It’s Like Rain On Thanksgiving Day

Well, we did it; despite it all, we had Thanksgiving.  We skyped with our loved ones as we enjoyed turkey and pumpkin pie for one.  We put on our masks and started stringing up our outdoor Christmas lights as soon as we’d finished digesting our food.  And, although mostly confined to a single block in Midtown, and held during an inconvenient drizzle, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade took place, as it’s done every year without interruption since World War II.

For as long as I can remember, the Macy’s parade has functioned, among other things, as a commercial for Broadway.  It’s one of the few ways for production numbers from the currently running Broadway musicals to reach a national television audience, at least some percentage of which will spend their future tourism dollars at those very shows.  Well, at the moment, and until a Covid vaccine is widely available (thank you for saving America, Dolly Parton), there are no Broadway shows running, and if you’re being responsible then you’re hunkering down at home and postponing any tourism plans.  But Broadway is looking forward, to the day when those tourism plans can resume, and made the argument on Thursday that everything will be back to normal soon enough.  This Thanksgiving, they presented an excerpt from one of the buzziest shows of the truncated past season – Jagged Little Pill – as well as numbers from long-running, tourist-friendly productions like Mean Girls, Ain’t Too Proud, and the nigh-sainted Hamilton.  For good measure, the “Schuyler Sisters” number from the latter show repeatedly reminds us how:

Lucky we are to be alive right now!
History is happening in Manhattan and we
Just happen to be in the greatest city in the world!

Everything you could ask for in a commercial, right?

And yet –

I can’t help but notice the recurring sentiment, both in public events like the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade and in private conversations with my actor friends, is that the goal is to get the theater industry up and running as if nothing ever happened.  To make the quarantimes, however long they wind up lasting, a blip in the continuum of theatrical life, to be ignored and forgotten as soon as possible.  To get back to normal.

I don’t see how that’s possible, and I don’t think it’s desirable.

There isn’t any going back; we’ve all endured a mass traumatic event, and like it or not the experience is part of our culture now.  Moreover, it’s a mass trauma that was brought about by our failures – failures of our institutions, failures of our leaders, and in the actions of our most militant science-deniers the failures of our national character.  And these failures are just a sample of a series of interconnected failures we’ve all experienced these past few years.  And we in the arts are not immune – we’ve failed to nurture a diverse range of artistic voices, we’ve failed to create a development process that isn’t so labyrinthine and cumbersome as to prevent writers from responding to current events in any meaningful way, we’ve failed to bring theatrical rent costs down and are wholly dependent on splashy tourist fare as a result.  We need to learn from these failures.  Heck, Broadway producers, the phrase “you live, you learn” is the refrain from one of the very numbers you put up on Thursday’s parade!  (The title of the show comes from that very number!)

I don’t have any suggestion for what the parade could have or should have done differently; it’s hard to present numbers that don’t exist yet.  But we need to make sure those numbers do exist going forward.  Heck, we just need to go forward – which is a hell of a lot different than going back.

A Brief Interlude

For those of you who have remained in suspense since reading my last blog post, I’m happy to report that I made my deadline.  After toiling away since July – or rather, attempting to toil away while being constantly distracted by our dozen or so ongoing apocalypses – I submitted my entry to this year’s round of American Shakespeare Center’s Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries competition on Wednesday at 10pm, two whole hours before the deadline.  (No sense leaving anything to the last minute.) I’m sure I’ll come back to the draft and tinker with some revisions in weeks to come, but the major project, to the extent that it’s ever possible, is completed.

There’s always a come-down, a decompression period when a long creative process is finished.  It’s a fine time to step away from the creative process for a bit, to let the proverbial batteries recharge.  And ordinarily, I’d be too busy with other commitments – work, the gym, social events, and so on – to even pay much notice to this necessary recharging.  We’re not in ordinary times, however, and given the previous scripts I’d been working on this year, this marked the first moment during the quarantimes that I didn’t have a writing deadline.  The first actual moments of free time I’ve experienced during all of this.

Dear Lord, it’s bizarre.

I mean, it’s not as if I have nothing to do.  On Saturday, for example, I finalized casting’s for this week’s Tuesdays at Nine reading, went for not one but two long walks, read a book, and taught myself how to cook a turkey leg in preparation for Thursday’s remote Thanksgiving (and not for nothing but everybody should be making it a remote Thanksgiving this year or else how the hell is this shit supposed to end).  Felt like a full day’s activities – especially since it was pitch dark outside when I looked out the window after they were all concluded.  And yet, on glancing at the clock on my wall, I discovered that it was only 7pm – with a whole night yawning ahead of me, with nothing to do except brood and stew in my own anxieties, watching helplessly as the nation falls apart.

And this is what everybody’s been doing for the past eight months?!  No wonder we’re all losing it!

Obviously, the thing to do is expedite my little recharging phase and move onto the next project as soon as I can, so that the stress and mental anguish of trying to write something can crowd out all the other anguish that surrounds us.  It’s a shame, though – the holiday time would be.a perfect time to relax, in a world where relaxation were at all possible.

The Odyssey

Much as I’d like to pretend otherwise, I’m a cranky old man who’s set in his ways.  Among other things, this means that I’m used to working with actual, physical pieces of paper when I’m writing.  I taught myself to type when I was in middle school; I’ve been double-spacing my stuff since my days of crappy mystery and science fiction rip-offs, diligently making my corrections and notations in the spaces in between the text.  It’s what I learned, and it’s still how I function best.  If I have a draft to revise, I need a physical copy to work with.

I’m happy to report, Constant Reader, that I have a rough draft ready to revise.  (Pulled an all-nighter on Saturday to do it.) For my previous writing projects during these our Quarantimes, I’ve forced myself to work with pdfs, but those were significantly shorter pieces, and even than I could barely focus to do the revisions.  With a longer text to work with, featuring a more complicated plot, I’ll need to keep flipping back and forth in the script to cross-check various things, and that’s a lot easier to do with actual pages to, y’know, flip.

Since my home printer isn’t built to handle large jobs, and doesn’t seem compatible with my current laptop anyway, my usual means of printing out a script is to email myself a pdf and swing by a copy store while doing my daily errands throughout the city.  (That’s right.  I’m that guy.) But I’m not ranging all over the city these days, and in this time of plague and unrest there’s not a lot of casual errand running taking place.  In order to revise the script in time for the submission deadline – which, by the way, is this Wednesday – I’d need to travel to the nearest Staples, a mile and a half away, on foot, in the middle of a pandemic.

Which is what I did on Sunday.

Thankfully, the bulk of the route from my apartment to Staples took place along the Brooklyn Greenway, so I was walking along the waterfront and away from people on this desolate autumn morning.  And Sunday mornings being what they are, the Staples was rather sparsely populated, so I was able to get in and out quickly.  But though my risks were minimized, they were still present.  The virus is still present here in Brooklyn, with cases and positivity rates hovering just below the threshold to trigger another lockdown.  And there were far less consequential risks as well – the high winds along the water blew off the baseball cap I was wearing, and now it is lost to me forever, stranded on the rocky shore of Gravesend Bay.  Upon my return trip, Army helicopters were flying low and landing at nearby Fort Hamilton base, to further amplify the atmosphere of paranoia and apocalyptic doom.

All that to print 110 pages of script – what would, in happier times, be a mundane errand.

I’d say more about the horrific mistakes of a nation that has led us all to this point, but as mentioned, I only have from now to Wednesday to actually revise the draft, which is the whole reason I went on this odyssey in the first place.

It’s the Ewok Word for “Freedom”

Well, that happened.

By virtue of living in a remote part of South Brooklyn, my weekend was rather subdued and quiet.  The joyous, cathartic celebrations that broke out once the election results finally became clear weren’t anywhere near me.  As with most things that have happened over these past few months of the quarantimes, my engagement with the world around me, both strangers and friends, has been done while sitting at my desk and working at my laptop, the tumultuous events around refracted into an endless series of videos, tweets, memes, and pop culture references.

It was fascinating to see certain motifs in these references coalesce almost immediately.  Throughout the country – throughout the world – people began referencing Return of the Jedi as it became clear that our current let’s-call-it-an-Empire was coming to an end.  People were using that film’s climactic celebration scene, with its dancing and Stormtrooper-helmet-xylophone-playing Ewoks, as a reference point for their own joy and relief.  And person after person posted clips of the films concluding music song, the Ewoks’ “Yub-nub” song.  It isn’t strange, of course – Star Wars has been part of our cultural lexicon for decades, and it’s built to be referenced in times of political triumph, so of course people would be singing its songs now.

What is strange, however, is that there technically hasn’t been a “Yub Nub” song since 1997.

It was part of the movie’s original theatrical run, of course; I distinctly remember watching it when I saw that original release back in 1983.  But when the Special Edition of the original trilogy was released in 1997, the final sequence was re-edited to feature celebratory scenes on planets that, though we didn’t know it at the time, were going to be featured in the prequel trilogy.  With this new footage added, a new score was composed- a purely orchestral one, with the cries of “Yub Nub” removed.  And since the special edition was now the official version of the movie, and has been ever since, it stood to reason that the poor Ewoks had been silenced.

And yet that clearly didn’t happen, because we all still make the reference.  Even though the footage only exists on battered VHS cassettes and the glitchy excerpts transferred to YouTube, we still know the Ewok song.  People who haven’t been alive in a world without the Special Edition know the Yub Nub song – which, as far as many of us are concerned, is the one true ending to that trilogy.

It suggests that, no matter how much monied interests conspire to keep something hidden, the truth will always come out, always find a new and receptive audience.

I take comfort in the thought.

The Lost Weekend

Happy two-days-after Halloween, Constant Reader.

The holiday – the most theatrical of holidays, the one most beloved by theater people – does come every year.  Barring the end of life on earth (always an option in 2020), we’ll get to celebrate Halloween again.  In six years, we’ll get to celebrate it on a Saturday again.  In nineteen years – oh ye gods, cue the Beatles song off Sergeant Pepper, you know the one – Samhain will be blessed with a full moon once again.  But having all three of them converge on the same day?  That’s a once-in-a-lifetime event.

And we spent it all…like this.  (gestures broadly at everything)

It’s not that it wasn’t productive.  Well, it could have been a lot more productive for me, but I did get some more pages drafted.  And it’s not like Halloween wasn’t celebrated.  There were no trick-or-treaters at my door,  but there were some down the street visiting my neighborhood’s local merchants, which gladdened my heart to no end.  I managed to get in a few quick viewings of my vintage Universal Horror DVDs.  And most importantly, a whole lot of my friends’ theater companies were able to put up various spooooky Halloween zoom events – readings of horror tales, Romeo and Juliet reimagined as Victorian horror, and the like.  Some, like the Wisconsin Democrats benefit performance of Rocky Horror, were meant to support worthy causes; others were just intended to provide a ghoulish good time, and a semblance of normalcy in these awful times.

So we did have Halloween.  But not the Halloween we could have had.  Not the Halloween we ought to have had.

It’s fine to be upset about this.  It may be trivial in comparison to everything else we’re dealing with, but all the things we’re dealing with are combined.  They have common root causes, and their awfulness manifests in a hundred different ways each day.  If the lack of jack-o-lanterns in your life, of all things, is the one that causes you to shed a tear and start sobbing, so be it.  It’s okay to mourn the Halloween that should have been.  Go ahead and be sad.

And tomorrow, if you haven’t already done so, go to your local polling place and do something about it.

More Fun Behind the Scenes

You may have noticed things have been a little strange around here.  (I realize that doesn’t narrow things down and we live in a deeply strange country, but I’m talking about things at the micro level here).  For a period of a few weeks, this site was text only; the headshots and production stills, which I’d spent a considerable amount of time collecting and sorting through, had mysteriously vanished.  Your eyes weren’t playing tricks on you, Constant Reader, and there was nothing wrong with your internet connection; the issue was all on my end.

And I still have no idea what happened.

I mean, I know that some program or subroutine or something managed to get removed, and there was a whole procedure necessary to re-install it.  I even know the name of the something.  It means nothing to me, because I don’t maintain this website (other than write a few hundred words each week for the perusal of you, Constant Reader).  That’s all taken care of by my friend Amy, who owns and manages ActorWebs, and created this website for me; if you like the look of this website and are looking to promote your own performing arts work on the web, consider this a commercial for her.

A little later today, I have a zoom meeting scheduled with Amy, to go over these updates and other new features that exist on my end of things.  Basically, I’ll be getting a tutorial; I’ve had some of these new features for a while, don’t really understand them, and finally have a chance to receive guidance.  To ask questions.  Of which, of course, there are so very many:

Are we going to have actual theater again anytime soon?

Will zoom theater ever be an acceptable substitute for the real thing?

Which performers’ union should have jurisdiction over online performances?

Why can’t the unions have any sort of reasonable discussion about the previous uestion?

Do my weekly posts do anything to stave off the dozen or so looming apocalypses we’re all facing, or am I just screaming into the void?  (And what is the plural of “apocalypse,” anyway?)

Amy would probably appreciate it if I kept it to purely technical questions, though.  After all, these are confusing times.

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