Soul Searching

You know, I would have been happy to write about anything else this week.  This is an arts professional and pop culture blog, after all.  Even with the reduced activity of the Quarantimes, there’s theater companies announcing future seasons, or closing their doors indefinitely, or both in a few confusing cases.  There’s bungled superhero movies and tv series to binge and all manner of other subjects.  Absent a pop cultural angle of some sort, I try and avoid blog posts that are solely about current events, unless the news item in question is so immense and grotesque that there’s no avoiding it.  Like a terrorist attack, let’s say, or an act of civil war.

And so, well, here we are.

Now, if you’re taking time out of your day to read an arts blog from a New York actor/playwright – or, really, if you’re a functioning human being at all – then I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you’re horrified by what happened at the Capitol this week.  Perhaps you watched the chaos unfold on your television set and wondered how on earth this could happen here, how such events could even be imagined.  Perhaps you heard the mob’s shouted slogans and couldn’t imagine how such vile ideas could take root, or listened to the president’s* exhortations to them and wondered how such mafia tactics could become normalized.  If you’re like my arts professional friends, you’re surprised, and outraged, and wondering who’s to blame.

Well, I’m as disgusted and outraged by this past week’s events as anyone – but I’m not remotely surprised.  This crowd has telegraphed its beliefs and intentions for years at this point; far-right seditionists have been a frightening presence in this country for as long as I’m alive.  (And remember, I’m old.) So while this is all disgusting, it’s only surprising if you haven’t been paying attention.

And if you’re a storyteller by trade, it’s your job to pay attention.

I’m assuming the bulk of my readership is made up of fellow storytellers, actors and writers and other theatrical types.  We typically don’t have the same politics as the rioters, and even the most high-strung of us tend not to share their delusions.  But we shape the culture around us for everybody with the stories we tell, even those rioters.  Their delusions may be their own, but the fantasies they believe they’re living out came from somewhere.  And we need to take a long, hard look at the degree to which those fantasies came from us.

How many times have we depicted the destruction of Washington DC, of some famous landmark or other, for the sake of entertainment?  When we did that in Independence Day­ – which, remember, was a quarter century ago­ – we coined the term “disaster porn” for the spectacle.  In that same year’s Mars Attacks!­ – a film I’ve kept flashing back to over the past few days – the massacre of Congress is presented as a joke.  Are we really so surprised that somebody somewhere would find this past week’s nightmare funny or exciting?

How many fantasy epics have we told where the plucky hero faces impossible odds to bring down some tyrannical government, as throngs of everyday citizens cheer?  And how often is the ideology behind hero and villain deliberately left as vague as possible?  We present those heroes as cyphers, so we can appeal to as broad an audience as possible – everybody can project their own ideologies onto them, even if that ideology is horrifying.

How often, throughout my entire life, have we seen Mafiosi presented on screen as exemplars of what the wielding of power actually looks like when the veneer of polite society is stripped away?  How many leadership lessons from The Godfather and The Sopranos have we been encouraged to draw?  Why are we then surprised when our real-life leaders start behaving that way?

How often has the American drama taken a look at the dark, sociopathic recesses of our national soul, only to take the characters it finds and set them up as an Everyman, softly asking for our pity?  Seriously – imagine what would happen if Willy Loman had unlimited credit and access to the nuclear codes.  Sound familiar?

I’m not bringing all this up as part of the much-derided, ridiculously termed “cancel” culture.  I only mean to say that we need to start thinking long and hard about the fantasies we spin, and how those fantasies may influence others in ways we haven’t wanted to admit.  As Vonnegut said in Mother Night, “we are what we pretend to be – so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be.” Because some truly terrible have been pretending some truly terrible things, and trying very hard to make those fantasies a reality.

Have we helped them along the way, without our realizing it?

And now that we realize it, what the hell do we do?

Their Exits and Their Entrances

It was late in the afternoon on December 31st; I’d dared to hope that, with midnight on the horizon, I might be able to escape 2020 without having to bear witness to any further tragedy.    Sadly, the terrible year just past had one final bit of awful news for me before it slithered off into oblivion.  I received word that an old friend of mine, Anton Strout, had passed away the night before.  He was only fifty – exactly a year and a day older than me.

Anton was primarily known as a writer of urban fantasy – he wrote the Simon Canderous serious of books, along with the Spellmason Chronicles.  (You can learn more about these at his website, here.) I met him a good ten years before his first novel was published, however, before he was active as a writer at all.  I worked with him as an actor in at 1998 production of As You Like It in New York, the sort of hole-in-the-wall non-union Shakespeare production that all of us are practically required to do at some point.  He was capable and good-hearted; I remember him as Corin the Shepherd, strumming his guitar throughout (which, again, we were all but required by law to do back in the 90s).

If I’m being completely honest, it wasn’t the greatest production.  It wasn’t bad at all; I definitely had a lot of fun with my bits, and most of us did as well.  But it was mediocre – the sort of unpolished, haphazard sort of production that gets put up by kids  with more enthusiasm than anything else.  There are a LOT of such productions in this world – or at least there were in the world before the Quarantimes, and certainly in the world of the late 90s.  And as such, there was something fundamentally unfair about the productions – I’ve seen equally haphazard Shakespeare productions in parks and regional houses, and by virtue of their having a built-in audience tbat was sufficiently large and friendly, those productions were enthusiastically received, where the same production in a dark 50-seat house would be met with stony silence.

It’s not as unfair as leaving this world at the age of 50, with only a day before you’d see the new year rung it, but still.

The strange and awful thing is, this isn’t the first tragedy to visit this particular production.  Our director passed away from cancer nine years ago, at the obscenely young age of 37.  The venue where we performed, CHARAS on the Lower East Side, was demolished for redevelopment years ago.  And a year after our production, the man who ran that institution, Armando Perez, was killed under mysterious circumstances that have still never been solved.  (You can read Playbill’s coverage of the incident from that time here.) Because of the city’s interest in that property, it’s long been alleged that they dragged their feet on the investigation into his death to avoid finding anything that might jeopardize their plans – which is the sort of insinuation that sounds inflammatory and preposterous until you remember this was New York City under Rudolph Giuliani, and somewhere in the past twenty two years he seems to have turned into Nosferatu.

Twenty-two years.  While the tragedies I describe above should sound preposterous, when you consider that this was an entire generation ago…heck, an entire century ago…in a New York City that hadn’t yet known the terror attacks of 2001, or any of the subsequent catastrophes…then it isn’t particularly strange, I guess.  But it still hurts to consider.

I look forward to the year to come, and what is hopefully a better future.  But the past still has weight and a terrible reach, and has a habit of finding the darkest and saddest ways of reminding you of what once was, at precisely the moment you thought the future had arrived.

(Note: Anton left behind two very young children – twins, as a matter of fact.  A GoFundMe has been set up for their benefit; you can make a donation here if you’re so inclined.)

One Last Deadline

Hope you had a restful holiday, Constant Reader!

After a long and plague-ridden year, I felt myself settling down for that proverbial long winter’s nap as the Christmas weekend began.  However, I’d made the mistake of making a final check of play submission options for the year, and found a one-act competition with a deadline to receive submissions of December 31st.  It’s one of the handful of competitions remaining that are still asking for hard-copy submissions, meaning that any submission I wanted to make would have to be mailed out today at the absolute latest.  It’s the sort of seemingly impossible request that a sane person would have ignored out of hand – but I’m a writer, and not only am I far from sane but for once I had a suitable idea for the competition in question.

And so, with my Christmas celebrated, I holed up over the weekend and wrote up a twenty page draft.  I’ll make a revision pass through it today, head to the post office, and send it out.

And with that, my 2020 output is now finalized.  Two full length plays (one of which I’d begun the year prior) and two one acts (one 20 pages, one 30 pages).  And that’s it.  Those drafts are the tangible things I have to show for my time in exile.  My work for the year now past.

Is that enough?

Going strictly by the numbers, it’s a good year for me – I average about one full-length draft a year, so the extra titles are all a happy accident.  By contrast, there are plenty of writers I know who can bang out four drafts (of various sizes) in a month, and compared to them the yearly output I’m so proud of is barely worth mentioning.

But these comparisons are all based in our output and our work habits in the Before Times, as if our circumstances had remained unchanged from 2019.  Which is rather obviously not the case.

Should I be grateful that I got any writing done during an ongoing apocalypse?  Probably.  Should I be angry that I didn’t get as much writing done as perhaps I could have, given the sheer amount of time we all had on our hands watching the world burn around us?  Probably not, but it’s hard to shake the thought.  Especially since the need to write – to document the madness around us, to bear witness – has never been greater.  And yet many writers I know have found themselves practically shutting down, unable to focus as they go through the mass trauma event of 2020 along with us all.  And I can’t say they’re wrong.

All I can say is that, as of end of day this Thursday, it’s done.  2020, productive or no, is finished.  I won’t take a celebratory lap and exult that “I’ve survived,” since a) I know too many people who haven’t, and b) a lot can still happen in ninety six hours.

But I am, ever so tentatively, looking forward to 2021.

See you there, Constant Reader.

On Blitzen

Christmas may not be until the end of this week, Constant Reader, but I needed to get my decorating done by last Tuesday.  The annual Twistmas holiday installment of the Tuesdays at Nine reading series, which I co-host, took place on the fifteenth, as we continue to figure out how to make remote theater happen during these Quarantimes.  For many of us in this blessedly-soon-to-expire year of 2020, the only holiday decorations and celebrations we’re going to get to experience are the ones we see in the backgrounds of other people’s zoom screens.  And so, while I might ordinarily make do with a simple wreath or two, this year I went all out.  I masked up, trudged off to my local store, and picked up a nice six-foot tree to adorn my living room.  I had to think of my audience, after all.

As with most folks, my Christmas ornaments are mostly a combination of sentimental trinkets from childhood, gotten from grandparents and created in elementary school projects, and basic glass ornaments, procured from dollar stores and clearance bins.  There are two ornaments on the tree, however – one red and one green, covered with glitter-embossed stars – that are different.  They were purchased from no Christmas store, or any other conventional source of Yuletide supplies.

They came from a van on the Jersey turnpike.

In 2003, I was in the cast of New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse’s production of The Sound of Music (playing, as I’m fond of describing on my resume, “assorted Nazis”).  Most of the cast traveled to the theater from New York City; vans leaving from midtown Manhattan, each driven by a designated company member, were earmarked for the purpose.  Our van featured a particularly raucous group – all of the “assorted Nazis” and a fair number of the excess nuns, all bursting with more creative energy and high spirits than the show had room for.  It was a good long run of nine weeks, during which time we burned through as many iPod and mixtape singalongs as we could.  And since Sound of Music was Paper Mill’s fall show that year, the last weeks of the run fell in December before Christmas.

We, as a group, decided that the best way for us to demonstrate our Yuletide cheer was to decorate the van, in as ridiculously ostentatious a manner as possible. We affixed a wreath to the grill of the van, with “Merry Christmas” written in its center.  We lined the front windows with garland.  We lined the side windows with Christmas lights and found a battery pack to light them.  We toyed briefly with the idea of fake spray-on snow for the windows as well, until we realized it would represent a traffic hazard.  And from the coathooks and window guards of that van – a van we christened “Blitzen” – we hung red and green ornaments.

I didn’t keep any souvenirs from that production – it’s neither easy nor advisable to smuggle swastika armbands, after all.  But when all was said and done, and Blitzen had dropped us off by Penn Station for the final time, I kept the ornaments.  They’re hanging on my tree now.

And hanging them this year, in this time of plague and quarantine, Blitzen is what I miss the most.

You see, for all the doomsday predictions, live performance still exists.  Maybe not in any standard format, maybe not yet in a profitable format, but we’re keeping the creative spirit going even though we can’t be together in person.  What we can’t reproduce online, however, are the kind of ridiculous and wonderful side-activities and reactions that come from creative types being in the same space together, even if that space is just a cheesy van on the Jersey Turnpike.  And until we’re all vaccinated, we’ll have to make do without those.

My tree will come down, and my Blitzen ornaments will be put away, sometime very early in 2021.  Hopefully that will be a better year by far. 

Gone No Longer

We’re in desperate need of some good news right now.  With the coronavirus still raging, the economy still in shambles, our political leadership flirting with the notion of a democracy-ending coup as a fun lark, and a looming climate catastrophe that nobody seems willing to deal with, our beaten-down spirits crave some positive development to sustain us.  If that should tie in somehow to the holiday season, that traditionally festive time that seems gloomier than ever this year, so much the better.  And thus it was that this week, the news came that our prayers had been answered, and an honest-to-goodness holiday miracle had occurred.

They found the lost footage to The Muppet Christmas Carol.

If you saw that movie when it was first released in 1992, you may remember a musical number entitled “When Love Is Gone.”  It’s the mournful ballad sung by Belle as she leaves Young Ebenezer, realizing that another idol has displaced her.  It was a memorable part of the film in its theatrical release, and in its initial VHS release, but when it was time to issue the film on DVD somebody somewhere decided to edit out that section of the film on the basis of it being too “emotionally sophisticated” for its target audience.  At some point in this process, the original film negative was lost, so until now the musical number has existed only as a tantalizing memory.  Last week’s news, that the negative was discovered in the BBC archives and would be part of a new reissue of the film, was met with jubilation that this lost footage would finally be seen after decades.

Which is weird, because my family has had this footage for years.

By which I mean that we owned one of those early VHS copies of the film that did contain “When Love Is Gone,” as it appeared in the original theatrical release.  Whenever I was home for the holidays, that film would go into the good ol’ VCR as we trimmed the Christmas tree.  (Pro tip: for a good five hour block of tree-trimming time, schedule a musical Christmas Carol marathon with the Muppets, the Albert Finney Scrooge, and Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol.  Order’s up to you.) It never occurred to us that this footage wasn’t appearing in other people’s copy of the film.  Never occurred to us that VHS technology would eventually become obsolete, the machinery to play the cassettes no longer functional.  Never occurred to us that something we were actively watching each year could conceivably be lost.

I mean, come on.  Saying that you’ve discovered “lost film footage” implies that you’ve finally found London After Midnight or the original nine-hour edit of Von Stroheim’s Greed.  Not a film from 1992.  We’re not talking about some lost icon from my childhood – I was in college when the film came out, dammit!  That can’t possibly be enough time for any footage to become lost!  And yet, when I sit down and do the math, the cold hard reality stares me in the face.  There are children born today whose parents are too young to have seen The Muppet Christmas Carol as it originally appeared in theaters.

Until now, that is. I don’t know when the restored footage is getting released, and I certainly don’t know when we’ll all get to set foot in a theater again.  But when we’re finally allowed back, then if Muppet Christmas Carol gets a theatrical re-release then I’ll be first line to go see it.  That movie may not have come out until ’92, but the Muppets were still childhood idols of mine.  And the nice thing about reliving your childhood for an hour and a half is that, for that brief hour and a half, you don’t have to think about just how dreadfully long ago your childhood actually was.

It’s Over

Now that the presidential elections seems, at last (knock wood), to be settled, I’ve naively assumed that we’re reaching the end of our long period of doomscrolling – that we’ll no longer be addicted to our social media feeds attempting to keep up with the berserk soap opera in which we find ourselves trapped.  Obviously, that’s not the case – we’re still in the midst of a raging pandemic, the economy’s falling apart, somebody’s putting up monoliths all around the globe as a viral marketing campaign of some sort.  The list goes on and on.  But even so, I’ve dared to hope that the madness wouldn’t engulf my particular industry more than it already has.  There can’t be insane theater stories if the theaters are all shut down, right?

Nope.  Wrong on that count as well.

I can’t pretend to know all the details of what’s been going on over at the Flea Theater, a staple of the downtown scene for many decades now; for a summary, you can check out the recent Playbill article about it here.  To briefly summarize, the Flea was one of many theatres to make a public reckoning of its practices back in June, in a moment of industry-wide soul-searching triggered by the killing of George Floyd and its aftermath.  In addition to promising to do more to cultivate artistic voices of more diverse races and background, the company pledged to update its business model; after decades of relying on its resident non-union theater company, the Bats, for unpaid labor in all aspects of theater operation, they promised they would start paying their artists.  These promises were made back in June; something clearly changed between then and this past week.  On Wednesday, the company wound up going in a different direction – announcing in an open letter that, due to the difficult circumstances we’re all facing, it was terminating all of its resident artists groups.

Within 24 hours, the Flea Theater was effectively over.  I’ve never seen a theater company attacked so swiftly, so mercilessly, so viciously, on social media.  And the attacks weren’t limited to the announcement of the termination.  Every piece of dirty laundry, every bit of bad behavior experienced by just about anybody who’d worked with them was announced on blogs and twitter feeds all over the internet.  A new one every few minutes – just hit refresh for a new horror story.  Plenty of theater companies have endured scandals, and fallen from grace, but I don’t think any have fallen quite so swiftly.

I do not expect this to be the last one to do so.

I never worked at the Flea, but I have a number of friends who have, both as members of The Bats and in other capacities.  Their horror stories have popped up on my feed along with everybody else’s.  And while they’re bad – yes, as bad as everybody says – they’re also strangely familiar.  We’ve all got horror stories.  Nightmare auditions, abusive teachers, exploitive companies.  The reason we don’t tell them is because we don’t want to get viewed as a troublemaker, or somebody who’s somehow too precious, too self-important, to share the same unpleasantness as the rest of us.  It sounds like fear, but it’s something else – a kind of social contract.  Be patient, become known as somebody who’ll keep their head down and focus on the work, and you’ll be rewarded for it someday.

There is no longer a someday.

Despite a few companies’ bumbling efforts to the contrary, theatrical production isn’t coming back in the near future.  That doesn’t mean it’s gone – the stuff we’re all doing in zoom rooms at the moment is eventually going to make it to the stage.  But the companies that have gotten things to the stage, that have controlled the stage up until now, are no longer in a position to do so.  And we all know this.  And we’ve all collectively reached the conclusion that there’s no longer any point in protecting them.  Nothing to gain any more by staying quiet about their secrets.

The Flea is just the start; in the next few months, a whole lot of companies, small and large, are going to burn to the ground.  There’s no way to avoid it.

But we can look forward to what grows from the ashes.