Monday Morning Attire

Greetings from Alaska, Constant Reader!  I’m here in Valdez, attending the Valdez Theatre Conference.  I’m in a rugged outdoor landscape, in a small scrappy harbor town on the Prince William Sound surrounded on all sides by the snow-capped peaks of the Chugach mountains.  The air is brisk, and bald eagles fly through it everywhere you turn.  I’m staying in the closest hotel in town to the conference – a hotel which, when you look at the building closely, you realize was built out of reconfigured shipping containers.  Those shipping containers, of course, were what was left behind when the town rebuilt itself after being wiped out by a tsunami in 1964.  Yes, it is a town of hearty, earthy, rugged individualists, at home in a stark landscape of staggering natural beauty.  And this morning, I am starting my day in this magical place by doing something profoundly out of character for it.

I’m putting on a necktie.

Nothing too fancy – a good plain red tie, with some texture to it, tied in a good solid Windsor knot.  You wouldn’t look twice at it back home in New York – not even in the wilder parts of South Brooklyn where I happen to live.  But here in Alaska?  Nobody wears neckties.  Ever.  Formality is a meaningless affectation.  In a landscape like this, as long as you’re properly protected from the elements – which is a big consideration – there’s no reason not to dress as casually as you like.  Heck, last year all of the conference goers had a reception where we met the town mayor.  As formal an event as it’s possible to have in this remote corner of the world.  And there was not a necktie to be seen for miles around.

You don’t need them up here.

But I’m starting off the conference by playing a cheerfully corrupt politician in a piece called The Ripper Strikes Again by Mark Muro, the unofficial poet laureate of Alaskan theater.  You’ll not ordinarily find him wearing a necktie.  But I’m here to serve my fellow playwrights even as I show off my own work, and he’s writing a play about conspiracies and corruption.  And if I’m playing a rapacious, budget-slashing, id-driven governor, I’m going to need to look the part.

And so as I walk across the impossibly wide street at the base of the mountain, and cut through the open-air seating in the field where a portable coffee-shop truck sells its wares (that’d be Magpie’s on the Fly, and they’re awesome), the eagles and lynx and bears and unnumerable other fauna of this epic landscape will know me, as I walk along, by the incongruous red spot below my chin.

It takes a significant dedication to one’s art to pull up stakes and travel several thousand miles, over mountains and glaciers and landscapes beyond imagining, just for the chance to practice it for a few short days.  But I’d argue that it takes even more dedication to sport a bright red necktie while doing so.

Samhain in June in Alaska

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be returning to the Valdez Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska this month! This time, I’ll be presenting my short play How to Pronounce Samhain. If you’re not able to make it to Valdez to see its performance on Thursday, June 13, fear not – there will be a live stream of the performance, which you can view here. The script is also up on NPX if you’re curious!

Oddly, Spielberg’s A.I. Hasn’t Received the Same Treatment Yet

There’s a lot of worried discussion these days, especially in arts circles, about the rampant danger supposedly posed by artificial intelligence.  Being an elder geek myself, this sort of talk isn’t exactly new – we’ve been warning people about Skynet for forty years now.  But with recent advances in technology and widespread adoption by corporate America (and, most relevant to this blog, corporate entertainment in America), it’s never been a more prevalent worry than it is now.  Screenwriters and other creative types are convinced their jobs will be wiped out by programs that can now churn out “original” material.  Perhaps our new robot overlords won’t wipe out humanity, but they’re liable to wipe out our business models and livelihoods – or so the argument goes.  Personally, I’m not convinced of this yet – the “original” material that AI has created so far simply hasn’t been good, and there’s no point in creating an imaginary conspiracy theory to create new things to worry about.

Not when there’s so many real things to worry about.  And not when it’s possible to be afraid of the artistic achievements which AI has actually created so far.

A series of videos have been making the rounds on YouTube, TikTok, and all the various websites that then shrink and regurgitate those videos for the benefit of insomniacs trying to find things to do at three in the morning.  They’re put out by Abandoned Films, and present theatrical trailers from some alternate universe where Star Wars, Alien, The Lord of the Rings, and pretty much every iconic fantasy and science fiction title of the past fifty years was actually released in the 1950s.  The AI takes the existing footage (you can tell from the shots they use, and how they match up with the originals) and adjusts it in a thousand tiny ways to create the desired effect.  The cinematography and color saturation are tweaked to match the old Panavision epics.  The scenic décor is tweaked to match old pulp covers.  The actor’s faces are altered to reflect the ravages of the average 50s actor’s steak-and-whiskey diet and pack-a-day cigarette habit.  You get the idea; if you’re curious, there’s a more detailed article on the whole process in Forbes

The first time you stumble upon one of these, it’s hypnotic.  The AI has clearly been used in an intelligent, and somewhat creative fashion.  Plus there’s a weird charm to it.  As the article points out, there’s a level of comfort in seeing that lost 50s sci-fi world recreated, and it feels nice to bask in that warm, Technicolor glow.

The first time you see one of these.

Watch any more than that, think about them for any length of time, and they’re terrifying.

Not because those weirdly lined, blank-eyed faces start to look scary and disconcerting – they do, of course, but it’s not their fault.  And not because the AI has done anything malevolent – it’s just a tool, which the creators have used to execute their vision.  And their vision is of a world where all of the great pop entertainments of the past fifty years – or, to put it another way, of my friggin’ lifetime – have been wrenched out of their proper time and context, and completely drained of their meaning.  Where it’s the bleached-out, sanitized America of sitcom fame in perpetua.  Where the movies that were specifically created to imagine new possibilities, to question the status quo, are now transformed to just another part of the same candy-colored dream.

Or nightmare, as the case may be.

And I have no doubt that this sort of a landscape – where all social progress is stalled, where everybody but the exalted souls who own the AI, and the trusted minions who know how to program it, are kept in the same aesthetic cocoon for all eternity – is the goal of most of those advocating most strongly for AI in the arts.  That way, there’s no way to voice dissent or rebellion against the status quo – nothing except for a fever dream of a lost decade that wasn’t anything like what were were told it was in the first place.  It’s the sort of dystopian scenario – an entire populace kept trapped in a science fiction dream world – that might inspire a really good movie.’

The real one from 1999.  Not the weird AI pretend-fifties version.

Getting to the Other Side

This past Tuesday was the great big blow-out season finale at Tuesdays at Nine, the cold reading series which I co-curate and co-host. As we’ve done for the past thirty three years (with me co-hosting for the last five of them), we gathered together to read ten-page excerpts of works in progress, see how they played in front of a live audience – as opposed to around a classroom table or the like, discussing how a piece might hypothetically be staged or might be received in the rare and happy event of a full production. No, our feedback is raucous, immediate, and real (much like the drinking afterwards) – and we made sure to involve as many people as possible in all of that, given it was our last event of the season.

Except it wasn’t, really. This weekend, at Under Saint Marks, we finally got to see the full production of Bill Schaumberg’s Three Chickens Confront Existence, a play which we’ve workshopped at Tuesdays at Nine. (It’s gone through a number of names and drafts over time – you can find it on NPX under a different name, and in a slightly different draft, right here.) Its excerpts have always been some of the most promising I’ve ever seen – a barmy but heartfelt mash-up of Samuel Beckett and The Far Side – and right there, in all their feathered glory, were the three feathered protagonists.

After seven years.

Yes, I can’t really claim to have “discovered” this piece, since excerpts of it were read two years prior to me assuming my current position. Once I was in a position to select pieces, putting up excerpts of one of the most beloved stories to our community was something of a no-brainer. We put up excerpts throughout the years of covid quarantine, watching our chicken friends on our zoom screens, and used them to celebrate our return to in-person programming when that time came. We had a First Mondays reading of the entire script two years ago. So this weekend’s performance represents a seven year development journey through our program – which doesn’t take into account Bill’s years of planning and writing before that.

So for all the joy I felt in watching this production – and I did feel, if not a parental pride, then perhaps a godfatherly sort of affection – I couldn’t shake a feeling of dismay as well. Seven years. That’s how long the process takes these days. And that’s a long time for humans – just think of how many chickens’ lifetimes that represents!

NOTE: This weekend’s performances simply represented the New York appearance; this production is slated to go to this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe as well! If you wanted to help with travel costs and the like, or just really like chickens, feel free to help them out here.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

For the second time this year, I spent this weekend traveling up to Sherman, Connecticut, to hear a staged reading of a short script of mine.  (The first time was the debut of a piece called Norwegians Pay Half Price, which you can find on NPX here; I’ll let you know when I’ve gotten the second piece fully revised and sent out into the world.) It was in picturesque little theater – a converted church, naturally – in a picturesque little town just over the state border, and a good ways north.  Far closer to Poughkeepsie than Manhattan, in fact.  A two hour journey each way by both train and car in the best case scenario.  All so I could test out a twelve page script in front of a few dozen devoted theatergoers.

And I can’t really complain about the commute – one of the other writers in the line-up was coming all the way from Rhode Island, about double the length of the journey, for the exact same thing.

And it’s not like this is an anomaly for me.  In a few weeks, I will be heading back to Valdez, Alaska, to participate in the Valdez Theatre Conference for the third year in a row.  This will involve a flight across the entire North American continent, and then a seven hour bus ride around glaciers, over permafrost, and through mountain passes.  It takes more than a day to complete, and it is a lot – heck, simply getting from where I live to Newark airport is a lot for most folks.  And again, it’s all so that one script of mine (well, more than one script, actually – spoiler alert for the conference) can receive a reading in front of a few dozen people.  They’re really nice and savvy people – it’s a very good conference – but even so, the question is raised:

Why am I going through all this?

There are the usual responses, of course – then when this is your calling you’ll go to any lengths to follow it, that the creative journey itself is more valuable than the destination, and so on.  And all these things are true – and don’t really answer the question.  Because I am co-Creative Director of Tuesdays at Nine, a cold reading series in New York (and the longest-running one in the country I’ll have you know).  I could put up my own writing whenever the heck I wanted, right here where I live.  Why go through all this trouble?

Well, for one thing, if I forced the audience each and every Tuesday to listen to my own yammering, and excluded too many other writers in the process, everybody would start getting a tad grumpy.  Rightfully so.  But more to the point, the whole point of staged readings is get the necessary feedback for future revisions and productions of the piece.  To figure out what’s working, and more importantly, what’s not.  And as a friend of mine asked me last Tuesday, as we unwound at the bar afterwards, “how do you get honest opinions from people who feel they have to like you?”

(You can tell she’s my friend because she asked a good brutal question like that.)

It’s a fair point.  Honest feedback requires a variety of feedback, from a variety of sources.  And so the quest for those sources continues, by plane and train, through fields and over mountains, scripts in tow and ever at the ready.  All in the hope that one day, at journey’s end, there will be that rarest and most magical of prizes to be found:

A production with more than just music stands!

Ten Years Later

Ten years ago, I was preparing for the very first production of one of my playscripts, the FringeNYC production of Dragon’s Breath.  As it was a Fringe Festival production, the actual performances weren’t until August, and rehearsals didn’t start until the summer.  No, the frantic work I was doing at this time ten years ago was all that frantic pre-production work which has no glamour to it and which therefore nobody ever thinks about – until it has to be done.  The filing of showcase paperwork with Actors Equity.  The securing of rehearsal spaces.  The compiling of budgets.  The endless parade of spreadsheets.

And, of course, the creation of a promotional website.  I’ve kept it up all these years, if you happen to be curious.  You can check it out here.

It was a great experience, even though nothing (to date) came of the script after that.  And in all honesty, I don’t think it will.  I’m proud of the script, and I think I was prescient about a number of things.  The play’s thumnail description, you see, is “A YA paranormal romance writer accidentally creates an evil cult.”  It deals with the rise of religious fanaticism, and featured what we now refer to as an “internet trolls” several years before the general public knew what that meant.  The thing is, while I hit upon fragments of the terrifying things to come in that script, I had them all mixed up in terms of putting together the picture of the future.  For instance, the internet troll character – played by myself, as it happens – was ultimately a sad and misguided character to be pitied, and not, y’know, the instrument of my nation’s destruction in a presidential election shortly thereafter.  (And that’s not even considering that the one YA writer who seems hellbent on creating an actual evil cult seems to be trying to do so willingly, to the horror of her former fans.  But I digress.)

So while I love that play, I’m not sure if there’s much value in revisiting it ten years later.

You know who doesn’t agree with me, however?  Internet trolls.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten email notices from that long-dormant website, which has not otherwise been updated or promoted.  They don’t have any actual content, just weirdly spelled permutations of “I found ur blog omg good job.” And I’m not under any illusions that actual human beings found that particular blog – the syntax is clearly that of some spammer’s AI program.

But why?  And why now?  There’s untold millions of websites getting more traffic than my archival site for a showcase production from the Obama administration.  There’s far more profit to be had in spamming others.  I mean, it’s not like an actual evil cult could have spawned from the internet and…

Oh, wait.  Crap.

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