamet gets done a lot.

And if you’re fond of that brand of staccato, stylized machismo, if you gravitate to that particular sort of smart-aleck contrarianism, then these past few, um…(checks notes) decades have been a golden age for you.  But if you’d like to see literally anything or anyone else on Broadway – if you’d like there to be a diversity of voices being heard, especially in response to the confusing and tumultuous times we’re living in now – then you’re apt to be a mite frustrated.  You’re apt to wonder why the same voices – the same white male voices, if you’re inclined to notice such a thing – are deferred to time and time again, when a whole vast nation full of talent is crying out to have their say.  You’re likely to think to yourself, as my friend’s husband’s t-shirt puts it, “more Vogel, less Mamet.”

There’s a vast swath of the theater world who is thinking these things to themselves, which you’d think would be the sort of thing producers would take notice of.  And yet…

(Ironically, if we’d done a better job over the past few decades of nurturing a broader variety of theatrical voices, and if there weren’t such a vocal contingent of folks heartily sick of Mametspeak, then there’s a good chance we’d all think that this was an ideal time for a revival of American Buffalo.  It is, after all, the story of a bungled criminal conspiracy, whose participants are fueled by resentment, entitlement, and the fervent conviction that they know much more than they actually do.  It’s kinda topical, in other words.  But then again, Mamet being Mamet, he presents this as the natural state of affairs for men in America in the late twentieth century – so if this is a mindset you want to try and fight or condemn, producing a Mamet script might not be the optimal course of action.  But I digress.)

At any rate, I bring this all up because, as if inspired by the blunt-spoken conmen Mamet loves to depict, scammers have begun offering bootleg versions of my friends’ husbands T-shirts.  He pointed out on Twitter this week that a website had begun selling the design without crediting him, or offering him any sort of commission.  I won’t link to the bootleg website, as I don’t want to send any traffic their way; if you do want to proclaim your desire for more diverse theatrical representation through the medium of T-shirts, then please order through a website that is offering commission and credit, like this one here. That’s the best way to offer up your dollars to the cause.

Well, other than actually buying tickets to productions of women playwrights, BIPOC playwrights, or pretty much any playwright who wrote something besides American Buffalo.  That’s pretty important too.

Extraordinary How Potent Ersatz Puccini Is

You may by now have detected, if you’ve been reading my posts about theatre’s post-pandemic reopening, a certain element of cynicism on my part.  (See, for instance, the way I’m inserting this parenthetical about how ridiculous the phrase “post-pandemic” is at the moment.) In large part, this is because that effort has all been focused on the institution of Broadway, and specifically musical theatre.  It’s hard to shake the suspicion that this is all a revanchist movement of sorts, a stealthy way of removing support and attention from the thornier and more interesting corners of off-Broadway and independent theater, and ensuring that the schmaltz and glitz of Broadway remains the only game in town.  I’d much rather see bolder, more confrontational theater; I feel the times we’re living through demand those sorts of voices, and it depresses me that Broadway’s glib inspiration and shallow positivity is being enlisted to drown them out just as they’re needed most.

And yet…

I was making my weekly grocery run on Friday, wandering the aisles of my neighborhood Key Food and filling up my resusable bags with produce.  Easy listening was piped in to soothe my weary fellow Brooklynites and me as we shuffled through our errands.  Generic local commercials played as I examined expiration dates.  Then all at once, a familiar, stirring swell of swings washed over us all, the music seeming to crescendo through us.  Some inspirational word salad was being intoned underneath it – and inexorably, the music changed it from generic pablum into something stirring.  I felt my very posture improve, my head clear, my pulse quicken as the soaring, gushing strings reached their climax and the narrator came to his point – that “The Phantom Returns to Broadway.”

I mean, come on.

Andrew Lloyd Webber has always been an extremely obvious composer.  Each show takes a handful of leitmotifs and grinds them into the dirt.  He works in broad and knuckleheaded gestures.  Phantom of the Opera is a perfectly fine tourist trap, and it has a reputation as one of the better-maintained of the long-running shows – but please.  A big surging melodic violin lines isn’t the most original musical thought, especially when there’s centuries of composers to borrow from who do the exact same thing. 

“Music of the Night” is obvious.  It’s done to death.  Fusing it to a general statement of optimism – about a capitalist cash cow doing business again, let’s remember – is hackneyed.  It’s cheap.  It’s bullshit.

And god damn it, it works.  I practically started bawling in the supermarket.

Don’t get me wrong – I still want whatever theater grows back after this ordeal to encompass a whole spectrum of other, quirkier, thornier, angrier, less commercial voices.  The tourist-trap model that’s dominated Broadway these past decades, with its cheap sentiment and obvious gestures, is one I’ll happily leave behind.  But every once in a while, it turns out you need a little cheap sentiment to get through the day.  Especially these days.   

Eighth Avenue

I was walking up Eighth Avenue last weekend, and found myself at a street fair.  Nothing fancy or elaborate – it was one of those fairs that’s entered the last hour of their permit, and half the booths have already shuttered, leaving only a few overpriced food stands among the urban detritus.  And I happily, giddily, shelled out ten bucks for a perfectly disgusting, greasy chicken-kabob.  I’m sure it was terrible for me, but it was the first chance I’d had in a year and half to do something like that.

Of course, it was the first chance I’d had in a year and a half to do what had brought me to Eighth Avenue in the first place.  Be a hustling, bona fide, produced playwright.

My short one-act For the Benefit of Jimmy Mangiaroli received a one-night-only production last Sunday, September 19, as part of a new monthly salon series offered by Vampingo Productions.  The salon is a result of the grants offered by New York Foundation for the Arts’ City Artist Corps, intended to help us New York theater artists through the pandemic, and so all of the pieces were New York themed in some way.  And indeed, there’s few more New York experiences then an evening of shorts, monologues, and new musical theater songs performed in a large Midtown studio space for thirty theatrical insiders.  (That may not sound like a large turnout, but admit it – if you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve played for smaller audiences numerous times.)

So yes, that’s my first personal experience of being able to say that Live Theater is Back, and my first chance to declare how much I’ve missed it.  But the thing of it is, it’s not the obvious things that I’ve missed.  Having my work produced?  I’ve managed to have that done remotely.  The applause of the crowd?  Doesn’t really sound the same over zoom, but it’s still there.  I’ve been working steadily at various ways to keep theater going during our remote exile, so since it hasn’t truly gone away I haven’t missed it.

I’ve missed the feel of cheap paper towels on my hands in a Midtown bathroom, and their particular smell.

I’ve missed the tactile sensation of uncorking wine bottles, to put out a nice after-show spread.

I’ve missed the Tetr0s-like puzzle solving of arranging folding chairs.

I’ve missed running into other theater folks in adjoining studios.

Hell, I’ve even missed lousy street-fair food.

I don’t think things are ever going back “exactly the way they were before.”  Our audience was all masked, and I expect audiences throughout the country to stay masked for the foreseeable future.  And my play is all about a young man running a fool’s errand during the Covid pandemic – and worrying his mother in the process – and it would have made no sense whatsoever before last March.  So there’s a lot of stuff that’s probably here to stay, whether we want to admit it or not. But if we can get back one-night showcases in Midtown studios, I think I might be able to breathe easier.  Even through the mask.

Straphanger’s Lament

Come hell or high water – or, y’know, civil war and plague – the Powers That Be are dead set on Broadway reopening and getting back to normal.  We already saw the opening of a few new shows back in August; this week, prominent musicals such as Hamilton, Wicked, and The Lion King all resumed performances.  These are the shows that bring in the tourist dollars, the ones that serve as a major cornerstone of this city’s economy.  As a result, their reopening has been heavily publicized, the notion that Broadway is Back for Business being a rallying cry to shout to the heavens, as loudly and boisterously as possible.

Even to straphangers just trying to get to work.

After a long stretch of time working remotely (again, there’s that whole plague thing), I finally had occasion last week to make a normal, Monday morning commute.  As part of my work commute, I need to change trains at the busy transit hub of Atlantic Avenue, switching from the D train to the 4/5 line.  As I made my way through the subterranean passages, I heard a piercing scream behind me.  No, not a scream, exactly – more like a chant.  In any event, it was loud and disorienting, and when you ride the subway your instinct is to try and ignore those sorts of sounds and forge ahead as quickly as possible.  Nevertheless, I kept hearing it – this wail, plaintive yet demanding.  I looked around, only to find there was nobody where I thought the sound was coming from.  Nothing but air.  I kept going, from one platform to another, and still I heard this disembodied voice.

Then I stopped and realized what the disembodied voice was saying.  Or rather, singing:

Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba.

I paused, and thought to myself.

Is that…is that The Lion King?  Who’s singing The Lion King at eight thirty in the morning?  There’s nobody around…are they broadcasting that?  Over the P.A. system?  Why would they be playing Disney movies…oh wait, it’s also a Broadway show…it reopens this week…oh, right, Broadway is back.  Yay.

Yes, the Powers That Be are so keen on heralding the return of Broadway that they’re doing it literally – running a promotional campaign thru the MTA, using that familiar opening chant to kick off an announcement that we can all start buying tickets to live theatre again.  And while I understand their motivaton – there’s a lot of money to be made from those particular tickets – I do believe they’re a little misguided in their thinking.

For one thing, taking the subway makes you grumpy in the best of times.  Given the times we’re living in now – you know, that aforementioned civil war and plague – the average straphanger is going to want nothing more than quiet for their commute.  Any disruption puts us on edge, so disembodied voices belting show tunes are particularly hard on our already frazzled nerves.

Furthermore, using The Lion King to announce the return of Broadway speaks to a highly limited view of what Broadway is.  They’re not playing Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Stephen Sondheim, or Lin-Manuel Miranda over those loudspeakers.  (Not that I want them to, but still.) No, it’s the opening of a Disney cartoon, adapted for the stage to appeal to tourists and families for whom those Disney cartoons are their only point of reference.  I mean, it’s a fine Disney movie, and a fine adaptation – but as the bars of music you’re selecting to represent all of Broadway?  It suggests a mindset, and a business model, stuck in those days of the late 90s when – with great fanfare and tremendous cultural cost – Broadway was “Disneyfied,” turned into a playground for the wealthy.  That’s not the moment we’re in at all, and you’re not going to change that reality any time soon – so isn’t it better to try and adapt to that new reality, find artistic ways to respond to it, rather than pretend it’s still twenty-five years ago, and all the many intervening crises never happened?

Of course, it’s entirely possible I’m reading too much into this, and I should just sing a quick chorus of “Hakuna Matata” and go on my way.

September Salon

I’m happy to announce that my short play, FOR THE BENEFIT OF JIMMY MANGIAROLI, is being presented on Sunday, September 19, as part of Vampingo Productions’ inaugural Salon Series. The salon is being generously supported by a grant from New York City to help get theater back up and running during this pandemic, and I’m delighted to be part of the effort. Tickets are free; RSVP and proof of vaccination are reminder. For details, please check out the company website here.

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