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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.

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.)