Archive for November, 2012

Holy Night

Monday, November 26th, 2012

There is a story we tell, about our first date. Jordana had a notion that your favorite story from childhood can say a lot about who you were (and hence, who you are) and how you grew up. Her favorite childhood story is called “Clever Elsie” about a girl who is so smart and second-guesses herself so often that she ends up losing everything and wandering the world alone, and that’s a can of worms I can’t even address in an aside in a blog. But when she asked me, I told her that my favorite story was the Christ child’s birth.

I suppose it goes without saying that we were at a passover seder. Or… yeah, maybe I should point that out.

I am a non-believer. I know so many of my friends go with “agnostic” as a way of hedging their intellectual bets, but I genuinely think I’m a straight-up Atheist. A non-god-ist. Everything in my life that felt magical at the time can be so easily explained. Standing in a field with a beautiful girl who said, “I bet you could make it rain right now” and I said, “here you go -” and it started raining… that’s very cool, and was a big moment for 16 year old me, but I made it rain in the summer in New Jersey. It rains every 45 minutes. If I did that in New Mexico, I’d start believing in magic.

But 13 years ago, when asked, it was still the birth of Christ that moved me so completely that I wasn’t able to tell the story without choking up.

A young woman marries an old man and before they can consumate the marriage, she reveals that she’s pregnant. The old man sits in a room by himself for an hour or so and then he comes in and says, “Listen, I don’t know. I don’t know about any of this. But I know this, I made you a promise, that I would be your husband and that we would make a family. So, however you got this way… I’m yours. If you tell me it was God, then so be it. Either way, I’m yours.”

As she gets bigger and more uncomfortable and more sick, they suddenly get the news that they have to go all the way to Bethlehem for a census. And they have nothing, Joseph is a day-laborer, all they’ve got is a donkey. So, he puts Mary on the donkey and they walk all the way to Bethlehem. They have to leave *now* or they’re not gonna make it.

They go, but they make terrible time. She’s huge, she’s miserable, even riding the donkey hurts, and walking is only a little better. They’re getting later and later, the days they thought they would be in Bethlehem are slipping away. By the time they waddle into town they find that all the public houses are already full of everyone *else* who needs to be counted for the census. And every hotel, motel, holiday inn is owned by some Bethelehemian who’s already psyched that his every room is packed. They all turn him away.

After hours of trying, they finally get to an inn, and the guy who runs the place sees Mary and says, “look, all the rooms are full, but I have an idea. The barn is actually really nice. I know it might seem crazy, but the barn is actually *warmer*, the place is full of hot-blooded animals and I’ll bring you some blankets and stuff.” He can’t kick anyone out that would be unfair, but he can do *something*.

As soon as they get in, Mary goes into labor. It’s her first time, and she’s terrified. But there’s a stableman and shepherds and they hear the screams and they know what it is. They come to the barn and they lean down to her and say, “Listen. I know this is terrible, I know this is hard, but look around you. Every one of these goats and sheep and lambs and ox were born by our hands. We’ve seen birth a hundred times and this is what it looks like, you’re gonna be fine.”

And the food had been eaten out of the manger a long time ago, so one of the shepherds helped Joseph line it with straw. And the baby came into the world, and one of the shepherds brought Mary water and another shepherd wrapped the baby in a swaddle. The animals knew what this was, they just stood around keeping watch and giving off heat.

As the baby was being born, some of the shepherds went to find some little things they could bring the baby and the word spread. A child was born, shivering in the night, let’s bring comfort to him and his family. Because we’ve all had children, we’ve given birth or watched our wives and sisters give birth and we know – this sucks, right now. This is as hard as it’s ever gonna be, so let’s do something tonight.

So, they came, they rallied. Middle of the night, but they brought presents for the baby, the baby being born in a barn and now sleeping in a trough for animal feed. And maybe a boy softly played a drum, maybe three wise men brought expensive gifts and maybe a voice came from the sky and terrified the shepherds on a nearby hill, but none of that is as important as what these people went through.

Because… maybe the Christ child was always meant to be Jesus Christ. But maybe not. At that point, he was a baby in trouble with a mom and dad in just as much trouble. Broke, exhausted, sleeping in a barn, born with nothing, my ancestral brothers and sisters stepped up. They had something, some small thing, and they saw a family that was in need and they reached down. A thousand small kindnesses were laid at this baby’s feet, a thousand moments when someone could have closed the door or let the labor cries go un-noticed, they instead said, “we are people, and this baby is ours.”

In my retelling of the story, we made this baby into a teacher of kindness and love. We started on his first day, we showed him the very best of humanity, we showed him that love – without ambition, without ego, without credit or cash – was the thing that defined the best of who we are.

I don’t believe he was the messiah, I don’t believe he was the lamb and I don’t believe there was some magic moment when all the sins that ever were and all the sins that ever would be were laid upon him so he could die. Honestly, none of that even makes *sense* to me. But I believe that on that night, we showed that family that every person, any person, can live a sacred life.

When I hear them say, “Fall on your knees. Hear the angels voices. Oh night, divine – oh night, when Christ was born,” I am moved to tears not because I believe this baby would grow to be a man that could save us all. I cry because this is one time, one time of countless thousands, when we came together to save this baby. And because we did he grew to be one of our greatest teachers. The angels’ voices we hear are not from on high, they are ours. And this is the story of one time when we were singing.

Tackle Boxes

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

I dropped a line in the middle of a monologue on Friday.

You know what? I have to go back a little ways. There’s more to it than that. Let me tell you two stories.

First. We were doing a bus and truck tour of “Hunchback of Notre Dame”, a complete rip-off of the movie that was playing in the theaters at the time. I was Quasimodo (the jokes, the jokes) and the director/producer had offered me the challenge of creating the physicality of the character on my own, as well as design and build the prosthetics, which completely thrilled me. It didn’t even occur to me that I had been conned, and was now financially responsible for something he should have had a designer do – I didn’t care, I loved it.

It did mean that I had to start getting ready an hour before the rest of the cast, and it took me a half hour longer to get out of make-up at the end. Now, this was non-union and they were paying us a fortune but also treating us like shit. We’d have a show in Wyoming one night and the next show was in Nebraska, so we’d load the set, drive all night, get to the theater, build the set, sleep for five hours on the floor of the dressing room (*four* hours for me) and then do the show.  Everyone got sick, everyone was exhausted and when we realized that the half week at the beginning and end of the tour weren’t being counted, we had to refuse to go on unless we got paid.

I loved it. I loved every second.

Our last show was in Las Vegas and as was usual, the last half hour I was by myself in the dressing room. I cleaned my face and loaded up my make-up kit. My Ben Nye Tan #2, the Mary Kay white that I used to open my eyes on the inside, the different maleable putties I created the face with, all the brushes and sponges, along with a small collection of talismans from shows past – they all fit into what is actually a fisherman’s tackle box. And as I loaded up the case, I looked in the mirror and caught my own eye and realized… I wasn’t gonna do this anymore. I didn’t know what I *was* gonna do, but I was done with *this*. I haven’t opened the case since, and it’s getting close to 20 years.

Next. My marriage was in trouble and I was fighting like crazy to save it. My wife at the time had lost her bearings and didn’t really know what she was doing. Desperate to have a career, she made the same mistakes that a lot of young women in Los Angeles make, but I was trying to forgive her and I was trying to keep the whole thing working. When she said she needed her own apartment, I helped her get it and gave her our car. When our marriage counselor met with us (just the one time) she pulled me aside and said it was time to let go, but I don’t give up that easily.

The night she moved out, I dropped by her place and she wasn’t there, so I waited. It got to be later and later, but I knew she was coming back and I was worried about her, she was off on her own. So I waited. I sat and waited as 11 o’clock became 2 o’clock, became 6 o’clock, the whole night sitting outside her apartment. I was terrified, something had happened, she could be in a ditch somewhere, so I called her dad to see if he had heard anything.

He listened to me, said nothing for a minute and then said, “Son. I love you. I’m always gonna love you, please remember that.” And that’s all he said. He didn’t say goodbye, it was like in the movies. The phone just stopped.

I wrote to the Gideon members yesterday morning and told them that I do not want to be considered eligible for acting roles within the company anymore, and that I would no longer be acting with any other company either.

Making this decision is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve done.

When I closed up that tackle box of make-up, what I had decided (I only realized later) was that I was no longer going to do plays I didn’t love. If that meant I wouldn’t be on stage for long stretches, so be it. Then, after living in New York for a few years, I decided I would only do the plays of playwrights I loved. Soon after that I decided I would only do plays directed by people I respected. It’s a rabbit hole, and I kept going down and down and down.

I’ve produced things that meant almost nothing to me, produced them for *years*. Whenever I write music and it gets criticized, I almost always a) agree and b) start over without any sense of loss. I wrote an entire two act play some years ago and we did a reading of it – Mac and Jordana started giving me notes and I just held up my hand and said, “Y’all, there’s nothing there. Don’t worry about it, it’s gone.” And I didn’t feel the least bit bad about it. All of this is blue collar stuff, you just keep doing it and eventually you get better and then you get good.

But as a little boy, I dreamed about being an actor on stage. My teenage years were defined by performing, I just went step by step, adjudicating my life purely based on how the last show went, and when the next one was coming.

As I drove to the theater on Saturday, I thought about the costume racks and the dressing room lights, I thought about character shoes and two minute public showers with five other randomly gendered people, I thought about cleaning the kitchen while I run lines and I’m not gonna lie to you, I cried the whole way there. Because I knew it would be the last time I was on stage.

I dropped a line in my monologue. And while it’s no big deal, and while the audience didn’t care, and while the director and the other actors didn’t care, and while even *I* didn’t care that much, there’s a reason I dropped the line and a reason I couldn’t recover. I had never really committed to this project and never completely gotten off-book, and I have spent so little time on stage lately that I have no skills.

In a moment, there on stage, I had the same realization that I had on the phone with my ex-father-in-law – the marriage wasn’t in trouble… The marriage is over.

This last production, I had my two favorite directors in the audience. My favorite playwright and one of my favorite producers saw it. Even two of my favorite non-theater people in the world popped over from across the street. I would love to do one more show, to let my little sister see me on stage or to do something that my son and daughter could see. And maybe I will, maybe I’ll change my mind about this in ten years. People get divorced and don’t speak for decades and then get back together again.

I would apologize for the drama and the public statement, but first of all it’s my damn blog – what did you *think* I would be talking about? – and secondly, despite the fact that I don’t actually serve the pieces I’m acting in very well, I’m still being asked to do plays all the time. Partly because on one level I’m quite good and partly because I’m a boundless enthusiast and hopeless optimist when it comes to what I think *can work* on stage. But I need to say, in public, that I’m no longer doing this for anyone – not for my best friend and the love of my life – not anymore. I love her so much, but it’s time to let her go.

I Want To Be A Part Of It

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

“Are you okay?… I’m okay! We’re okay! Thank God, thank God, we’re okay, is the deli open?… On Crescent? The deli on Crescent?… Nah, I’ve got coffee, do you need coffee? I’m not walking to Crescent!.. I know, but that’s three more blocks than I want! HAHA! I know, I know! But who walks three blocks to a deli, am I right?… HAHAHAHAHA! No, I’ve got coffee, I’VE GOT COFFEE! Come here!… No, come here, come here, I’ve got coffee, don’t go to the deli…”

Everyone, the night-of, the next morning, everyone I know yelling, “We’ve got power, come charge your cellphone!” or “The internet’s down, but we’ve got hot water if you need a shower!” or “We don’t have power or internet, but our oven’s gas so we’re making muffins! Come have muffins!”

I’m sure it’s the same everywhere. I believe that people are basically good and good to each other. I know, there are people trying to run scams, there’s looting, there are bound to be some shitty people making headlines, but the way the people around me rally, the way everyone started, from the second the waters started to rise, they all said, “if I’m spared, I’m coming back for you.” And the people they said it to said, “all right, and if it gets you and passes me by, I’ll come and grab you.”

Because People are the same everywhere, but New York is special. We have to live on top of each other every day, our walls are attached to our neighbors homes, our morning coffee depends on a guy getting on a subway in a neighboring town to come open the deli and a different guy in a different town on a different subway coming in to make it. Our meetings are at restaurants where our competitors are three tables away but they still can’t hear us. And every night we climb into underground trains and stand nose-to-nose with people we will never see again, but that we know are brothers because they are HERE.

We’re all here. We all made a choice to be here, and we all made a choice to stay. And we have to make the choice every single day, because every single day gives us two things – it gives us a chance to understand that everywhere else in America is a little bit easier and has the possibility of a one degree shift towards sustained happiness… *but*,  it also gives us that one moment, every day, where the sum total of the best of humanity reveals itself to us – when an old woman can’t faint without a stranger catching her and a cab giving her a ride home for free, where a guy in a deli talks to another guy because one’s wearing a UCLA hat and the other’s wearing a USC hat, where a woman who doesn’t speak English at Union Square gets train instructions from four people who think LOUD English will help her understand… Every day offers us the chance to leave and every day seduces us to stay.

The morning after the storm, the emails started, the phone calls started. Who needs help? Can we host a fundraiser? Which theaters are underwater, which lost power? Which companies had to cancel their openings, who had to move strike, who lost their set, who lost their rehearsals? HOW DO WE MAKE UP FOR IT, those of us who were spared? And as much as I tried to do, as quickly as I tried to act, everyone was doing more and was ahead of me and most people who needed help didn’t ask because they were so busy helping those who needed MORE help.

I make theater, and I raise children. In the grand machinations of history, I live a small life. And that life is rushed, the kids don’t get the hours they need, the shows don’t get the hours they need, every achievement is quickly replaced with a new goal. And the moments become minutes, the minutes hours, and the hours quickly turn into *years* and at the end of that time I will have to look back on the time I spent on this globe and ask myself the same questions every person asks themselves at the end of their lifetime, was the time well spent, did I invest in people and ideas that were worthwhile, was I selfish and did I love enough or give enough to deserve the things I got?

I don’t know what the answers to any of that will be, but I know there’s one question that I will *never* have any doubt about. Was I in the right place? For me, for my children, for all of us who are here now, I can say I will answer “Yes”. Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes…