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Changing Personas. Like in a Sam Shepard Play or Something.

For my last bit of theatrical activity before I prepare to go to the Valdez Theatre Conference next month, I took part in my monthly classics reading series this holiday weekend.  While we started out as a Shakespeare reading series, we call ourselves Dead Playwrights Society and so we cover a lot of repertoire as a result (seems like there’s more and more dead people every day, ha ha, we’re all doomed).  For this May installment, we tackled Sam Shepard’s science-fiction/rock-n-roll mash-up, The Tooth of Crime.  I’m not sure how I snagged it – probably my long beard these days – but I got to play the leading role of Hoss, the aging rocker warlord, sort of a King Lear-meets-Howlin’ Wolf presiding over a strange sort of Thunderdome.  It was a lot of fun – especially since, as a bookish Shakespeare scholar, it’s about as far away from how I see myself as it’s possible to get.

But it’s got me thinking.

As I mentioned, next month, I’ll be attending the Valdez Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska.  After two years of working on it exclusively through zoom readings, my play An Arctic Confederate Christmas will finally be getting its first public reading.  I’m excited, of course, but extremely nervous as well.  This play contains extremely disturbing subject matter, and is set in the Alaska of a horrible possible future – and I’ve never been to the state in person before now.  Who am I, this nerdy guy from Brooklyn, to lecture them about the intersection of climate change and rising fascism?  (That’s what the play’s about.  And Christmas stuff.) Surely they’ll be aghast, and this disapprobation will color any further development of the piece, effectively smothering it in its crib.  Surely they’ll sense that I don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t have the right to talk about it, and judge the play – and me – accordingly.  And poor, polite nebbish that I am, I couldn’t possibly respond.

But – I haven’t been that nebbish for a while now.  I’m still rocking my wild pandemic look – largely because we’re still in a pandemic which now somehow has monkeypox what the hell is going on.  I’m not Anonymous Playwright Guy anymore – I’m the Scary Bearded Hermit from the edge of town, with an equally scary play to present.  And by and large, none of the folks at this conference know me, or will have any other context for my work.

I could be the Scary Bad-Ass Who Demands Respect, is what I’m saying.  I never used to be that person, but now?  I might just be able to carry it off.

I think this is the plan. It should work, after all.  I just need to make sure that none of the conference goers realize that it’s all an act.  Like, for example, if they read something in which I explain that it’s all a put-upon persona and…oh, wait.  Crap.

Tom Petty Called It the Hardest Part

I’ve said it before and, ruefully, I will say it again; my life is boring.  This shouldn’t be possible, of course – surely I have things going on?  And indeed, as an actor, a writer, and a theatrical programmer, I happen to have a lot going on at this particular moment.  But as we all should know, theatre is a collaborative art form; once I’m past the stage of wrestling by myself with a new script, I need assistance, feedback or favors from other people.  Which means waiting on people for responses to emails, or texts, or what have you.

And waiting.

This week, after a few months back in person, the Tuesdays at Nine reading series returns to zoom to close out the season with another crossover event, with all four of our member cities.  This means that for the first time in four months, we’ve had to cast this Tuesday’s readings in advance, coordinating with each other as to which city covers which role, and emailing and texting actors (something I haven’t had to do for three months) to confirm their zoom participation.

As I’m submitting this post on Monday morning, I’m still waiting on the final confirmations to come in, after spending all of last night typing, and texting..and, most of all, sitting and waiting.

My other playwriting group is putting together a themed compilation of short one-acts, with an eye to either publishing or producing them sometime in the fall.  I say “either” because we’re supposed to have a planning meeting about this – again over zoom, since it can be hard to coordinate the in-person schedules of a bunch of writers plus there is still a goddam pandemic going on people.  Well, we are still planning on the planning meeting – arrangements for one last night were cancelled, so once again we are emailing and messaging each other to figure out options.  And sitting at our laptops, waiting.

Next month, I’m happy to report, I’ll be attending the Valdez Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska, where my play An Arctic Confederate Christmas is being read.  I don’t yet know orecisely who will be reading the piece, however – since they’re still finalizing details on their end (which is always a tricky business, no doubt made more so by the fact that there is still a goddam pandemic going on people.  Likewise, I don’t know which plays I myself will be performing – I’ve let them know I’m happy to serve as an actor as well, so I’m waiting on casting emails not only for my own piece, but for an indeterminate number of my fellow playwrights’ pieces as well.  I’m also waiting on finalizations for transportations, and any number of errands related to the trip – all of which are conversations in progress, in which all I can presently do is sit at my desk, and wait for an email.

And wait.

I suppose it’s comforting, in a way, that in such an unsettling and uncertain time I can find away to actually be bored.  But the thing of it is, with deadlines drawing ever nearer and that familiar feeling of dread as time ticks away, the waiting manages not to be remotely boring at all.

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.  . 

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