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4th of July

I spent all of Sunday wondering what to post today – whether or not to put up some sort of deep thinkpiece about The State of America On This Independence Day.  And indeed, there’s an awful lot to be said about our nation at this particular historical juncture.

None of which you want to read right now, because you’ve got cookouts to go to and fireworks to watch.  I mean, it’s a holiday – why are you reading an actors’ blog post?  It’s a lovely summer day!  Put down that tablet or iPhone or whatever and go live a little!

That goes for me too.  The next few weeks for me are rather busy, as I get ready to shoot a short film, try and revise an election-themed one-act in time for the fall, and put together a developmental table-reading of my newest full-length play.  Hopefully, all of The Important Things I Have To Say will make themselves heard there.

We declared our Independence in July of 1776.  But it took many years of strife and struggle before we reached December 15, 1791, when these sacred words were written:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

So everybody have fun peaceably assembling today.  I’ll probably be joining you for a while, before heading back to my keyboard to turn my various grievances into something worthwhile.  If I succeed, I’ll be sure to speak of it here.

Happy 4th of July everybody!

 

Of Course I'm Going To Find A Way To Make This All About Shakespeare

Some years ago, I was cast in a production of Macbeth which wound up doing a short tour of Germany.  A few days before performing in one of the venues, a replica of the Globe Theater located next to a racetrack in Neuss (Germany’s a bit…different), a few members of the company and I went to see the preceding show at the venue, to get a sense of what the space was like.  The show wound up being a production from Great Britain – a Shakespearean burlesque which offered up a low-budget staging of the classic 60s heist film The Italian Job with all of its dialogue replaced with lines of Shakespeare (and called, imaginatively enough, Bill Shakespeare’s The Italian Job).  I was mildly amused; my friends were outraged.  They couldn’t understand why anybody would go to the trouble of mounting a Shakespearean production of any sort only to inflict that sort of mockery upon the Bard, and by extension, England’s cultural heritage as a whole.  I wasn’t quite so surprised; I’d spent my semester abroad in London, and had been exposed to a number of similar burlesques of England’s cultural heritage.  It’s a subgenre unto itself; here in the States, we’re only ever aware of acknowledged masterworks like Holy Grail or Blackadder, so we don’t realize how large the subgenre is, how crappy it can get, or the audience it serves.  In speaking to Londoners, back in the 90s, I’d been struck by how many of them straight-up resented that cultural heritage with which I was so enamoured, feeling that they lived in a museum and that the approval and adoration of the world was a hollow prize, when they’d rather just chuck it all and do whatever the bloody hell they wanted.

In other news, Brexit passed this week.

The full consequences of Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union won’t truly be known for some time.  We don’t yet know its full ramifications for the global economy, for the future of Europe as a whole, for the social issues underlying its vote.  However, it’s becoming clear what the consequences are going to be for the arts in Great Britain, which has been one of its defining glories for decades (if not centuries).  And as this summary demonstrates, it’s not good at all.  Basically, the arts now face a direct loss of funding through lost access to European programs, and indirect loss of funding due to economic fallout from the vote.  In addition, the ability of artists to travel to and from Britain with the same ease which they may do so through the rest of the EU is now in jeopardy.  This threatens not only the ability of artists to work, but to train and to learn – to become artists in the first place.

The arts aren’t simply a pillar of the British economy.  They’re also an essential component of the British identity, the through-line of cultural heritage stemming from Chaucer through Shakespeare all the way down to Sarah Kane and Monty Python (betcha never thought you’d hear them in the same sentence).  And whatever their motives, the majority of the English people looked at the sociopolitical structures which maintain that cultural heritage today, the institutions that allow those artistic ideals, and the broader humanistic ideals underlying them, the ideals which our own society is ultimately based on – they looked at all of that and said, “No.  Not worth the effort.”

Better, perhaps, to chuck it all.

And it’s this which I fear about the news out of Great Britain these days, more than the specifics of how withdrawal will play out over the next few years, or how it might impact elections over here.  I fear that impulse I encountered in jaded Londoners years ago; fear it, and understand it, because I’ve been surrounded by it my whole life (or at least whenever I used to ride the Long Island Rail Road.)  The sense that arts, culture, the true essence of our “heritage,” is a luxury, to be abandoned when times are tough or scary, to be viewed with suspicion.  It’s not – and I’m not just saying that because it provides my meager income.  It’s what’s best in us.  It’s our dreams and values given form, given life with which to make their way through the world.  And it’s dependent on people turning outside to embrace and engage with the world, not withdrawing from it in fear and disgust, not attempting to vote it out of our lives.

Withdrawal is a terrible, terrible idea.

We’ve emulated Great Britain in a great many ways over the years.  When it comes to building the arts community, and public engagement with the arts, which Great Britain used to have, I hope we do so again.  But in this instance, that would be about as sound an idea as a Shakespearean pastiche of The Fast and The Furious.  (On second thought, I probably shouldn't give anybody ideas…)

Meanwhile, In Chicago…

It’s been overshadowed by all the other news going on in the world of late, but if you’re a theater artist, you’re probably aware of the controversies surrounding, and recent closing of, Profiles Theater in Chicago.  If you haven’t yet heard about the controversies swirling around this “edgy” storefront theater, they were precipitated by an expose in the Chicago Reader, the text of which can be found here

To briefly summarize (because the article isn’t brief), the piece describes a long history of dangerous working conditions, manipulative behavior, and sexual abuse at Profiles by its leading actor-slash-artistic director.  I need to be careful here; I don’t live in Chicago, and from a legal point of view these are all just allegations, but the overall portrait is consistent and damning.  And as the story has made the rounds throughout the theater community, it has prompted a number of calls for changes and reforms – for reporting and addressing sexual abuse in the theater, for establishing a code of professional conduct for non-Equity theaters.  There is a tremendous amount of hand-wringing and soul-searching, prompted by the feelings of shock at this outrageous story.

I must confess, however, that I didn’t respond with shock to any of this.  It all felt distressingly familiar.

After all, if you’re a struggling actor, how many would-be Svengalis have you encountered, holding court in their own little companies, teaching sketchy workshops and classes that seemed to be a weekly exercise for their own egos?  How often has the line between the professional and the personal blurred, usually in a hundred small ways?  And how many companies have put together seasons of “edgy” plays that, regardless of literary value, provided an excuse to indulge in precisely the sort of behavior detailed in the Chicago Reader article which has prompted all this disgust?

Because it’s worth noting how often the stories about Profiles have pointed out how it was the go-to place for a certain kind of “edgy” theater.  It’s a type of theater that has dominated this level of low-income, independent, frequently non-union theater for decades now – grubby tales of brutal, near-feral fringe-dwellers and their mating habits, John Osborne’s class revolution in Look Back In Anger filtered through Sam Shepard’s aesthetic.  Like any theatrical aesthetic, there’s still the capacity for literary merit and powerful work if the inspiration is there – if the artist has a larger point to make and has chosen the best means to make that point.  But if the inspiration is not there, it can become an empty exercise in bad behavior, indulged in by people looking for an excuse to behave badly.  And there’s an audience for watching bad behavior for its own sake – indeed, a recurring motif in the Profiles coverage is that many critics and theatergoers seemed to suspect what was going on but looked the other way, assuming it was the cost of doing business. 

So, now that we’ve begun talking about organizing theaters and establishing codes of conduct, I wonder if there’s something my fellow playwrights and I could do to help in all of this as well.

Namely, could we declare a moratorium on writing this stuff?

Could we stop pretending that unpleasant sex scenes and scuzzy displays of fake machismo, in and of themselves, represent some deep sort of artistic truth?  Could we stop providing companies like this with the excuse to indulge their worst impulses?  I don't ask this in the name of censorship (self- or otherwise), but in the name of pushing ourselves as creative artists.  Could we stop and take a moment to realize that, if all we have to say as artists is “I’m alpha and I’m horny,” we might not actually have anything to say?

And there’s a hell of a lot to say right now!  And there’s a lot of extraordinary playwrights who are alert to what’s going on in the world today – socially, politically, philosophically – and are working towards a new, equally vibrant theatrical language to engage with our strange and beautiful new world.  A language that, just maybe, has no further need of the kind of grunting and groaning that’s been celebrated for too long, at far too great a cost.

Time to listen.

A Million Things I Haven't Done

I’ll be honest – I really didn’t want to post anything this week.  The horrific news from Orlando yesterday, and the appalling state of our national discourse in general, warrants something more substantial, more meaningful than a mere blog post on some actor’s website.  I can’t think of anything to say right now that wouldn’t come across as frivolous, and to really grapple with what’s going on in the world right now, I’d need more space, and a hell of a lot more time, to do any sort of justice to the theme.

But I’m committed to this whole post-a-week thing, and I’m primarily writing about a life in the arts, and the arts are supposed to be the means by which we cope with the world around us.  Besides, here in the world of New York theater, last night was sort of a big deal.  And so, looking for entertainment and inspiration, I sat myself down and Tony Awards.  For once, it was a genuinely entertaining telecast.  Sure, it would have been nice to have seen real excerpts from the non-musical plays (somebody like me says this every year), but the musicals seemed genuinely inspired, the people were all delighted to be there, and unlike some awards shows we could mention, the diversity and vitality of our community was obvious and visible for all to see.  And it all culminated in the awards triumph of Hamilton, a labor of love which has reclaimed the American narrative for all of its citizens, breaching demographic walls and breaking records in the process.  Surely, an inspirational night all around.

So naturally, I was depressed as hell.

The thing that had me depressed was Hamilton – and specifically, the production chronology of the show.  As we all learned last night (because really, they talked a lot about that show), Lin-Manuel Miranda made the momentous decision to read the Chernow biography about Alexander Hamilton right after his Tony win for In The Heights, in 2008.  Given that he’d been writing and workshopping the piece continuously after that, this means Hamilton took eight years to create.

Eight years ago.  That’s a two-term presidential administration.  (Specifically the rather eventful administration of the president who introduced the Hamilton clip last night.)  That’s enough time to get a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree (and maybe a PhD too, depending on your program).  That’s a little more than one tenth of the average American’s life span.  That’s a rabbit’s entire life span.  That’s a large chunk of time, is what I’m saying.

Obviously, it takes a long time to develop and hone one’s craft, whatever it may be.  And nothing with the depth and complexity of what appeared on that telecast last night can be thrown together in a day.  So it shouldn’t be surprising that the origins of Hamilton, the show of the moment, took place in that long-ago world where most people hadn’t yet heard of Sarah Palin, but knew who Heidi and Spencer were.  These things take time.

The question is, do we have that time?

Because at the rate 2016 is going, an awful lot of us won’t.  And there’s an inevitable conflict between the urgent need to say something now about the madhouse around us, and the length of time needed to develop an artistic response to that madhouse.  It’s depressing to think about, especially since there’s no guarantee that when we go through our own individual process and create our response, that anybody will elect to listen to it.  Or that there’ll even BE anybody around to listen.  If it takes me eight years to see a production of the election-themed piece I'm working on now, or a response to religious extremism or our environmental woes, will it matter to anybody?  Or will it already be too late?

We have to somehow press forward anyway, hoping against hope that the apocalypse won’t arrive until sometime after we’ve finished that novel or staged that play.  We have to maintain that hope at all costs, believe that the long odds of our creation helping to stave off that apocalypse are worth seeing our visions through, worth not giving up our shots.

Time’s a-wasting.

Extraordinary How Potent Cheap Television Is

When I first joined Equity, and started spending significant periods of time in its audition Lounge, I discovered something peculiar. I would frequently hear people discuss having seen things “the other night” on television – things like the latest episode of Kojak, or a notable guest on the Dick Cavett Show – which I knew to have aired some decades prior. Though older, these folks weren’t losing their faculties, they didn’t seem confused. How, then, could they have conflated time to such a degree, as to think large swaths of programing from the 1970s had happened just last weekend?

Now that I’m a cranky old recluse myself, the answer is abundantly clear.

A few months ago, I moved to the Bronx, and as part of a number of cost-cutting and life-changing measures, I got rid of cable. Despite living in the so-called Second Golden Age of Television, when all manner of groundbreaking programming is to be found on the channels I can no longer see, I find I don’t miss it at all. Not having to be subjected to the 24-hour cable news cycle makes up for a great deal. And true, if I really wanted to watch the rampaging dragons and direwolves of Game of Thrones in real time, I could set up Netflix or HBO Go with a minimum of fuss. But I’ve been busy the past few months working on a variety of writing projects, and the lack of distractions has been welcome, so I simply haven’t bothered. I haven’t been able to say goodbye to television completely, however (and as an actor interested in the current state of pop culture, I don’t believe you should), and I wound up getting a digital antenna.

It’s here where the answer to our original riddle presents itself. For in addition to the basic broadcast networks, the digital antenna picks up a number of channels which don’t usually appear on the cultural radar, and may be otherwise unknown to god or man. Here in New York, there are of course a wide variety of foreign language channels. But there are also a number of strange nostalgia networks – networks whose daily programming is indeed the enormous swath of 60s and 70s cheese to which those mysterious conversations were referring. This past weekend, there was a marathon showing of a Tarzan TV show from 1966-68 which I otherwise had no idea existed. Previous weekends have shown marathons of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and the illustrious 70s classic Celebrity Bowling, because we must not be allowed to forget that this society of ours once allowed televised celebrity bowling to be an actual thing. And throw in talk shows and other news broadcasts from the period which get thrown into the mix, and the time warp illusion is complete.

I admit, all of this is strangely seductive – largely because it’s trafficking in forgotten bits of flotsam from my childhood. Chance upon a nostalgia station after coming home from a weary day, home alone, no other outside stimulus coming in, and it truly is as though I have stumbled back into my room as an 8 year old, ready to slip back and relax in its comforts and hide from the big scary world outside. This, of course, is the terrifying part – how easy such a retreat can be.

We need to engage with the world around us – as artists, if such we are, but more importantly as humans. TV has long been accused of making this engagement impossible. That’s not always the case – the best of what it does facilitates this engagement instead – but the nostalgia channels have an amazing way of finding the worst of what TV has been and feeding it to us in great 48-hour long chunks. Not that there isn’t value there as well – I’ve managed to find some old Playhouse 90 broadcasts in its rotation, a treasure trove to actors and students of history – but at its worst, it’s turning those of us with more modest means into the cranky folks who hear about the daring and richness of today’s medium and decide we’re better off with Kojak, and who back up our opinions with the arguments we heard on last night’s Susskind show.  We’re the ones who most need to make our voices heard, and the digital antenna is beaming in this constant reminder in washed-out color that it’s better not to bother – just sit back on the couch and vegetate again, like you did when you were eight.

All of which is to say that, if somebody wanted to subsidize performing artists by letting us get free satellite upgrades, all issues of economic feasibility aside, I’d be hard pressed to say no.

Cruel Summer

Today is Memorial Day, a solemn day of remembrance which we’ve decided should be the kick-off to all of our summertime festivities. And here in New York, the past weekend has indeed been sunny, steamy, and hot, the first such of the season. Thousands upon thousands have flocked to our beaches. At the Delacorte Theater, Phyllida Lloyd’s production of The Taming of the Shrew has opened the 2016 season of the Public Theater at Central Park. We even have the first tropical storm of the year (it’s dumped lots of rain down where my parents live). Clearly, summer has begun.

But in many ways, summer is already over.

The many, many summer Shakespeare productions which will be seen all throughout the city in the next few months – of which those at the Delacorte are merely the most prominent – are already deep into rehearsals. Most of them are already cast. Indeed, most of this summer’s shows in general are already cast – the Fringe NYC shows, which will go up at the end of August, are putting up their casting notices now, if their production wasn’t cast to begin with. So, if you’re an actor looking for something to do, summer isn’t really an option any more – it’s already time to prepare your auditions for upcoming Christmas productions.

If you’re simply an audience member looking for a summer show, your options will soon be narrowing as well – at least as far as outdoor Shakespeare is concerned (I’m harking on the outdoor Shakespeare a lot, but it’s kind of my thing). The production calendar for these shows tends to be frontloaded in June and July; perhaps half of these ‘summer’ shows will be done before the actual vernal equinox rolls around. A good chunk of the audience is off recreating in the Hamptons and travelling abroad for the second half of the season, and shows with short runs schedule themselves in order to catch folks while they’re here. So from a production point of view, summer tends to be shorter than you think.

This is, of course, built into the system. Shows need time to prepare their productions and rehearse. Seasons are prepared well in advance. In order to reach an audience, you need time to publicize the show properly. Regional houses cast for whole seasons at a time, so it’s not uncommon to go to a seasonal EPA to audition for a show that will be produced in a year-and-a-half’s time.

The problem with this system is it becomes difficult as an artist to respond to the larger world in a timely fashion. It’s not impossible – the framing device of the Taming of the Shrew production mentioned above is about as of-the-moment as it’s possible to get. (No spoilers, but its impact is yuuuge.) But for most of us, it’s impossible to react in real time as an actor or writer to issues and events surrounding us. For instance, I’ve just started sketching out an election-themed one-act play. Short though I expect it to be, it will be next to impossible to mount a production of it when it would have the most impact, which would be the right before the upcoming election (which, at the rate we’re going, could wind up being our last). And I’m a grizzled veteran who lives in New York City – a kid finishing their spring semester at college, arriving in the area for the summer, and looking for some role to challenge them and allow them to vent their feelings about their world, is pretty much out of luck.

Of course, all this assumes that we want to find projects to work on and productions to see. It’s entirely possible that you’d like to just chill out during the long hot days again, and enjoy a nice rest. And that’s fair enough. Considering the way the world’s going, we’ll all need to be nice and rested up before this autumn comes around.