Monday, October 31, 2011

BOO


Twenty-one years ago today, I went to New York City for the first time in my life.  I had just finished a cross country trip with a friend I had made that summer doing summer stock at the Barn Theatre in Michigan.  He was from a little town in Jersey called Peapack.  We spent about a week traversing the country, and had gone to places like Ashland, Oregon to see the Shakespeare festival, and Twin Falls, Idaho to see where Evel Kneivel tried to jump the Snake River with his rocket/motorcycle thing.  I even saw my first moose when we drove through Yellowstone days before it closed for the winter.  Somewhere, there is an old box full of old photos of that trip- I don't know where, exactly, and hope to come across it before I kick- but until then, I have to rely on my mind's eye.  Anyway, we ended up in Peapack on October 30, and on the next day we took the train into NYC, crossing under the Hudson River and emerging from Penn station like ants crawling out of their colony.  I remember thinking of the Hopi, and their belief that when they were created, they came into this world from an older one via a hole in the ground.  Here I was, a neo-Hopi, coming out of a hole in the ground from my old world and into a new one.  It was exciting, strange, and a little scary.  We walked all over town, first going up to Hell's Kitchen, then down to the Village, ending up near Union Square where a my buddies girl friend from the summer- a drama major at NYU- lived.   We watched the Halloween parade, which to me looked like a cross between Mardi-gras and a zombie apocalypse.  It was glorious.  From there, we proceeded to Rock Around the Clock, and bistro near St. Mark's Place, and drank a lot of raspberry kamikazes.  A lot.  At one point in the evening, after things had become fuzzy, my buddy's girl made a pass at me- which was shocking and flattering and uncomfortable.  The three of us staggered back to her place, and crashed.  Well, I crashed- they got into an argument.   I was awoken at dawn by my friend, who informed me that he and his lady friend were breaking up, and it was time to go.  I was exhausted, somewhere between hung over and still drunk, and not in the mood to go anywhere.  But he was insistent.  So off we trudged, through now mostly empty streets, which were full of the remnants of the nights revelries.

That's NYC to me- dramatic, strange, and intriguing.  She's been very good to me over the years.  I've had the great fortune of having most of my plays produced there, and for several years wrote reviews for nytheatre.com - one of the best sites for theatre in the country.  I can't think of another city in the world where you can go to a show every day of the year, and never repeat yourself.  

And this November, Gotham is treating me kindly again, with two readings.  First, on November 14, Harvardwood NYC is presenting a reading of Burning Man, a screenplay based on my play Burning the Old Man, at 6pm at Solas 232 E. 9th St.  And then on November 19, Boomerang Theatre Co. is presenting a reading of my latest play, Riddle Lost, at 5pm at ART/NY 520 8th Ave. 3rd floor.  If you are around NYC, I really hope you can make it.  I don't know if it'll be as amazing for you as that first day in Manhattan was for me, but it just might be.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

NIGHT OF THE IGUANA

It was opening night.  I was all of twenty years old, and just getting seriously involved in theatre.  I was an undeclared major at San Jose State University, and working on tons of shows- student productions, main stage productions for the theatre department, even some shows outside of school (most notably, a very "experimental" show called A Marowitz Hamlet at City Lights).  I was having the time of my life.

The show that was opening was Tennessee William's Night of the Iguana.  I had a small role as one of the German tourists.  My older brother Jerry was playing the bus driver.  I had dyed my hair platinum blond to look more Teutonic.  The play itself was beautiful, this really sad tale of a defrocked, drunken priest named Shannon trying to come to terms with reality while leading tours for little old ladies and their daughters and grand-daughters around Central America.  The action of the play takes place while Shannon and his latest group of touristas are staying at a cheap little hotel in Mexico run by a randy woman named Maxine.  At the start of the play, Shannon has just been accused of sleeping with one of the tourists, a 16 year old named Charlotte.  This makes the rest of the group rather angry.  Also staying at the hotel is a spinster named Hannah and her poet father, Nonno- who is very old and clearly about to shuffle off this mortal coil but hoping to finish one last poem before he goes.  It's a really beautiful play, and the production was fantastic.   I was very proud to be a part of it, albeit in a very small part.

Anyway, on opening night, I was extremely excited- running around backstage, watching as much of the show from the wings as I could, savoring every reaction from the audience.  Jerry was strangely quiet.  I found him in the wings, watching the show quietly, with this funny look on his face.  I told him I thought the show was going great.  He noticed me, put on this big smile, and said "Yeah, it is!  You're doing great."  Then he turned back to watch the action.  There is something really magic about watching a show from the wings of a theatre- something sacred and rare that makes you feel like a god, or someone possessed of magic.  At the end of the play, Nonno finally finishes his poem, and recites it. Jerry and I watched the scene from back stage right, if I remember right.  Here's the poem.


How calmly does the orange branch 
observe the sky begin to blanch 
Without a cry, without a prayer, 
with no expression of despair! 
Sometime while night obscures the tree 
the zenith of her life will be 
Gone past forever, and from thence 
a second history will commence, 
A chronicle no longer gold, 
a bargaining with mist and mold, 
And finally the broken stem, 
the plummeting to earth, and then 
An intercourse not well-designed 
for creatures of the golden kind 
Whose native green mists arch above 
the earth’s obscure, corrupting love 
And still the lemon on the branch 
observes the sky begin to blanch 
Without a cry, without a prayer, 
with no expression of despair. 
O courage will you not as well 
select a second place to dwell, 
Not only in the orange  tree 
but in the frightened heart of me?

Nonno finishes the poem, and dies on stage.  


After the show and the curtain call and the running around hugging everyone, I ran to Jerry's dressing room.  He was sitting in front of his mirror.  I started babbling about the show, the audience, the impending cast party which was going to be amazing.  Jerry said he wasn't going to the party.  I asked him why.  He said "Brock went to sleep today".  Brock was his room mate, a really cool guy who went to high school with Jerry and my sister Heather.  He was Heather's first boyfriend, actually- and always very tolerant of me, the annoying younger brother who always begged to be taken to whatever thing he and Heather were doing- movies, the beach, whatever.  He had joined the army after high school- but after carrying some hazardous waste for the good old USA, he developed cancer in his hip.  He came home, went through a lot of treatment, and lived with my brother.  He never complained about it.  Ever.  He would come to parties, tell stories, and be the cool guy he always was.  I remember one party where he introduced me to the music of Tom Waits.  He played me and some of my buddies the song "Tom Traubert's Blues", and I thought it was the coolest song in the history of the world.

"Brock went to sleep, and he didn't wake up." Jerry said this, and I had no idea what he was talking about.  Brock took a nap?  Great, he's so tired these days.

Jerry looked at me funny.  And I got it.  Oh.  That sleep.  The one you don't wake up from.  I walked out of the dressing room, and got about fifty feet down the hall before I started to cry.  I don't remember how, but I did end up getting to the opening night party at Dr. Todd's place.  Hal J. Todd directed the show, and had this amazing house up in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains.  Jon Selover, who played Shannon, talked with me for a long time- letting me cry and rage and freak out.  I remember screaming "It's not fair."  Jon looked me in the eyes, and said "No, it's not."  Harsh, but true.   There are moments in time when someone becomes a friend for life.

For the rest of the run, I'd watch the poem scene from backstage.

And for years, at parties or out with friends, if I had enough drinks in me, I'd put Tom Waits on the juke box or stereo, and weep.



So.



Friday, October 14, 2011

THE RUG THEY CAN'T PULL OUT

Long ago, the late great Tom Humphrey, (long time Artistic Director of The Western Stage and known lunatic) said something really smart.  He was doing a seminar for the American College Theatre Festival about starting you own company, producing your own show- taking control of your career.   What he said was that, if you make your own rug, nobody can pull it out from under you.  Why let other people determine your success or failure?  Why empower a bunch of people you've never met, who may or may not be even qualified for the position of power they have?  It made sense to me then, and it makes sense to me now.  Of course, like most great advice, I have forgotten it and remembered it many times over in my life- and no doubt will do so many more times before I kick that final kick.


One of the first times I took that advice to heart was a few years later, when I was working as an actor at Western Stage- yes, the very same theatre company run by Tom Humphrey.  I was feeling a little pent up, creatively, and wanted to do something to express myself.  This was before I went full bore for the whole writing thing, and as such, I had a lot of thoughts in my head looking for a home.  So I decided to write a series of anonymous memos, called "Memos from the Underground", using the pen name Tip the Pooka, a nod to characters from both Harvey and The Land of Oz and Dostoevsky.  Yes, even then I made allusion after allusion, hoping someone would get the reference.  Lame, but it's what I do.  Anyway, it turned out the advice about the rug was true.  I felt great- empowered- brilliant.  And no one  could take it away from me.

Years later, I took that advice to heart again when forming hope theatre, inc. with my sister Heather and brother Jerry.  We had all three been in NYC for years, living the life of the starving artist- waiting hours for an audition so that some casting director's assistant could watch a one minute monologue, doing free theatre in store front theatres run by people who might have been crazy- it was fun, exciting, and romantic.  But time to do something for ourselves, with us in the driver's seat.  We decided, based on an idea of Heather's, to form our own group, and call it hope theatre.  Again, it was empowering, and better yet, successful.  For out first show, we produced the American premiere of Shakespeare's Edward III, once part of the Apocrypha and still debated by scholars, but generally thought to be at least partially written by the Bard.  I came across it while browsing a bookstore in Greenwich Village one day.  Somehow, no one had ever done it in the USA.  I thought that might be a good show to get a lot of free publicity.  And I was right.  We got the NY Times, the New Yorker, and tons of other folks to come to the show.  And it was our own gig.  And it was groovy.

And now, I'm making a movie.  That's right, me, goon among goons.  On the sage advice of old friend and rising film producer Siobhan Mahoney, I've taken my short play Strong Tea and adapted it for the screen.  And I feel freakin' awesome.  All the pieces are falling into place perfectly. I have a crew, most of the cast, and am ironing out some last minute stuff.  It's happening, and feels like this is what I a m supposed to be doing with my life.   Suddenly, there seems to be even less time in the day, because I am answering this call, taking care of that problem, yadda yadda yadda.  And I dig it, baby.

What I'm basically saying is this- too often, we put too much power in the hands of others.  Screw that. As Obama says, we are the people we've been waiting for.

PS- Coming to NYC in November, readings of my screenplay Burning Man by Harvardwood NYC and my play Riddle Lost by Boomerang Theatre.  Stay tuned for more info!~

Monday, October 10, 2011

ANOTHER NATIONAL ANTHEM, AND IT ROCKS


No, I'm not talking about Thunder Road by The Boss- although I'd love to hear that sung before baseball games and all that.  I'm referring to one of the many thrilling, catchy, funny, smart songs featured in Stephen Sondheim & John Weidman's Assassins- currently having a stellar production at the Fine Arts Center in Colorado Springs.

I have wanted to see this show since it's first inception at Playwrights Horizons many moons ago.   I was living in NYC back then, and tried several times to get in, but it was always sold out.  I remember one night standing outside in the snow, watching the people in the lobby getting ready to go in.  One of those memories that sticks for some reason.  That was over twenty years ago.  Both the show and I have grown older and changed- and both, I think, for the better.



The show is a sort of Twilight Zone/Pirandello like piece about a group of Americans from different parts of history who are either outcast, delusional, or just plain crazy. (for more info and a plot summary, go here)  Some are known to all of us, like Lee Harvey Oswald or John Wilkes Boothe.  Others are minor foot notes of history, like Charles Guiteau or Giuseppe Zangara.    As portrayed in this production, they are all human beings worth observing.  Their story is at times amusing, at times tragic, and throughout the show, thanks to the direction of Scott Levy and a uniformly talented cast, spell-binding.

The American Dream, it turns out, doesn't really work for everyone.   These days, it seems like 99% of us are either working at jobs we don't like all that much for people we either don't know or don't like, or aren't working at all.  The land with streets of gold where anyone with enough pluck can pull themselves up by their bootstraps seems to have gone the way of the Dodo.  What to do?  Well, some unfortunates, the Willy Loman's of the world, famously took matters into their own hands.  And thereby hangs a tale.

I don't really want to say more about what happens in the show, because I want you to go see it.  That's right- you.  If you are anywhere near Colorado- get off of your couch, get in your car, and head to the Springs.  You won't be sorry.  It's a beautiful drive.  The theatre is gorgeous, and has it's own restaurant that's swanky and Art Deco and cool.  And the show is a thought provoking, funny, toe tapping phantasmagoria guaranteed to cure what ails you.   The cast includes Tom Auclair as Samuel Byck, and he is at once hilarious and pathetic as a guy who makes tapes recordings for various famous people while plotting to kill Dick Nixon.  Miriam Roth Ballard as Sara Jane Moore and Cailin Doran as Squeaky Fromme show us two sides of the feminine mystique that are sweetly insane and frighteningly familiar.  Ken Robinson, as Giuseppe Zangara, has a voice that's unreal it's so pretty.   And there's an image of him strapped in the electric chair that will stay with you long after the final bow.  Jordan Leigh, as Charles Guiteau, is a freak of nature- hilarious, scary, bursting with energy.  He takes the part and runs with it. "The Ballad of Guiteau", his big number in act two, is easily the best piece of musical theatre I have seen in years.  As directed by Levy and perfectly executed by Leigh and Marco Robinson, who plays the Balladeer/Lee Harvey Oswald, it freaked me out.  In the good way.  Like I forgot where I was and who I was and just floated along with what was happening on stage.  Ben Bashinski makes a sort of working class hero out of Czolgosz, and Brantely Scott Haines really comes across like a whacko as John Hinkley.  Jason Lythgoe is excellent as the ridiculously egotistical John Wilkes Boothe, and the afore mentioned Marco Robinson rocks the house whenever he's on stage.  The ensemble- Jonathan Eberhardt, Vania Falen, Max Ferguson, Matthew Newton, and Halee Towne, are uniformly excellent, and their number "Something Just Broke", which was added to the play after it's initial run in NYC, is one of the highlights of the show.  The orchestra, led by Roberta Jacyshyn, is freakin' amazing, and the design team of Christopher L. Sheley doing the scenery, Janson Fangio doing the costumes, and Jonathan Spencer, is superb.

Did I mention I really liked the show?  A lot?  Good.  Now go see the show.  It's important theatre about big ideas, and might make you think twice next time you pass a member of the Tea Party dressed up like Paul Revere or someone from the Occupy Wall Street movement playing hackey sack, about the American Dream, where it's gone, and how people react when they think something ain't right.

For info on tickets, how to get there, and all that, go here.

Friday, October 7, 2011

HAPPY ACCIDENTS

I think the Occupy Wall Street movement is amazing, and exciting, and historical.  And on top of that, it has a shining example of how Necessity is the Mother of Invention- something which I hope every theatre artists recognizes as fact.



I'm talking about the whole method of the group acting as a chorus, repeating what each speaker says, as a way to work around not being allowed to use bullhorns or amplification by the NYPD.  As I understand it, they have what is being called a General Assembly everyday, where people are given two minutes to speak.  Whomever is speaking will say a sentence or two, then the crowd nearest the speaker repeats what  was said in unison- sort of like a Greek chorus or something.  I've seen several snippets of them doing this on different news shows, and it's fascinating.  And by the look on the people's faces, it seems to be unifying them in their cause- which is probably not what the NYPD had in mind when they said no to any sort of electrical amplification.  It also makes what is being said more important than any individual speaker.

I have seen, in my experience in the theatre, so many examples of brilliance coming out of necessity- times when "happy accidents" occur which necessitate some quick thinking resulting in  better work.

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I once worked on a screenplay for Zeuss' Thigh Films written by a group of writers called "Places".  It was a sort of Rashomon like story about the final week of rehearsal of an indie theatre production in New York City, told from various viewpoints (Mick the actor,  Kate the actress, Jason the writer, Whitey the director, and Damiana the director).  Each writer was in charge of one of the viewpoints, and as such had final say in what their character did in all sections.   I had the section dealing with Mick, and in my first draft, I had Mick get yelled at by Damiana during rehearsals.  And Damiana, in that first draft, swore.  A lot.  Now, this bad case of potty mouth did not fit with Katharine Clark Gray's vision of Damiana, and as that was her main character,  I was told I'd have to change it as per the rules of this writing experiment.  What to do?  At first, as sort of a joke, I went through my draft and replaced all Damiana's bad words with the word "golly".  And it seemed kind of funny.  What if a person in this day and age, and in the vulgar land of indie theatre, used words like golly as opposed to words like fuck?  I kept the golly, and it was funny, and cool, and one hundred percent the product of dealing with an obstacle.

Here's some of the script:


Damiana goes through her notes, while the cast listens, jotting notes down in their script, nodding in agreement, looking at each other.  She looks at her notes, which are a jumble of hieroglyphic sketches.  Her eyes comes to a large skull, with the words “ WE’RE DOOMED!” written underneath.

DAMIANA
Ah, yes. Listen up, people.

Damiana looks out at the cast.  Mick, late twenties, looks up from his notebook.  

DAMIANA (CONT’D)
I think we have something pretty special here. Know that this is going to be a great show.  Own it.

Mick writes in his notebook “worst show ever”.  He looks over to Kate, mid-twenties, and when he catches her eyes, makes a face, which makes her laugh.

DAMIANA (CONT’D)
Feel free to listen up, people.  Mick, what happened in the skeleton monologue?

There is a sudden hush in the room.  Everyone looks at Mick.  He feels the pressure.

MICK
Uh, I’m not sure.  I just wasn’t feeling it.

Damiana stares at Mick for a moment as if he were an idiot.

DAMIANA
Golly!  That makes me angry!  Golly, Golly, Golly!  Feel it!  Feel it, for Pete’s sake!  How can you say you didn’t feel it?

The cast and crew laugh.  Kate draws a picture of a witch in her notebook screaming “FEEL IT, MUTHA FUCKAH!”.


DAMIANA (CONT’D)
This isn’t a joke, people.  It’s serious business.  Mick- no more excuses.  Find you’re feelings.




By the way, the other writer's on Places were Mike Folie, Steven Gridley, and Francis Kuzler.  These are all outstanding writers, and I encourage you to look up their stuff, see it on stage or screen whenever possible, and write them long, full of compliments, fan letters.  Yeah, and hand write them, so that the Post Office can get some work.



Also, looks like the date for the reading of Riddle Lost in NYC by Boomerang Theatre Company is going to be Saturday November 19.   I'll post more info when I have it.  I have to keep this short, as I am heading down to the Denver capital to witness Occupy Denver firsthand.





Monday, October 3, 2011

EAT A BAG OF WHAT?

So I had just finished directing Muse of Fire, my second full length play, for hope theatre, inc. as part of the 2003 New York International Fringe Festival, and feeling really good about all things theatre.   The play had gotten a rave review from Martin Denton, sold out most its performances, and everyone involved in the show had kicked ass.  On top of that, I had just gotten cast as Boxer the Horse in a puppet version of Animal Farm being produced by Synapse Productions and directed by David Travis- and it was a really shaping up to be a cool, cutting edge, brilliant show.  And on top of that awesomeness, Tim Errickson, old friend and the Artistic Director of Boomerang Theatre Company, asked me if I wanted to write a play for the Boomerangs.


I said yes before he had finished his sentence.

So, now I had to find a play.  At this point in my writing, I wanted to set all my plays in California.  I'm not sure if it was a sense of loyalty of where I came from, a severe belief in the dictum "write what you know", or just something that struck my fancy.  In any event, the new play would be set in California.  So I started thinking about the Golden State, and what would make a good play.   And I came across an article in the SF Gate, the online version of the old newspaper The Chronicle, about Burning Man.  It was a brief history of the festival- how it had started on a Baker Beach in San Francisco one summer solstice night in 1986, and had grown into this huge festival held every summer in the desert outside of Reno, Nevada that culminated with a bonfire where a huge figure would be burnt in effigy.  According to the article, people are supposed to bring things to the festival that want to be rid of- bad feelings, old wounds, etc.- and symbolically toss them in the fire and move on with their lives.

This sounded like a good thing to have in a play.  And Reno is very close to the California border- in fact, I spent a fair amount of time near there when I was a kid, as my Uncle Donald had a ranch near there.  So cool, Burning Man would be part of the story.  And I thought, what is someone was trying to get to Burning Man to toss some past wound into the fire, but got stuck on the way?  That would be a good obstacle for someone to try and overcome.  And while trying to get there, lots of juicy stuff could come out.



Now, my father had recently died- and it really sucked ass.  And I had been thinking a lot about how when people die, you are left with a lot of unresolved issues- unspoken grievances, unanswered questions, un-cried tears.  So I would have someone trying to get over a death.  No- why not have two people?  Brothers, who are opposite in almost every way, bound together by blood, constantly at each other's throats?  Yeah, that sounded good to me.  I often have two opposites stuck together in my plays- yins and yangs, order and chaos...and Bobby and Marty.  That would be their names- and they would sort of represent two aspects of me.  The slacker and the worrier.   Of course, once I started writing, they took a life of their own, and did what they wanted.  Which is how it usually goes with me- I'll come up with some idea for a story, and start writing, and all of a sudden the characters take on a life of their own, and do and say what they want, and I just write down whatever it is I see and hear then doing.  Which might make me a little crazy, but I think it was Zorba who said a man needs a little craziness in his life.

Now, I would be lying to say that there is not a lot of me in this show, a lot of my issues with death, and my father, as well as my mom and my step-dad.  I grew up in a rather dramatic household- a world of fathers who had left long ago, alcoholism, and denial.  And a lot of that is in Burning the Old Man.  But I'd also be lying if I said this is an autobiographical play.  It is a story, told by me, about people who are sort of crazy.

Anyhow.  I let all these ideas run around in my head for a day or two, and then sat down, and started writing...and it came out in a torrent.  I mean the whole thing.  I couldn't type fast enough.  I'd write until two or three in the morning, fall asleep, then wake up an hour later with a new bit of dialogue that demanded attention.  It was pretty freaky, and liberating, and exciting.

The play starts with Marty and Bobby on their way to Burning Man.   They are taking their late father's ashes, with the intent of throwing them on the fire at the end of the festival.  This is per their late father's dying wishes.  To up the stakes, I make it the day before the bonfire.  They're running late.  And then, their car explodes.  Well, first it catches fire, they pull into a run down motel in the middle of nowhere, and then it blows up.  And there's no cell phone reception.  And the explosion has taken down the phone line.  And the only person at the motel is Jo, a sort of Stepford Wife wannabe who has no car and whose husband works far away and won't be home until very late.   And figuring all that out took about as long as it did to type this paragraph.

It just poured out, pre-formed and beautiful.  I named the motel The Delphi, after the famous oracle of Greek mythology who people went to for wisdom and guidance.  In the opening scene, Jo is at the counter in the lobby, singing show tunes to herself, when Bobby runs in, screaming at his brother "Eat a bag of dicks, fuckhole!", a phrase I had once heard Brett Christensen say.  In my mind, Brett was Bobby, and indeed ended up playing him in the first production, so I figured what the hell?

I wrote the first draft in less than a month, and Boomerang did a reading of it as part of their First Flight series, directed by Tim Errickson.  The cast included Tim McCracken as Marty, Brett Christensen as Bobby, Siobhan Mahoney as Candy, Philip Emeott as Earth, Mac Brydon as Eddy, and Sara Thigpen as Jo.

And with that reading, we were off to the races.

To Be Continued...

Burning the Old Man is currently available in the anthology "Plays and Playwrights 2006", available here:
http://www.nytesmallpress.com/pp06.php

It also won the 2005 NYIT Award for Outstanding Full Length Script.   For more info, go here:
http://www.nyitawards.com/

It also went on to a long run at Divadlo na Zabradli of Prauge.  For more info, go here:
http://www.nazabradli.cz/repertoar/repertoar/kelly-mcallister-cesta-horiciho-muze/

And next month, it opens at another there in the Czech Republic, Divadlo Exil.  For more info, go here:
http://www.divadloexil.cz/?page_id=12



A WALK IN THE STARS

We got away for a few days. Away from the news, from the Mask Wars, from Memes and Madness and My God Where Are We Going, and it was numinou...