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The Direction We’re Going In

I don’t think of myself as a director, and it’s not something I do very often.  I’m not the most visually oriented person, and apart from some sound design experience I don’t have the requisite technical experience and vocabulary.  So I’ve never pursued it, and don’t particularly regret it; even in a pandemic, I have enough to do as a writer and actor to keep me occupied.  But the thing about writing, is that you tend to have small pieces going up in small little festivals and readings happening in hole-in-the-walls, and while it’s useful to have a director with an outside perspective when working on a full production, for these kinds of small little workshops and salons you frequently wind up directing your own work, for expediency’s sake.

A new short piece of mine, For the Benefit of Jimmy Mangiaroli, is being mounted in just such a salon for new works taking place next month, and I’ve been asked to direct the piece as well.  Fortunately, it’s a very simple two hander, and the artists are friends of mine, so this isn’t the most demanding project I’ve ever undertaken.  And having worked in theater for (redacted) years now, there’s a rhythm to the rehearsal process that’s easy enough to follow.  It’s a gradual expansion; you start by siting around the table dissecting the text, then move about in a small studio room working on physical business, and then finally work your way to the full stage and the live performance.  Simple and natural.

Or at least it would be if we weren’t on freakin’ Zoom.

Yes, while the performance itself will take place in Manhattan, live and in person, our rehearsals are taking place over Zoom.  And after a year and a half of relying on the remote platform as the only vehicle for live performance, it’s no longer disconcerting to act to the laptop camera, or hear your words coming through its speakers.  But trying to direct over zoom?  It’s weird as hell.

It’s strange not having the ritual of sitting around the same table – that first day of school energy – to do a first reading.

It’s strange to be doing your dishes one minute, then sit down at the keyboard and instantly switch into a director’s headspace.

It’s strange to describe what blocking should look like without actually being able to move.

It’s strange referring to something in the script and having no idea if your actors are able to follow along on a hard copy, or a pdf on a corner of the screen, or some other format you’ve never imagined before now.

It’s strange to describe live theater as some half-remembered thing you’re trying to reconstruct, as opposed to something you regularly, actually do.

I’m not worried, per se – my friends know this script, and they’re very good, so really they’re doing the bulk of the job for me.  And who knows, maybe I’ll be able to do more Zoom directing as this pandemic wears on.

(Of course, if all of you get your vaccinations like you’re supposed to I won’t have to find out.)

Another Race Against Time

There’s a variety of aggregate sites here on the Interwebs where submission opportunities for playwrights can be found, and a number of different ways in which to use them.  The website I most frequently use, Playwrights’ Center, allows you a variety of ways to organize their listings.  You can filter out opportunities that charge an application fee; I used to do this since I generally disapprove of the practice, but things being what they are these days (remember, there’s this horrifying pandemic going on) I’m less likely to begrudge a company an extra ten dollars or so.  You can also sort the listings chronologically, by a variety of different criteria.  My usual preference is to see whichever deadline is nearest, to make sure that I don’t miss anything that might be coming up, and have a chance to make whatever formatting adjustments I need to (and I always seem to need to make some kind of adjustment) before the opportunity passes me by.

The downside of this approach is the risk that I’ll spot an upcoming submission deadline date too late to prepare anything; the piece might require extensive reformatting, or reworking, or the opportunity might require something brand new entirely, and since I’ve only been looking a few weeks ahead when it comes to those submissions I’ll have left myself with no time to make those preparations.  This doesn’t come up too often, fortunately – most opportunities for full-length pieces give you a few months’ lead time at least, and usually a short play contest winds up being too narrow in focus for me to submit in the first place.

Usually.

This past weekend, I saw an opportunity in Binghamton that’s soliciting short new one acts, in response to art work that’s posted on their website.  This isn’t the sort of prompt that I usually respond to – and yet, this time, an enjoyably weird idea presented itself.  Surely it would be fun to explore the idea, nurture it, and work on it over these last weeks of the summer.

Except it turns out that the deadline is next Sunday.

And so, Constant Reader, we once again face the conundrum I’ve talked about since the very beginning of this website; when you have limited time to write, time spent doing anything else – including writing other material, like this very post you’re reading now – is an active hinderance to your goal.  Is this goal achievable?  I think so; as of this writing I’m already about a quarter of the way through the rough draft, and it’s always the opening scenes that are the hardest to draft – you have to figure out a way to set up the rest of the piece in a way that’s expeditious without feeling forced.  I just have to do it.

So – speaking of expeditious and forced – I’ll bid you adieu until next week, Constant Reader!  I’ve got some more work to do.

Something To Look Forward To This Wednesday

We’re grasping at straws these days, and understandably so.  Each little tidbit of news we hear about upcoming Broadway productions is snatched at for reassurance that life as we knew it will soon be back to normal.  Hamilton has set its reopening date!  Pass Over (an upcoming Broadway debut for Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu) has announced its vaccination policies!  Seasons are being planned again!  Each juicy tidbit – for shows that haven’t gone up yet, mind you – suggests to a desperately hopeful theatrical audience that production will return, and the industry brought back from near-death.  And yet the milestone taking place this week, perhaps the most important one to future theatrical activity, has gone largely unheralded.

This Wednesday, August 4, marks the date that Actors Equity will begin reviewing and approving the paperwork for Equity Showcase productions.  Up until now, every announcement, every bit of “theater is back” news, has involved Broadway productions or productions by established off-Broadway companies.  But as I’ve said many a time, the bulk of theatrical activity doesn’t take place on Broadway.  As an example, that Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu piece mentioned above is a transfer from Off-Broadway, having been part of LCT3’s line-up in 2018.  And the plays that make it to the off-Broadway houses each travel a long development road involving showcase productions, 29 hour workshops, staged readings, and the like.  All such activity has been in limbo; Equity has been handling the paperwork for the Broadway productions that were already running or in preparation, but nothing for any new material that might come through the pipeline.

And honestly, there were plenty of fears that they wouldn’t.  The relation that smaller producers have with the union is always fraught; there’s always the sense that they’d prefer the old business model of out-of-town regional productions leading to Broadway.  The paychecks for the actors, and consequently the working dues payments, would be considerably larger if everything still worked the way it did in the 1940s (albeit at 2021 prices).  And given the union’s stance with similar small-scale contracts – don’t ever bring up the 99-seat plan to a Los Angeles actor unless you’re prepared to hear an anguished lamentation on the subject – there was real paranoia that the union would use this current crisis to junk the Showcase code.  Well, revisions may eventually come, but thankfully the union still realizes the value in it for emerging companies and creators of new work.  The fact that those contracts will start being processed again next week is a sure sign that those contracts still exist.

I’ve produced under that code myself, when my Dragon’s Breath was on the Fringe; many actors have done so.  It can be a hassle; the paperwork itself isn’t too much of a hassle, but there’s only one or two harried souls in the Equity office who are handling it.  I don’t begrudge them the headache of trying to dig out from the avalanche of inquiries from artists who’ve had projects held up in limbo for the past year and a half.  I do, however, take a measure of hope in that their grumpy discomfort is the best sign yet of things returning to “normal.”

(NOTE – I’m currently on vacation, so I wrote this post in advance a few weeks ago, not knowing about all the other things Actors Equity was planning that throw the ideal of “getting back to normal” completely out the window! I’ll be sure to check in about new membership requirements and the like in upcoming weeks.)

Broken

If you’ve been reading closely over the past few weeks, you’ve no doubt noticed that there’s not a lot of theatrical news in these weekly news posts.  And that’s to be expected, frankly – we’ve been dealing with a global pandemic for the past year and half, we’ve been in lockdown for much of that time, and despite the (excellent) summer efforts of organizations such as the Public Theatre and my old friends at Classical Theatre of Harlem, there simply isn’t much of anything happening to talk about.  Nevertheless, a significant event in my theatrical life did indeed happen just a few days ago:

I threw out a broken piece of furniture.

The furniture in question was a cheap wooden barstool, which I’d had for seven years.  It was mostly decorative – I have more comfortable places in my apartment to sit – but it was a pretty dark brown lacquer, it didn’t take up too much space, and it was a nice little accent.  My cat enjoyed perching atop it from time to time.  She might need to go on a diet, however; its screws had been gradually coming detached over the past few months, until at last it ceased to function as any kind of stool and simply laid there, a mass of unconnected sticks.  And so, sadly, I took it outside and laid it, with as much dignity as possible, against my building’s garbage pails.

I’m making such a fuss out of this – and mentioning it in a theatre arts blog post – because the barstool was one of the remnants I had of my Fringe show from (shudder) seven years ago, Dragon’s Breath.  I’d purchased three items to serve as scenic elements in the show – a wooden lectern, and two barstools, all a matching shade of dark brown – and kept them after our run.  The lecturn, which I’d used as a stylish holder for cable boxes and the like, was too cumbersome to survive my most recent move, and was instead donated to some Bronx organization or other (I forget which).  The remaining barstool is now an orphan in a lonely corner.  I still have a stack of programs, and the shirt I wore as an actor in the production, and a framed poster – but my cat recently knocked the poster frame off the wall, and is prone to eating paper, and clothing eventually wears out.

We all collect memorabilia of the shows we do, or simply the shows we see, with the expectation that we’ll hold on to those treasures forever.  But forever is a long time, with a long string of perils for anything we hope to hang on to.  Long before we reach the heat death of the universe, our scripts grow dogeared and crumpled, and our stored costume pieces become torn and moth-eaten.  We can try and stave off these ravages through protective measures, like casings and lamination, but they require space and funds – which time has a habit of leaching away as well.

No, memories are like any other resource – they need to be periodically replenished.  And throwing one away has me more anxious than ever for the Quarantimes to end and for theatrical production to return.  I’m fine with food and other provisions, but I’m running desperately short on memories.

Shopping

This past Friday was the rare afternoon of late when I was not only in Manhattan, but had a few hours where I didn’t have to be at work and could take care of errands in person (it’s sad how that’s become a rare and wonderful treat).  I paid a return visit to the Actors Equity building to do some in-person banking again; as an update, I’d like to let everybody know that you no longer need to make advance appointments for walk-up teller service, so you can go to Actors Federal Credit Union whenever you need to. (The rest of the building is still something of a desert, since, y’know, there’s a pandemic going on.)  I traversed through Times Square, to which those panhandling costumed pests have somehow managed to return.  And I made it to 39th street, and the new home, after a pandemic-long wait, of the storied Drama Book Shop.

I first set foot in the Drama Book Shop back in the early 90s, back when it occupied the second floor of a building on Seventh Avenue.  I’m not sure I actually shopped at that location more than two or three times at most, but in my mind, that’s still the platonic ideal of the store – a jumble of shelves lining the walls, tables piled high with books, every inch crammed with every treasure a theater-loving bookworm might want.  For most of my younger readership, the shop’s next location, on 40th and 8th, probably occupies the same honored space in their minds.  It always seemed to me that it carried fewer play titles than the older store, but it compensated with a broader selection of Broadway sheet music, memoirs, memorabilia, and other tie-ins.  It also had Chester the dog, contented sleeping at the counter.  And the Arthur Seelen theatre, a 60-seat black box space in the basement of the building.  And a whole host of programs in that basement – kids programs like Story Pirates, interviews and book signings, and a variety of developmental events with up and coming playwrights.

Most famously, Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote portions of In the Heights while doing various informal residencies at that store.  He’s maintained a keen public loyalty to it as a result, and so when rising rent caused the store to close about two years ago, he famously bought the rights to the name and set about finding a new venue.  The plans were postponed (again, there’s a pandemic going on), but at last, the new store is open to the public – and that public includes myself, who can actually talk about this new incarnation.

The most striking thing you notice upon entering the store is that, for all of Miranda’s persona as Broadway’s biggest booster, the amount of Broadway memorabilia is significantly reduced.  There’s some Hamilton merchandise as you enter, of course, but that’s to be expected – even after this sixteen month interregnum that show is everywhere – but the posters on the wall don’t reference any Broadway production of yesteryear.  Instead, the references go back much further – shows of the 30s, the Comedie Francaise, pld Brecht shows and circus images from a century past.  The overall effect is to try and and evoke some Weimar nightspot or Parisian café – an effect that’s amplified by the next most striking you notice, that for the first time in the store’s history, there’s an attached coffeeshop.  And this is no vulgar Starbucks tie-in – this is their own coffee, their own tea, their own pastries and desserts.  (I can vouch for the snickerdoodles.)

What about the books themselves?  The shelves certainly look well-apportioned, and in and of themselves they look impressive – dark and rich-grained, offset by green carpeting, the bookstore portion of the shop has a distinctly upscale vibe.  I’m not sure that it’s carrying any more books than before, however.  It may have slightly more contemporary American titles, which is obviously welcome.  The benchmark I always use, however, English major that I was long ago, is the size of the section for Early English Dramatists who aren’t Shakespeare (that guy doesn’t need anybody’s help to move product, after all).  Elizabethan, Jacobean, Restoration – foundational texts for the history of English-speaking drama.  I counted exactly one shelf of those titles at the new store.  Depending how things were shelved, that section would be two or three shelves at the prior location.  It may only be that way in my memory, but I could have sworn that the location before that had a whole glorious wall.

No, if the location of the 80s and 90s was a bookworm’s delight, and the location lately closed was a paean to the glory of Broadways, then this upscale artist’s café is clearly meant to be a site of resistance, a place for artists to come together – in the words of its new proprietor, “the room where it happens.”  I’m of two minds about this – it’s a wonderful idea, after all, but it’s not the sort of thing you can manufacture.  After all, anything written or promoted down in that old Seelen theater was taking advantage of it being relatively cheap, and out of the way.  Artists go where they need to go, make the best of whatever situation they find themselves in, and create their own community.  It’s hard to put out a sign that says “Your Community Is Here Now” and expect them to go along with it – communities happen naturally, after all.  (Plus, not to be a churl, but given the obvious Weimar influences I can’t help but feel that if we’re looking to the past for examples of artists resisting fascism, I’d really hope to find role models who’d actually, y’know, succeeded.)

But, again, the snickerdoodles are excellent.

Sideshow Attraction

Well, it happened.  After sixteen months, after hunkering down alone in my apartment during a global pandemic, after experiencing nothing but zoom readings for all this time, I finally sat down, in a theater, indoors, as an audience member.  I finally saw a show.  Not a Broadway show, of course – the reopening of the Great White Way is still a few months off.  But a show nonetheless, and to my way of thinking even more of a New York fixture than anything to be found in midtown Manhattan.

That’s right.  For my return to live theater, I went to the Coney Island freak show.

It was the Fourth of July, of course, and if you’re a real American and can get to Coney Island on the Fourth of July, you get to Coney Island.  I wasn’t there in time for the hot dog eating contest, however – competitive eating is not my thing – and thanks to a last-second text invitation to a picnic get-together that evening, I didn’t stay at Coney Island for very long.  I didn’t see the fireworks, I never even made it to the boardwalk.  I did, however, beeline to the modest building on Surf Avenue that houses what’s officially referred to as the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. Mask firmly in place, I stood in line as the barker did his spiel, bought my ticket, went inside, and mounted the small little venue’s bleachers to take my seat.

As described on their website, the Circus Sideshow keeps alive the old vaudeville tradition of the ten-in-one sideshow attraction.  I’ve attended a few times over the years, and while the individual performers have changed the fundamental experience has remained the same. The acts are such old-time staples as sword swallowing, fire eating, contortionists, the human blockhead, and the like.  There’s a modern patina to the presentation, but in substance these acts wouldn’t have been much different if I’d seen them a century ago.  As with much of Coney Island, the whole thing is a strange mix of genuine skill, tawdriness, and goofiness.

I love it. 

Partly I love it because it’s a tradition, and in times like these any tradition that’s managed to survive another year – heck, another day – is a good thing.  Partly I love that, underneath it all, there’s genuine skill and dedication on display.  But I also think it’s an important inspiration, especially now.  As I’ve said ad nauseum, theater is more than Broadway.  For all we fetishize the expensive musicals that play the Broadway houses – and for all the hopes we’re pinning on them as our post-pandemic economic salvation – the actual theatrical activity that makes them possible happens in much smaller venues, in far less glamorous circumstances.  You don’t get further from glamour than the Coney Island Sideshow – even though, for most of human history, our performing artists have borne a far closer reference to the blockheads and fire eaters of Surf Avenue than to anybody on Broadway.

Long may they belch their flames.