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By The Numbers

This past week, I finished the rough draft of my current
playwriting project.  (Well, I almost
finished it – there’s a small final section that I won’t put down on paper
until everything else is complete, so that when I write that out and finish it
with the magical phrase “end of play,” I’ll mean it.  But that’s another story.)  Rough it most certainly is – there’s a whole
lot of stuff that simply didn’t make it onto the page, whole sections and
chunks which need to be reshaped. 
Indeed, the part of me that knows what the final result is supposed to
look and sound like has a different name for it, based on the disparity between
what it presently is and what it should be – the “crap draft.”

Note that I didn’t coin the phrase “crap draft” myself –
it’s from a workshop I took a few years ago, as I began writing in earnest, and
it involves giving yourself license to write whatever crap you need to in order
to get the words on the page, so that you can shape it properly afterwards.  Most writers I know use some variation of
this phrase to describe the initial draft, the “rough draft.”  If you’ve been following Wil Wheaton on
Twitter (and if you’re reading this, you clearly have internet access, so why
aren’t you following geek icon Wil Wheaton on Twitter?) you’ve recently seen
him describe his recent efforts with a new science fiction story as his “puke
draft.”

The one thing you never hear us talk about nowadays is the
“first draft.”

Long ago, when I was in school, after a five miles’ walk in
the snow uphill both ways, I was taught to write the “first draft” out in
long-hand, double-spaced, on loose-leaf paper. 
That done, corrections would be made in the spaces between the original
writing.  From that, the second draft
would be written, and thence to a third, and so on and so forth until the final
draft was complete.  An orderly, logical progression.  This was the habit
of writing which had to be learned, which would guide us in our future academic
careers, which would guide us in our future writing, which had guided writers
since first pen was put to paper, which had guided literature’s great masters,
and which would guide writers for all time to come.  And yet, I don’t know that these categories
even exist anymore.  Thanks to modern
technology, I can write and rewrite sections as many times as I want almost
instantly.  (You can’t see it, but I just
did!)  The idea of numbered drafts, this
basic writing habit which has guided writers for as long as literature has been,
is almost meaningless at this point.

It may seem that this is a trivial thing to fixate on.  It may also seem that I’m about to complain
about how technology is destroying the habits that made literature great, and
how it should get off my lawn already. 
Instead, I’d like to suggest that this is an immense boon to creative
types.  For you see, the entire
first-second-third paradigm implies a certain linear approach to writing, even
to thinking.  Get hung up on a detail as
you’re writing out that first draft, and you find yourself unable to progress
further.  The whole phrase “writer’s block”
implies a linear path, for what else can be blocked with such brutal ease?

I know that being hung up on such logical, linear
progressions of thought hindered my own creativity for too long than I’d like
to think about, and only by training my brain to work around those preconceived
notions have I been able to start producing the work I’ve always wanted
to.  We need to recognize that as we all
think differently, we create differently, and should embrace whatever models of
creativity best suit our needs.

So forget about the numbers. 
It’s time to clean up the crap.

Knights and Princes

 

This past Saturday, April 23rd, I treated myself to something special – both parts of Henry IV, presented as part of a history play marathon by the RSC at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Despite being there on Shakespeare’s birthday (and the 400th anniversary of his death), it wasn’t the plays themselves that brought me there, nor the company performing them – I’m not such a Bardolater or Anglophile as to automatically genuflect towards everything they do. No, the allure of this marathon was the opportunity to see one particular performance – the Falstaff of Antony Sher, one of my artistic heroes.

A lot has already been written about this interpretation; if you’re able to take in theater in New York, or by some chance take frequent trips to Great Britain, you’ve hopefully been encouraged to see this performance long before you clicked on this blog post. If you have a chance to see it, note how Sher is willing to bring out the parasitic nature of the character, his casual cruelty, without ever sacrificing the humor (it’s a comedic Shakespearean character who’ll actually make you laugh!). Listen to how the details of the language are used to their fullest without ever derailing the forward momentum of the performance. Pay special attention to the voice he creates for the decrepit knight – practically gargling with phlegm and drink, except in the quiet moments where he contemplates his mortality, especially the renunciation by Prince Hal at the end, as if it’s an armor that’s been pierced.

But as marvelous as he is, Sher isn’t a hero to me because of the performances of his I’ve seen – apart from this, I’ve only had the chance to see him once before (though it was a doozy – the now-legendary production of Uncle Vanya with Ian McKellen at the National Theater). No, it’s because I know of no other actor who is as good at writing about acting as he is. In addition to the recent Year of the Fat Knight, which discusses his Falstaff, there’s Beside Myself, Woza Shakespeare, Primo Time, and the book which first caught my attention as an impressionable theatre student – Year of the King, which discusses his Richard III for the RSC in 1984 and which is still the best book on acting I’ve read. Partly, it’s because his warts-and-all description of the process – his obsessive research, his insecurities as he gets his voice and body into shape to play the part, the navigating of rehearsal room and theater politics – is the most accurate you’re going to find. Partly, it’s the literary quality of the writing itself – you’ll find fewer characters in late 20th-century literature who can compare with Sher’s depiction of the dresser Black Mac. And partly, it’s because the world he describes is so incredibly seductive – so much so that I have difficulty with Sher’s other books precisely because I always want it to be the RSC in the mid-80s, where passionate artists are railing against apartheid and Thatcher but have the luxury of this marvelously-funded base of operations, and there’s always carousing to be had at the Dirty Duck at the end of the day. Sher’s description of a conversation with his mother could apply to any of us readers diving into his pages, wanting to live in that sort of an artistic world:

“We have one of our talks. A familiar pattern. She begins by interrogating me very thoroughly about life in England and in the theatre, savouring every detail. It’s so clearly what she would have wanted for herself, had the choices been available. So she listens in wonderment – a curious reversal of roles – like a child hearing of the joys and thrills promised in adult life.”
                                                                    –Year of the King, p. 75
Moreover, what comes through in his writing is a strong overall artistic perspective at work. Sher is both an insider and an outsider – a gay Jewish South African, growing up painfully aware of his outsider status yet also profoundly insulated from the realities of apartheid. As he comes to political awareness as an adult, he continually describes what he refers to as the “persecuted becoming the persecutor” syndrome as he tries to make sense of his background, and it’s an insight that fuels his characterizations. (It’s an insight that contemporary American artists should take the time to read and think about as they wrestle with modern questions of “privilege.”) It’s a thru-line for his work, and it’s clearly important to him that such a political thru-line exists. Here’s his tale of receiving life-changing advice from a hero of his own, Liverpool Everyman Theatre Artist Director Alan Dossor:

“’Bollocks,’ retorted Dossor. ‘You won’t become a really good actor until you put yourself on the line, till the job’s vital – which plays you do, why you do them, how you do them – it’s got to mean something to you, man, before it’s going to mean something to the audience. Otherwise just go be a plumber – y’know, if it’s only a craft, a skill – just go ride a bike. If it’s only talent you’re offering, don’t bother us with it – there’s plenty in this country – only bother us if you’ve got something to say!’”
                                                                    –Beside Myself, p. 118

And this is the point, the thing about artistic heroes. We don’t just admire them for what they’ve done; we admire them for demonstrating that what they’ve done can be done in the first place. This has been brought home in recent days with the death of Prince, as we’ve reminded ourselves of his boundary-shattering creativity (be they boundaries of musical genre or personal identity). With Sher, it’s his hyper-detailed dedication, the obsessiveness with which he researches his creations and his willingness to plumb the most unsettling parts of his own psyche for fuel. And it’s that, the chance to see the end result of such a journey, which made the seeing of it more than worth a long subway journey of my own.

We need to see our heroes while we can.

Battleground

I have no idea how the citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire survive it.

For the past few weeks, my home state’s primaries assuming a rare importance for both political parties, the remaining presidential candidates have been stumping here in New York City. You’ve surely heard their speeches and their debates, most likely seen footage of them strolling and speechifying, playing dominoes and attempting swiping metrocards. Surely, this is an exciting time for us New Yorkers, to have ourselves at the center of national debate in so spectacular a fashion.

Except the thing of it is, we New Yorkers view ourselves as the center of national debate anyway. Heck, the five boroughs are the center of the known universe as far as we’re concerned. So having this attention from the candidates doesn’t seem surprising, or validating. To me, at any rate, it simply seems wrong.

After all, much of what they’re doing in their staged photo-ops is the sort of stuff a tourist would do on their trip to the Big Apple. (Better informed tourists than most – heading to Arthur Avenue to sample local Italian delicacies, as Kasich did, means you did more research than simply watch the Food Channel, but still.) We’re a proud people – what true New Yorker is inclined to vote for a tourist?  These candidates are asking us to entrust them with our very safety – they should at least be able to find the buildings around here without asking directions!  Plus, as these famous personages come to town, even as they shop and ride the transit system, they insist that we look at them – it doesn’t work as a photo-op if we don’t. And this goes against a basic code of our city – should you pass them by on the street, you don’t look at the famous people.


Furthermore, the whole essence of modern politics, sadly, is spectator sport. We’re sorted into teams, encouraged to cheer for our own without question and to lustily boo the opposition. And again, we’re too proud to think of ourselves as spectators. We’re New Yorkers, dammit – we debate ideas and set agendas. Even when it’s in service of candidates with whom we agree, to be reduced to props is a cruel blow to our ego.

This may seem like a trivial analysis – after all, I haven’t endorsed anybody, for all those undecideds who were looking to an actor’s blog to make their final decision. But this carnival-slash-spectator sport aspect to modern politics isn’t just bad for New Yorkers’ self-esteem – it’s BAD FOR THE ENTIRE NATION. Addressing looming climate catastrophe, dealing with structural social and economic issues, all these require a level of critical thought and engagement in order to begin to make headway, and that level needs to be sustained long past the election. Our shrieking at rival camps, our endless pep rallies and Facebook smackdowns, are not designed to facilitate that engagement; they’re designed to make sure that engagement never happens in the first place. Angry sports fans, after all, are not known for critical thought.

So I’ll be glad when the circus leaves town. There is, after all, real work to be done instead.

(One additional note to the candidates – as long as you’re here in the city, you might wish to schedule a session or two with one of our many excellent vocal coaches, because you all sound terrible. Public speaking is your profession, folks – learn some breath support techniques!)

Perils of Human Discourse

I will be performing the role of “Silent Guy” in a reading of Sonya Sobieski’s new play, Perils of Human Discourse, at Centenary Stage Company!  It’s taking place next Wednesday at 7:30, as part of the Women Playwrights Series, and is directed by Mikaela Kafka, who directed my own FringeNYC play, Dragon’s Breath.  See the attached link for more information:

Let's Do The Time Warp Again

For the past two weeks, I’ve been taking part in private readings with a new writer’s workshop. (None of my own scripts to read for it yet – I’m still plodding away on that front.) Since it’s a new group, the readings have been somewhat nomadic, taking place in different rented studio spaces. Not the well-trafficked NYC studio spaces like Ripley-Greer and Pearl; no, since we’re poor simple folk without much fancy folding-money, we’ve been grabbing well-worn, cramped, grubby rooms wherever we can find them.

Or perhaps I should say, WHENever we can find them.

New York studio spaces seem to exist in some sort of time warp. Even at Ripley-Greer, probably the most upscale and up-to-date of Manhattan’s studio rental facilities, posters of the same mid-to-late 90s shows have adorned the walls since before I got my Equity card. It seems that Toni Braxton-as-Aida and Barry Williams-as-Captain Von Trapp will be gazing protectively from the walls at young actors for many more years to come. Over at Nola Studios (our new group’s first port of call), there’s a poster for an “upcoming new film” that has, without exaggeration, been there for at least eighteen years. And over by its elevator, there is a massive headshot wall containing the headshots of scores of 70s and 80s tv shows, as if trying to decorate with my childhood memories. For heaven’s sake, half of them are still in black and white.  It has looked this way since I can remember, and my memory is long and winding.

Why is this the case? Perhaps it’s a simple matter of economics – if you own and maintain one of these studios, you have many things to spend your money on before you get around to upgrading the décor, so whatever’s on the walls when you start out is liable to stay there indefinitely. But then it stands to reason that there’d be stuff on those walls from even further back, and that rarely seems to be the case (even though it would have considerable historical interest were it to be there). No, inevitably the stuff on the walls (apart from the grime) clusters in a very specific range, from the late 80s to the late 90s and early aughts – i.e. my misspent youth. All these signed posters, these playbills, these flyers and banners and other Proustian madeleines – could they possibly be directed at me?

It’s not necessarily as paranoid as it sounds – I’m the age and demographic of folks who are actively trying to rent spaces and produce work, to try and convert our youthful artistic endeavors into some kind of regular career and/or lasting legacy. We’re the ones who go prowling the studios, looking for a temporary home for whatever we’re up to, and we’re the ones plunking up the cash – perhaps it makes sense for them to make us feel as comfortable as possible, to calm and assuage us with grubby, well-worn familiarity. But once we accept that sort of a premise, it’s easy to get even more solipsistic and paranoid with our thinking. Hell, maybe the fact that the pictures on the studio walls haven’t changed in nearly twenty years means that I’m really trapped in the proverbial Matrix, and our machine overlords haven’t seen fit to provide an art upgrade in all that time.

If that’s the case, I hope the Matrix can download the finished draft of the script I’m working on directly into my brain. It’s the least it could do.

Idolatry

This week, after fifteen seasons on television, American Idol will air its final episodes and bid the airwaves farewell. It has dominated American cultural discourse throughout many of those fifteen years, and there’s an awful lot which could be said about it – how it has rewarded ludicrously melismatic oversinging, how its flooding of the airwaves with glorified karaoke has stifled interesting and challenging new musical voices, how it has promoted knee-jerk jingoism at a period in our history where such jingoism has been incredibly dangerous, how it permitted mean-spirited snark and repeated utterances of the word “pitchy” to substitute for real critical thought. But I try and run a positive blog around here, and rather than insult American Idol on its way out, I’d like to try and say something nice about it. To thank it, even.

So thank you, American Idol, for absorbing so much crazy over the past fifteen years.

When I first started auditioning on a regular basis, back in the mid and late 1990s, the act of waiting for an audition was itself a horrific endurance contest. Even if it was for unpaid, outdoor non-Equity Shakespeare in a rat-infested alley, there would be hundreds upon hundreds of people for every call. And it’s not that they were so dedicated to their craft that they would aim to develop it wherever and whenever they could, as acting teachers have instructed their charges down through the decades. No, sadly, the bulk of those throngs were, simply put, delusional. On line with them, I heard a hundred variations of the exact same thing; they were certain they were meant to be famous, and if there was an audition to be had – even for a community theatre Agatha Christie production – then clearly that was where that fame would finally be granted. It didn’t help that every once in a while, brief fame actually was grasped – famously, the three principals of The Blair Witch Project were cast from an open call advertised in Backstage. And so every audition, I’d sign my name on a sheet of paper torn from someone’s spiral notebook, sit among dozens of wildly flamboyant, unstable folks who could barely speak, and patiently wait my turn to audition for poor souls who had been too bombarded by all of this to be able to think clearly anymore. And I’d hear the folks around me, alternating between random rants and declarations of how certain they were to become famous, and I’d wonder what the hell was wrong with me for being there. I’m sure I’m not the only one – I knew many genuinely talented folks whose artistic dreams never made it out of the 90s, their flowers choked off by the weeds of other people’s delusions.

Then came American Idol, and everything changed. Gradually, the people I was surrounded by on audition lines were rational, clear-eyed, comparatively sane. They were prepared, they understood how the business worked, they cared about their art. Meanwhile, the more flamboyant, more clearly doomed folks I’d been surrounded by previously were now on television, where they always knew they belonged – to be mocked for fifteen seconds by a sneering British man in a tight black T-shirt for the delight of a TV audience that clearly wanted bloodsport as much as, or more than, pop music.

Now, I did join Actor’s Equity Association at around this same time, so you might be tempted to object to my statement above by saying that I was just surrounded by more professionals. Sadly, receiving an AEA card doesn’t automatically make one sane (would that it did). Moreover, since focusing on playwriting in the past few years, I’ve once again found myself working with young non-union performers hungry for credits and looking for new work – and have found them to be far better prepared, far more clear-eyed about what they were doing and what the real artistic benefits would be. That flamboyant mix of narcissism and ineptitude just isn’t there – at least not to the degree to which I remember it, before the coming of Idol.

I therefore have to conclude that the most flamboyantly crazy of the would-be artists, who craved the validation of fame without having any sense of the art behind it or the hard work required, all bee-lined for that television program when it first appeared, leaving Off- and Off-off Broadway behind as it did. And regardless of how that show may have debased artistic discourse in the general public sphere, it left my personal artistic sphere a more focused space, with fewer distractions, and more people who genuinely had something to say and were honestly trying to find opportunities to say it.

So Godspeed, American Idol. You may have mocked Broadway as an art form even as it was the best fit for many of the artists you found; you may have subjected gay or questioning contestants to tiresome gay panic banter from your host and judges; you may have helped solidify corporate media’s stranglehold over popular music, perhaps forever. Nevertheless, you indirectly caused my audition lines to be ever-so-slightly less insane, and for that, I thank you.

Now stop destroying my culture, and get the heck off my television.