This Is Not What We Mean By Community Engagement

So, as you probably noticed, my hometown was in the news this past week for heartbreaking reasons; a lone gunman committed a terrorist act last Tuesday, setting off smoke grenades and opening fire with a semiautomatic handgun inside a subway car at the 36th Street station in Brooklyn.  By some miracle, nobody was killed, but ten people were shot, seventeen more were injured, and the gunman was at large in the city for over a day afterwards.  Whatever hard-won peace we’d gotten after coming through the pandemic (which still isn’t over yet c’mon everybody) was violated, as we were plunged into fear and chaos once again.

Thing of it is, though, New York is a very big city.  (I have a gift for understatement, I know.) And it’s a resilient city.  Even in the face of our worst catastrophes, life goes on.  And depending on where in the city you happen to be, and what you might be doing, something momentous could be happening a few blocks away and it wouldn’t necessarily affect you.  You might not even notice.

Not this time.

I live off the D line, one of the three subway lines that go through the station where the attack occurred.  I was just arriving at my own station, further south in Brooklyn, when train service along that line was shut down in response.  It would still be a while before any of us learned precisely what had happened, and realized the enormity of the situation, so at that moment it was simply a transit problem to solve.  In order to solve it, I had to walk a few blocks to catch a bus to Coney Island, so I could catch the Q train there (that line experienced delays as a result of all this, but was otherwise unaffected), and take that all the way to my day job on the Upper East Side.  It was an odyssey, to be sure, but hardly anything to complain about under the circumstances, and I’ve certainly endured worse.  So it just took me an extra hour or so to get into Manhattan to start my day – which, after my day job, involved me heading to Theatre 80, to serve as co-host for that evening’s Tuesdays at Nine reading.

And Theatre 80 sits on the corner of First Avenue and Saint Mark’s place, in the Lower East Side – which is where the gunman was arrested, the following afternoon.

Just a few yards away.

The Tuesday night readings – the only live performance outlet I’ve had during this whole pandemic, my primary way of socializing with my peers – have been one of my main lifelines throughout the past few years.  Most of our members feel the same way, I think.  And it was a particularly cathartic night – we’d all been processing the day’s events, we all needed to gather together and unwind in the company of each other’s words.  (Which included mine that evening – we wound up presenting some of my own pages.)  We stayed into the wee hours, carousing after the reading, in defiance of the chaos around us.

And that chaos wound up coming within steps of where we’d been, only a few hours afterward. I’m fine.  We’re all doing fine – or at least as well as can be expected, under the circumstances.  But those circumstances keep coming closer and closer to home.  In my opening remarks on Tuesdays, I always exhort writers to engage with the world around them.  I just wish the world wasn’t trying so damn hard to engage with us.

Weekend Stroll

I should be riding pretty high, Constant Reader.  Granted, we’re still in a pandemic, there’s war in Europe, gas prices are high, and there’s mobs of howling fascists everywhere – but other than that I’m doing pretty good.  By which I mean that I successfully completed a short one-act in time to submit it to the prominent opportunity I was keen to submit for, one for which I’d never submitted anything until now.  I also spent much of the past week making travel arrangements for something I’m doing later in Jun e, involving another of my scripts – I’ll have more information about that in coming weeks, once I’m absolutely certain that none of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are galloping along to disrupt my plans.  So, with the proviso that the world could any time, I had a good week.

So naturally I went and ruined it for myself on Saturday.  Or not.  It’s debatable.

You see, I have another submission deadline coming up at the end of the month for another ten-minute one-act, for which I’m now starting the research.  And for this research, it turns out I need to track down an out-of-print book on the occult, which the New York library system happens not to carry.  (It is highly unlikely that anybody who knows me is at all surprised by that sentence.) Not to worry, I thought – I had the day free Saturday, and New York has the miles and miles of stacks to be found in the Strand bookstore.  Surely, a jaunt into Manhattan (pandemic notwithstanding) would do me good, and anything I might want could be found in the Strand’s stacks.

Except for this book, apparently. 

No matter – there’s an occult knick-knack store down the street from the Strand.  A short walk over there, and – I was still out of luck.  And heading back home, I saw that I could switch trains and get off at an earlier stop to check out a similar store in Brooklyn – which also didn’t have what I needed.  So now, having struck out three times and being completely off of my usual route, I walked all way down Coney Island Avenue to Brighton Beach, to wander along the Boardwalk until I could catch the D train there, walking for hours to no effect, the sunlight waning, the day wasted.

Except it wasn’t wasted, of course.

Some days – especially after being trapped indoors for months on end – you need to walk your city.  You need to explore.  You need to taste a vegan cookie from the farmer’s market.  You need to see what the street vendors are selling now.  You need to learn the shops and restaurants and weird cul-de-sacs on streets you haven’t walked down before.  You need to see the Coney Island Beach before the tourists have returned and remind yourself it’s still there.  And if this all sounds like p4rocrastination, well at least it’s procrastination that clears the head and gets in your daily cardio.

Plus it turns out I can order this book online.  I’ll probably do that tomorrow.

The Real Victim Here

It has been eight days now, Constant Reader, and there are no signs of abatement.  Our national discourse is still dominated by the Slap.  The ongoing consequences of fracas between Will Smith and Chris Rock aren’t simply the main topic of discussion about the Oscar ceremony; the incident isn’t simply the main topic of discussion about the entertainment industry.  It’s still the main topic of conversation, period, its plethora of (usually terrible) hot takes dwarfing coverage of all other current events.  This is rather remarkable, considering that at the moment World War III and a global pandemic are taking place at the same time.  And it’s a shame, since many other notable things occurred during last Sunday’s ceremony, with significant consequences for many other figures in the performing arts.

Like, y’know, me.

A few months into the aforementioned global pandemic, I wrote my first play specifically for the zoom theater format.  It’s called Trivial; if you’re so inclined, and are a member of the online service, you can find it on New Play Exchange here.  The folks at Boston University’s Stage Troupe staged it in the fall of 2020; people seemed to like it.  (I like it, anyway.)  It’s the story of a young woman, distraught as so many were at that horrific time, who tries to contact a suicide prevention hotline but accidentally crashes the zoom meeting of a New York trivia team. Instead.  (I may or may not have real-life models for some of these characters.)  The team takes it upon themselves to try and talk the young woman down.  To complicate matters, they need to do this while the online trivia round continues, and as the questions keep veering unhelpfully towards mental health issues and other dark topics.  Consider, for instance, what the Quizmaster character asks as the round’s ninth and penultimate question:

Ninth and penultimate question! Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix both won Oscars for playing the Joker. What is the only other role to win Oscars for two separate actors in two separate movies?

At the time I wrote Trivial, and in July of 2020 when the piece is set, the clear and unambiguous answer to that question was Vito Corleone.  (For Marlon Brando in The Godfather and Robert DeNiro in The Godfather Part II. In case you’re curious.). But eight days ago, sixty years after Rita Moreno won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Anita in Robert Wise’s West Side Story, Ariana DeBose won in the same category for the same role in Steven Spielberg’s remake of the classic musical.  It was a tremendous moment for actors of color, for LGBTQ performes, and for the Broadway community as a whole.  It also meant that there were now three roles in world cinema which had won Academy Awards for multiple performers, which further meant that my script goddam it my script was totally ruined!!!

Or at least it was now a period piece.  Which I suppose it was anyway – with vaccines available and lockdowns being lifted, the world is very different than it was in 2020.  Plus the piece is specifically formatted for online performance, and we’re as anxious to pretend that zoom never existed as we’re anxious to believe the pandemic is over (even though it totally isn’t wear your damn masks people).  But that just increases the likelihood that Trivial, like so many zoom plays, will be willfully ignored and forgotten, having had less than two years to make any sort of an impact.

It almost makes me want to slap someone.

This Is Not What I Thought I’d Be Posting Today

The following is an approximation of my internal monolgue during the evening of Sunday, March 27, beginning around the time I arrived home from work.

Well, the Oscar ceremony is upon us once again, and even though I barely saw any movies this past year – did any of us?  There’s still a PANDEMIC GOING ON – the yearly awards show does still offer the opportunity for cultural stocktaking that it did back in happier times.  It’s also something I blog about every year, so even without having seen most of the films under consideration, it should still be worth watching the telecast –

(Am unable to get the ABC signal on my digital television, and am unable adjust the settings on my laptop to stream the show on YouTube)

The thing of it is, with the constant cascade of social media feeds, you don’t even have to watch the Oscars to know what’s going on.  Likewise, you don’t necessarily have to have seen the movies to be aware of the cultural conversations surrounding them.  As an example, consider the rivalry that’s emerged in the past weeks between CODA (which I haven’t seen yet) and The Power of the Dog (which I have).  It’s another example of the dichotomy that always seems to emerge between a given year’s Oscar frontrunners, between the uplifting crowd-pleaser and the downbeat, edgy critic’s darling.  This year, that rivalry finds itself complicated by –

(Begins seeing social media posts about a bizarre dance routine upstaging the In Memoriam presentation)

Hm – well, that’s the great paradox at the heart of the Oscars, of course.  It’s tacky and ridiculous, and yet it’s the occasion for larger, occasionally lofty discussions about the State of Our Culture.  And of course, a deadly self-importance is the danger of both of those extremes.  It means that a delicate balancing act is required to –

(Will Smith punches Chris Rock.)

Um, okay, wow.  That happened.  As much as I want to offer up my ruminations about the Oscar telecast, some discourses are just too complicated and fraught to jump into thoughtlessly, too jarring to talk about –

(Everybody on social media starts taking sides on the whole Will Smith vs. Chris Rock altercation.  Hot takes proliferate at an exponential rate.)

Okay, you know what?  I’m done.  That’s it.  This is all the blog post you’re getting this week, Constant Reader.  Things are getting too unhinged, too out of hand – and after watching all of this I’m just too darn TIRED – for me to come up with a thoughtful essay.  And I get it.  I really do.  There’s a hell of a lot of things going on and most of them are distressing and we’re all on our last nerve and even the pretty celebrities are at each other’s throats as a result.

So everybody take a time out.  I’m calling it a night.  The more cerebral piece I had in mind about The Power of the Dog is going to wait at least a week, until we’re all in a better headspace to think about such things.  Until then, Constant Reader, be careful out there.

Here, There, and Everywhere

I first set foot in the HERE Arts Center, in downtown New York (off the corner of 6th Avenue and Spring Street, to be specific) in the summer of 1998.  That’s fifteen months shy of a quarter century ago – long ago enough that tragically, the skyscrapers looming up from several blocks away are no longer the same.  In 1998, the Twin Towers were the landmarks you could see off to the south; New Yorkers were muttering in exasperation at Mayor Giuliani as they went about their business, and the area south of Houston Street was full of alternative music-loving, Tarantino quoting, impossibly pretty young artistic types flitting to and fro.

HERE itself is a multi-use cultural center, with a bar on the top level as you come in, one theatre space on the ground floor, and another down the steps to the basement level, next to whatever art installation they happen to be exhibiting at the moment.  When I first set foot in HERE – back when all bars were coffeeshops instead, and every such coffeeshop worth the name had homemade muffins to consume while you waited – it was to perform in that basement level theater space.  It was for a program they used to sponsor called the American Living Room Festival, which showcased a different menu of short theater pieces each weekend.  (Essentially the Fringe Festival, before the now-defunct NYC Fringe existed, all in once space and with an even scrappier vibe.) I was performing in a series of interconnected avant-garde vignettes, each of which featured me as a bodiless head.  I wore all black and had a pinhole spotlight on my face, so that’s all the audience would register of me.  In one of the vignettes the Head had magical powers.  It was the sort of glorious ridiculousness – Sam Shepard by way of The Kids In The Hall – that you could do when you were a young actor in the late 90s, back when ersatz Shepard was the height of what our playwrights aspired to, back when our nation was complacent and at peace, and the Twin Towers could still be seen from Spring Street.

Friends of mine in the New Ambassadors Theater Company, after the digital interregnum which we’ve all gone through (digirregnum?  Is that a word?), recently mounted their HeartBROKE festival of one-act plays.  I went to see it this past weekend – at HERE, that marvelous old venue on 6th Avenue and Spring Street.  It was a festival of 10 ten-minute plays, loosely on the subject of love, some naturalistic, some avant garde.  The theater space itself has long since been refurbished – there used to be a number of infelicitous columns blocking the sight lines – but it was still that same basement black box space, where young actors have spoken the words of young playwrights for a long, long time now.

It’s still there.

An awful lot of things – an awful lot of people – are gone, of course.  I don’t recognize any of the surrounding restaurants, you can’t buy muffins in the lobby anymore, and it’s the Freedom Tower that looms as the landmark off to the south, as you peer down 6th Avenue.  But young and pretty people are still flitting to and fro, and hungry young actors are still honing their chops with the most preposterous of short new pieces, down in that basement theater. 

You can keep your “Broadway is Back” sloganeering, or whatever else is current these days.  As long as that basement – as long as any of the basements – are still there, as long as war and plague and economic catastrophe and murder hornets have still managed not to dislodge us from those basements, then we’ve still got a chance.

The Perils of Multiple Hats

I ascended to the frigid subway platform extremely early yesterday morning; I work a 9 to 5 day on Sundays, and the clocks had gone forward the night before, so I was still in a groggy stupor as I made it to the train.  I was facing a long day as well; after work, I had a zoom presentation of the opening minutes of my newest play taking place over zoom, as part of The Barrow Group’s annual Spring Forward presentation of new material.  There was a 5:30 rehearsal planned, which I’d be directing myself (at least for my piece – there were six in the overall lineup), and then the 7pm performance. As the train left the station, bearing me off to my upcoming marathon, I pulled out my phone to check my email.

And right there was a message, an email not an hour old, from one of my actors.  Due to transportation issues beyond his control, he wouldn’t be able to participate in the reading.

I texted the event producers, who reached out to a few other possible folks, but it’s not like things were two years ago – people aren’t sidelined anymore, waiting for things to start up again.  Things are getting busy, and folks are heavily scheduled.  So there weren’t any last-minute actors to be had.  The most obvious solution, then, was for me to step in and read the part myself.

I had a degree of trepidation about this.  Not that I didn’t think I could handle the role; I wrote it, after all, and knew how it was supposed to sound.  It wasn’t an unreasonable part to cast me in, and if I do say so myself I’m a fairly capable performer.  No, I don’t think the issue is whether a writer can perform they’ve written themselves.  It’s whether or not they should.

When my play Dragon’s Breath was presented at the New York Fringe (back when we still had a New York Fringe), I wound up playing one of the parts myself.  It was a comedic character part, the secondary antagonist of the show.  Contrary to my fears, it wasn’t hard to multitask – or at least it wasn’t terribly overwhelming.  I was familiar enough with the material, after all, and I had an outside director able to provide some objectivity in shaping my performance.  And it was, by most accounts, a successful performance; at the risk of putting too much stock in reviews, those were some of the best reviews I ever received as an actor.

Trouble is, they only focused on me as an actor.  Dragon’s Breath was a script which had A Lot To Say about things like religion and culture and the roots of extremism, and while the reviewers successfully followed the gist of my plot, and spelled my name right, they didn’t really mention what I was trying to say at all.  But they did think my performance was funny.  And while my script may very well have tried to bite off more than it could chew (I swear that’s not a dragon joke of some sort), I think there’s an underlying issue with actors performing in their own work here as well; namely, that audiences assume that your character is a mouthpiece for yourself.  If you’re performing in your own solo show, or are a Harvey Fierstein sort of artist mining your own life, then this assumption works just fine.  But if you’re playing a character part?  Especially one whose lines and actions run counter to your play’s overall message?  It seems to scramble people’s brains.

Of course, that’s an issue for when you’ve got a finished script, and you’ve mounted a production, and being at that stage is a luxury.  Spring Forward was about brand new, in-progress scripts, so we were a long way from having to worry about all that.  So at 5:30, I logged on with the rest of my actors, went over thing we needed to go over, and we performed at 7.  And everything went just fine. At least I think it went fine; it is a bit of a blur.  I had a long day yesterday, after all.

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