Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Things That Made Me Happy Today

- Welcome back, Tony.

-Broadway is looking very, very exciting right now.

-Exactly how dumb does Fox News think its audience is? Apparently that stupid.

-Today in terrible parenting.

-My blog-brother, Isaac, hit one thing burning up the internets today. Here's the other:

Not To Change The Subject, But...

...this is just about the best idea I've heard all day.

Okay, maybe I did mean to change the subject a little bit.

Nothing To See Here

Isaac notices something. His commenters, in particular Aaron Riccio, disagree, pooh-pooh it, say, in essence, there's nothing to see here, keep it moving. And I sigh and shake my head.

After the last dust-up around race and theatre, I've backed off. It gets too contentious, too quickly, people I like say things I disagree with and everyone winds up with a bad taste in their mouth. But...just because it's hard, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be talking about it.

Playwrights and the Public are the first of the major NYC institutions to announce for 2010-2011, at least their tent poles and both are pretty white. We'll see how the other ones come out. Who knows.

Aaron, in Isaac's comments, asks:
It just seems like there's always going to be something to complain about, though. I mean, if not this, it'd be that they weren't having any female playwrights. This is NOT to say that there isn't under-representation. However, I'd be curious (again, I'm a stat man, so if this study already exists, please direct me to it) if there's a demographic study of the current pool of playwrights.
Well. I don't know if he's heard about this book, Outrageous Fortune. Some folks have talked about it. You know, a little bit. Of the 250 playwrights surveyed, which I think would be "the current crop of playwrights" more or less, 76% were white and 24% were people of color, which, overall, hews fairly close to demographics of the nation (though that may change soon). So you would think that a quarter of the plays produced on our stages would be by writers of color. And, in New York City, which has a markedly different racial make-up from the rest of the country, you would expect something markedly different, particularly from our Off-Broadway theatres. (And if Aaron wants more demographics of the field, there's also this study. The findings are remarkably similar, which suggests it's a wider issue.)

I'm not trying to make a case for affirmative action or quotas here. They are something I believe in, that's for sure, and I support, but I do recognize that, given the nature of theatre, they're not necessarily optimal or even feasible. (Who would enforce them? How do you factor for quality? Other, far smarter people than I have some ideas and answers, but that's for another post.) But, to begin with, recognizing that there is a problem is the first step.

It's funny to me that we have no problem in other areas. Take this initiative. It seems like lots of folks are on board for that. Martin Denton's has a whole section devoted to keeping track. I don't recall seeing any pushback on that front, any questioning of whether or not that's necessary or if the demographics of the playwriting pool demand it. (For the record, the Outrageous Fortune pool was 48% women.) I'm not trying to compare oppressions or get into my lot is worse than yours. I'm simply talking about the field's response to stimulus. Emily Glassberg Sands did her thing and we got this. Maybe if we have a study of minority playwrights, we'll get a section on

Anyone who's been reading this blog lately has seen that I'm pretty aware of the state of racism in this country these days. Contra freeman, this is part of that conversation. How does theatre confront the "actual" racism if we can't attend to our own houses? If we're only hearing part of the conversation?

To go in the Way Back Machine, Adam Feldman had a pretty good list of plays by black playwrights last season here. And that's not even the work by Asian playwrights or Latino/a playwrights. And that's not to say there aren't bright spots coming up. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to talk about, to consider, to discuss.

Obviously, this should be the beginning of the conversation. But it's a conversation we need to be having.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

And With This...

...I throw up my hands and go back to bed. I can do absolutely nothing with this.

Good night, everybody!

In Other News, Rae Dawn Chong Writes Angry E-mail to C. Thomas Howell*

Is this actually news? I mean, news we can use? What, was Phoebe Cates unavailable? Good going, Newsbusters.

Anyway, I always felt her best work could be found in this movie:

*Cf. Like you didn't know that.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Paging Dr. Jones...Paging Dr. Indiana Jones...

So, clearly, someone hasn't read any Lovecraft, or watched any Indiana Jones movies or seen Ghostbusters or Stargate or really any movie from the last, say, 30 years or so, because otherwise, they'd have known better than to unearth this thing:
Archaeologists have unearthed a 3,500-year-old door to the afterlife from the tomb of a high-ranking Egyptian official near Karnak temple in Luxor, the Egyptian antiquities authority said Monday.

These recessed niches found in nearly all ancient Egyptian tombs were meant to take the spirits of the dead to and from the afterworld. The nearly six-foot- tall (1.75 meters) slab of pink granite was covered with religious texts.

To Gozer or Zuul or Vigo or the Ogdru Jahad or whatever nasty beastie that comes crawling out of that thing: I was with you the whole time! I'll be your Renfield. Or Louis Tully. Or whatever you need. We cool?

World Theater Day

...was this weekend. What did you do? What did you see?

Double-You Tee Eff?

Submitted without comment.

Multiple Things I Have Read Recently and Liked

I figured I'd go with a very descriptive title for this. Why get fancy?

- Via the Clyde Fitch Report, say hello to Karen Greco and PR for Smarties. Her bona fides are, well, bona fide. And these two posts are both grand. It might just be NYC's answer to Adam Thurman. (Who, by the by, has been doing some good work lately himself.)

- Speaking of good work lately, Garrett at the Playgoer has been en fuego as they say on Sportscenter. Read this, this and this, if you haven't already. How's that for a slice of fried gold? Heckuva week, Playgoer.

- Earth Hour happened this weekend. Did you know about it? I didn't until the last minute. Playwright and blogger Susanna Speier wrote about her Earth Hour, and her thoughts have some relevance for theatre, I think:
Rituals with sticking power are infectious as a hit summer blockbuster. They are not the created by well intended non-profits. They are a cultural invasion and an accident. Rituals with sticking power surge up from a deeply visceral collective impulse that is rarely understood at the time of the surge. Whether they want to be or not, people get sucked in by their centers of gravity. Rituals, like languages, evolve through practice as their context is defined and re-defined.
It's good stuff, and worth a longer look (I'll post more on this later). RTWT.

- Also in the world of not-quite-theatre, but totally related (at least in my mind), Charli Carpenter at Lawyers, Guns and Money has a great discussion on measuring race here. Given theatre's diversity problems and looking for solutions, this is interesting stuff to consider.

- Via Rob at The Wicked Stage AND Freeman, TCG's new blog is here. And it's pretty good stuff.

- This is a great interview.

- This is all British-y and whatnot (like a good cup of tea), but it's still pretty spot on. I do like a good manifesto.
We are also here today to make some noise. Governments of any colour are rightly frightened of the ability of performers to make a fuss. We can be very loud, with a size and volume hugely bigger than the amount of subsidy it takes to shut us up. Good. Keep it up. Be proud, be loud, be heard.

- And last, but not least, in pluggery, my good friend Maria Gabriele's play, Graceful Living is getting a workshop this week at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. She is funny as hell, smart and, as an outsider to American culture (she's a German emigre), she catches weird things that we American often miss. If you can, check it out.

Friday, March 26, 2010

For A Friend. Totally For A Friend. Yeah...

I buy that. I totally buy that he got it for a "friend."

I think someone couldn't wait for it to arrive from Amazon.

Two for the Price of One

Like Steve Benen at Washington Monthly, I think this is worth noting:
Ending one of the fiercest lobbying fights in Washington, Congress voted Thursday to force commercial banks out of the federal student loan market, cutting off billions of dollars in profits in a sweeping restructuring of financial-aid programs and redirecting most of the money to new education initiatives.

The revamping of student-loan programs was included in — if overshadowed by — the final health care package. The vote was 56 to 43 in the Senate and 220 to 207 in the House, with Republicans unanimously opposed in both chambers.
This is just a good, common sense thing. All sorts of folks agree. Now, can they throw in a little student loan forgiveness? That's probably asking too much.

Quote of the Day

Sadly, No edition:
You can’t put a price on a return to sanity. You can’t assign an exact dollar figure to a strong and encouraged middle class. You can’t measure the economic value of a citizenry’s restored faith in a livable baseline for their prosperity when emerging from an era where no floor for that basic security seemed to exist at all.

Megan can’t see that, but it’s hardly surprising. She’s fucking thick.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Kitty Pryde & Wolverine 3: Days of Future Past*

In his play, Music from a Sparkling Planet, Douglas Carter Beane wrote a line that I think sums up a lot of my childhood, and the nature of nostalgia: There's nothing so reassuring as the past's view of the future. As a sci-fi kid, I basically spent three-quarters of my childhood in the future or at least somewhere far, far away from where I was. When I look back on it, from the actual future dates, the future I imagined seems so small and simple. That's what makes it attractive. And still comforting.

Reading KP&W again has been the mother of all nostalgia trips. Not so much because I remember reading it when I was eleven, but because...well, it's such a comic book. An old-school, serial, sent-through-the-mail or picked up at the candy store comic book. I've remained into comics and graphic novels my entire life and my taste in them has certainly grown. I'm now more likely to reach for an Adrian Tomine or a Craig Thompson book than the latest X-men adventure. I don't even know who's on the team these days (though I basically assume it's all the same folks, a little older). When I read serialized comics, I read them in collections and, more often than not, it seems like they were written for that form: long, multi-issue story arcs, with a beginning, middle and end, even in an ongoing series, neatly bound together. At the front of the collection, there's a little summary of what you need to know, if that. (One series that I'm flirting with, an apocalyptic zombie comic The Walking Dead, doesn't even do that. Seriously. No preamble, no introduction. Just open up the collections and start reading.)
It's like they're saying, "If you're reading this, you know who these people are, you know what's going on. If you don't, figure it out as we go."

KP&W is not like that. It's not adult, smooth or slick, really. The art is chunky, clunky and kind of ugly. On the first or second page of every issue, one of the character recaps the story so far, sometimes to someone else, sometimes to themselves, as if they forgot what they were doing in the middle of a cliffhanger. All of the various points and symbolisms and metaphors are clearly explicated and driven home. Numerous bits of backstory and whatnot are either breezed over or left out altogether (Um. Kitty's father is a felon. There's talk of clearing his name, but really, he broke the law. And why is Ogun immortal? And apparently not that immortal, since, you know, he dies. Sorry, I meant to say "spoiler alert." And what's up with him and Wolverine and training, which was never mentioned before and never comes up again?) You get the sense in some sections that Chris Claremont is saying, "Nothing to see here! Keep it moving! Look, Wolvie's got claws!"

It's almost's meant for kids. Oh. Right.

That's the thing that tugged at my soul when I was re-reading this: I'm not young enough to breeze past this stuff anymore. I know that the world is more complicated than this. That a person who's undergone some pretty radical torture, humiliation and reconstructed her personality, like Kitty Pryde does, would have deep, deep scars. I know that there's an uncomfortable flavor of racism underneath the proceedings. I know that your father getting "mixed up" with Japanese gangsters, well, A) is pretty unlikely but B) if it did happen, it wouldn't end so neatly. And I know that comic books can do more than this. Like going back to your old room, or your old town, it all seems a little smaller than you remember it.

That's not to say it's not worth something. It's worth a lot, rediscovering that world, that place. That time when I thought a couple of rocky afternoons and BAM! I'm grown-up. And that being grown-up wouldn't mean anything was really different. I'd just get a new costume and some neat kung-fu skills and a new codename. Knowing how to be mentor or father figure was hardwired or something. Some tough words, a little withholding and the kid grew up. The phrase "a simpler time" has gone pretty battered out there in the world, but that's really what this comic is for me now. A reminder of a simpler person.

I'm pretty sure I still had my original copies of these comics until recently. I moved around a bit until college and had stuff stored in various places. A big trunk full of my old comic books wound up in the basement of my grandfather's house in Brooklyn. My grandfather got sick, and eventually passed away, and the house stood empty for a while. It was broken into once, and after that, my mother and I went to go out there and check on it. I really wanted to check on my comic books. I loved them and feared that the damp basement was rotting them. While my mother and I were walking to the house, a crackhead passed us on the street. This was the early '90s and crackheads were everywhere in Bushwick. He was easy to spot: burnt-looking lips, ratty clothes, skinny, malnourished, desperate. He gave us a weird fish-eye look and kept on. We went to my grandfather's house. I made a beeline for the basement door and my precious comics. Then someone kicked in the back door. I looked and it was the same crackhead we'd just passed. He saw us and ran away. I pulled my mom out of the house. She was screaming "I know you! I know you!" at the guy. And right then and there, I grew up. I decided I didn't need those comics, not so much. When I did finally get them back, I sold 'em.

My coming of age story doesn't need with a huge ice cream sundae...but then again, neither did Kitty's. Not really.

Back to you, Isaac.

*Cf. Appropriately.

Um. Bombshell?

Has anybody else heard about this?
But Daisey also reported that Oskar Eustis, artistic director of New York's Public Theatre — coincidentally, he's profiled in the most recent issue of The New Yorker (subscription required for the full story) — Oskar Eustis has come very close to making all the Public's offerings free of charge, not just Shakespeare in the Park. He could get a swanky donor to pony up the full ticket price, he believes, because, actually, the money raised from admissions isn't a huge percentage of the Public's income.
That's from a piece by Jerome Weeks in Art&Seek. )Super-commenter/guest blogger cgeye posted it at Isaac's place here.) Weeks is writing about Mike Daisey's recent performance of How Theater Failed America in Dallas and the apparent news that Mike Daisey mentioned during the talkback. Which I haven't heard a whisper of. Have you?

Weeks hits the nail on the head, paraphrasing Kevin Moriarty of the Dallas Theater Center:
Potentially, it's a game-changer. If we remove the ticket price as an obstacle to attending, then there should really be very little to hinder people from coming to the theater. That means, if people still stay away in droves, we have no excuse. We're either a) not offering the kind of stage art they want to see or b) we're not reaching them somehow.
Yeah. Basically. this for real?

Digital Age

George Hunka points out this NY Times essay by Michiko Kakautani, and sniffs that it's gone unremarked, probably because it's too long. I like a good challenge, so I read the whole thing. George quotes this bit, which is indeed key:
Now, with the ubiquity of instant messaging and e-mail, the growing popularity of Twitter and YouTube, and even newer services like Google Wave, velocity and efficiency have become even more important. Although new media can help build big TV audiences for events like the Super Bowl, it also tends to make people treat those events as fodder for digital chatter. More people are impatient to cut to the chase, and they’re increasingly willing to take the imperfect but immediately available product over a more thoughtfully analyzed, carefully created one. Instead of reading an entire news article, watching an entire television show or listening to an entire speech, growing numbers of people are happy to jump to the summary, the video clip, the sound bite — never mind if context and nuance are lost in the process; never mind if it’s our emotions, more than our sense of reason, that are engaged; never mind if statements haven’t been properly vetted and sourced.
I also liked this quote:
“Reading in the traditional open-ended sense is not what most of us, whatever our age and level of computer literacy, do on the Internet,” the scholar Susan Jacoby writes in “The Age of American Unreason.” “What we are engaged in — like birds of prey looking for their next meal — is a process of swooping around with an eye out for certain kinds of information.”
But I'm a bit more iffy on this:
Given the constant bombardment of trivia and data that we’re subjected to in today’s mediascape, it’s little wonder that noisy, Manichean arguments tend to get more attention than subtle, policy-heavy ones; that funny, snarky or willfully provocative assertions often gain more traction than earnest, measured ones; and that loud, entertaining or controversial personalities tend to get the most ink and airtime. This is why Sarah Palin’s every move and pronouncement is followed by television news, talk-show hosts and pundits of every political persuasion. This is why Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh on the right and Michael Moore on the left are repeatedly quoted by followers and opponents. This is why a gathering of 600 people for last month’s national Tea Party convention in Nashville received a disproportionate amount of coverage from both the mainstream news media and the blogosphere.
And not just for the somewhat false equivalence of Glenn Beck and Michael Moore. And the way that legacy media constantly points its fingers at the unwashed rubes who clamor for a constant stream of right-wing updates as though they play no role in that at all. But that's not my point here.

George connects Kakautani's thoughts more directly to theatre:
As she notes, Internet users seem to be a jumpy lot, demanding the instant gratification that is denied by more complex art of any kind. It is a call for an increased shallowness in some ways, and these digital and virtual connections, it must be remembered, are digital and virtual, not particularly human. They also threaten, Kakutani suggests, to close prematurely those presumably open minds that cross the thresholds of theatre auditoria. "Online research enables scholars to power-search for nuggets of information that might support their theses, saving them the time of wading through stacks of material that might prove marginal but that might have also prompted them to reconsider or refine their original thinking," Kakutani writes; in the theatre, a "bored" audience's desire to have their own prejudices confirmed as well, cutting off imaginative alternatives before they're barely seeded, as well as demanding immediate interpretation of what might be a deliberately ambiguous experience, seems to me to lead to a drama resembling a mountain stream — very clear, but very shallow.
And he wraps up with a quote from Richard Foreman:
I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self — evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the "instantly available." A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance — as we all become "pancake people" — spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.
Not to put to fine a point on it, I think this is mostly bunk. Just plain, legacy media/snobbish complaining that they just don't make things like they used and slow is better and kids today just aren't no darn good.

I've made no bones about my affection for modern "junk" art and the digital world. I've referred to Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad Is Good For You more than once. But I'll do it again. His basic thesis is that pop culture has grown in complexity and the demands that it makes on its audience over time and that it is actually as good for you as "traditional" entertainment. I think that trend gives the lie to the whole idea of pancake people becoming dominant. And I think it shows us, in theatre in particular, a way forward and way to reach out to younger audiences. And no, I'm not talking about slapping on a Twitter feed.

In Johnson's book (available on Google Books, natch), he compare a classic cop show, like Dragnet or Hawaii Five-O, with a modern show, like The Sopranos. In terms of storytelling, dramatic narrative and backstory, The Sopranos blows Dragnet away. It's an infinitely more complicated form of storytelling, requiring the viewer to have more knowledge about the characters and the world of the story than the old cop show, and, though he doesn't get into this, involving far more sophisticated forms of storytelling, more subtlety, more leaving things up to the viewer to figure out, more suggestion. Compare Starsky & Hutch to The Wire and you'll see what I mean. The Wire, as much as I love it, is a bad example, since it wasn't all that popular when it aired, but The Sopranos was.

Audiences today are smart. Yes, they're probably over-stimulated, and maybe their attention spans have shrunk in one way or another, but their ability to skip to the end is off the charts. Honestly, maybe it has been for longer than we think. They see plot twists coming a mile off. They know tropes and devices the instant they appear and are rarely fooled. They know what they like quickly and if they don't like it, they turn off. I think, too often, in theatre, they're getting the same old slop, even when it's postmodern slop, see where it's going and would rather engage in something that engages them back. If someone is texting or Twittering during your show, maybe, just maybe, it's not them. It's you. I'm addicted to my smartphone, but when I'm doing something engaging, I don't look at it. I don't care if someone's texting or updating their Facebook. I'm watching this thing that's happening in front of me. Rather than depending on schoolmarm tricks and rigid rules, maybe we should, you know, make the shows better.

There are a lot of dangers in this highly connected, on-demand new world, but, as a collaborative, at least nominally interactive artform, we should be thriving here. We should be embracing the digital world as a way not just of putting butts in seats, but of making art, discussing our art, refining and reforming our art. Of collaborating and opening up our process. Connecting with our audiences. Not just selling to them, but investing in them.

When we treat theatre like a literary endeavor, or an art project, it keeps in the one-way, one-dimensional world. We speak, you listen and enjoy and then go home. I think we can do better than that. I think we need to do better than that. This isn't a call for every show to be Twitterable and malleable. I'm still a formalist and a believer in presentational theatre. But we have to remember that the show doesn't start at curtain up and end at blackout. The life of the play can and should extend beyond that. The conversation we're having with the audience should extend beyond that. Otherwise, yes, we lose them to YouTube and Hulu and the Google.

We have to tell the stories of our day, in the language of our day and make it mean something. In short, we have to evolve. And standing athwart the digital river and saying "Kids today ain't no damn good" is basically the opposite of evolution. I think we can do better.

In The 'Wood

One of my other projects, a non-theatre project (egads!) is starting to gather a smidge of steam. And by that, I mean, we have a website and a blog. The tools for modern artmaking, right (more on that later).

The project is a web series set in my neighborhood, Inwood, and I'm working with a crackerjack team of playwrights who all live here. You can read more about us and the project here.

My first blog post is up here. I know, I know, just what I need: another blog. But this should be a good one, chronicling our webseries as it unfolds. Drop by, check us out...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Looking for Something to Do This Weekend?

Have you considered this?

NYC WTD Flash Mobs

Create a Spectacle in NYC

A flash mob (or flashmob) is a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual act for a brief time, and then quickly disperse. In paying homage to our WTD compatriots in Chicago, the NYC WTD Coalition will be assembling the following Flash Mobs on Saturday, March 27th.

  • The Message directed by Amanda Feldman
    A poetic reading of the International Theatre Messages.
  • Join us in Song directed by Kyle Ancowitz
    Performed by the cast of Glee Club a Matt Freeman play currently being produced at the Access Theater, everyone will sing the chorus together with one united voice.
  • All the World's a Stage directed by Alex Mallory
    A play on Shakespeare's famous phrase the mob will split up and encourage everyone to take part in a simple call and response.
  • Zip Zap Zop directed by Tom Wojtunik
    We will storm a NYC park to play everyone's favorite theatre game, with a crowd this big; it should be quite a sight.
  • [UNTITLED] directed by Amanda Joshi
    It's so awesome; we can't even describe it.
  • Cheers to You directed by Morgan Gould
    Just what it sounds like, a thunderous round of applause.
  • The Kiss directed by Isaac Byrne
    We will recreate the famous photo of a nurse kissing a sailor times one hundred.

Flash mobs can be amazing fun; creating a public spectacle and a piece of performance art. Want to be a part of one of these exciting and fun events? Email and let us know.

For more information or to get involved, contact us at

There are a whole bunch of other events and, or course, a party.

Official NYC WTD Event

NYC WTD Coalition Celebration & Networking Event

Time: 5:00 PM - 8:00 PM
Location: The Houndstooth Pub, on the South East corner of 37th Street & 8th Avenue
Description: Come mix and mingle with fellow theatre artists who care about international theatre projects both in the NYC and abroad. Hear a dramatic reading of the International Message.

And that message? The U.S. version is by Lynn Nottage. You might have heard of her. And it is awesome.
I challenge all of us to sustain the complexity of our world; to invite a multitude of diverse voices onto the stage. We must open the doors and windows of our theatres to let the world in. It is our responsibility; it is our burden and our gift. We are fabulators...we are cultural watchdogs.
What else you got to do?

Quote of the Day

Ta-Nehisi Coates edition:
This isn't a matter of boats and tides. It's a matter of how you see the world, and the tools you embrace to change it. I would submit that it's worth recognizing those moments when the problems of East New York look like the problems of East Kentucky. We were never simply fighting racism. We were fighting injustice. Post-1968, injustice got sophisticated. Why shouldn't we do the same?

Shocked, Shocked To Find Gambling Going On Here!

I just love the wonderful use of the passive voice in this article:
Facts are stubborn, the saying goes.
But myths about the legislation are likely to persist as well. And a lot of people don't agree on which is which.

"People have taken away from the debate a number of beliefs about the bill that are very difficult to shake based on objective reports," said Robert Blendon, a Harvard public health professor who follows opinion trends. "There is enough skepticism out there that questions about how it's going to help the country are likely to continue."

Gee, willikers, Mr. Wizard! These crazy, false and lunatic ideas just keep going out in the world, willy-nilly. However could a little old journalist like me ever hope to stop them?

Um. By pointing them out? And, you know, calling out politicians and pundits who say them? I know, I know, that's crazy talk, because that would mean DOING YOUR DAMN JOB. Whatever was I thinking?

I think we're going to see a lot of stories like these in the next few weeks. Sigh.

Damn Good Advice

Via 2am Theatre, here is David Mamet's 2005 memo to the writers of his struggling and now canceled TV show, The Unit. It is pretty much as advertised: a master class on dramatic writing in about 30 paragraphs (and most of those are pretty short). I have my issues with Mamet, but this is good stuff. In its original, "shouty" ALL CAPS:






Check it out here. And for more on dramatic scene writing, this is good, too.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Kitty Pryde & Wolverine 2: Wolverine

(Isaac at Parabasis and I are blogging through Kitty Pryde and Wolverine. Isaac's first and second posts are here and here. Mine is here.)

"I'm the best there is at what I do. But what I do isn't very nice."
- Wolverine

That line comes from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's limited series, Wolverine, which predates Kitty Pryde and Wolverine by about two years. It's quoted about 20 times in the course of the six issues of KP&W. Seriously, every time he appears the first time, he says it. It's a great line, but it gets...a little annoying. It is, though, the line that basically changed comic books forever.

When Wolverine was introduced, he was a bit of a throwaway character: this odd, short, belligerent Canadian in a brightly colored suit and these big old claws popping out of his hands. There was no explanation for him, no real depth to the character, just wackiness, a step above comic relief. They almost randomly threw him in with the X-men, without ever really explaining his superpowers or mutation. Slowly the details came out: healing factor, adamantium claws, the obsession with Jean Grey, and the ever-popular amnesia/Man-With-No-Name thing. He had one name: Logan. In short, a useful badass. And that was pretty much it.

Then the Wolverine limited series. Now, all of a sudden, he was a failed samurai, with a code of honor, and a lady love that was all star-crossed and tragic. He had a soul. In a way, Wolverine became one of the first modern comic book characters with a soul. There had been dark shadings to characters in the past and, of course, indie and underground comix out there, but in the world of superhero comic books, in the '80s, perpetually tortured souls were a new thing.

Of course, though, there's only so much torture you can have in a superhero comic. I mean, really, eleven year old boys don't want to spend issue after issue with a character sitting around moping about his love life and keeping his bad-ass berzerker in check. Screw that. You gotta let him out. But you also have to make it safe. Parents don't want their kids looking up to a sociopath who kills willy-nilly (well, at least not yet).

So KP&W is about more than just the maturation of Kitty Pryde, it's about the softening of Wolverine from wild card into, as Isaac points out, a father figure and more benign mentor. Sure, he's full of tough love and leaving his charge out in the snow, but it's all in service of making Kitty Pryde stronger. He's still gotta kick some ass by the end, but he's also in position to lead the X-men.

This push and pull runs underneath a lot of modern, mainstream comics. Comic book are still meant to be entertainment for children and, post-Comic Code Authority, that means it's got to be nutritional, too. The characters who bring danger and complication into the world have to be tamed and smoothed out. The good comics make it about maturation and growth, which KP&W does well for Kitty, but I find Wolverine's path less convincing. It's all pretty easy for him. Except for beating Ogun, of course. Which is when they let the bad-ass out again.

This volume also cements what I think of as the oddest character trait in comics: Wolverine's Japan fetish. The writers grafted it onto a Canadian berzerker and then ran with it. This series pulls Kitty Pryde into it, but, from the get-go, you know it's just a prelude to Wolverine showing up and spouting on about peace and tranquility while standing in a zen garden. Given the vaguely Asian look that artists tend to give him, and his blank slate past, you'd think that it would turn out to have more meaning, but...not so much.

Comic books and kung fu are two of the pillars of a 1980s boyhood and Wolverine was the perfect bridge. He was the first introduction of the ninja to a lot of young kids. The fact that he could take on about twenty of them at one time just increased his legend. Reading it now, though, it's...a little iffy. Not Long Duk Dong iffy, but close. The Japan of X-men comics is always a place of inscrutable, mysterious men, codes of honor and tales of noble samurai, with only two types of women: crazy, overactive badasses with spiky hair and beautiful, distant, unattainable, proper beauties. And they're all in love with the gaijin. Not that comics are particularly known for their sensitive racial depictions, but to have the bulk of the comic set in this, well, comic book version of Japan, all Blade Runner and Seven Samurai, leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth. But that's what it looks like now, more than two decades (!!!) later. At the time, it was just about Wolverine, Canadian bad-ass who loves Japan.

And, despite the second billing, and the Kitty-centric story arc, the second half of this book is really about Wolverine and setting the table for his future. From here, Wolverine became the signature character for the X-men and, in a way, for Marvel Comics. He's not as recognizable as Spider-Man outside of fandom, but, after the movies, he's close. And he's certainly more beloved, defended and argued about. For a while, his Wikipedia page was blocked from editing because there was a three-year long flame war going about whether or not he had super-strength (the jury's still out on that). Wolverine brings that out in people. And here, in these six comics, we catch him in the middle of his journey from comic book character into mythic figure.

Thinking about Wolverine and reading these comics again, it reminds me of that adolescent intensity and passion, the kind that got me buying the full set of the Handbook to the Marvel Universe to learn exactly how much Spider-Man could bench (10 tons, just in case you want to know). Isaac, is it having the same effect on you?

Casting Superheroes

Since we are talking comix, I might as well talk about the other news of the day. From Variety:
Chris Evans will don the star-spangled superhero suit to play Captain America for Marvel Entertainment.

Evans accepted an offer made by the comicbook publisher late last week, beating out a number of thesps who test-screened for the high-profile role.

A few weeks back, when the speculation was at a fever pitch, Alyssa Rosenberg weighed in on the possible casting of John "The Office" Krasinski with this:
But I just think Krasinski is far too much of a relatable, regular guy to take up the shield as Steve Rogers. I think that he's into the running speaks to the body type that's become so popular among young Hollywood actors today: the tall, almost willowy type that looks good in slim-fit suits. Sam Worthington may be the only actor in this particular generation with a real jaw.
(via TNC)

When I posted the news of Chris Evans' casting on facebook, it kicked off a bit of a hategasm. A lot of my friends jumped all over it, and, I gotta agree a bit. Not just because of Evans is Ryan Reynolds light (less Canadian!), but because it's easy superhero casting. And it makes me scared about the direction they're heading already.

The standard weakness of superhero casting is casting only half the role. They err on the side of casting the hero and not the person inside the mask. Especially in "origin" movies, they cast the end of the movie, not the beginning. Hence we get Dolph Lundgren as the Punisher, Brandon Routh (a blank pretty boy) or Tom Welling as Superman, Adam West and George Clooney as Batman, even Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. I loved Christopher Reeve as Superman and he had the comic chops to pull of Clark Kent, but it was a stretch.

Part of the the superhero thing is the secret identity. It has to be believable, understandable and acceptable. The more successful casting, like Michael Keaton or Christian Bale as Batman, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Tobey Maguire in the Spider-Man movies shades towards the man in the suit. And also great actors. Superheroes are deceptively tricky parts to cast and pull off. Casting them for the jaw or the body leaves the important stuff out. And Captain America is probably more deceptive than most.

I mean, the guy basically wears an American flag, carries a big American flag shield and is all about decency, fair play and being upright and honest. You know, like America. Ahem. Moving on. In his most recognizable form, he's a perfect physical specimen, blond, blue-eyed and a leader of men and sentient robots. Of course you'd want a guy who looks like this. Or this. But to do that, you leave out his whole origin story. The whole point is that the guy was 4F, couldn't serve in WWII and volunteered for the Super Soldier Project in order to help the war effort. And then he gets turned into the perfect man. Even after that, his cover story is the classic "geek loser who turns into a god when no one is looking." We're used to letting it slide that when Clark throws on a pair of glasses no one recognizes him, but it's harder and harder to make it stick. You need someone who can act it, can make us believe that no one would ever think this guy is a hero. If he looks like a hero from the start, you have to do that much more work.

Casting someone like Chris Evans says to me that Captain America will be a dumb action movie and not much more. It will probably be sort of funny and serviceable. But, honestly, I was pulling for Krasinski. That would have a different look at the character, a more human touch (not Human Torch!). Now we get a smug, wise-cracking wiseapple who's probably going to learn some humility and the real meaning of patriotism. Whoop-dee-do. At least we can look forward to this.

And in other news...

Vows revenge? Really? They wanna go with vow revenge? That's what COBRA does when G.I. Joe destroys the Weather Dominator. That's what Dark Lords of the Sith do. Is that really the company they want to keep? What's next, endorsements from the Legion of Doom? Nailing down that sweet Cylon support?

Good thing we got this guy on our side...

Like It Or Not...

...Garrett at the Playgoer is pretty much right. He starts off with a bang:
In an age of mass-produced entertainment and culture, the work of theatre will always be disadvantaged in the marketplace because it cannot easily reproduce and commodify itself for mass consumption.
and then wraps it up:
I'm not saying theatre will die if it can't reproduce itself. I'm not saying it even can reproduce itself. But it will basically always be a loser artform in this economy--i.e. this country. And I mean "loser" in many ways.

So we better get used to it.
And in between...good, sobering stuff. You know what to do: RTWT.

A Whole Other World...

And a lot of Republicans are living in it.
57 percent of Republicans (32 percent overall) believe that Obama is a Muslim 45 percent of Republicans (25 percent overall) agree with the Birthers in their belief that Obama was "not born in the United States and so is not eligible to be president" 38 percent of Republicans (20 percent overall) say that Obama is "doing many of the things that Hitler did" Scariest of all, 24 percent of Republicans (14 percent overall) say that Obama "may be the Antichrist." [...snip...] We are playing with dynamite by demonizing our president and dividing the United States in the process. What might be good for ratings is bad for the country.
Just another by-product of our liberal media, I suppose....

Quote of the Day

Sean Williams edition:
Go to your twitter feed or your facebook update page or whatever tool it is that you’re using and take a look at your posts. How many of them feel like an investment, and how many of them feel like a withdrawal? If this page was a bank, and every time you reached out to help, or to inform, or to crack up your readers was money in, and every time you asked people to help you, or to buy your stuff, is money out, what would your balance be?

The Dumbest Smart Person In The World*

Other folks have noted this post by Megan McArdle, but, well, it enrages me on so many fronts, I have to dive in. Here's the key bit:
One cannot help but admire Nancy Pelosi's skill as a legislator. But it's also pretty worrying. Are we now in a world where there is absolutely no recourse to the tyranny of the majority? Republicans and other opponents of the bill did their job on this; they persuaded the country that they didn't want this bill. And that mattered basically not at all. If you don't find that terrifying, let me suggest that you are a Democrat who has not yet contemplated what Republicans might do under similar circumstances. Farewell, Social Security! Au revoir, Medicare! The reason entitlements are hard to repeal is that the Republicans care about getting re-elected. If they didn't--if they were willing to undertake this sort of suicide mission--then the legislative lock-in you're counting on wouldn't exist.
Emphasis mine.

What has been most frustrating about this whole long, bizarre and exhausting process is that it seems like the entire press corps apparently slept through the LAST DECADE. Remember those times? Remember this? Remember this? And this? The thing about these things, changing Social Security and spying on all Americans and, oh, yeah, starting two wars is that they're generally really, really unpopular. Healthcare reform just plain isn't. Not for the reasons folks like Megan McArdle want to say it is, anyway. And let's not mention the fact that when people hear what's actually in the plan, they like it a lot more.

There is basically no way to describe this process as the tyranny of the majority. No actual way. The Democrats compromised, incorporated Republican ideas, in many ways betrayed their core principles to satisfy the GOP and the conservatives and, in return, were kicked in the teeth. The only thing that would have satisfied the opposition party was...nothing. No action at all. And that's untenable.

When the Republicans had far slimmer majorities, they did far worse damage, using all the same legislative tools (and some non-legislative ones) in support of much less popular things. The one thing that the Democrats managed to stop was their plan to destroy Social Security. That's a good thing.

Honestly, it drives me up the wall when people say, "What would happen if the Republicans were in the majority?" We saw that. It sucked. And also, that's the reason they're not in the majority now. Elections have consequences, right? And a smart person like Megan should be able to realize that. Oh, wait...


That Is One Nutty Hospital*

I think I'll be answering questions with "There's low-fat milk in the outside fridge" for a while.

That's my friend Ross Maxwell as the Creepy Neighbor (and the writer, natch). Under his handle Professor Dreadwhimsy, he was the mad genius behind this.


Monday, March 22, 2010

History Was Made Last Night.

I mean, other than, you know, that. There was also this.
Katori Hall's The Mountaintop was the surprise winner of best new play when this year's Laurence Olivier awards were handed out tonight.

Hall, from Memphis, Tennessee, was inspired to write her play – an imagined account of Martin Luther King's last evening before his 1968 assassination – by a family story about her mother. It was spotted by James Dacre, son of Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, who directed its world premiere at the 65-seat Theatre503, above a pub in Battersea.

Which is, well, just cool as crap. Mostly because Katori is awesome. I'm looking forward to seeing the show when it comes to New York.

Kitty Pryde & Wolverine 1: Kitty Pryde

(Note: Isaac and I are doing a blog-through of the classic Marvel limited series Kitty Pryde and Wolverine. His first segment is here.)

It wasn't the good candy store. It was down the strip a bit, away from the elementary school. The candy store right by the school, next to the Key Foods, that was the good one, well-stocked, shiny plastic toys and the good magazines and a few comics. It was a kid's paradise, always full of loud children and stern clerks.

But the other one...that one was a little weird, out of the way, down by the Methodist Church, past the flower shop. No toys, a sad array of snacks. The clerk was indifferent at best, barely ever looking up from some lurid tabloid or other. But that one always seemed to have more comics. That was the one I went to for my X-men fix.

Like Isaac, I had an older brother and picked up the things he discarded. By the time we moved from Brooklyn to Jersey, he'd moved past comic books and into the world of real art. I was still a kid, ten years old, husky and suddenly the only brown face in my class. WTF? What the hell am I supposed to do now? Read comic books. And read them, I did.

I can still remember the first issue of the X-men I bought. It was the issue after Cyclops married Madelyne Pryor (I have provided links just in case you kissed a girl in high school). You don't really expect a comic book to open up with a splash page of a kiss, but there it was. The X-men is quite possibly the most complicated, intricate, and confusing comic book in the history of everything. Seriously, not just mutant super powers, but multiple alternate universes, timelines, dimensions, and versions of characters kicking around. You basically needed to be an eleven-year old to follow all the switchbacks and retcons. But that just added to the mystery and engagement.

My real thing was The New Mutants. The X-men was always a less than subtle metaphor for race relations (and sexuality and class and whatever else you want to throw on the pile) so it was an immediate attraction. Then you mix it with teen angst and unfortunate love affairs? Teh awesome. It made me feel older and cooler instantly. If there was anything ten year old me could relate to, it was the feeling of suddenly leaving your entire life behind, being thrust into a brand new family, new world and having to figure out who you are now. That's what the New Mutants were all about.

Kitty Pryde was the original New Mutant. They added her to up the youth quotient and it worked like gangbusters. She was cute, smart, brave and, as Isaac notes, accessible in a way that other comic book girls and women weren't. She really felt like a real girl. And yet, somehow, they made it not creepy when she hooked up with Colossus. It was cute and charming: big metal Russian guy and little chick from Chicago. Awesome. And then they busted it all up. With Secret Wars.

Okay, I won't go into the whole long saga of the Secret Wars. We can geek out about that another time. Let's just say that, at the end, Colossus and Kitty Pryde broke up, and we were all simultaneously psyched because we had a shot and heartbroken because she was. She was down, a sad, mopey teenager again.

Then came Kitty Pryde and Wolverine.

Kitty started off as a normal 13-year old girl, given the twee codename Sprite. Four years later, she was a young woman, had saved the world, fallen in love and had her heartbroken. It was time to grow up. And in the world of X-men comics, that means sending her to Japan to save her father from the Yakuza, getting abducted and re-trained by a ninja master and nearly killing her best friend. You know, coming of age, comic-book style.

But it landed at the right time for a pre-teen boy. The story had every thing: mysterious gangsters, kung fu fighting, ninjas, a pretty girl and Wolverine. But mainly it was about becoming an adult. Kitty moves from a world of good guys and bad guys you can differentiate by the color of their costumes into a much more complicated place. At first she thinks her father is being framed or being coerced into working with the Yakuza, but it turns out he's a lot more willing than she thought and weaker than she could have imagined. She is basically kidnapped by the mysterious Ogun, but learns fighting and meditation under his tutelage. The final image of the comic is of an excited teenager about to dig into a sundae, seemingly normal, but we know that underneath she's not the same. After this series, she left behind the codename Sprite and became Shadowcat, and a leader in her own right. It was a turning point for the character. And for her fans. Who were all facing some turning points of their own. Thank God, we had the other candy store. You know the one. By the flower shop. Across from the Methodist Church. The one with the good comics.


I loved this post, like, a lot. Like Zack (I'm assuming the first commenter is Zack), I saw Red last week. They made their "turn off your cell phones" announcement. When it was done, as you would expect, lights flashed on all over the place. One was in the row in front of me. Another guy in the row looked at the person with the cell phone and hissed, "Turn that off!" To which the person answered, "That's what I'm doing!" All over the room, there was shushing, and glaring, and the whole array of schoolmarm discipline all over the place.

This is honestly far more disruptive than any coughing, or even a cellphone ring. There just comes a time when you let it go, folks. Chill out.

Terms of Enjoyment

The right and proper Don Hall continues his trend of responding and riffing on other folks' posts without linking or noting the original post and comes up with this, responding to the Pink Floyd story I posted here:
A better argument to get someone to buy a vinyl record and a turntable (although still not going to revitalize a fringe medium) is to point out that "Dark Side of the Moon" is an album and is supposed to be listened to in sequence and that it works best on a record as that was how it was intended to be listened to. Content is more compelling than quality of experience. Unless it's parking and that's a gift horse of another color.
Emphasis mine.

This kind of misses the point of what I was getting at. I said:
I've never really understood the urge of some artists to go around and control exactly how their work is enjoyed. Isn't the enjoyment the point?
And that's really what I meant. Do artists get to set the terms of enjoyment? Should they? Do they get to set it in some formats or all? If I prefer to just listen to "Run" or "Comfortably Numb" and enjoy them, can Pink Floyd come into my house and say, "No, no, NO! You have to listen to the whole album! On a record player! You're ruining our music!"? I don't think so.

And to apply it to the world of theatre and the conversations that Don is referencing, I don't think love = control. At some point you have to let go and let it go into the world and find people who connect with it. Joy is certainly infectious and should be. Awesome. But it's not the only thing that matters. The work itself has to mean something.

Don brings up the always interesting world of Star Trek fans. The reason people dress up like Klingons and wear Starfleet uniforms to court isn't because Gene Roddenberry loved it so much, not exactly. He built a world that means something to other people, that connects to their life. He built it faithfully and lovingly, but didn't insist that it could only be enjoyed in wool blend uniforms and with the proper specs.

It's access, yes, but it's also sharing. It's also the artist setting part of their ego aside to say, "This is yours, too. Enjoy it as you see fit." I think that's a pretty good invitation to make.

Making Sh*t Up

Here's a topic of conversation for you all out there: how do you feel about making up historical figures for works of fiction? In addition to making up an African nation for At Home and Abroad, I'm about to embark on a new project that would involve making up a civil rights era figure. Sometimes I feel a little silly about these things. But they're often necessary.

What about you? How do you feel about creating alternate histories and historical figures? How do you feel when you see a play and there's a figure who is obviously a stand-in or composite for a real world figure? Does it bug you? Do you notice or care?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Sum Of Our Parts

So I weighed in on Isaac's points here in the comments a bit, but figured I'd say a bit more, now that I'm out of the fog.

Isaac wrote:
Similarly, our long new play development process that everyone gets so frustrated about is partially predicated on the notion that it is up to the script to fix everything. There's no assumption that a competent group of artists working with a playwright could shape and collaborate with the material in such a way that good art comes out of it, even if on the page it doesn't always look perfect.
And my take is: yep. Exactly right. That is indeed how we work: the entire goal is "fixing" the flawed script, with the idea being that a "good" script is disaster-proof. A solid, tight script is supposed to work in all circumstances, with all casts and directors. During the development process, if you have a bad reading, a part is miscast, or the thing is misdirected, the question you always ask is "Can you still hear the play?" The script is thought of as separate from the production in a way. It exists in its own place. In a way, that's right.

Now, before you get all up in arms about me defending my own rights and trampling yours, lemme finish. In the end, the play is what lasts. It gets published. The playwright has sole control of that. When a play gets produced, the playwright and the publisher settle on the final script, the stage directions to include, the dedication, the whole thing. If the playwright doesn't want to talk to the director about it, he or she doesn't have to. And when it comes out, the playwright's name is the only name on the cover. We get our reward in eternity. Lucky us.

The play, the story and the words have to be judged in a different way than the acting and directing, because they're also less subjective, less vague. You and I can sit in the same room, watch the same performance and one of us can think it's hysterical tour-de-force and the other can think it's a over-acted mess of mugging. With the script, you can at least be specific, you can say you don't buy this turn of the plot or speech, you can point to a specific word or sentence and say that particular thing doesn't work. It's harder with staging or acting or even design. Maybe we should be so well-versed and able to speak to the intricacies of those art forms the way we are about to speak about text.

I believe wholeheartedly in the collaborative nature of theatre and the work we do and I don't believe that it's "all about the playwright," but when we're talking about mainstream playmaking, the buck stops with the playwright. We're right to recognize that.

I do think that critics lean a little too heavy on that and certainly shouldn't feel tricked or scammed by a good production. But I think, as audience members, we basically play StageGrade in our head. A so-so script, poorly directed, but featuring a kick-ass performance, we weigh them together and decide what we think about the play. Of course it takes a pretty good play to support a great performance, to allow for good directing. The play's're actually going to make me say it, are you?

Isaac's probably right: our field is focused too much on the play. But there are good reasons for that. What we need to do a bit more is let the critics and the audiences think about it, but in the rehearsal hall and the offices to keep our focus on the whole megillah. It all adds up.

What Else I Saw

In my previous post, I left out one other thing that I saw: four audiences. I wish I could say that the audiences were wildly different, given that I saw four shows with different ticket prices, located in different neighborhoods, about different subjects and in different styles. But...nope. A Cool Dip was a little more black, but generally, they were north of 45, and mostly white. The audience at Red was a bit more of a mixed bag and the audience at Glee Club skewed a bit younger. Outside of Red, the younger folks I saw I knew, because they were other theatre folks.

I should also note that at the Off-Broadway institution and the Broadway house, the experience was the most remote, the most "professional." Glee Club and Lenin's Embalmers had curtain speeches, given by the folks who worked the box office or were directly involved in the show we were watching. At Ensemble Studio Theatre, the play's director, also the theatre's artistic director, invited the whole audience to hang out after the show for a dance party. After the show, the cast milled around the lobby, talking to the audience members. Same at Glee Club.

Granted A Cool Dip is in previews and the crew went right into post-show notes and meetings. I'm sure on a regular night, it would be different. And there's, of course, a difference between a Wednesday night preview and a Saturday night regular performance. It's a real comparison. But that was the experience.

Whirlwind Tour

I had another streak of seeing shows this week and I realized in the middle that I was taking a whirlwind tour of theatre production in New York. I literally saw a show at every level this week: Broadway, Off-Broadway, establishment Off-Off-Broadway and indie theatre. It was, well, kind of exhausting. That's a lot of evenings on a lot of trains all over town. I'm just glad that I didn't have to go to Brooklyn for any of it.

What did I see? Previews of A Cool Dip In The Barren Saharan Creek and Red, and regular performances of Glee Club and Lenin's Embalmers. So for those of you keeping track at home, that's four new plays, three by American writers, one British import, one remount. Three male playwrights. Four male directors. Twenty-three actors, three women. Five African-Americans. Those are the stats. But really what did I see?

Two naturalistic, fairly straightforward plays. Two that jumped in time and place and featured flights of fancy and the dread "theatricality." Three plays set in places other than New York City or any metropolitan area. Two straight-up comedies (though both were pitch-black), but all plays had at least moments of humor and comedy. Two plays revolve around art and artists, two are about government, policy, history, and people.

What did I see? A lot of terrific acting. I'm not even kidding. I saw four casts bust their asses, make me laugh, smile, throw themselves with abandon into a variety of characters. I saw actors push themselves into some surprising places, megalomaniac painters, sociopathic dictators...and Stalin. They were all incredibly well directed in a beautiful productions. It was a four day marathon of great performances.

Obviously, again, I can't really talk about the shows in previews, but you should go see them. And you absolutely definitely should go and see Glee Club and Lenin's Embalmers. Both are really exciting, terrific, fun as hell and some of the best things I've seen in a long time. Great evenings of theatre.

A lot of folks have said good things about Glee Club and all of them are more than deserved. It's a black-hearted laugh riot, full of surprise and the curdled milk of human kindness. There were two specific things I liked about it. One, "downtown" indie theatre is generally thought to be avant-garde, formally experimenting, non-linear or twee and full of whimsy. Glee Club is very, very much not. It's practically Aristotelian: one place, one course of action, it all happens in real time. It's a recognizable place, in the "real" world and presented without frippery or embellishment. The other thing I like about it is its point of view on art. Or Art. Often plays about art focus on the uplifting, soul-stirring aspects, even if they dig into the glorious monsters artists can be sometimes. But it's rare to see a show that says "Being an artist practically requires that you destroy yourself and quite possibly others." It was a thrill to be there.

What can I say about Lenin's Embalmers? I'm not precisely objective about it, since I'm a member of E.S.T., which produced it, and I've worked with a ton of the folks involved. But, boy howdy, it's a grand night of theatre. It is indeed formally experimental, moving through time and space basically by the dint of imagination alone. The company of eight covers dozens of roles, all specific and detailed (including at least three different women named Nadia). But it's not all trickery and stage magic. The play is compelling, funny, streaked through with sadness and death. It's matched by a great production and cast, but the play is the backbone. Sure, it's a Canadian import, but it speaks well to the life of the American play.

So...what did I see this week? I saw four plays. You really can't say anything more than that.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Fog of Rewrites: Rewriting MANIFESTO (A Writing Diary)

Where'd I go? Short answer: down the rabbit hole. But I don't really do short answers, do I? No, I do not.

This Tuesday I had a reading of my play MANIFESTO. I've been flogging the reading here, on Facebook and pestering people over e-mail to come and see it for a couple of weeks now, because...well, that's what you do when you're proud of the work. And I am very, very proud of this play. I've been working on it for the last couple of years and this last draft took a big step forward. So I wanted folks to come and see it. Well, eventually I did. For a while there, though, I was pretty sure it was going to be a huge flaming failure or a tremendous waste of time, if I managed to make it happen at all. Which was seriously in doubt.

Lemme back up. You might need a bit of context.

This play was a commission. I originally got the commission in the fall of 2006 (yikes!) and worked on it through 2007. I set out to write a different kind of play than what I'd been working on, something both more personal and with a bigger scope. I wanted to tackle marriage, middle age, the slide from rebellious youth to content maturity, AND the decline and fall of counter-culture in New York and, by extension, the country, the still-lingering effects of terrorist attacks in a fear-based society, AND both the corporatization of art and the essentially selfish nature of making art, particularly political art. All of that in a two-act comedy originally with four actors, mostly played in a blank space. Yeah, I like a challenge.

I think I've mentioned it before, but Alan Ayckbourn is one of my playwriting idols. One of the things I like particularly admire about his work is his willingness to tie one hand behind his back when writing. Oh, you can call it "formal experimentation" if you want to be all smarty-pants about it, but it's also turning writing a play into an obstacle course. In his play, A Small Family Business, he wanted to show a number of families in a number of homes. What did he do? Not have a bunch of individual sets, or a stripped-down unit set, but one set, one house, but depending on who's in what room, it represents a different house. When he was writing The Norman Conquests, he knew he wanted to write a trilogy, but didn't want the audience to have to see all of them in a particular order. Plus his lead actor had another gig, so he couldn't be in the first scene of the first play because he wouldn't be available for rehearsals. So Sir Ayckbourn wrote around the obstacles.

I aim to do the same for myself. I'm just not as smart. I'd already written a play that took place on an empty set: a beach. Great for cheap producing possibilities, sure, but, it's a bitch to write. So much of what we fill our plays up with is built around props, exits and entrances, objects that become metaphors. And drinks! Don't forget the drinks! It's a tried-and-true lesson from the days of the well-made play and the boulevard comedy: when in doubt, have someone make a drink. It's a good way to get people off-stage. Take all that away, though, and you're left with just talking. Lots of talking. Scary, scary stuff. But, like I said, I like a good obstacle course.

Writing for characters in an empty space and trying to keep it from being just a bunch of blather was my challenge and I thought I hit it. Sort of. But, as these things sometimes happen, the play went into a bit of limbo and I moved onto other things. But it kept nagging at me. I got some great notes on it and decided to pop the hood and give it another whack.

Now here's the part where I admit my failings: I'm an adrenaline junkie. Not in the bungee-jumping, pick a fight with the biggest guy in the room, rob convenience stores and put cigarettes out on my arm way, but more like the I get my best ideas when there's a deadline looming way. So I try to set deadlines for myself, deadlines with an aspect of public humiliation, since blowing off my own deadline is never going to give me the thrill I need. (I've got problems. Anyway.) So I scheduled a reading, as is my way, of a new rewrite of a play I hadn't touched in a couple of years. My sense of honor would never allow me to put up said reading without a rewrite, so that means a rewrite had to happen.

I met with my director, had a great, productive conversation, took notes, started making casting calls, did the prep work and, just when I was settling down to do the rewrite, I realized that my performance date was in, like, three days. I can do some quick writing, but the level of rewrite I wanted to do just couldn't be achieved in that kind of time. I had to postpone. I didn't want to do another reading of an old, flawed draft. I wanted the new hotness. I actually kept my adrenaline junkie in check and moved the date. I'd only told a few people, so it wasn't a huge level of public humiliation. It was all good.

Of course, when I moved the date, I reset the clock on rewrites. So I had another conversation, did some new casting, more new prep work (i.e. daydreaming about the play while I ride the subway), and just when I was about to actually get to rewriting...the theatre had to move the reading date. The clock is reset again. More chats, more thinking, more casting, more thinking, more BIG THINKING! New ideas! New characters! Whole new plot points and issues! Better jokes! In my head, this thing is going gangbusters. It's a house afire. On the page...not so much. Yet.

I'm a slow burner of a writer. I think and think and re-think and re-consider and re-think in my head before I sit down to write. Not every single line of dialogue or plot point is laid out in advance...but most of them are. When I sit down to write, there isn't a lot of rewriting, honestly. I usually write my first draft in a rush, then nibble at the edges for a while, then do a big, fat rewrite. Then that's it. I don't have a lot of research pages or notes. I just think about the thing for a while and when it's all baked in my head (or at least three-quarters baked), I write it down. I like to tell myself I do this out of love of Mother Earth and to conserve, but, honestly, it's just how I do it. Your results may vary.

So finally, new date set, casting progressing, all things in place, I sit down to write. And get promptly stuck. On the first scene. For, like, two weeks. Beginnings are super-important to me. I'm a bit of a formalist, so, for me, the first line of a play asks a question that the rest of the play sets out to answer. It's got to be right, otherwise the rest of the play is askew. So I'm reworking the first ten pages of the play over and over, not getting to the big things in the end that need addressing, because I can't address those without knowing the question this play is trying to answer. The days are ticking by, my director is kindly, patiently, but sort of insistently wondering when we're going to see pages and, you know, rehearse. I've invited everyone I know, so now public humiliation is in play. I've cast a bunch of bang-up actors, some of whom I've never worked with before, and they don't have a script. One of them doesn't even have a part yet. Oh, yeah, I decided to write a new part, for someone who doesn't show up in the first act at all. Since I'm stuck on the first ten pages, yeah, I haven't even written that part.

That's the point the rabbit hole opens up and I fall in it. E-mails go unheeded, barely read. Long-standing plans are forgotten. Family, friends, everyone is just an obstacle between me and my computer. Oh, I'm going to work, having conversations, continuing to make plans that I will invariably bail on, but in my head, I'm in an empty apartment with a bunch of imaginary people, trying desperately to make these people do something interesting. They are, currently, resistant. This is not good.

Then the panic sets in. My director is starting to leave his patience behind and getting a bit more insistent about when he's getting his pages. My actors are getting a bit fidgety about what they're going to be doing on a stage in front of people in just a few days. The whole ball of wax is starting to melt into an unsightly lump in my hand. And then...BAM. Break-through. I chuck what I've been working on, go back a draft to my first version, my first impulses. I re-connect to why I wanted to write this play, tell this story. The afterburners kick in, the nose levels out, and I can see the sky again. I have a great first scene! I'm on my way!

Of course, this all happens about 36 hours before the reading.

Did I mention I'm an adrenaline junkie?

I floor it and tear through the rest of the script. Here's the part where this helps make better plays: I don't have time for deliberation, for preciousness. I don't have time to parse dialogue and fret over words. I write from the gut, write from passion and instinct and move on. Some things don't wind up working, but on the balance, it does. Once it's done, it's printed. Once it's printed, we're in rehearsal. Six hours later, we're in front of an audience. Two hours after that, it's all done.

Three days later, I'm picking up the threads I dropped, returning the phone calls and e-mails I need to return. But also torn: on one hand there's the pull back into the script to fix those naggling things that drive a playwright crazy, the lines that refer to beats that have been cut, the transpositions and typos, the two page stretch where that one character doesn't actually say anything, the missed opportunities for better jokes; on the other hand, there are new scripts to be written, new stories to tell. This one? Old hat. Been there, done that. Time to hit the dusty trail.

Or I take the middle path. And write about writing for a while. And watch TV. My DVR is plenty full. And see actual people in the real world. Refill the old gas tank before heading back out on the road. Sounds like a good idea.

My friend Jane always says that, after a reading, a writer needs time to gloat. I'm coming off my gloating phase. It's almost time to get back to work. Almost.