Archive for April, 2006

Big Time

Friday, April 28th, 2006

I come from a group of people called “Underachievers”. Bart Simpson never made me feel good about myself, the joke of his self-declared pride in the title is because a *lot* of us were labelled thus in school, an enormous number of us. It’s a catch-all that explains away the vagueries of dealing with the problem that not a single human can be defined in any particlular way.

When I was a kid, it was underachiever, when I got a little older, everyone was dyslexic, and then when I got into college, ADD was all the rage. Parts of some of this are applicable to some of us, but old schoolers like “Underachiever” because it assigns blame on the individual, and “disorder”s imply that the fucking snotty little shit isn’t responsible for failing. And MAN these creeky old sadists hate nothing more than a feel-good argument for why all people deserve a fair shot.

My favorite of the underachiever excuses? “Fear of success.” I love the idea that some bleeding hearts have watched me score in the 99th percentile and still fail out of school, and the assumption was that, somehow, I was scared of doing well. My laziness was seen as fear, that somehow I wanted to keep my head low and expectations lower in order to avoid even taking a chance on succeeding.

I don’t know, there are crusty chunks of my heart and soul that are covered in the viscous dark tar drippings of my hostility and misanthropy that are so hidden even from me that I can’t know everything about my own fears. That being said, I don’t think anyone would accuse me of being a fading flower, I tend to be pretty goddam obnoxious, and if I was afraid of success, I don’t know why I would not only try to get leads in every show I hear about, but brag about every single little thing that could be seen as a victory.

But I can say this, through the course of my life, when failure has occurred, and it has, believe me, I’ve done what I could to investigate every possible external source. People misunderstand me, people would cast me if I was thin, I would have more work if people were more honest, I haven’t gotten the same shakes that other more obvious people have… all of that. I’ve looked for reasons beyond me.

This has changed. I know how many of these excuses are invention, and the answer is *ALL* of it is. I just can’t stand living a life of mediocrity any more. I *really* don’t care what the external forces of my past failures are, there are people who succeed, and these people aren’t thinner or smarter or whatever than I am, they just haven’t let shit get them down, and they haven’t lived with a built in excuse for why their shit isn’t selling.

Our little company has several properties now that we think can sell, and we’ve got good people on the periphery. The people in the professional world that I am close to are all people that I admire so deeply and so simply that I have no concerns about whether they can help me, or even if they will when the walls come crumbling down. I’ve also got ways that I can make a living and build further successes that just take a little hard work and committment on my part. If I could just flake out 40% less than I have in the past, I wouldn’t have the chance to wonder why the world wasn’t giving me the life i felt I deserved, I would be earning it.

I’m saying, just for a minute, that there are things that happen to you and people say, “are you ready for this?” You have a wedding, you have a huge opening of a show, whatever, and someone is sitting next to you backstage when the curtain comes down and someone says “Are you ready for this?”

The answer is yes. I’m absolutely ready. For everything that’s coming my way, if it’s bad then I’m not gonna look for the external reasons, and if it’s good, then I’m gonna celebrate my-damn-self. If I was ever afraid of success, which I doubt, I’m not anymore.

What Are We Expecting?

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

I can’t listen to music when I work, because my work is music. So, listening to music is constrained to travel time, and that means I can only listen to that which is portable, and my iPod is dead and Jordana’s is one of those 4 gig-ers or whatever, so it’s been a while since I’ve been able to investigate new music coming to me. I should, and not just because I should, but because I’ve hit a wall in a way with the music I’m writing and listening to other people’s good music is one of the best ways to rejuvenate you ability to write.

But I’ve been thinking about the recording process and the audience’s process when it comes to music and theater, and I’m just gonna jot down a few thoughts.

There are art song cycles where wonderful composers have taken the works of poets and created an evening of music out of it. These are poems, set to music, usually sung by a guy in tails, or a gal in a shiny dress, standing next to a piano. If you happen to have the ability to sit and listen to this kind of music, you are in the minority, and good for you. I say this because I happen to have the ability but, much like my inability to understand anything remotely supernatural, I don’t attribute any kind of moral value to having the skill, it’s just something I was cowed into as a very young thing and I can’t help but focus on the music once I’m in the chair and uncomfortable.

Poets, I’m sure, don’t actually write their poetry in the hopes that the words will be set to music. I could ask my friend Jonathan, he’s a poet, but he’s got a real job and a real girlfriend and the next time I see him, I’m sure I’ll forget. Poets also don’t expect for their poems to tell whole stories, or even tell linear stories. I have a feeling that they are designed to be emotionally evocative and intellectually stimulating, and in the process of doing that, they may have to tell partial stories, but these aren’t stories in the sense that they have a beginning, middle, end, reversals, all that… It has characters and those characters have moments, but it isn’t a story.

Non vocal music is much the same way. Orchestral music, Jazz, what-have-you, the stuff that is purely instrumental is designed to be emotionally evocative and intellectually stimulating, but it doesn’t require a story. It’s not like if you listen to all of the Brandenburgs you will suddenly get the picture of a young couple eloping and then losing their children in the great war… That doesn’t happen in Music music. You might see marching brooms, but that wasn’t there before Disney put it there.

But, we hit a snag when we hit the guy in a tux standing by a piano. He’s, y’know, *singing* to us, surely he’s telling a story, right? And that story could be told with a guy, and then a girl in a shiny dress could also come out. And then the guy and the girl could tell a story about how they are doing stuff with each other… except it would be hard to come up with the right art songs because the poet isn’t exactly all that excited about regurgitating the one thousand bits of minutiae that make up a regular relationship when he’s writing… so the thing to do is to find a poet who will work with the musician, and the two of them write the thing together and tailor it toward the story.

All of this is obvious as hell, and I’m sure nobody is still reading.

The problem is, you lose a little every step. The poet has to sell out a little to the story, the music has to step back a little to the story, and the story is constrained by the one hundred years of rules and regulations that we’ve put on the art form known as musical theater. And the full scale debasement of the art form, the hideous jazz hands and clown smiles that have taken place of the great story telling have strip mined the musical to the point where our very best concepts are mockery.

So, here I sit, empty bar staves staring at me, wondering how I can pull off an honest story when there is nothing but tin ears waiting to hear it. I’m not saying I don’t have the same ears, I do. I walk into every theater with the same dread as a man released from Chinese prison would have entering a public shower, the drip-drips still echo in my mind of every horrible rehearsal, every nauseating turn of phrase, every chunk of public humiliation that, for some reason, was seen as the best one can do in this art form.

And I believe there is a way to communicate with this art form that is impossible to do with any other. But I also know that it doesn’t actually matter, that it won’t matter how hard we try, that success in our minds and success in the world’s eyes will never be the same and so we are still, even after I retire from acting, still playing darts in the dark. Only it’s different darts and only once you’ve hit *something* can you check with the world and see if the bull’s-eye is what you think it is.

I’ll give it a shot…

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

Over on Isaac Butler’s blog , which I’m fairly sure he doesn’t know I frequent, he poses the question “If you had the resources to start a theater company at a somewhat-established level (like God came down and gave you an audience and a space and a budget or whatever)… What would you do with that theater? What gaps in our theater would you try to plug? “

So, I’m gonna try to answer this somewhat quickly and from the seat of my pants because, well, it isn’t actually gonna happen and we’re all gonna grow old and destitute desperately clinging to the last vestiges of our dignity while we stand on stage, gray haired and paunchy, shoving frozen hot dogs up our asses and screaming “I LOVE A PARADE” praying to get a single laugh or understanding nod from an otherwise cruel and indifferent audience. So, a quick seat of the pants answer.

It’s hard to argue that there are gaps in the theater of New York right now, simply because of the volume of productions. There are hundreds and hundreds of plays going up in New York in every single year, and it has been this way for years and years. A quick glance at two independent ticket outlets, smarttix, and theatermania show that over 800 shows have tickets available right now in New York City. Even if only 1/4 of these shows turn over every month, that’s 3000 shows a year. If you’ve been here for, say 3 years, which would make you still a fresh faces newcomer, you’ve had nearly 10,000 performances you could have seen. That’s 20,000 hours of theater in 26,000 hours of living.

Now, those are some fucked up numbers. Especially if you try to do them yourselves and you realize the enormous liberties I’ve taken (the average length of theater isn’t two hours, and 3 years is much more than 26,000, but I’m doing the numbers in my head, so give me a break.)

Man, when you consider that the theater going audience is buying tickets to the big shows, keeping them sold out for months and months in houses that seat over 500 people, and the smaller shows are actually giant budget behemoths that get good publicity and review coverage and are playing to houses with more than 300 seats, it’s a miracle that any off-off shows get seen *at all*.

So… what was I talking about?

Oh yeah. I don’t know that there are a lot of holes in the scene. Pretty much anything you want to see is either going up right now or is gonna be tried in the next six months. And I don’t think that my particular peccadilloes are being under-represented, there have been many pieces of theater that I’ve really enjoyed in the last two years. I’m not one of those people who show up to a show ready to hate it.

But there is a particular concept that is over-represented in the city, even though you have to stand WAY back in order to see it. For some reason, far beyond any grasp of logic, there is a majority of people in New York (and yes, I think it is a majority) who see the theater as a stepping stone to something larger. Theater is being produced for the express purpose of finding other work, either in another aspect of the arts (like film or television) or in another theater show.

Some months ago, Jordana and I saw a series of short plays by a woman we sorta know, and I was excited going in because there were good people to support and a pseudo-Carolina connection. Then I saw the titles of the plays, like “The Trouble With Larry” and “Another Christmas Fucking”, and I turned to Jordana and said “Um, so, these are gonna be four sitcom pitches, right?” And sure enough, the stage filled with Patricia Richardson Wannabes pumping out one-liners that would make Neil Simon alternate between groaning and blushing.

You can’t look at the listings without seeing ads for well known, well greased warhorses with choice roles being played by the young producers, even when totally age inappropriate. And it takes a while to dawn on us (and I say ‘us’ because I very well might have done the same thing in my twenties if I hadn’t been living in Los Angeles learning how to drink and drive) that once you’ve strung a line of shows together that do nothing but ostensibly improve your resume and get casting director interest, you’ve lost a big chunk of years of your career that you could have been honing your personal voice. You could have been linking arms with unknown playwrights, you could have been forging bonds with like-minded strangers. You could have been giving to the theatrical community instead of praying for deliverance.

So, if I had all the resources and a built in audience and space for everything I wanted to do? I would start with two or three playwrights I know right now, and give them commissions to live, and make them write. And then, I would start interviewing and reading and workshopping. I wouldn’t want to push any specific aesthetic, except to say to TV and Film writers “stay away from the theater”. Just because it’s less expensive to get a show produced than a pilot doesn’t mean you deserve any one of the 20,000 hours of theater currently going up.

The perfect theater company for me would be a subsidized workshop that had closed door readings and would only present a play once it was done being workshopped, and the play would be the thing. We could have salons afterwards about ways in which the play worked for the audience and ways it didn’t, and those criticisms could go into the next piece, but we wouldn’t have massive re-writing sessions to try and tailor a piece for better consumption.

I don’t know why so many people are here trying to do this. There’s no money. There’s a huge chance for fuckups. Why is Disney here? Why is Warner Brothers doing Lestat? I don’t get it. If a Disney movie made a million dollars in a week, it would be a face flop of monumental proportions, but they’re opening Tarzan here? These guys are businessmen, I’m sure they have a reason, and I’m sure a big part of it is selling Tarzan dolls and mugs, so who am I to question…

If I had the resources, I would build a company that concentrated on individual voices. Not necessarily disenfranchised, not necessarily difficult, but varied and specific. I would want to build an identity based on content, with no consideration whatsoever as to whether or not a piece is commercial. And I would want to do that because, ultimately, it is theater that is created in these circumstances that ends up being wildly commercial.


Tuesday, April 25th, 2006

It has been so long that Blogger didn’t recognize me when I showed up and I had to dig up a login and password. Which doesn’t quite put me in the historical bad bloggers of all time, but it does mean that people who check infrequently might not check again for another week.

I should start by apologizing for not writing. I saw some friends two weeks ago who confessed that they read my blog, which simply didn’t occur to me. Two of the funniest guys I know said they like my blog, and to the both of you, Nate and Anthony, I would like to say, in short, I never liked either of you. You can both swing on my sack. Deb’s my only friend.

I’ve mentioned a Kafka quote on here before, one which I can’t seem to find verbatim and my wife hid all my Kafka books because she’s tired of me “getting all pouty”, but in it Kafka talks about how his writing stares back at him, mocking him “like a drop of ink on the side of the page that refuses to be cleaned” or something like that. There is an imperfection in the written word as it works for someone like me, and for most of my generation. *Delivery* is so crucial in an ironic age, and our sensibilities are increasingly ironic, to the point where they almost feed on themselves.

“Snakes On A Plane” will fall on deaf ears, and how do you explain it? Celebrity culture is embraced in the *opposite* way it was in years past. I don’t know when the switch was, I don’t know how to explain it, but I know that, as a kid, I went to see Steve Taylor, a terrible croonie Christian rockstar, and my friends and I have pictures of us kissing his tour bus. I’d never heard a single note of his music.

Older people wonder what our fascination is with stars that are totally devoid of talent, how we can make stars out of hopeless plastic fools, and the only explanation is that we are laughing *at* them. Not a single person wants to sit down and eat a meal with Britney Spears, and we take it as a given that her music is fun and danceable because of the team of straggly haired guys in their late forties who grew up listening to KC and The Sunshine Band and Stevie Wonder and they take a month’s worth of vocals, put her in a latex suit in the video and let us point and laugh.

We’ve struck a deal. “Snakes On A Plane”… we trust that there is a group of guys who came up with “Die Hard” and they know we’re gonna laugh at the stupid CGI, and we’re gonna laugh at the stupid dialogue, but that they will also give us what we’re paying for. And Sam Jackson knows it too. He wouldn’t let them change the name, he knows we want to watch him kick some snake’s ass on a plane. Every single movie in this genre is “product”, recycled ideas, recycled heroes, recycled crap, and Sam Jackson said “No, this is crap, this is the same crap, but instead of terrorists, it’s snakes, and instead of a high rise, it’s a plane. I’m gonna be Arnold, and the bad robots are gonna be snakes. Fucking call it ‘Snakes on a Plane’, ’cause that’s what it is.”

So. Anyway. It’s hard for a guy like me to keep a blog because I write in my voice, which is totally dependent on delivery. Even if you know me well, if you haven’t spent time with me in a while, you’re gonna start reading this in your voice. Which you should, you’re reading it. I should be a better writer, I should be able to write in the way that makes sense. But these blogs stare back at me, mocking me, like an ink stain that won’t be cleaned up.

The original idea behind this blog still remains. It gives me a chance to create characters that are reacting to things happening in the world, which hopefully will help inform the characters I create and the music I write. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the less I write in this blog, the less happy I am with the music I’m writing. I’ve felt really cruddy about some of the music I wrote for Air Guitar, and last night the three of us finally broke down and admitted that the opening song of the show sucks (for an opening song). (What do I know, it might suck as a song…)

So, I’m gonna try to be more diligent about writing. I would ask that if you find me being a total asshole on here, please understand that the show we’re writing now is full of assholes of different stripes. Oh, and also, I can kind of be an asshole a lot of the time.


Thursday, April 6th, 2006

This past week has been a shifting blizzard of emotions, from great highs to staggering lows to, yesterday, walking around in a complete daze and running in to walls. Some of this stuff will have to be somewhat coded, and the things that aren’t coded are things I’m willing to have guesses made about. The stuff I don’t want even guessed, I’m probably not gonna address.

The theatrical disappointments and exhilarations keep coming at a hell of a clip, but let me start with a sort of metaphysical piss-fest.

I’ve seen a lot of theater, both by established writers and companies and by unknown people, and I’ve also performed in a fair swath of theater in the past twenty years. It used to be that I was loud with my opinion but privately unsure of my footing, but as I get older I find myself becoming quieter and more confident, which probably extends to almost everyone. I’ve gotten more secure in the sense that I know what I like, but I also know when things are good, even when I don’t necessarily like them.

I found myself watching American Idol the other night, about which I am going to speak as little as possible, the show so totally nauseates me. All of the contestants were asked to perform country numbers and all of them warbled their way through admirably. But the one judge made it clear that he hates country music, and after every single performer, he said he hated the song. Y’know, because he hates “country” music.

Ignoring the fact that labels like “country” and “pop” have nothing whatsoever to do with a song’s inherent attributes, but are instead descriptions of it’s production and style, to say you hate country music is to say two things 1) I believe I’m cultured and 2) I’m a fucking idiot when it comes to music. I was involved with a theater company (for about an hour) wherein the director said “I don’t like plays that have guns in them.” Which is equally as stupid.

If you don’t like “Stand By Your Man” or “Drop Kick Me Jesus Through The Goalposts Of Life” or whatever, then I understand, but when you throw out all of country music, you’re ignoring the fact that many pop albums on the market today have several different mixes depending on the market they are selling the single to. Jewel has as many version of her songs as possible, so that they would play on any and all channels. If you’ve heard “Underneath It All” without the reggae rap in the middle, you’re probably white and heard it in your car. “Country” doesn’t mean anything. At least with “Hip-Hop” you’re talking about a label that is embraced not as much a musical style as a culture,

Whatever, I’m totally off topic and I have work to do, so let me get to the point. I’ve learned to watch theater with an eye toward what the writers and producers were trying to achieve instead of merely wondering if it tickles me personally, and I’ve gotten pretty good at seeing the problems and pitfalls. But I do have place to tickle, and every once in a while, more often than I would admit, I either see something or am involved with something that I know is bound for greatness.

Without getting into specifics too much, when you feel that strongly about a piece and then it is overlooked or disregarded, it makes you really angry, but it also makes you feel, in a word, lonely. At least it does me. I go through my life feeling somewhat disenfranchised, lost in a sea of personalities and powerful positions, where people know without any ambivalence what is right and wrong, artistically, politically, sexually… and I feel marginalized somewhat, as I’m sure does almost anyone with average IQ or better.

But when something speaks to you and your hearstrings sing when you read it, or when you perform in it, and then for the world to pass it over without any real consideration, it makes you feel like you are crazy. An old friend of mine had a piece being considered for production and, after reading the play, I thought it was not just one of the finest bits of writing I had seen her do, but I felt like it couldn’t be produced at a better time with the political climate being what it is. The play asks questions, offers possible answers, and is funny as hell as well as being dark as… well, actually as dark as hell, literally. I’ve been stunned by failures of mine before, but this is one of the few times I took someone else’s setback completely personally.

On the flip side, Jordana, Mac and I were invited to be one of the writing teams for the 24 Hr plays, and that deserves a blog all its own. It was such a phenomenal success for us, in terms of having an idea and then some hours later seeing it completely realized. I have to write an email to the producer, so I’ll just post that. But it really was incredible, one of the funnest two days I’ve ever had in the theater.