Archive for April, 2010

Taking A Personal Day

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

I’ve been producing this wonderful evening called “The Soundtrack Series here in Astoria for the last few months. Basically, one Thursday each month, we bring in some of the most creative writers, musicians and performers that we know, and we ask them to choose one piece of music and write 10 minutes on it.

It’s been amazing. Ehren Gresehover who writes for New York Magazine as well as a bunch of other things, did “To Be With You” by Mr. Big. Jamie Block , recording artist, did “Free To Be You And Me”. James Comtois did a piece on unwanted dance erections… It’s just been an amazing, amazing night, every single month.

Abe Goldfarb was meant to perform last night, but he got a gig hosting for some real money, so I stepped in to fill his shoes. I was reading with some real heavy weights, Kate Spencer, Kevin R. Free, and Tammy Oler, among others, so I was actually pretty anxious about it.

When you have an evening that you’re producing, and you end up both writing and performing… I mean, it’s pretty much on you. If it sucks, you really have nobody else to blame.

So, as I am taking a personal day today, I’m gonna post my piece. This is pretty long, and some of it only makes sense in context and performance (like the fact that many people were disappointed when they heard I was doing a Counting Crows because they were hoping I would rip on a bad pop song instead), and there are stars throughout that remind me to take a beat, because I tend to read really really fast… Anyway, here it is.

Let me get something out of the way very quickly. “Roll To Me” by Del Amitri is an unforgivable song, a sin against our fellow man, and as much as I might enjoy listening to it, and like singing along, it does to my heart what a dozen donuts does to my stomach. I find the protaganist of the piece to be almost comically loathsome, like a Bill Murray character, except he’s meant to be taken seriously. The lyric is, actually, “and I don’t think I have ever seen a soul so in despair/So if you’d like to talk the night through… guess who will be there!’ I can just see this guy on some girls bed, chin propped up on two hands, legs kicking up in the background, ready to gasp and laugh and gently touch her leg when appropriate, only to, every so often, reach down and surreptitiously adjust his erection. I hate this duplicitous piece of shit, and every note of this relentlessly happy song.

I’m sorry, it had to be said.

This has nothing to do with my piece tonight.


There is a scene in 500 Days of Summer, I movie I loathed almost as much as the Del Amitri song “Roll To Me”, where the main character is suffering from depression. You know this because he shows up at a liquor store in a bath robe and buys booze and junk food, and I believe he pays for it with change that he sidearms on to the counter.

My first thought was “this is not depression, this is a guy who wants everyone to think he’s depressed. And if you care enough to pick out a costume and a location, you aren’t actually depressed. You’re actually sorta having fun…”


My first marriage ended in a fiery crash at some point in 1998. The two of us had moved to Los Angeles with the hopes of pursuing acting careers, but I quickly began to sink under the knowledge that it wasn’t in the cards for me. I was becoming the guy who would stand in front of the camera with several other actors, point to the person on my left and say, “this guy is really good, you should use him.” I remember showing up for a commercial audition where they only filmed my neck as I loosened my tie. I was meant to be watching a car drive by, in awe. My time as a theater actor had not prepared me well for this moment.

My wife at the time was a fantastic looking sociopath, so Los Angeles worked out perfectly for her. Our marriage dissolved and I began to sink further and further into a legitimate depression. The scary thing about these black emotional abysses is that you won’t actually be able to dress up and let people know, you won’t be able to call for help, you spend every single calorie you’ve got trying to convince everyone that you’re okay.

There’s a line from this song, “Anna Begins”, this counting crows song, where the lyric says, “My friends assure me, it’s all or nothing, but… I’m not really worried. I am not overly concerned.” And that was largely what I attempted to tell my friends. “Nah, it’s fine. It’s good! Let’s get a drink!”

And I did. I went to the gym, I went to bars, I talked to girls, I talked to a ton of girls, I got drunk, I got a ton of drunk, I would get up, play tennis, go to auditions, go to bars, go to the gym, get drunk, eat a burrito, get drunk, go to the gym, get up… There was no order, no sense to it, time didn’t move in any direction, it just limped around the room, crashing into the dresser and sitting down in an old chair, holding up one hand, trying not to laugh. My days and nights stacked up, and in Los Angeles there’s no sense of time, no sense of season, no understanding that the birthdays that crash past you, one at a time, represent years, ages, time lost.

I hung on to the idea that I was still listening to popular music as proof that I wasn’t old. Those years weren’t bad, Fastball and Paula Cole, Shawn Colvin and Sixpence None The Richer… and stuff like “Tubthumping” and “Never Be Your Woman” by White Town were all great. Even the pop crap was “Wannabe” by Spice Girls and “Mmmmbop” By Hanson. It wasn’t a bad time, musically. And I held on, dancing in bars, dancing at house parties, cornering gorgeous girls and making them insecure, recognizing the girl from The Blair Witch project at my gym, seeing Ed Norton and Jenna Elfman at the bar across the street from the Scientology Celebrity Center. I WASN’T DEPRESSED! I GOT DRUNK WITH DHARMA! I PLAYED BASKETBALL WITH GEORGE CLOONEY (WHEN I WAS AN EXTRA ON ‘THAT SEVENTIES SHOW’) I WAS FINE!


Had she left in August? October? Over Memorial Day? I stopped even remembering, and I found myself telling my story like a guy who lost a dream job some years ago, like an old actor talking about the time he played Hamlet. When I would talk to people who didn’t know me, and because I was an actor in Los Angeles and not famous, there were very few people who knew me, the story was always, “I just moved out here a little while ago” and “we’re having a trial separation” even though it was quickly becoming years for both of these things.

I had a kind of mania about it, a ferocious scrambling attempt to keep moving forward. I was running out of money, running out of youth and running out of chances to escape my twenties free of STDs. I had a few weeks-long relationships, mostly because I liked to have sex with my friends and that always ends up being a confusing thing later when you look at each other and say, “you’re a reasonable person, and the genital co-rubbing is certainly nice, but if we were caught on a desert island, it would only be a matter of time before I either ate you, or I begged you to eat me…”

Then I started dating a girl named Jordana. Our friends called her Jordi, but her family and those close to her called her “Dana”. Of course, I called her “Jordi”. Dana was a little familiar. Clearly, although she was decent and reasonable, this was another thing where I ended up sleeping with one of my friends and pretty soon we’d just all be standing in a room, rocking back and forth on our heels, hands in pockets, and she and I would just nod and say, “Hookay, that was… Listen, I’ll call you and we should totally grab a movie. Y’know, with, like, everyone…”

This song is full of money quotes. He repeats, several times, “But I’m not gonna bend. I’m not gonna break, and I’m not gonna worry about it anymore…” Jordana was very cool, and even seemed to have some flexibility about the possible crushed soul that was hidden just beneath this devil-may-care douchebag I had invented. There was a certain amount of drinking I had to do to forget my marriage, and then a certain amount more to forget myself, and I remember being blind, on the verge of passing out, having said nothing about anything and Jordana looked at me with real kindness and just said, “I’m sorry you feel like you have to do this.”

My money was gone. My ex-wife had taken everything in the divorce, mostly because I didn’t want anything, and I was running out of stuff to sell. I made some money doing extra work and picking up editing jobs here and there, but the same kind of manic denial that had my emotional state constantly in the black was not going to work with something as binary as a checking account, and I knew I had to figure it out. My dad had some money, and I was pretty sure he would help me out. Actually, I was sure he *wouldn’t* help me out, but I was starting to run out of options. Liquor in LA isn’t cheap.

So I grabbed my stack of CDs and started to make the horrible journey up Interstate 5, from LA to Napa Valley, where my dad lived in a mansion on the mountain behind the Coppolla Winery. If you haven’t seen Interstate 5… Let me put it this way. It goes the same place that the 1 goes, right from LA to San Francisco, except the 1 is right on the water and is a two lane highway with switchbacks and horror cliff dropoffs that you have to drive 20 miles per hour on – it literally adds three or four hours to a five hour drive, and yet, every time I drove up there, I thought long and hard about which way to go. The 5 is straight through the most apocalyptic desert imaginable, straight through a giant expanse of bombing ranges. The area is literally the only war-torn 200 miles in all of the United States.

I had the Counting Crows album on. It was among the CDs that weren’t lost, and the only radio in that part of California is Right Wing Talk, or Right Wing Christian, so I was fumbling through CDs. I kept shaking my head and bouncing in my seat to “Mister *JONES* and me, tell each other FAIRY TALES as we stare at the beautiful women…” and I’m wondering how early my dad will break out the high end red wine, which was his particular brand of alcoholism, and I’m doing the math of how much he’ll lend me and how long that’ll last and how long that will keep me in drink, and I’m half thinking about my birthday coming up in a few months, when I’ll turn thirty, and for some reason I kept thinking about my sister and my grandmother and I keep seeing them laughing at my jokes, and I keep seeing their eyes crinkle up at the corners, their blue eyes laughing at something I’ve just said, and the CD rolls along and this song, this song comes on, and I hear “my friends assure me, it’s all or nothing, but I’m not really worried. I am not overly concerned…”

And then I hear her voice saying “I’m sorry you feel like you have to do this.”

I mean, it’s the desert, and it’s hard, it’s really hard to maintain that sense, that tightrope walk, that cobweb tightrope walk that is easy to balance on when you’re buttressed on all sides by bar stools and ex-strippers and the palpable sense of desperation in every person you meet, so of course, here in the desert it’s gonna be harder to convince myself that the shaky douchebag, the womanizer, the dramatic sarcastic is actually a giant protective tortoise shell I’ve been carrying around. But something is cracking inside my head. I don’t want a drink, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I don’t want a drink, I don’t want to drink at all, anymore, I just want my dangling feet to touch ground, but I’ve been flapping my arms so hard for so long that I’ve half-convinced myself that I’m actually flying and I’ve had to forget what the ground even *feels* like.

If you don’t know the song, Adam Duritz uses an old trick, the modal shift. My mom, the composer, was once told, “if you want a hit, write it in 3/4, put the verses in minor and the chorus in major”. This is exactly what the band has done in Anna Begins, and I had enjoyed the trick so much that I hadn’t really noticed what they were saying. It was only at that moment, in the car, in the desert, that I realized the verses, in minor, were all lies, “I’m not really worried, I am not overly concerned” and the chorus, in major, was where he saw this woman for the first time, not as a context for his life, but as the promise of something better. Suddenly in the car, I heard

“her kindness falls like rain. It washes me away. And Anna begins to change my mind. And every time she sneezes, I believe it’s love, and Oh Lord. I’m not ready for this sort of thing.”

I could tell you that there was a magical oasis in the middle of the desert, a small landing pad that had two gas stations and a Jack-In-The-Box. I could tell you it was a miracle, if you knew nothing about California, but I would be lying. Californians need to stop at gas stations like Whales need to surface, there are no areas of California that *don’t* have available fuel. And where there’s gas, there’s fast food. It’s a given.

I pulled off the road, not knowing what I was gonna do. I was in a part of California that didn’t support Sprint (otherwise known as “Almost All Of California”) but I’m pretty sure I was pulling off the road to eat something, or to get gas, or just to try and stop crying. But I couldn’t eat, my car was full, and some distance away from the rest of the garbage was a lone payphone, sitting under a tree, probably the only organic shade for 20 miles.

It wasn’t until I was walking to the phone that I realized I was calling Jordana. In New York. And I realized that it wasn’t my sister’s blue eyes, or my grandma’s, it was hers. And I knew that those eyes were already part of my family, that she had already become something that I couldn’t make a decision about, whether I was ready for it or not. And I realized that, when I heard the song, when I heard him sing “she’s talking in her sleep, it’s keeping me awake, and Anna begins to toss and turn. And every word is nonsense, but I understand”… I wasn’t hearing “and Anna Begins”, I was hearing “And… Dana begins…”

She listened to me, and she said, “go back to LA. Don’t go to your father. Buy a ticket to New York. Come here. It’s gonna be fine. It’s all gonna be fine. Come home.”

I Am The Problem

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Isaac Butler does a phenomenal job over at his blog, and he’s almost too prolific for my somewhat slower moving mind, I very often want to respond or comment, but by the time I’ve put my ducks in a row, and found a free chunk of time, the moment has almost always passed.

I’m gonna ignore my impulse to feel behind the pitch and post a response to a blog post that Isaac wrote a few days ago. In his post on criticism and reviews he said that he felt the stream-of-conscious review, where the writer fails to establish useful parameters or any kind of thesis, were the very thing that makes old media folks nervous about new media. And he agreed with them.

Now, I don’t think Isaac was talking about me, specifically, but I do think that this is exactly what I do, and I don’t actually see a lot of other people doing it, so I thought I’d take a swing at explaining it, if not defending it. I kinda feel like blogging about blogging theory is a little like writing a book about theater – it feels utterly counter-intuitive to me, but I’m gonna give it a go.

I have a marketing theory about theater that I adhere to, almost entirely because it doesn’t seem that anything else is working and we might as well try *something*. The idea is two-fold. 1) People love gathering in a place together, sitting in chairs and witnessing theater. I believe this because, despite all of the easier ways of getting entertainment and inspiration, people are still going to movies, going to sports bars to watch games, going to church every sunday – people are still gathering in chairs and witnessing a story being told. 2) What is good for any one theater company is good for all of them. A rising tide raises all ships.

So why is it so hard for us to find audience? Ken Davenport has an amazing blog where you can find really fun inside baseball about the big boys, but I am always astonished, every week, to see the sheer quantity of human beings who show up to Broadway shows. Last week? 260,000 people.

So why did Craven Monkey have empty seats at The Brick? Well, for a hundred reasons, and everyone knows their favorite fifty out of those hundred, and I think there have been a lot of creative ways to address this. But I think people just don’t know how good it feels to sit in a small theater and watch a fantastic little show.

When you’re at dinner with your family, and your dad is cracking everyone up, or you have an Aunt that is always taking off for some festival in Nebraska, or Irkutsk or something… I think a lot of people have forgotten that we have that for you. One small strange voice that can keep you on the edge of your seat, you know you can find that at a bar, or at your house at a dinner party. I want you to know that you can get it from us, too. You can come, and get your mind blown.

And you can totally get that on Broadway too, I am not one of those people who believe we have a superior product. But we have a comparable product for a tenth the investment, and people just don’t know that it’s available. Every Sunday, you’re at Church with a hundred or so other people, you catch a movie the fourth week it’s out and you’re in the theater with nine other couples, and the quality of the experience isn’t *less*.

So, when I write reviews of plays I’ve seen, I am unfortunately incapable of including a thesis or even very deep analysis. Which, actually, means I’m not writing a review or a criticism, I’m writing something else, and I don’t have a name for it. I’m trying to conjure a visceral response to being in the space, to the physical act of being drenched in a piece of theater.

My blog isn’t wide read enough to make any difference, and I am not desperate to create a marketing movement in any way, so it could be that I’m doing less good than I hope to. I have a blog, and I see theater, so those are both pluses, but I’m also pretty over-enthusiastic and I don’t really have any external training in the theater – everything has been immersion, on-the-job type educatin’, so I can be easily impressed with a turn of phrase or a performance that is clearly a rip-off of something one learns about in an MFA program. I know that sounds snotty, but I’m completely earnest here, my education is half-assed, but I try to make up for it by *showing up*, and letting people participate in the joy for what I’ve seen.

My hope is to inspire anyone who *does* read my blog to remember that spark of being in the auditorium in high school, when your friends were doing Camelot. I want my readers to get the sense that next time I go to a show, they might like to go with me. And if I’m not going, maybe they’ll go by themselves.

Misunderstanding Marketing

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

Over at Jamespeak, he continues to talk about some of the ideas they have been wrestling with in terms of marketing. The title of this post is not to insinuate that they’ve misunderstood anything, and God knows I don’t mean to presume that I understand anything more than the very rudimentary approaches to marketing, but one of James’ commenters is making a classic mistake.

Much of what we do in terms of marketing can’t be measured by a direct cost/benefit ratio. A twitter account takes a fair amount of time to maintain, and if you are half-assed in your approach to it (which I have been, I have to admit) then you can find yourself investing *some* time, and coming up with nothing, because the community you mean to foster just hasn’t gotten that invested in you. On the other hand, you can post twenty or so times a day, and you will find that everything that happens to you starts to fall into two categories – “Worth Mentioning On Twitter” or “Not Worth Mentioning On Twitter”, and that’s an awful feeling.

But it would be a mistake to say, “Okay, the company has a twitter account, and I spend five hours a week on it, and doing freelance work, that’s roughly $250 I would make during that time, so each week on Twitter would have to bring in 13 paying ticket buyers”. Obviously, that’s a mistake, there might be thirty weeks between productions, on our level, and none of us believes that a twitter account will sell 400 extra tickets.

And so I would argue it’s also a mistake to look at the postcards the same way. There is so little of our art that lives after it’s done, and the stuff that does live on is usually not something we can put in our hands. Jimmy’s company Nosedive has actually done pretty well recording their shows to video, but even then, you don’t have something in your hands.

If you are building a community, it’s exciting for people to have a physical reminder of the show, long after it’s done. It isn’t just the people who are *in* the show, it’s the people who *saw* the show, that get to have the postcard. There are people who collect playbills, and yet most of us just print our programs at our dayjobs or Kinko’s and hand out some folded shit to the people who come. When I’m cleaning out a jacket, or an old box, and I find postcards from shows that I saw years ago, it’s exciting. It reminds me that the company and I have a relationship that extends back for years.

Yes, the postcards end up in a landfill, a lot of them, and yeah, that sucks. I think the answer is to only print as many as you’ll actually need, and use them as a placeholder for a ticket in your mind. Give them out to people who want to see the show, send them to people that have already supported you, maybe hand them out with the programs. Let them live on in the hands of the cast and crew, and their circle of friends, but make sure they end up with the audience as well.

On one wall in my studio, I have all of our postcards framed and placed above my desk. Many of the postcards on my wall were saved from a box of thousands that ended up at the dump, and I’ve since modified my expectations when ordering. But they exist on my wall as a tangible, physical reminder of the show, in a way that the costumes rotting in my garage don’t.

Now, maybe postcards are a bad idea, I think every company has to do that metric for themselves. But when a company is doing the metric, they need to have as long a view as possible, as open a mind as possible about what the benefits could be to the company as a whole, not just to the production.

If you pay your actors $400 each, are they responsible for selling 23 tickets each? Of course not. The whole is larger than the sum of its parts, when we’re creating a play, we’re telling a story and all of the disparate parts should be handled with care and expertise. But when we’re marketing the show, we’re ALSO telling a story, and the image on a postcard is a chance to show your audience a vision, a piece of art, in a tangible and physical form. So you can’t say “this one aspect has to pay for itself in ticket sales.”

Check this out, and tell me you wouldn’t want a hard copy of this picture.

self portrait by Becky Byers, photoshopped by the brilliant Pete Boisvert

I mean, come on.

That’s just bad-ass.

The Flies Have A Lord?

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

Barnaby had spent a few hours in the house after school, playing with drums and cars and the rest of his incredible assortment of time wasters toys when he decided that he’d like to go to the deli and the to the park. The deli has a bunch of shiny plastic crap that Barnaby is drawn to, but not so much that he feels compelled to complain when I tell him he can’t have it. This time, though, he simply couldn’t leave unless I got him the six pack of table tennis balls. He seemed to feel it was the least I could do.

He walked down to the water, with me by his side, trying to herd the falling, blowing balls back to him when he couldn’t quite hold on to ALL SIX at the same time. I finally convinced him to put some in his pocket. His first idea, three in one and three in the other, was too logical and seemed to be working too well, so he tried to cram all six in his right pocket. Five would almost fit, the sixth would simply roll out and down the sidewalk. It finally got run over by a car, to Barnaby’s shrieking amusement. “THAT BALL IS FLAT!”

The fifth ball became a source of entertainment not only for Barnaby, but for the twenty or so people who stopped it with their foot, or bent down to pick it up as they walked up, because it simply wouldn’t stay in his pocket. Thug life teenagers and yuppies walking off their jogs were equal in Barnaby’s eye as willing participants in his ball roll. He would start running, legs kicking up sideways, and the #5 ball would pop out and roll backwards down the sidewalk, and each person who grabbed it and brought it back would get a giant “SHANK ZHOO!”

He said, as he often does in the middle of a sideways leg kicking run, “maybe let’s take a little rest RIGHT HERE!” and sat down on the side of the river.

Barnaby contemplates the RFK Bridge

We got up and crossed the street to the playground. Some of Barnaby’s friend were there, Hutch and Rory and Francis – and they were all playing together. But Barno didn’t quite know what was expected of him. He tried to hug Hutch, who is a foot taller and confused by this burst of affection. Rory and Francis were alternating between being monsters and being chased by monsters, and Barnaby wasn’t sure who was what.

There is no cruelty in children, but there is an animalistic feel. Your body has to move in the right way, a nod or a look or a sense of belonging, you have to know the cues to be able to mean something to other children. We know this as adults as well, but we look past it because we’ve devised much simpler silent communication – with our clothes and shoes and haircuts and electronics doing the talking.  With kids, they don’t notice the cut of your tailor, but they get when you’re part of the game and when you can’t quite catch up. Barnaby can’t catch up.

We get in the swings and he’s laughing like a maniac. We have a whole slew of swing games we play, and he instructs me through gobs of horse guffaws. “RUN AWAY AND COME BACK!” he screams, and I do just that, timing my approach with his waxing swing. This is maybe the one thing that has stayed consistent since he was six months old, but even this is gonna disappear soon. He’s already a little bit too large for these swings, and the mothers holding their 18 month olds give me the stink eye until I get him out.

He runs to the playground part, with the climbing forts and bridges and slides. There are teams of kids running around, not much older, but older enough that he can’t quite figure out what they’re doing. I hang back as far as I can, I want him to figure it out. As kids run past him, I can hear him shout, “HI! MY NAME IS BARNABY!”, but they don’t hear him. And if they do, they don’t understand him. He still speaks like a two year old. When a seven year old girl stops in front of him and he says, “Vat is yow nayim?”, she just alters her path slightly and runs on.

He runs up to me and asks if we can find a stick. Once he has one he likes, he heads back to the jungle gym. Instead of chasing the kids and running around, he goes from pole to pole, banging and listening to the sound. The flocks of children, using some kind of bird body language that I cant read and neither can Barnaby, swoop back and forth across the playground, and he just walks from support beam to support beam, listening to the metal gong noise as he bangs it with a stick. After ten minutes of this, he sits down and watches the river.

Barnaby finishes banging and drops his stick

Finally, he gets up and walks over to me. We head to the gate, he wants to throw his ping pong balls at the trees. Behind me, I hear that same gong noise, and I turn to see that three other kids have come over with sticks. They’re all banging on the supports, following Barnaby’s pattern. I call out to him, “BARNABY! Look, kiddo! These kids want to play with you!” He turns, looks at them, acknowledges the whole thing, and heads for the gate. He’s all done banging, he’s moved on.

When we get home, a half hour later, we only have three of the six balls we started out with. One of them ended up flat in the road, one in the drain, and one in Astoria pool. Barnaby lets me know that it’s okay. He explains that tomorrow, we can go back to the deli and get more.

Barnaby insists this is not a turtle, it’s a tortoise