Archive for June, 2008

To Whomever Is In Charge

Monday, June 30th, 2008

I’ve spent a large part of the last year and a half measuring my pre-child expectations against my actual experiences of fatherhood, and obviously most of what I had imagined hasn’t come even close. However, there is one thing that hasn’t really changed at all.

Before I had a child, I hoped sincerely that I wouldn’t become one of those simpering whiners who felt the world had to clear a path for their special child. I had always believed that you can’t make the world safe for children, you have to prepare your child for the world… and nothing about having a child has changed that point of view one bit.

New York can be especially dangerous. Even the New York that we live in now, which is obviously far cleaner and safer than it was in the 70s and 80s. But just taking in to consideration the fact that we all live on top of each other, and that we all want to live our lives in pursuit of our own happiness, we tend to live somewhat shared lives with our neighbors and strangers, and all of that can lead to unsafe circumstances.

As such, my son has needed to learn things earlier than I had to, growing up in places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He has to know that the run off from storms on the street is full of stuff he shouldn’t put in his mouth, that even a short bike ride is a life-threatening situation, and that when he yells and laughs at the top of his lungs, it affects his neighbor’s homes.

I have raised him, so far, to understand that he’s a member of a culture for which he has to have respect. That culture exists on many levels, it starts with him and us and our immediate family, but it extends further into being a part of Astoria, a part of Queens, a part of New York and a part of America. He is being taught that the small things he does in defiance of that cultural responsibility effect the entire chain, all the way up.

Now, I point this out because I am becoming more and more aware of the fact that while he is holding up his end of the responsibility, there are many ways in which the cultural responsibilities he is owed are not being met. And what is absurd is that none of the ways that his life is being affected adversely are culturally accepted acts on the part of those doing them. The very things that are dangerous or frustrating to my 18 month old son, are also the things that are dangerous and annoying to every other member of our little society.

So, I’m asking not for special dispensation, I’m not asking that my lone son, one of ten million people, be given untoward consideration. I’m simply asking that the rules that are in effect be enforced.

The park, which is a playground for thousands of people every day, almost all of whom are on foot, has streets that lead to it. According to the law, people have to drive on the right side of the street, they have to stop at stop signs, and they have to give pedestrians the right of way. It may seem absurd to ask that people simply stop at stop signs, it’s the first thing one learns in kindergarten, but there are trucks barelling through stop signs with people *in the crosswalk* every single day.

The park is loaded with children, as it should be, the pool is packed with kids, which is only right. There are paths and lawns and a track and areas to play ball and run around… and there is also a very small playground for little children. All we’re asking is that the rules posted on the playground be followed, no smoking, no bikes, no adults without children.

Am I asking too much? Am I being too precious? Maybe, sure. But if my 14 month old get hit with a bike because I’m letting him walk where people are allowed to bike, then I have nobody but myself to blame. Whenever our little kids are walking around the park, I know it’s our responsibility to keep them safe. But in the tiny playground, built for kids under 4, with the rules specifically banning bikes… it’s one little place where a kid can get his ya-yas out.

The park closes at eleven, and there are laws against cruising. So, why is the park packed with people, going up and down the waterfront, at midnight? This used to be a place where drug deals happened every five minutes, then Astoria cleaned itself up and we agreed that this wasn’t where that happened. Now… the economy is going to shit and there are people milling around, bored, at midnight.

If the law needs to be changed to allow a place for bored teenagers and twenty-somethings to hang out at one in the morning, then, by all means, let’s introduce legislation making it legal to tool up and down the waterfront at five miles an hour, but as long as its illegal, is it too much to ask to enforce it?

Motorcycles are fun and awesome and girls with tattoos on their butts love them. But we have laws that dictate how loud the engines should be, and above a certain level, it’s against the law. That’s because we all live right up next to each other, and it’s just unfair to try to break the windows of my son’s bedroom at 11:30. I don’t care if you have a loud car or motorcycle, I just want it to be *legally* loud.

I don’t know. Maybe I have changed.

I just want the rest of our little corner to try as hard as my son is to be a good member of our society. If everyone agrees that these laws and rules are wrong, then I’ll go with the new rules, but as long as the rules are what they are, I just wish they would be enforced.

First Day

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

For most of my life, I reaped the benefits of being the new kid. It’s a bizarre way of to grow up, getting to re-invent yourself every year or two and never really being held accountable for your past. It might be one of the things that led me to be so comfortable as an actor and so good at creating a character.

I’m not saying I was dishonest as a kid, because dishonesty is much harder to do than you might think. Most people, even when they’re lying, end up being honest to some degree, it’s unavoidable. At the beginning of “Accidental Tourist”, Anne Tyler describes Macon Leary going through phases and his wife fell in love with him when he was a quiet poet, so he found himself unable to shake the veneer… But the truth is you can’t hide who you really are for very long. Macon Leary probably always was that quiet poet.

But I did shed personalities and cliques with complete ease. There were times when I had a rough patch, I pissed off the wrong people or my newest persona was a little offensive, and I survived these emotional and physical beatings by always keeping in mind that the thing I was going through and the people I currently held dear, would all pass, sooner rather than later.

But those first days were always hard. I had never done the summer reading, had never purchased the right brand of khakis. And the times when, by a stroke of luck, I did know what was going on, and did feel right at home right away… well, I always knew it wouldn’t last, that I was gonna change schools and lose all these people soon enough.

Now, I’ve been living in New York for eight years, which is longer than I have ever lived anywhere. I definitely feel like this is home, even when the pangs hit for Iowa, North Carolina or California, and although I’ve held on to my “new kid” training, I don’t really ever feel like I’m completely out to sea the way I did for most of my life.

Yesterday, Jordana left her old job behind after eight years, and started a completely new life. She has been looking at it as leaving one job and starting a new one, but it is a complete life change. Her old job was in real estate, working for a lawyer in private practice where she answered directly to clients and where her autonomy and responsibilities were like the wagon wheel grooves in the ancient Roman roads, created by countless hours of repetition and appeared to be the only comfortable way to move forward.

Her new job is in the non-profit world, where she will be the executive assistant to a person who will be working for the greater good of the company. She will no longer be dealing directly with the clients, she will no longer have autonomy, and she will be, for the first few weeks, utterly at sea in terms of what’s expected.

I make a big deal about my friends and loved ones, I really feel incredibly lucky to get to spend my time with the people who tolerate me, so please indulge me for just a minute. It’s simply awe-inspiring, in the same way that so much of what she does is, that she would decide to make this change purely because she wants a chance at something better than we currently have.

Jordana’s restless spirit is a defining aspect of our marriage, and as such is a defining aspect of my life. Like everything else, it has a flip side… it borders on ugly when it translates to dissatisfaction, when she can’t enjoy success on its own terms… but her relentless need to strive for something more and something better is really joyful to be a part of.

When I think back on being a kid, it was always Thanksgiving that was hardest, when the old friends had really moved on to their new relationships and the new friends were still too new to be intimate with. I don’t know why I always had close friends by Christmas break, but three weeks earlier was the loneliest time of the year.

I know Jordana’s going through a modified version of that right now, at her new job. A exciting as it is, and as right a decision as it was to make, there has to be a sense of terror that she is suddenly responsible for things she couldn’t possibly prepare for, and that the benefits of the old job are, in a flash, now gone. The fact that she has done this purposefully, and purely because she knows that it will lead to something better, is really audacious and beautiful.

These small decisions really do make one’s entire life. It isn’t the path less traveled necessarily, it’s the path of discomfort. Choosing a way that requires that you work harder, work more, because of your faith that such a decision will make your life and the lives of your family better… that to me is the very definition of bravery. It’s really exciting to be a part of it, even just from riding shotgun.

Theatrical Responsibility

Saturday, June 21st, 2008

I know I’m not gonna get much feedback on this, and I’m hoping that I can just write out some of my thoughts here and then re-visit this once this blog has reasserted itself into the public conversation. I don’t blame those who aren’t reading this, I don’t write about theater enough for theater people to check it, and I don’t write enough PERIOD for anyone to check it.

Which, I guess, is my way of saying “Hi mom!”

I’ve seen some theater over the course of my life that I felt was irresponsible… I mean, I walked away from the theater feeling genuinely insulted, and I felt myself today wondering why. I mean, I know why, I felt like my time or my good intentions had been abused for one reason or another, but I started wondering if maybe that wasn’t the right reaction on my part.

When a theatrical event is happening, there are a lot of people involved in making it happen, and many of them are working at cross purposes. In a perfect scenario, a person’s time spent in the audience is as rewarded as the person’s time spent writing and the person’s time spent in rehearsal and the person’s time applying gaffer’s tape… but very often one group wants something quite different than what the other groups want, and someone ends up walking away without much reward.

So, who, as a PRODUCER, are we ultimately answering to? I’m framing this question in this context because I think the answers for a lot of the other roles are pretty easy to answer. I’m gonna kind of walk through this from the beginning to the end, as that’s the easiest way to delineate the jobs. If you don’t mind, I’m gonna chose a gender and stick with it to avoid the him/her crap.

Personally, I wish more people would pay more attention to their responsibilities to the writer, more often than not she has created a road map that conforms very closely to what she wants to see on the stage. There are many ways of writing, and almost none of them involve letting someone else create the mood and characters that the writer is ultimately responsible for, so I have an inclination to feel that the writer’s work is sacrosanct.

But I’m wrong about that, in a way. You can almost always tell when you’re watching the first draft of something and, although edits and re-writes can lead to a loss of the individual voice, a critical eye early in the process will only help. If, as a producer, we challenge the writer to look again at a section we think is problematic, then she will either come up with something better, or she will learn why she doesn’t want to change it, and that explanation will make the rest of the piece clearer.

I’m not sure where the line is, I think we find it as we go, but we do want to give voice to A voice, a singular voice. Each production company should have a mission statement, the more theatrically specific the better, and if the play doesn’t match the statement, then the production isn’t gonna work. We owe the playwright a chance to see her work in its entirety, but we also owe her a critical eye that will push her to clarify and specify.

The director really does have to have as much latitude as possible to create his vision, and the producer does need to provide that atmosphere, but… I don’t know. Mac has said that a good director can’t save a bad play (or something to that effect, I can’t find his actual blog) and a bad director can’t be cajoled into being a good director. I agree with this, so I’m not sure why I’m about to say what I’m about to say…

It’s just that I’ve watched good shows sink with a terrible director, and have felt ever since that I, as a producer, should have stepped in and demanded more. The producers owe the director an air of authority in the rehearsal room, but I’m more and more of the opinion that a director’s job has been over-rated in our current theatrical culture. There needs to be a final artistic say, and the director has to have it, but in private, the producer needs to steer the director to make sure the goal of the production is met.

Our company’s mission statement makes it pretty clear what we’re trying to do. We take established genres and use theatrical shorthand to facilitate the stories we’re telling. It asks our audiences to be informed before coming in, and it demands that our directors understand the genres that we’re drawing from. In the end, although we are responsible for making an open and pleasant rehearsal process for the director to lead the show, we’re also responsible to our company to make sure the show fits in to our mission statement.

We have honored the director in every one of our plays, and sometimes that has been to a fault. If it is true that a bad director can’t be cajoled into doing a good job, then the director, in these cases, should have been replaced, even mid-way through the production.

If directors are afforded, in my opinion, too much respect in our theatrical culture, then actors surely aren’t respected enough. The myth about actors is that they are attention whores, unstable people who can’t exist without pretending to be other people and who live for applause. This is almost never true, and even when it’s partly true, it shouldn’t disqualify what each actor has to do in order to do their job well.

An actor’s life is horrible. Not only do they have no control over what shows they are doing (unless one counts turning down unsavory roles, a bit like beggars being choosers…) and once they are cast in a show, every moment of their performance is pushed and shaped and molded by the director, the costume designer, the tech designer, the stage manager and the other actors in rehearsal. They are expected to strip down, cry on command, execute choreography and stage combat, and match the pitch and tone of every other actor on stage, all of which can change and shift based on the mood and timbre of the audience that night… or even just the weather.

So what is the producer’s responsibility? First and foremost, the actor’s work must be honored, and it has to be honored with MONEY. Actor’s should be reimbursed for their time, and if you don’t do it then the actors have every right to ask why not. If tickets are being purchased and money is being spent, the actors should be paid. Secondly, rehearsals should be set up to be a safe and effective environment, and that means scheduling rehearsals in a time and place where the actors aren’t killing themselves just to make it there.

Most importantly, the actors have to be allowed to be a part of the storytelling. The actor you hired did something in the auditions that led you to believe they were the right person for the job, you have to let them do what they do in the role they’ve been given. You can’t hire a method actor to do broad comedy, you can’t hire an evangelical to play a rapist, and you can’t hire an opera singer to do improv comedy. The production has a responsibility to match the right artists with the right roles, and then allow them to feel like they are bringing their own training and skills to the roles they are doing.

This is the tricky bit. Many people believe that a producer’s sole responsibility is to the investors. These people are called “investors”.

Look, we do owe our investors, but to say we owe them everything is a mistake. The shows would not exist without money, but they also wouldn’t exist without writers or actors or directors, etc., and they most CERTAINLY wouldn’t exist without the producers making all of the decisions.

One has to assume that the investors have put money into the producers hands because they feel that money will be used well, and the producers have a responsibility to use the money well. We have an ethos with our production company that basically boils down to “you can either spend a lot of money, or spend a lot of time”, and it translates t
o everything (an example in just a minute…)

The truth is, the investors are owed the cleanest and truest expression of theater possible, even if it initially feels fiscally cumbersome or unlikely to draw a crowd. It’s a cliche, but nobody would believe that a plot-free musical based on a book of poems by T.S. Eliot, which requires every cast member to both dance and sing brilliantly, would be a sure-fire way of making money. To this end, the producers owe no explanation to the investors when money isn’t made, no even apology. We owe our investors the greater possibility of money lost, it’s the only way that a new and inventive story can be told, and the only possibility, in this utterly shameful investment, that the money people have a chance to see a return.

I just didn’t know how to delineate this section, it’s not exactly a summation. But let me give you an example of one step in the production process.

Let’s say you are setting up rehearsal space. It’s an easy fix to rehears in the cheapest possible place you can find, living rooms and garages fill this pretty easily. But if you do this, you’re shirking your responsibility to the writer, because every moment will feel like a reading in someone’s living room, to the director, because he won’t have a semblance of the actual space with marked entrances and exits, and to the actors, who will perform only enough for those six to eight feet in front of them to hear and read, instead of the forty to fifty feet they might be asked to fill.

So you call five places and find good quotes on rehearsal space. In order to save money, you can set up the initial book work in a living room or office, but once the actors get on their feet, you want them in a big enough space. However, you don’t want to shirk your financial responsibility to the actors, and you only have so much money, so what do you do? You call five more places. And then twelve more. And then fifteen more places. You find out when the basketball court at the grade school in midtown is available. You call seven more places…

I know this much. I know how it’s better if we go to people and hand them postcards than it is to hire a publicist. I know we can spend more time and less money on every step. But I don’t know who has the final say, who, ultimately, we have to answer to.

I suppose the one group I haven’t considered is THE AUDIENCE, and maybe, in the end, it is to them that we owe everything. And maybe that’s why, as insulted as I occasionally get when I’m asked for more and given less as an artist, I only every feel like a production has been irresponsible when I’m an audience member. If only there was an audience that wasn’t made up almost entirely of people from these other categories, maybe I could be convinced that they were worth investing in.

One and a Half

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

In light of this total invention of a holiday, let me do what I can to update the Barnaby.

At this point, the most difficult thing I have to deal with is the nagging sense that I didn’t really buy into fatherhood until quite late. There were months and months when I looked at Barnaby as the project I had to deal with In spite of the fact that I had no time to deal with him, and it took me a long time before waking up to the fact that Barno was the life I’d chosen, and the myriad other projects were the things I didn’t have time for.

It isn’t exactly a choice you can make consciously, it’s a situation that allows for no other choice, and when you finally change your mindset about the whole thing, it hits you like an adrenaline rush of relief. You can’t live your life for your own singular pursuits, and that actually removes a lot of pressure. I have become a Dad, and pretty much only a Dad, and committing to that has made me feel more centered than I have ever felt before.

In a way, it sucks. Because if I had been able to have this kind of focus for any of the other things I’ve tried to achieve, I probably would have been more successful. As a musician, I just couldn’t tolerate the amount of practice I had to put in to be a passable instrumentalist, and I look back on that now and GAPE. I mean, I could have practiced, say, an hour and a half a day, maybe two hours, and had the ENTIRE REST OF THE DAY… and I probably could have been a pretty good guitarist or violinist or pianist. Maybe not violinist…

And for acting? I mean, Jesus, had I spent two hours a day working on my career, reading scripts and learning music… honestly, I would have run out of things to do. It would have taken me a month of two hours a day, and then it would be an hour or a half hour a day of maintenance.

So why didn’t I do it? My sister Tessa has said (and I’ve quoted it here a number of times) that she doesn’t believe in laziness, she thinks it’s just a mask for fear, and I think, for me, that is pretty applicable. Like most other people who’ve alway been told they were smart and secretly knew they weren’t *all that* smart, I’ve been scared to death once I got in a position where I wasn’t sure what the next step was.

In music, I could have practiced and practiced, but then what? You’re never sure. You get a seat in the second violin section, you start to teach, and… I don’t know, I guess you start drinking. A lot. Every violinist I’ve ever known has had this life. As an actor, you fight like crazy for the honor of doing shows you think are total shit.

I just got scared and I froze up. It started as a sort of over-all ennui, a sense that I couldn’t control my eventual destination as an artist, and then it started to get smaller and smaller. Finally, a year or two before I quit, I was paralyzed about actually auditioning. I didn’t have stage fright, and I wasn’t scared of the folks behind the table, but I was terrified of what it all meant, and I just couldn’t get a handle on what it would eventually all mean.

As a Dad, that’s totally gone. I know as little, or as much, as I did about music and acting… I have a sense that I probably have as much talent as a Dad as I have in either of those arts… but I have a really firm understanding of what the end-game is, and every one of the smaller moments I’m absorbed in feels like it is heading somewhere really important.

I’m talking a lot about what it means for me to be Barnaby’s dad, and I should probably talk more about him, but I’ve found that these Blogs have a way of creating themselves, and I’ve tried not to edit myself too much. Suffice it to say, I’m really enjoying being a husband and a father now, to a degree that I almost feel indulgent by pursuing only these two things. As difficult as it is, I seem to be feeding the same part of me that used to be filled only with live performance, and my need for public affirmation is, honestly, becoming almost foreign to me. I love performing, and I’m still very comfortable being up in front of people, but this side of me actually feels like my best side, and I feel insanely comfortable in this role.

This is Barnaby’s professional couch shot, by which I mean, I took this picture on my mom’s couch when Barnaby thought it was funny to sit by his ridiculous bear.

For some reason, he thinks “sitting” is hilarious, maybe because he can’t understand why grownups do it when they could be running around all day like crazy people…

Barnaby has a pretty tightly scheduled day, and as such, is extremely into using the time he has to investigate everything he can get his hands on. He loves being in motion, moving from one room to the other, moving from one project to the other, and figuring out how far he can push something.

He really wants to up-end boxes, he really wants to take machines apart, and he REALLY wants to press every single button he can get his hands on. If there’s a vacuum or a fan or a flashlight or a remote, he wants to know how to turn it on, he wants to hear the sound and he wants to push the thing around the room. He is annoyed by stasis, he’s constantly itching to change his surroundings in any way he can.

But he’s not at all chaotic, and doesn’t appreciate mess or noise for its own sake. He likes the sound of the coffee grinder, but he doesn’t ask for it once the coffee is made, if that makes sense. He really loves singing, but he doesn’t like music to be on in the background. He dances to music, or he wants to move on. And when the room gets messy, he cleans up, if he’s upended his box of legos he will turn around and pick them up and put them back in the box.

I guess I should detail some of the developmental stuff. He’s walking and running really well and is extremely good with his hands. Other kids in the park will be kicking balls and Barnaby is willing to kick once or twice, but then he really wants to pick up the ball and run with it.

He also loves anything with wheels, and while that does include bikes and trucks and cars, his greatest love is his stroller. I tried to find one that wasn’t pink, and then I got annoyed at myself for caring, especially since he loves it so much.

His first two syllable word was “Stro… LER!” and he pushes this thing all over the house and all over the park when he gets a chance.

He talks all the time and has a decipherable vocabulary of around 40 or 50 words, with another hundred that we don’t understand at all. He’s starting to put sentences together, mostly requests. For instance, if he wants a cookie, he’ll say “Sna! Sna! Sna!” and I’ll say, “You want a snack? Do you want toast or a cookie?” and he’ll say, “TOOK! TOOK!” which actually means cookie (he’s still having trouble with the ‘K’ sound at the beginning of words) and later, if he wants more, he’ll say “Mo. Mo? Mo? Took! Mo Took! PU LEEEE!”

His invocation of “please” is just hilarious. He does say please, which comes out as the two syllable “pu lee”, but he says it like he’s calling you an asshole. So, he’ll say “Ju Ju Ju!” and if I have his juice, I’ll say, “What do you say, sweetie” and he hollers “pu LEEEEEEEE”, like it’s exhausting to have to go through this charade.

He is just about the most even-tempered kid I know, and as a stay-at-home dad, I know a lot of kids. When he
cries out, we know he’s actually hurt himself somehow, banged his head or caught his finger in something. When he falls down, he’ll give us a pouty face, but he’s basically already moving on to the next thing he wants to get done. He doesn’t cry very much, he really doesn’t, and he’s very amenable to having his plans changed as long as we provide a pretty good other option from the thing he wants to do.

If we don’t, though, then there is no swerving him from his plan. If he wants to play with the phone, let’s say, and your solution is to take the phone away from him and hide it, he’ll remember where it is and make a move for it even an hour later. If you put it out of his reach, he’ll start trying to figure out how he can drag some chairs together or push his truck over to get up and get it.

He’s crazy for his crazy ass mom. I suppose if I didn’t *know* that I spend every possible second with him I can, it might make me a little sorry for myself, him being obsessed with his mom, but… I mean, she’s amazing, she’s amazing with him, and she doesn’t get to spend nearly as much time with him as they both want. I find myself wishing she was here all the time, I can’t blame him for wanting the same

He sleeps every day for a couple of hours, usually from around 1 to around 3, and he sleeps all night, from around 8:30 until around 7, although sometimes earlier. It would be great if he slept more, but his brain is just exploding right now, and his curiosity and love of his family drives him to wake up as early as possible. It’s exciting, even if we wish we were all sleeping more, he doesn’t wake up miserable.

I think it’s a metaphor for his entire life, he’s simply too excited to take it easy. And, a fitting metaphor for my life, I’ve had so much to take care of that it has taken me the full complement of his nap just to write this blog, and right now he’s calling out to me from his crib. It makes sense that, on father’s day, I would have to stop talking about my kid before I’ve said all I want to, because I have to go get him and play with him, so I’ll just have to finish this later…

Passing Strange

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

((Spoilers Throughout))

(I mean, I can’t do this without spoilers, and plus none of you are gonna see this show, right? It’s like, probably sixth on everyone’s list, or… If it’s even *third* on your list, do you know how much *MONEY* you need to get all the way to your third choice? What do you care if I spoil the show, right?)

I covered some of this earlier, but I want to have a full review, all in one place. So, here goes…

When the show starts, you’re looking at an empty stage with four sections for musicians. Downstage there is a keyboard and a guitar stand, stage left is the same thing, stage right is a bass and a music stand, and far upstage there’s a drum-kit. The program congratulated us for choosing this show, as it had, according to best estimates, the hardest rockingness on Broadway.

Sure enough, the band came on stage and waived to us, along with Stew, and we greeted them warmly. Stew asked us how our Wednesday was, mentioned that “everyone has their own idea of what Wednesday means”, asked the drummer what time it was and said, “let’s start the show…” and kicked into the opening song called, I think, “We Might Play All Night”.

I didn’t know anything about the play going in, except that the bitches on All That Chat has said the show would have to go dark if Stew took a night off, so when he said he was the narrator and five other actors came on stage, I figured this was gonna be super fun. And it was, the opening number was a sort of Bar Wank tune, and the first real chunk of music took place in a black church, with an exactly appropriate black church number that blew the lid off the place, complete with one of the actors slapping a backbeat on a tambourine. The music stayed that way, it really did, for the most part, rock.

The story follows a young boy growing up in relative affluence in a corner of South Central. Weirdly, it was very much like the neighborhood I lived in, El Monte, where it was close to the rough neighborhood but wasn’t, itself, all that rough. And though the characters were all black, they were all affluent Los Angeles blacks, and the point is driven home throughout the play.

The title relates directly to this experience. The idea of “passing” in American black culture is a pretty divisive one, where blacks who can play in the white world will accuse one another of not being black *enough*. And, at one point late in the play, Stew accuses the boy of having no idea of what it’s like to grow up on the mean streets of South Central, and then looks at the actors and says, “Nobody on this *stage* know what it’s like to grow up on the mean streets of South Central”, much to the enjoyment of the 900 largely white New York Broadway audience members.

But before I get into too much deconstruction, let me just detail the plot. The youth, referred to often by Stew as a “pilgrim” thinks he has found God in music, and his mother slaps him for blaspheming. He joins the choir to get the attentions of a hot girl who wants him to go to Howard, get a Job, but also to blacken up a little. “Not so much that you’re unemployable, of course…”. He befriends the closeted Son of the Preacher, who regales him with stories of Europe.

The youth starts a punk band in his garage, which his mom thinks is adorable, he drops acid with his friends and discusses philosophy… all of the typical teenage rebellion stuff, until he realizes that nothing is gonna happen unless he leaves LA. He moves to Amsterdam, where his mind is blown by the kindness and artistic freedom available in Europe, and he joins a squatter commune where free-love and free-expression runs hot out of every tap.

He starts to feel like he won’t be able to find his true artistic calling in the paradise of Amsterdam, so he moves to Berlin, where his life is thrown into utter chaos, bombs and rebellion dripping all around him, and he joins a different sort of commune, full of anarchists and nihilists. When he is called out for his soft pop-music art, he suddenly takes on the persona of the angry black American, persecuted by his former country (leading to the mockery from the narrator from above…) His mother has been trying to get him to come home ever since he left, and we are privy to one last call from her, almost begging him to return for Christmas. Naturally, she’s dying, and he doesn’t make it home in time.

Now, there are another, maybe, eight minutes to the play, but I can’t even *explain* what happens without talking about what was good, and what didn’t work.

I’m embarrassed to admit, it took me about 20 or 30 minutes in to the play to realize that the youth and Stew were wearing the same color shirt and the same shoes. In my defense, everyone was wearing black, basically, so the red t-shirt and Chuck Taylors weren’t all that obvious, but it becomes clear right away that the narrator is actually the older version of the youth, telling his story.

And, though it is a musical in the old sense (people do break into song and sing to one another) there is also music in the way that, say, “Once” is a musical. Many of the performances in the show are also performances *in* the show. The youth starts a punk band, and they actually do one of their songs, one of the highlights of the
evening was a piece of performance art where a guy bound himself with a mic-cable and chanted “What’s inside is just a lie/ What’s inside is just a lie” over and over again.

But each of these is presented to us with utter mockery. A punk band? Right. Like this kid, in his two bedroom spacious house has anything real to be pissed about. The girl in Amsterdam is terrified that she is disturbing “the writing process” which gets a big laugh out of the audience. Even the youth’s performance piece about being black in
America is shown to us as an overture in self-indulgent delusion. The narrator spends the show telling us this story about ridiculous, embarrassing, wasted youth, about his own path of dishonest self-destruction, even as he pursues what he calls “the real”.

Now my problem with this is two fold, and I’m not sure which bothers me more. First of all, fuck you, Narrator. Now that you’re all grown up, you can look back on those moments of white-hot inspiration, the kind of creativity that we have as artists the occurs only *before* we begin to be consumed with self-doubt and culturally-acceptable
editing. You’re embarrassed that you were in a punk band, you *regret* moving to Amsterdam in 1982? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Can I just say, as someone who didn’t get to go to Amsterdam in 1982, that you suck for mocking it. You became a performer because you found a voice as an angry black man, (even though you don’t really *deserve* to be an
angry black man because you grew up on Crenshaw *north* of the 10 instead of *south*) and you *deride* that?

The second part of that is… Stew wrote the show. It’s not just that the character of the Narrator is mocking his younger self, it’s that this is *Stew* mocking young Stew. And so… I mean, we’re watching him accuse himself of missing his mother’s death because of his pursuit of an artist’s life and it isn’t *storytelling*, it’s *RIGHT
THERE*. We aren’t talking about a construct, we’re not talking about the investigation of an idea. The guy? THAT’S HIM. THAT’S THE GUY.

So, when Stew turns to the audience and says, “Do you ever step back and realize that the grown up you are… is based on the decisions of an 18 year old kid… and 18 year old kid who is high?” and yeah, that’s a great line, it really is. But… You’re right there, dude. You’re the guy that you’re talking about, and you’re standing in the middle of a Broadway stage telling this story so… yeah, you’re life is *affected* by that kid’s decisions, but *obviously* you did, y’know, A COUPLE OF OTHER THINGS TOO, because you’re standing in the middle of the stage in front of us.

This is probably a lot more palatable to people who watch a lot
of reality TV, but for me, it really takes me out of the show. I have a circuit breaker that goes off in my heart, I can’t help it. At the end of the show, Dan said, “it’s a shame there’s nothing in this play for you to relate to…” and it was only then that I realized, a guy grows up in LA, has complicated family-issues, is fighting between being a good person to his loved ones and an artist, lives with massive regret… but during the show, I never got hooked in. And y’all know me, I cry at cooking shows and I always think everything is about me.

So, the end of the play, the actress who plays the mother comes back on stage, dressed in an outrageous and gorgeous dress, and the youth turns it around on the narrator, becoming the one who tells the story. And the mother tells Stew that it’s all right, that it’s all gonna be all right. It’s a beautiful moment in theory and in practice, but because of my own misgivings, I just wasn’t all the way on board.

The band was amazing, and many of the songs were excellent, but I had a little problem there as well. Rock songs are not musical theater songs, and it doesn’t work the other way either. When you are singing a rock song, you are providing a narrative, but the song itself doesn’t have to be a part of moving that narrative forward. Think “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen. The song tells a really pithy story, with a nice reversal at the end even, but you also get a whole lot of “bring it on home! YEAH Heh!” and everyone just keeps air-guitaring and drinking beer or whatever one does to Bruce

But in a musical, even when you are Beer Hall Rock-ing, you have to keep moving the story. You can get away with a refrain that has some repeating in it (“Six inches forward, five inches back” from Hedwig, for example) but if you’re gonna try it, you better have the story blowing people’s minds at the same time (a botched sex change takes a while for an audience to digest, to complete the above example).

In Passing Strange, the youth goes to Amsterdam, wanders into a hash bar, gets high, starts talking to some people, and a beautiful woman asks him to move in to her apartment and hands him her keys. It’s a shocking moment, and a gorgeous moment… he even looks back on the fact that in America, if he walks down the street, most women lock their car doors, and here a woman he’s known for an hour just gives him the keys to her home. It’s an astonishing moment.

But the song, which, if it’s not called “Her Keys” it should be, is several minutes long. Yes, it’s an amazing thing, but… you just can’t do that. You can in pop music, you can start a song by just singing “You’re Beautiful” 27 times in a row, but in the theater, the action moves forward. When the song ended, I shifted uncomfortably, but when they reprised it twenty minutes later into the show, I was shocked.

It’s a small quibble, but it grinds my gears a little bit. Also, yes… it would be impossible to do the show without Stew. It wouldn’t make sense to have a guy up there who *didn’t* write the show. It’s a conceit of the show, the narrator wrote it. I don’t know how they finish the play without him.

All that being said, the set, which was just rows of florescent lights on the back wall and a couple of chairs, was perfect and chilling and hilarious. It was exactly right, and I *really* wish the Universal Robots people had seen it because it would be a great inspiration for that show. And the cast… Oh, good lord. This was the best looking group of people I’ve ever seen in a play.

The women in this play personify beauty. Unless you were blinded by a sort of backwater 1920s Arkansas racism, I think at least one of the three women in this play would personify beauty for you. And all of them did for me, in their own way. Not hot, not overtly sexy, nothing like that… just actual *beauty* oozing off the stage.

All in all, it was fantastic to get out and see the show, and I really enjoyed being in the theater and bouncing along with the music. In the time since seeing the show, it has, if you’ll pardon the expression, grown *off* me in a lot of ways, but I still really, really enjoyed it.

Ruination of Brecht

Friday, June 6th, 2008

I’m gonna just jump right in on this. I’m still working out my blogging style for the new (in my mind) blog, with as little intro as possible, mostly because ALL of my time is borrowed time.

There is, as always, a lot more to this idea than I’m gonna explain, but basically Brecht wanted to stop our absorption with the story at key moments, take us out of the play, in order for us to pay attention a little bit more to the socio-political points he was making in his plays.

This was done with direct address, sure, but also with stuff like making sure that maybe a wire from one of the lights was hanging down, making sure that all the actors were still sitting around on stage when they weren’t in character, that sort of thing. He did this not just with the writing, but with the staging.

Weirdly, I’ve seen two plays in the last month that speak directly to this idea. One of them, Caucasian Chalk Circle, was… um… well, it’s pretty Brechtian, in that it was written by Bertolt himself.

I have to say, normally, I get super annoyed at companies in New York that feel like it’s okay to revisit the classics. (Or, in many cases, not even the classics, but rather, shows that some other real theater company made very famous in the last ten years, but that’s another blog…) We live in New York, we don’t need a community theater production company here. This is where we are supposed to continue the path of modern theater, where we are supposed to CREATE the theater that other companies re-create.

But the production I saw really made clear why it’s such a good idea to continually remind us of why the shoulders we stand on are made of such strong stuff. This was by far the best production of Chalk Circle I’ve ever seen, one of those productions where you can’t believe you get to be in the room with people who, clearly, should already be world famous.

And it was brilliant because they stayed true to the actual intent of this approach to theater, which is to invite and cajole the audience into a deeper understanding of the story and the circumstances. The fourth wall was broken constantly, the show was performed expertly in the round and was blocked inside and within the audience banks, and the music was breath-takingly *smart* and perfectly executed which led to such a celebratory atmosphere in the room, a sense of real accomplishment.

This relates directly to my previous post on naturalistic acting, because it couples with the same misunderstandings that occur when a production misunderstands the intentions of a particular style. The breaking down of the fourth wall has now slid into this horrible world of “brave” and “aggressive” theater, where people in the audience are forced to deal with people in the play in a way that isn’t inviting at all.

The aggressive nature of direct address now, the constant eye contact between the cast and the audience, may be thrilling to some audiences (I know my wife, in particular, was pleased that Jesse L. Martin did a fair amount of it in “Rent”, especially to cute girls in the $20 seats…) but I find it totally distasteful.

The other play I saw actually begs the question of Brecht’s usefulness in our current culture.

“Passing Strange” is a story of a young black kid who leaves his mom in Los Angeles to travel the world and become an artist, and in doing so finds a lot of emptiness and a complete paucity of truth. The story includes a narrator, identical to the young black kid, but now some thirty years older.

But… the narrator is played by the guy who wrote the play. And, one assumes, it is a true story. So, as horrible things happen to the characters, the audience is sickeningly aware that this is not a story, or an allegory… this stuff actually happened to *that dude right there*.

I can think of two movies, “The Break-up” and “Proof Of Life” where film audiences couldn’t stomach the movies because they knew what had happened between the lead actors. There was a TV show some years ago that starred Jennifer Grey as a character named “Jennifer Grey” – and the character had starred in Dirty Dancing and was the daughter of Joel Grey. That very quickly led to TV shows like “My Life on the D-list” where it makes more sense for Kathy Griffin to have cameras just follow her around than it does for her to waste time acting in a sit-com or trying to make movies.

On stage, we are spared a lot of this. We know each other but… not that well. I don’t know my very best friends as well as the TV watching world knows their reality TV stars. I saw my best friend in the world in a play a month ago, and although I laughed when he had to pull up his shirt, I honestly got lost in his character through the rest of the play.

But still, people seem to feel like it’s important to include their biographical information in the program or, very often, in the play itself. What would Brecht say if he saw “Passing Strange”? I mean, not only is there absolutely no set, no only is the cast on stage the entire time, sitting in the middle of the rock band, and not only does the narrator stop the show and talk to the audience about a bar that is in the very town where the show is playing… but the narrator is being played by the very guy that the things in the play HAPPENED TO.

And, for me, it’s over the line. I really enjoyed the play, but it’s a self-eating snake. When the narrator laments his mistakes, he says, “Isn’t it startling to wake up and realize that the person you are is based on the decisions made by an 18 year old… a stoned 18 year old”, and that would be a much richer sentiment if you weren’t looking at a guy who is starring in his own Broadway play.

I mean, he’s standing there in utter refutation of what he just said. Obviously, a stoned 18 year old decided to move to Amsterdam… but he’s standing there in the middle of a stage on Broadway in New York. OTHER DECISIONS WERE MADE AFTER THE DECISION HE’S REFERRING TO, so it kills the point.

Now, Chalk Circle proved that the theory is only part of the production. The truth is, it is a gorgeously written play. In both cases, these were plays that were directly and powerfully relate-able to my own life, a parent’s desperate need to keep a child safe and sated, and an artist who punishes himself for the decisions he made concerning his artistic life vs. his family obligations. But only the Brecht piece actually moved me, actually made me cry.

I guess the summation of the last two entries is that I want my theater to remain representational, I want some real distance between me and the people who are performing. Needless to say, I find improv comedy to be utter hell, but I still squirm a bit even when we’ve moved far closer to regular proscenium theater. This doesn’t mean that I can’t understand and be knocked out by the newer presentational theater, and it doesn’t mean that I find personal messages within a playwright’s work to be off-putting at all.

But I think we need to recognize that hyper-realistic acting and presentational producing are both reactions to a theater that was drenched in floor-to-ceiling sets stuck in a proscenium arch, and actors who had to shout to be heard in row triple Z. Every show we go to now, especially among the off-off community, needs to accept as a given that the performances will be intimate and the performance space will be spare, and maybe we need to respect the audiences need for a little bit of distance and theatricality.

Two Dated Ideas

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008

So, this is gonna get some of the theater ideas off my chest that I’ve been mulling lately.

As usual, I’m gonna start with a disclaimer. In the world of theater, there are ideas and labels thrown around all the time that tend to be used in a variety of terrible ways, and every approach to theater or acting always brings to my mind the artistic equivalent of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. Every tool that people have generally gets handed to them like a borrowed weed wacker, and the artistic lawn usually has the dead spots to prove the tool’s uselessness.

Also, I once had a friend tell me that she had started to seriously study physics, and it turned out she was just reading “The Dancing Wu Li Masters”, and as much as I laugh about that, any use of any term that I throw out needs to be interpreted through the same casual approach to study. I don’t have a graduate degree in Acting, I don’t have an undergraduate degree in anything, and, in fact, I failed out of high school.

So… There’s that to consider.

The two biggest influences on modern theater seem to be Brecht and Stanislovski, or, most specifically, a Brechtian approach to creating theater and a “Method” approach to acting. (I’m gonna leave it ’till tomorrow to talk about Brecht, because that’s probably easier for me to talk about.)

Now, I should say that these influences aren’t actually cited often. In fact, probably never, because they are both so pervasive. And both of these ideas are far more in depth than what the casual theater practitioner thinks about them. Certainly for “Method” acting there are definitely techniques that a lot of actors don’t follow to the letter, and almost nobody describes themselves as “method actors” without doing so with tongue in cheek.

But the fact is, this naturalistic approach to theater and to acting is so pervasive that it’s hard to read “An Actor Prepares” without laughing at what seem like obvious and simple lessons. Where we are now, in 2008, very few people would attack the role of Othello by rolling their eyes and behaving like an animal… in fact it would be a shocking and offensive idea.

I’m gonna switch terms, if that’s all right, because method acting has a method, and very few people follow the method to the letter. But the inspiration behind the method is the same inspiration behind what so many other schools are trying to get to, which is honesty. The supposition is that a dishonest performance will lead to bad theater, or less good theater.

This is certainly true in a lot of cases, and definitely if you watch, say, “A Streetcar Named Desire” (which a lot of people would claim is the beginning of this revolution, the true distillation of the method on display) you can understand the full power of this honesty. Imagine if Olivier had played Stanley (instead of, apparently, glowering just off camera) and you can see how perfectly pitched this acting style was for this moment.

But, here’s the thought experiment I go on. Stanley rapes Blanche, we’re pretty sure, although there’s a further thought experiment on just how much of a rape it is, but that happens off-screen. What if it happened on screen? What if they followed through and you had to watch Stanley rape her right there on your screen. What if you saw entry?

That’s where we are today. And I have to steer away from movies for a bit and go back to theater because the stark nudity of human emotions on screen does provide a barrier for the audience, so that a movie like “Kids” is disturbing but it isn’t *assaulting* (if that makes any sense). The plays of Tennessee Williams can be done in this naturalistic manner because he feels a responsibility to reveal what needs to be revealed and a restraint to hide what will be too difficult for an audience to watch.

Now, our stages are full of violence and sex. Which is great, violence and sex are great tools, as proven by Streetcar. But in an overzealous need to prove audacity, bravery and truth, we’re asking actors to stand on stage fully nude, or to accept acts of violence with various degrees of realism… and even worse, we’re asking audiences to watch.

I saw The Homecoming a few months ago, and I was totally floored by the power of the performances and the writing. God, it was horrible, this spiral you start slipping down, and it became more and more horrifying as it went. And the story, of a woman who tries to escape a life of utter and total degradation but, in the end, can’t escape her own need to destroy herself utterly, is full of violence and sex.

I was queasy, I really was. And titillated, somewhat. But at no time did we have to watch her being *fucked*. She didn’t disrobe. And it wasn’t in the manner of most movies now, where two people screw off camera and then during their next conversation, the woman holds the sheet up so her boobs are covered. It was in the manner of brilliant writing, where the play only shows us one room in a rotten shitty old house, and it isn’t the room where actual screwing happens.

Violence on stage is even worse, made just awful by the heightened realism of a play. I recently saw Nosedive Productions “Colorful World” and the fighting and violence in that play were a ball because the whole thing was over the top, the entire piece was supposed to be a cartoon. The stage combat became choreography, a dance.

But in plays where the actors stage “naps” and falls and punches… One of two things happen. Either it doesn’t seem real, which is a failure of the approach, or it seems totally real, and I’m suddenly terrified for the safety of the actor.

When a person appears naked on stage in front of me, I adjudicate THE ACTOR, I’m not seeing the character.In True Love, the Charles Mee piece, the lead woman walks on stage totally naked, and, curse my brain, I thought “there’s Laurie Williams, totally naked!”

There are times when the honesty of a performances leaks out on to the real world, and I find that hard to deal with. In a production of Glass Menagerie, the woman playing Laura limped out to take her bow. In a production of Chess I saw, the lead woman could barely make it to the end of the show she was crying so profusely. Even in shows I’ve produced, I’ve seen the psychological effect of realism shock an audience clean out of a story. A woman shows up on stage, the characters talk to her, she leaves and later, one character says to the other, “what do we think of fat chicks” and I *heard* the collective gasp from the audience, who knew *exactly* to whom we were referring.

It’s tough. And obviously, these psychological scars are worth it, to me, in order to tell a shocking or compelling story. And sometimes people fall out of the story for a second, but then get right back in. They worry about the actress for a second, but then they go back to the journey. I’m not sure where the line is, but I do know that realism and honesty in a performance, above all else, is not the final say in good storytelling. There are times when an older approach to acting would actually enhance a show, I really believe that.

Obviously, I don’t want an end to nudity or violence, I love both things. We used nudity to comic effect in “Fleet Week” and violence to tell a story in “Dirty Juanita”, but I’m not sure that our modern method for honesty goes hand in hand with those things. I think we need to be very careful to pay attention to the times when we are being brave and honest, and the times we are being crass braggarts. It takes a lot of guts to get your ass kicked on stage, or to get your breasts licked… but I think in both cases, you had better be sure you’ve earned the massive discomfort from your audience, and the screeching brakes you’ve maybe just put on the storytelling.

On The Wagon?

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

It’s strange to think that my brother’s blog about my rejection from a stay-at-home mom’s group would be the very thing that would kick start me back in to blogging, but it has, in a way. I say that, even though I don’t really intend to write about that particularly weird chain of events. But it did get me thinking about why I haven’t written, and then, of course, why I should.

If you’re reading this, and you haven’t read the other, then go here and you can read my friend Deb’s essay on why she got mad, and a bunch of commenters who are variously sane and insane.

And I guess that’s what drove me away from posting. I myself wasn’t getting a whole lot of comments, and I wasn’t really asking for them. I had a lot of people telling me how much they liked my writing, and they also, for the most part, thought they saw a tiny shred of average sanity in my bloviating, and that was kinda fun for me. But the thing is, on so many other blogs, there was this thing…

Okay, y’know how you’re sitting by yourself, maybe just drinking a soda or taking a crap or… or doing both, I guess… and you just start thinking stuff. You’ll think “Plastic. Hm. Plastic… I wonder how much stuff is plastic” and it’s just a dumb thought. Or you’ll think, “Bugs. Imagine. Just being a bug and looking up at the world and only getting, like, two days to live your whole life…”

And that leads to something, where, for about a whole minute, you’ll be completely consumed with the idea that bugs have rights, that you should honor bugs. And then you stand up, flush, wash your hands… and by the end of it the idea is completely gone. You don’t really care about bugs any more.

The problem is, the world is full of curmudgeon buttholes who do these retarded mind-games while sitting at their computer. They read other people’s blogs, and before they can stand up and flush, they’ve posted these wildly stupid ideas in their comments section. And when they are called out for being stupid, they’ve already invested their time and their name (or dumb ass nickname) to this dumb-ass idea, so they start the torturous task of digging themselves in deeper.

It’s turned me off to blogs entirely. I quit reading my brother’s blog for sometimes weeks at a stretch, even though I know he tries to post every day, even though I know the thing is like an albatross to him. I quit reading it because people have written phenomenally stupid things in the comments section, and then when I meet them, I realized that the internet is the problem.

These aren’t stupid people. At all. And even what they are saying isn’t stupid, unless you believe that the written word stands as an end-point for a view, instead of the beginning of a fluid conversation, which is what it actually IS when you meet people in person.

So, I quit posting. I didn’t *decide* to quit posting, I just realized that I was humping a whore that didn’t love me and charged too much. Every time I had time to write, which was almost never, there was always something far better to do. Like… anything. Anything was better than adding to the noise.

But the thing is, I don’t really have any other way of keeping track of my life. And… do you know what’s happened since I stopped writing? Barnaby is basically a kid now. He’s walking and talking and has opinions and has struggles… We produced a show, a show I really, really liked, and I didn’t write anything about it.

My wife has a new job! She’s starting at the end of the month! I bought a bike! I’ve recorded a bunch of new music! I actually wrote most of a score for a show that, at the last minute, I pulled the plug on because I just couldn’t do it as well as I wanted to!

I mean, I’ve had a lot of blogs up in this shaky noodle of a brain I’ve got. Not to mention, every sixth blog that I read really should have my blog explaining why I think they’re wrong. On top of that, I’ve seen some theater, and I think I could add something to the discussion…

I’ve got this huge hole in my blog, from Christmas until now, from before Barnaby could even walk to now, when he’s a toddler stealing shit from other kids.

So, I’ve decided to keep humping this whore because she’s the only ride in town, and maybe the cost isn’t *too* high. I’m gonna shoot for writing during Barno’s nap, if I can make it happen. I’m leaving comments open for the time being, and I believe I’ve learned to take what everyone says with a grain of salt, so feel free to fire away. Tomorrow, I’m hoping to talk a little more about this Stay At Home Dad thing.