Insert Witty Opening Narration Here

Today marks a career first for me, Constant Reader.  (“Today” being Monday, October 24, the day this post first goes live.) This evening, I’ll be performing in a staged reading, for which I’ll receive a small stipend.  This part isn’t the career first; I’ve done lots of these throughout my time as an actor, and given the difficulties involved in mounting full productions nowadays I expect to be doing plenty more staged readings in the future.  No, the new and noteworthy aspect to tonight’s reading is that I’m serving as the narrator.  For the first time, I’ll be paid to read stage directions.

It’s about damn time, if you ask me.

I first started reading stage directions on a regular basis when I began attending the Tuesdays at Nine series of cold readings, several years ago now.  (How long ago?  I’ve lost track, but I’ve served as the co-Creative Director of this series for the past three years, so it’s got to be a little bit longer than that.) Given the large number of performers in attendance in any given evening, the stage directions provide a convenient way to hear the voices of newcomers, and get a sense of how else it might be possible to cast them.

In my case, I kept getting cast as the narrator.  Not that other parts weren’t available – some of which I might have been right for, most of which I was not.  No, what I came to realize, after a period of time, was that other writers were specifically asking for me to read their stage directions.

Apparently I’m good at it.

It’s strange to think of being good at reading stage directions – not because it can’t be challenging or demanding at times (try reading some George Bernard Shaw stage directions some time, if you really want to give yourself a workout) but because the skills involved are the basic building blocks of performing.  You need to be heard – able to project and articulate.  You need to know how to tell a story.  And you need to bring your own personality to the proceedings – not so much as to overwhelm the material, but just enough to give it some life.  That’s it.  If you’re a stage actor, these are the main tools in your proverbial tool box, right?

And yet.  There are so many actors who only come to life when hiding behind a specific character, or when gushing forth a great torrent of emotions.  It seems strange that such basic storytelling would hinder them, and yet I’ve seen it happen too many times to discount it.  It’s a weird skill to trumpet oneself as having, it’s not the most marketable skill in the world, but it’s a skill I evidently possess – and am now getting paid for.

Feel free to consider me for all your narrator needs at your next birthday, wedding, or bar mitzvah.

Sea Change

So, here’s what I know, concerning one of a few things that the New York theater community is currently in a tizzy over.  During the October 12 performance of the Broadway show Hadestown, one of the performers, Lillias White, stopped the show to reprimand an audience member for a device she was holding.  She thought that the object in question was a recording device of some kind, and that she was being illegally filmed.  It turned out, however, that the  audience member was hearing impaired, and the object was an assisted listening device which the theater itself had provided.  Being relatively new to the company (she took over for Andre de Shields, in his Tony-winning role), she hadn’t been made aware of those devices.  The full story can be found here; as stated, apologies have been issued to the audience member in question.  That hasn’t stopped the overall theatrical community from screaming bloody murder, howling in outrage because an audience member’s need for accommodation was met with such a humiliating reaction.  The cry has gone out – how dare a performer, no matter how accomplished, treat a member of the public in such a fashion?

And as I read these posts and missives, I keep wondering the same thing – when the hell did this happen?

You see, a generation ago (I shudder to write it out in such a way, but the math checks out), the theater-going public celebrated theatrical icons who told off audience members.  Not journeymen performers like myself, of course; I couldn’t possibly get away with breaking character and telling an audience member to put a cell phone away.  (Heck, I didn’t break character during a show where we literally set the stage on fire.) But in those early days of smartphones, about twenty years ago or so?  When beeps could go off at any given moment, and the possibility of surreptitious recordings of theatrical performances became a genuine possibility, and the old standards of theatrical etiquette began slipping away?  Titans like Brian Dennehy and Patti LuPone were notorious for castigating errant audience members.  It didn’t happen all the time, of course, but every once in a while the word of some fearsome harrangue would spread like wildfire.  It may be urban legend, but I distinctly remember hearing tell of these luminaries being cheered when they gave a dressing-down to a particularly rude spectator.  Hell, I’m pretty sure some folks bought tickets specifically in the hopes of witnessing the bloodsport.

Now, there is a disturbing element I haven’t mentioned yet, in that there is a seeming racial component to this double standard.  Ms. White is African-American, you see, so it’s hard not to ascribe some deeply distressing motives to people chastising her for her behavior, after celebrating other, very clearly Caucasian performers.  And yet, so many of the posts I saw after the incident didn’t mention Ms. White’s name at all.  The focus was entirely on the fact that a disabled person was the subject of the tirade, and that this was clearly outrageous.  The framework was entirely on the breach of etiquette – from the performer’s side, not the audience members’.  Which is certainly understandable – the woman was using a device meant to counteract her disability, so she had a legitimate need to use the device.

But how many of the people who were screamed at a generation ago might have had a equally  valid reason for whatever it was that brought on a similar reaction?  More than a few, I imagine.  And would social media be as quick to publicize and vilify a performer who stopped the show to address truly bad behavior in the audience?  I suspect it would – vilification is the coin of the realm these days.

We haven’t fully realized just how much of a sea change is going on.  We’ve collectively decided that the old norms of theater etiquette – once one of the defining aspects of the theatrical experience – is a form of gatekeeping that we’re better off without.  People once praised for being willing to enforce that etiquette are now being attacked. That’s massive.  It doesn’t just affect the audience experience itself, but the norms of professionalism we associate with the theater.  Ultimately, that will extend to the aesthetics of the theater, and even the type of works we decide to write and stage for it.

A few short years ago is indeed a generation ago, and it feels like a lifetime ago.  And this is only just beginning.

That’s Gratitude For Ya

All in all, last week was a busy week for me as an actor, Constant Reader.  On Tuesday night, I co-hosted my usual cold weekly series at Theatre 80 on the Lower East Side.  (Since it’s, by definition, a weekly series, I’ll be at it again this week as well. Feel free to check us out.) On Wednesday, as I mentioned in last week’s post, I spent the entire day at HB Studios, rehearsing and performing in a staged reading of Tiffa Foster’s new play Doris & Bertie.  On Friday evening, I trekked down to an artists’ collective workshop space in a marvelously grimy building on East 4th, to participate in a private developmental table read of another new play.  And on Saturday, I went to a friend’s birthday party – which may not sound like acting work, but my friend is a member of at least a half-dozen other theater companies, so the afternoon and evening were as much about networking and shop-talking as they were about recreating.

So, a happy and productive week, no?  Spent doing what I love with friends old and new, with all manner of new opportunities potentially opening up as a result?  Surely I feel as satisfied and content as it’s possible to feel in these frustrating, unsettling times?

Of course not.  I feel a sickening feeling of dread – that gnawing fear that I’ve accomplished nothing, and a crucially important week has slipped away from me.

Long-time readers of this blog know that one of my major themes here – all the way back to my first post – is the difficulty of having enough time to do everything I’m trying to do.  It’s the great paradox of being a hyphenate, which most of us seem to at least try to be these days – the busier you are, the less you can accomplish.  Right now, I’m trying to accomplish a new script – I’ve started drafting a one-act.  I’ve been researching and planning all through the summer, and I’m looking at a potential submission deadline for it of November 15.  That gives me the month of October to actually put a draft together – and to date, I’ve managed a whopping three pages.  My hope was to build up a good head of steam this first week of October, when I had a little time off from my day job – but all of those wonderful acting opportunities I had meant that my writing is now hopelessly behind schedule.

I worry that this sounds like ingratitude, and I want to be perfectly clear that this isn’t what I feel – opportunities are rare and precious things, and the longer you do this, the more keenly you realize that.  I’m grateful for all of these moments where I can be an actor, even if only for a fleeting moment.  But you can bet that today – I have off for Columbus Day and/or Indigenous People’s Day, take your pick – I’ll be holed up in my apartment typing away.  I need every free moment I can spare.

Fun With Geography

I get to be an actor again this week, Constant Reader; as mentioned on the main page, I’ll be performing in a public reading of Tiffa Foster’s new play Doris & Bertie.  (You can find out about it here; please note the COVID guidelines if you’re planning to come see it.) The reading is part of the Bar Theatre Collective’s Breaking Barriers Reading Series, which is taking place throughout the month of October at HB Studios here in New York.

I’m well acquainted with HB Studios.  Most theatre folk in this city are; HB is a major nexus of artistic activity here.  Their school of acting is one of the longest-running in the city, as well as one of the most affordable, so many performers have taken a class there at one time or another. I’m one of the few who never has, but my late friend Arthur French was a teacher and director there for many years.  Because of that, I wound up doing a number of staged readings on their stage, having received a call from Arthur to see if I was interested.  (For many years, he was the only man still using my old answering service number, and I maintained that service and checked its messages solely to make sure I didn’t miss a project with Arthur.) I rehearsed there for even more projects, again thanks to Arthur.  So it stands to reason, over the course of all those years, that somebody from HB saw my work, thought it worthwhile, and recommended me for this latest project.  Work begets work, no?  Clearly, when the folks at HB emailed me with the offer and the staged reading procedures, that’s what happened here?

Except it’s not.

Work does beget work; I did get this latest gig thanks to a previous performance of mine.  But it wasn’t anything I’d ever done at HB Studios.  Heck, it wasn’t anything I’d ever done on the Eastern Seaboard.  It was all thanks to a monologue I performed in Alaska.

The playwright, Tiffa Foster, was one of my fellow participants in this past summer’s Valdez Theatre Conference (as a reminder, you can check out the play of mine which was presented there at NPX).  As part of the conference, we both participated as actors in a festival of one-minute monologues written by our fellow playwrights; it’s the big climax to the week-long conference.  Apparently I did pretty well; Tiffa had remembered the piece from several months ago, when it came time to cast this reading of hers.  And it’s worth noting that this upcoming reading comes out of an online playwrighting workshop in which she’s been participating; Tiffa herself is based not in New York (home of HB) or Alaska, but in Minnesota. 

So clearly, geography has no meaning anymore.

Which I suppose is a good thing; all theater production, much like politics, may be local, but the ultimate goal, and the only way to truly get things to happen, is for your name and work to move beyond your local sphere and out into the wider world.  Still, the Twin Cities are twelve hundred miles away, and Valdez, Alaska is over four thousand miles away.  Those are pretty substantial commutes; I don’t think the Equity travel stipends are designed to cover that.

Doris & Bertie

This Wednesday, October 5, starting at 7pm, I’ll be featured in a reading of Tiffa Foster’s new play Doris & Bertie. It’s being presented as part of the Bar Theatre Collective’s Breaking Barriers reading series, at HB Studios here in New York. For more information, check out the link here!

Branching Out

I mentioned in passing last week that if I confined my blogging to the actual activities I perform in a week related to my artistic career, I’d be writing an entire post about me going to the library.  This remark, if you happened to notice it, might have prompted a few questions.  “His life can’t be that boring, can it?” you might have thought, to which I reply, “oh yes it can.”  More to the point, you might have wondered “how difficult can it possibly be to do library research?  You just go to the library and get the book you need.” If that is your response, Constant Reader, then I envy you your innocence.  Because in this city, things have a habit of being more complicated than you can possibly imagine.  And so, in order to broaden the horizons of your imagination, I’m going to ignore my own advice from last week and tell you all about my epic quest to get reading materials from the library.

Or rather, libraries plural.

For indeed, there is a local branch of the Brooklyn Public library just up the street from me, less than half a mile away.  With pandemic restrictions set aside (whether they should be or not is a completely different question), I can go there any time I want.  But it’s a small local branch, so if I’m working on an elaborate project – and I’m currently putting together a period piece, so from a research point of view it’s definitely elaborate – they’re not going to have what I need.  I can put in an interlibrary loan request, of course – if you’ve never done that yourself, I highly recommend it, it’s the bookworm’s best friend – but it usually takes weeks for each volume to arrive.  (That’s assuming my local librarians put in the request correctly, and my branch is very local, if you catch my meaning, so that’s not necessarily a valid assumption.) Since submission opportunities tend to have deadlines, that’s time I don’t have.  So, for most volumes in the Brooklyn Library system, it’s much easier for me to travel several miles, taking two subway lines, to reach the main branch at Grand Army Plaza and check out volumes there.

You’ll notice, however that I specified the Brooklyn Public Library system.  For you see, by a quirk of municipal history, the borough that I live in (which was once a separate city unto itself, way back in previous centuries) has a completely separate library system from the rest of New York City.  So if I want to visit the iconic main branch on Fifth Avenue – you know, the one with the stone lions, the one from Ghostbusters, the one with most of the titles I actually need for my research, that main branch – I have to make a separate trip.  With a separate library card.  And since I’m working on a period piece that involves legal history (there’s a teaser for you), some of the titles I need are in the main reading room (the one that the tourist groups visit, on the third floor, with the murals on the ceiling) and some are in a separate room on the first floor – Room 121, home of the Millstein division, which specifically houses American history materials.  Because these are two separate, non-circulating collections – you have to work with the materials on-site, so you submit your requests to the librarians and the titles are retrieved from the vast, possibly ghost-infested sub-basement corridors below – I’m choosing to count them as two separate locations.  So we’re up to four.

Now, if I want to check out a library book as part of my midtown excursion, I do have the option of going across the street to what’s called the Stavros Niarchos branch, on 5th Avenue and 40th Street.  It’s the largest circulating branch of the system, so if a title I want can be checked out, and is available, I can just get it there.  However, if the title is not available there, and not in the Brooklyn system, and I want to place an interlibrary loan request through the main New York system, I have to go to a different branch entirely.  Specifically the E. 96th street branch, about two miles to the north, which I’ve designated as my “local” branch (remember my actual “local” branch is in a completely different system) because it’s just around the corner from my day job.

We’re up to six separate libraries.

And we’re not done!  Remember how the Millstein room housed a special collection of American historical materials?  The New York library system has a number of locations devoted to those sorts of collections.  And since I happen to be researching a period of Supreme Court History that had significant ramifications for civil rights law (another teaser there), that means that some of the volumes I need are housed in the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture.  That Center is affiliated with the New York Public Library, and is on 135th Street in Harlem, so that’s another mile and change further north!

So.  Seven branches.  Assuming I didn’t also just visit another local branch randomly because the online catalog said they had a particular title on site.  Which I did.  So it’s really eight separate libraries, in two separate systems, with two separate library cards, covering about twenty five miles or so geographically.  Some of which have required me to dodge ongoing construction and renovation, all of which have required me to dodge various airborne beasties both on site and in transit because there is still a goddam pandemic going on.  All in service of a historical piece which, more likely than not, will be a mid-size one act.  Maybe 40 pages or so in length.  I’m not sure how exactly to allocate it, but that’s about five pages of material to show for each separate library, each of which I’ve scoured as thoroughly as possible for those handfuls of throwaway plot points and dialogue references.

And somehow, I’ve done all this in service of a piece of theatre – and haven’t once visited the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center!  (I hope this doesn’t mean I missed something.)

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