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North Carolina

As you’ve likely heard by now, last Wednesday, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory signed ‘House Bill 2’ into state law. It rescinds any and all local laws within the state providing LGBT protections, and forbids any such local laws from being enacted in the future (and, of course, protects us all from the terrifying scourge of transgender people going to the bathroom). It’s sweeping legislation, blatantly discriminatory, wildly overreaching in its scope – and thus to many people (self included), profoundly un-American. Because of that, leaders in many industries, including my own, have threatened to remove their business from the state. Surely the threat of such a negative economic impact will cause the legislators of the state to see reason.

I fear, however, it might not be as simple as that.

Over the past few years, for a variety of reasons, the bulk of my family has moved to Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s a small city, featuring lots of picturesque beaches and the childhood home of Woodrow Wilson. Since the 1980s, Wilmington has also been home to a rather bustling film industry – Dino Di Laurentiis took advantage of the state’s tax incentives and right-to-work laws to build his own film studio, and it’s been home to film and television productions ever since (Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill both shot there, so it’s clearly the mark of quality).

In 2014, however, the state of North Carolina’s system of tax incentives was removed, by the same State Legislature and Governor Pat McCrory who are making news today. In its place was created a grant fund, to which filmmaker would have to specially apply to have any subsidies approved. This fund only had ten million dollars allocated to it, however – plenty of money for you or I, of course, but not to serve as the basis of a local economy. As of last year, only three productions total were left filming in an area that once had far, far more than that.

There’s no good economic reason for such a change to have been made – tax incentives for film production have a well documented track record for generating enough economic activity to pay for themselves. A state-run fund actually offers more opportunities for abuse, so it’s not like this change satisfies any sort of libertarian or anti-corruption objections. No, the reason for this change, as well as the reason for HB2, is the religious prejudice of the law-makers. The film industry is inherently immoral, after all, and any moneys given to filmmaking projects should only be given to projects meeting specific (i.e. conservative Christian) moral guidelines. This isn’t hyperbole – one of the lawmakers spearheading the change was Phil Berger, who specifically pointed to the filming of the 2007 film Hound Dog in North Carolina (in which the actor Elle Fanning filmed a rape scene, if you’ll recall) as a reason to create an appointed political panel to decide which films deserved funding.

Estimates from last year suggest that the amount spent by the film industry and pumped into the Wilmington economy, once amounting to $170 million, was down to $50 million as a direct result of this change. You’d think that this would suggest to somebody that a mistake had been made. But so far, no such change is in sight – and this is why I fear that economic boycott by itself won’t have an effect on HB2, either. Since the election of 2012, a veto-proof Republican supermajority has controlled the North Carolina legislature, and that supermajority has been dominated by religious conservatives. (This is an important distinction to make – after all, I grew up among Republicans who understood economics, and would be aghast by all of this.) They’re true believers – and true believers can rationalize away such things as economic downturns – especially if they’re centered in more “liberal” parts of the state whose have clearly brought it upon themselves by their iniquities. No, the economic damage would have to be so great, and so widespread, that the citizens themselves, tired of dealing with its constant effects, would rise up and remove their inept legislators from office. (Presumably at the ballot box – I run a civilized blog around here, after all.)

Fortunately, this may still come to pass. North Carolina is at risk of losing $4.5 billion in Title IX funding as a result of HB2, which is an economic hit that really can’t be ignored or confined to one city. The citizens seem to be aware of this – a recent PPP poll reports only 25% of state respondents approving of the legislation. And it may well be that those family members of mine of whom I spoke at the beginning may have much to do with this. The population of North Carolina has been increasing over the past few years, its numbers swelled by new arrivals from the Northeast just like them, who have a far more secular and pragmatic outlook and no patience for false religious grandstanding, regardless of their party affiliation. So perhaps the moment of reckoning for North Carolina’s legislature is at hand, and the changing demographics of the state may indeed hasten that moment’s arrival.

I only hope that moment arrives soon, because I’m running out of family members to send down there.

Top O' The Mornin'

This past Thursday was St. Patrick’s Day. This is probably not news, and indeed, here in New York, this fact is always particularly hard to miss. If nothing else, the sudden appearance of rivulets of green-tinted vomit winding their way through the gutters makes it clear when this particular day of the year comes round again.

In case it isn’t clear, I hate St. Patrick’s Day.

There are plenty of obvious reasons for this, of course. The displays of public drunkenness that have become associated with the day are apt to drive anybody nuts. But even when not downing pint after pint of cheap green-dyed beer, there’s a certain boorishness to people’s behavior that somehow manifests itself as soon as those bagpipes sound. And this behavior always seem to be done by people in cartoonish green hats and orange fright wigs, sporting grotesque fake accents that wouldn’t be out of place in a particularly vicious Restoration-era anti-Irish tract, designed to make its audience wonder if Cromwell hadn’t had a few valid points after all.

And as someone from Long Island with an “o” and an apostrophe at the start of my surname, this is the real source of my distaste. For as long as I can remember, whenever March comes around, I’ve been presented with this horrific display and told that this is who and what I am, somehow. That this barbaric behavior, which to my mind constitutes an ethnic slur, is something to embrace as my identity. That my unwillingness to participate constitutes some sort of defect on my part.  That not conforming to such awful stereotypes means I’m not really Irish.

This past week, St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Thursday – a day I have off from work. And so, having no desire to subject myself to it again, I barricaded myself in my apartment, never setting foot outside it once. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m at the start of a large writing project, a rather idiosyncratic and difficult piece of work that will require my utmost concentration. And so I spent St. Patrick’s Day sequestered from a hostile world, sitting at my work station, scribbling away furiously for the sake of my art. Not unlike such forbearers as Joyce, Yeats, Synge…

Well, what do you know. I guess I am a real Irishman after all.

Outsourcing

As I mentioned last week, I began drafting my newest full-length play last Sunday, March 6th.  Although there was still plenty of research and preparation to do, I felt I couldn’t hold off work on the actual draft any longer without risking that the play never get written at all.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still plenty of topics for me to research for this project even as I’m drafting.  But since there are only 24 hours in most days (I’m still bitter about daylight savings), and since I do work and sleep as well, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to master all the information I’ll need for the sake of this complex plot. 

So I turn to you, Gentle Readers.  Feel free to contact me with information and helpful suggestions in the event that you are particularly knowledgeable about any of the following subjects:

  • The art and mechanics of turntable scratching
  • Synesthesia
  • The logistics of digital filmmaking
  • Avant-garde cinema
  • Tesla coils
  • The Israeli-Palestinian Science Organization
  • The New York City Marathon
  • The New York City Housing Authority’s adminstrative policies
  • The New York City garbage strike of 1968

(This is nothing.  You should see my browser history.  Though on second thought, you probably shouldn’t see my browser history.)

 

BWAAAAM BWAAAAM BWAAAAM

It started, as
things often do these days, on Twitter.

A friend of mine
tweeted a half-joking wish list of what, in an ideal world, some enterprising
playwright might include in a play written for her.  Remembering that, in addition to being her
friend, I was an enterprising playwright myself, I tweeted back to her, asking
what this hypothetical opus should contain. 
We brainstormed, had a merry laugh, and then went on our digital way.

Except the more I
thought about the exchange, the more I realized that the idea we’d concocted
would actually make a good play. 
Possibly even – excuse my hubris – a great one.  I was otherwise occupied at the time, however
– preparing what would become my Fringe show, Dragon’s Breath – but I kept
thinking about the play, its ideas and characters and plot points.  I would do what research I could in between
other projects, trying to keep the inspiration alive as life events conspired
to distract me.  And because this all
originated in a Twitter conversation, I recently did an advanced search to look
at the original conversation, and remind myself when the inception of this idea
had taken place.

September 6,
2013.  Two and a half years ago.

Ideas are organic
things; they are born, they grow, they can age and wither, and if not properly
cared for, they can die.  So even though
there’s still more research and planning to do – and this particular play is
sufficiently complex that I could do preparatory research for a decade or more
– I realized that I could leave the idea untended no longer.  Especially since the play in question is
meant for somebody else, who has their own life to lead quite apart from my own
dithering.

Page one of the
rough draft was written last night.  Two
and a half years to the day after the idea for it first came to me.

With any luck, it
won’t take that long to get to the last page. 
I’ll be sure to let you know.

(Sorry to be so
vague as to what the idea for this play actually is, but I need to keep
something secret for subsequent blog posts. 
Not to mention for, y’know, the play itself.)

Semi-Obligatory Post-Oscars Blog Post

I had it
all planned out.  I was going to go to an
Oscar-themed trivia event with my fearsome trivia team, and use that as the
hook for the semi-obligatory post-Oscars blog post.  I would have gone after Hollywood’s Biggest
Night for being out of touch with American tastes, demographics, and realities
by coining the hashtag #OscarsSoTrivial, and everything would have been
terrifically satirical and witty.  But
then my fellow teammates wound up getting stranded out of town, scuttling that
brilliant plan.

So
instead, I returned to my Bronx apartment to watch the telecast by myself,
figuring I could post a detailed, insightful analysis of the telecast.  But just as Chris Rock’s already legendary
monologue began, my digital antenna conked out. 
So as he lit into the systemic benign racism of the film industry, I was
only able to make out isolated words through a fog of broken pixels.

It’s
around this point that I began to wonder why I was even bothering.  It’s the same argument we have with ourselves
every year at Oscar time – why watch a bloated, self-congratulatory, frequently
cringe-inducing ceremony simply for the sake of saying that we saw it?  Especially when the industry it’s celebrating
keeps on demonstrating shocking tone-deafness towards crucial aspects of the
society it’s attempting to entertain – race in America, gender in America, any
political outlook beyond a narrow set of comfortable platitudes?  And when that industry only ever notices a
slight fraction of the vast amount of work its artists are making?

(These two
things are linked, but the way.  Take one
example, the failure to nominate Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation which seemed to crystalize the whole
#OscarsSoWhite backlash.  I’ve lost track
of the number of conversations I’ve seen among industry insiders in which they
say they didn’t know whether they could nominate him in the first place, given
the digital distribution deal that was in place for the film.  Expect to see this more and more, as
non-traditional means of distribution become the means for more and more
diverse voices to get their films out to the public, disrupting the traditional
filmmaking model in the process.  Since
the Academy exists to celebrate and defend that model, the films it celebrates
are bound to get less and less diverse as it circles its wagons, even when this
doesn’t reflect the beliefs of the individual members.)

And yet –
what became clear from the bits of the telecast my malfunctioning antenna
allowed me to see was that this was far and away the best ceremony in some
time.  People love to mock celebrities
for embracing trendy causes, but nothing about this year’s telecast seemed the
least bit trendy or shallow.  This
ceremony mattered to the people on
stage this year.  Representation
mattered.  Issues mattered.  The state of our nation mattered. 

And
believe it or not, the Oscars really do matter, petty and trivial though they
frequently are.  They don’t make a movie
great – indeed they have an alarming habit of ignoring greatness – but they
provide a starting point for people searching for greatness.  Many is the budding student of film history
who starts out with a book of past winners as a way of starting that lifelong
conversation.  This year, a whole slew of
other conversations managed to become part of the ceremony as well; hopefully
they won’t end now that the show is over, and Chris Rock’s daughters’ Girl
Scout cookies are being happily consumed.

Plus Mad Max won a whole bunch of stuff, so
that’s pretty cool.

By Way Of Review

“Don’t read reviews.”

If you are a writer, actor, or most any other creative type, you hear this early and often in the course of your career. Don’t read reviews. They can only cause you to second-guess yourself. The need for their approval only nurtures narcissism and vanity. They represent a distraction from the purity of your art. Whether you hear it as a dictum from a stern drama teacher, or as advice from a cherished idol, it’s one of basic tenets of the creative life. Reviews aren’t good for you; don’t read them.

As you’ll notice from the quotes scattered throughout this website, I have not heeded this advice. 

As this site is largely intended for professional promotion, it contains as many sentences as I could find, from as many sources as possible, stating that employing me as a professional artist is a good idea. And since I am an honest man, I combed through as many reviews as I could find, reading each and every one of them, in order to find these testimonials. (We call them “pull quotes” in “the biz.”)

It isn’t enjoyable, of course. For the problem with a review isn’t that it might be bad – it’s that it’s invariably and ineffably wrong. Questions of merit aside, you know the details of your performance, story, or what have you better than anyone (or so you think), and so the outside perspective is almost always disorienting. It’s as if you were preparing a gourmet meal for an important person and worrying over the details of its preparation – whether you cooked it thoroughly, seasoned it properly, served it with the appropriate wine – only to have them taste it and exclaim, “This tastes like purple!” Regardless of whether this is said with delight or disgust, your response upon hearing is most likely a simple “Huh? What the heck does that mean?”

And yet we force ourselves to read them. Because what those stern drama teachers and cherished idols and other authoritative voices need to understand is that ignoring reviews is not a choice, it is a luxury. It is what one is able to do when one’s next project is already assured, when one is a prize pupil or a leading player of an established company or a star of the highest magnitude. The rest of us can only dream of living in such a rarified state, while we go through the daily drudgery of finding our next gig, our next paycheck, our next meal. And so we comb through these strange funhouse mirror reflections of our efforts, extracting whatever we can find for marketing purposes, and hoping against hope for some flash of insight along the way.

Like what exactly purple tastes like, anyway.