Sunday, December 29, 2019

Friday, December 27, 2019

Jerry Herman — 1931-2019

This was my first Jerry Herman musical.  I saw it on Broadway in November 1967 and still remember the thrill of hearing the music live from the orchestra pit.  Rest in peace, Jerry.  Thank you for all you did for theatre and for our shared alma mater, the University of Miami and the Ring Theatre, now named in your honor as the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Your Vote Counts

Passing this on from a friend:

“Can’t Live Without You,” written by Philip Middleton Williams and which was produced earlier this year by The Playgroup LLC at the Willow Theatre, has been nominated for Best Play, Best Director: Jerry Jensen, Best actor: Robert Ayala, and Best Ensemble: AJ Ruiz, Robert Ayala, Carla Zackson Heller, Leslie Zivin Kandel and Anthony Wolff for the Broadway World 2019 Regional Awards. Please show your support and vote now!

Anyone can vote from anywhere. However, follow the instructions carefully; you can only vote once, and you must confirm your vote when the e-mail from Broadway World arrives, so check your spam filter just in case.


Friday, September 27, 2019

Happy Friday

After watching what’s happening in Washington, I think the best place to be is in the middle of the country at a playwriting conference.  Do you laugh?  Do you cry?  Do you send out for pizza?

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Travel Day

I’m heading out later this morning for Kansas City and the third annual Midwest Dramatists Conference.  I’ve been at all the previous conferences and made great friends and learned a lot about the craft and art.  Plus, they have a great barbecue joint next to the hotel.

This year they are doing a reading of “A Life Enriching Community,” which is one of my ten-minute plays written originally for Miami 1-Acts, and has the distinction of being the last play I performed in.

Anyway, blogging will be light and variable for the rest of the week.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Sunday Reading

Brendan Kiley in the Seattle Times on why he loves the theatre.

In January of 2010, my mother was dying. She wasn’t totally-bedridden-dying, not yet — but she was getting there. We didn’t know it then, of course, but she had exactly one year of life left.

That month, I also saw Marya Sea Kaminski give a gut-churning, bone-achingly sorrowful performance as Electra, directed by Sheila Daniels, at Seattle Shakespeare Company. Of all the afflicted Greeks, Electra is one of the unluckiest: her hated mommy killed her beloved daddy because daddy sacrificed sister to a goddess (Trojan War business). Electra waits for her brother to come home and kill mommy, but he dies on the way — or so she thinks — leaving her catastrophically bereft. It’s bad.

The plot did its work, but something in Kaminski’s performance shocked me, even after years as a working theater critic — it didn’t seem like she was acting grief. She was grief incarnate. It gave me literal stomach cramps.

I was baffled, had to see it again and, for reasons I only dimly understood, bought my parents tickets to join me, to watch this live, raw, blistering expression of a grief we all privately carried and could barely comprehend, much less express. But in Kaminski’s Electra, it was there. We could behold it — examine it.

It was something only theater could do. Movies just aren’t that moving — not in the same way.

And why not? Why, in that particular moment, did I find such solace, such emotional solidarity, onstage? What’s so special about theater? I’ve been asked that last question so many times, and asked it in return, never getting further than the theater enthusiast’s shopworn answer: “There’s something magical about seeing it live.”

Sure, sure. But why? What’s so damn magical?

This summer, I thought I caught the glimmer of an answer in a billboard for the food-delivery service DoorDash. A well-groomed man reclined on a couch, phone in hand, neon diner sign above his head. Below him, the pitch: “Order burgers without moving your buns.”

Theater, I realized, is the opposite of that. It’s everything our watch-at-home, extra-pepperoni-hold-the-olives culture of comfort, distraction and pseudo-control (in which we get to play with inches of difference, but never yardage) has been engineered to avoid.

Theater is inconvenient (you must move your buns); it’s uncomfortable (at least airplanes have flight attendants you can flag down for pretzels); it’s puny for cultural capital (not the street cred of graffiti, nor the sophistication of symphonies); it’s economically silly (there are better ways to make money); it can be intensely claustrophobic and boring (can’t get up, can’t change the channel); and so on.

Compared to an evening of Netflix and Uber Eats, theater is downright risky: going somewhere strange to be a human, sitting with other humans, sharing nothing but air, space and a story. You might have to look at (and reckon with) things that make you squirm.

These discomforts can produce bizarre effects, and I’m enlisting two philosophers to help explore why. (My mother was a reader — I think she’d approve.)

The first, famed conservative Edmund Burke, who wrote a 1757 essay about the sublime.

“Sublime” is an exhausted word these hyper-accentuated days, when even mundane exchanges get exclamation marks (“hello!” thanks!” “bye!”) and superlatives (“he’s the worst,” “you’re the best,” “all the feels”). But it was a newish and special idea to 18th-century Europeans newly interested in the difference between the merely beautiful and the sublime.

Beautiful things, Burke argued in his essay, are safe and subordinate: a violet, a vase, a tamed landscape. (Think the pleasing colors and lines of a French vineyard.) But vast deserts? Storms at sea? Eerie ruins? Things we can’t control and aren’t useful, but still move us, are sublime.

Film is safe and subordinate — it cannot be sublime. Its camera work, even when “awesome,” is all manipulated arrangement of color and line. It is economically useful (Hollywood, Bollywood). And no matter how big the explosion or expensive the actor, it’s all tamed, disembodied representation — carefully edited shadows on the wall, infinitely reproducible, never adjustable. There’s no immediacy, no risk.

Theater flirts with the untameable sublime even in its “safest” spaces. A few examples: That night an audience member interrupted Hans Altwies performing the solo show “An Iliad,” standing to yell there are “too many war stories” — and Altwies talked with her in character before integrating the moment smoothly back into the narrative. The time Derek Horton sailed across the Nippon Kan stage on a scooter, eyes closed and arms outstretched like a crucified Christ, in his obscure, oddly affecting “Custer.” The predominantly white audience watching each other’s stricken faces as we tried to digest just a morsel of our racism during an in-the-round performance of Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over.”

The immediacy, the event-ness of theater makes it more potent: I laugh harder in theaters than I do at movies. I bet I’ve logged more teary minutes (probably hours) in theaters than anywhere else — weddings and funerals included. And, as theatergoers are well aware, its potential for boredom is acute, serious business. It’s so real, some skillful artists use it as a tool, an audience tenderizer, lulling us and making us more sensitive for shocks to come.

Why the potency of live-ness? Enter philosopher No. 2, Walter Benjamin, who had a word for this: aura.

His 1936 essay with a cumbersome title (“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”) thought through how the new technology of photography would change art. Super-simple distillation: Notre-Dame is unique, embodied. It has its own “aura … its unique existence at the place it happens to be.” If it burns, it’s gone. But a photograph of Notre-Dame is infinitely reproducible, a disembodied image you can pin to your favorite wall. Burn all the photos you like — there will be copies, aura-free, floating around.

“That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art,” Benjamin wrote. His big example: The difference between theater and film.

Theater oozes aura and is irreproducible — not just from one “Hamlet” to another, but from night to night. “Pulp Fiction” will always be “Pulp Fiction” no matter where in the world you go, the camera an absolute dictator of your attention. (Benjamin points out that watching a movie isn’t watching acting — it’s watching editing.) Film is an object; theater is an event.

And while theater restricts your mind’s menu of distractions (no phones, no fast forward), it also provides a kind of liberation: an invitation to focus on the immediate present, free to move your attention wherever, from a gesture on stage to the lighting grid above your head. It’s like the strange relief you might feel on an airplane when you can’t use your phone but before the movies start. In one way, you’re stuck. In another, you’re finally unstuck.

Philosophical games aside, loving something like theater in the age of Netflix requires an element of visceral, irrational amour fou. Some people love the precision of a good script, others are in love with certain actors.

Here’s mine: I am incurably attracted to that moment when the house lights dim on a roomful of strangers, just before the stage lights flare up on other strangers who are about to become characters.

There’s a radical possibility in that dark interval, that gap. Doesn’t matter whether I’m in a cramped basement or razzle-dazzle show palace. Doesn’t matter what exciting 7 p.m. situation I’ve torn myself from to trudge to another damned play. The promise of that interval is the same. We’re all there together, for a common purpose: to let the rest of the world drift into the background like mental wallpaper, to see what’ll happen next to these people in this room. That is, to us.

You can only find that level of heightened group communion in a few places: theater, sports and church. People have been gathering to do those three things for thousands of years — and they aren’t going to stop. Even if the regional theaters go bankrupt, nation-states collapse and Broadway becomes a barely remembered relic sunk beneath the rising Atlantic Ocean, people will still gather to stop time and perform stories. It suspends the aloneness.

As we left the theater in January of 2010, I asked my mother what she thought of that “Electra” and its exquisite, communal sorrow. She said it was “good” and gave me a piercingly kind, knowing smile.

I don’t think she meant the play was good. I think she meant it was good for me.

Doonesbury — Alive and, well…

Monday, July 29, 2019

Friday, July 5, 2019

Fifth of July

Fifth of July is not just a date, it’s a play by Lanford Wilson. It opened off-Broadway in 1978, then, after some revision, on Broadway in 1980. It’s also the play that was the starting point of my doctoral studies and the subject of my doctoral thesis in 1988.

In 1985 I directed a production of the play at the Nomad Theatre in Boulder with a great cast.

Fifth of July Nomads March 1985

The cast of Fifth of July at Nomads Theatre, Boulder, Colorado, March 1985

In the course of my studies I became friends with Mr. Wilson, and the director of the productions, Marshall W. Mason. So ever since then, I have marked the 5th of July as a special day for me and my love of theatre.

“Matt didn’t believe in death and I don’t either…. There’s no such thing. It goes on and then it stops. You can’t worry about the stopping, you have to worry about the going on.” – Sally Talley, Fifth of July.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Stuff Of Drama

From the page to the stage:

A star-studded cast — including John Lithgow, Alyssa Milano, Alfre Woodard, Annette Bening and many others — will perform in a play based on the Mueller report.

The performers will take the stage Monday for “The Investigation: A Search For The Truth in 10 Acts,” a play written by Robert Schenkkan. The work by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Schenkkan is based on special counsel Robert Mueller‘s 448-page report on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill, “Veep’s” Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Sigourney Weaver are also reportedly poised to participate in the reading. The event is being hosted and livestreamed by LawWorks, an organization that says it works with “bipartisan voices and educates the public on the importance of the rule of law, the role of the special counsel in the justice system, and the integrity of our judicial institutions.”

Also among the high-profile list of performers appearing in the one-night-only Mueller report reading in New York: Kevin Kline, Joel Grey, Gina Gershon, Zachary Quinto, Kyra Sedgwick, Piper Perabo, Michael Shannon and Jason Alexander, among others.

The performance comes just days after a Washington theater announced it would host an 11-hour reading of the second volume of Mueller’s report that deals with possible obstruction of justice committed by President Trump.

Arena Stage said next month’s reading would feature as many as 200 guests, including D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and former Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), as well as Democratic activists.

I wonder who got to play the part of “Redacted”?

Monday, June 17, 2019

Back Home Again

It took about 20 hours, including seven of those being layovers in Anchorage and Los Angeles, but I’m home again after an amazing week of theatre, friendship, learning, growing, doing, and becoming.  The Valdez Last Frontier Theatre Conference has imprinted on me an appreciation for the craft I practice (and practice and practice) and created a bond with people I admire and truly feel a connection with both as a writer and a human being.

I took this picture as I was heading back to the hotel after the last event, the gala dinner and celebration. It was getting late, but as I’ve shown over the last ten days, the sun doesn’t really set in Valdez this time of year. In fact, it wasn’t until my flight landed in Los Angeles this morning at 5:30 a.m. PDT that I saw my first dark night in ten days.

Perhaps that’s a metaphor for the feelings I have for these wonderfully talented friends I’ve made: the light won’t go out. Or, to put it in theatre terms, it’s not goodbye; it’s just intermission.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Alaskan Cruise

When I told my friends and co-workers that I was going to Alaska for a week, a lot of them assumed I was going on a cruise.  That’s not surprising; cruising from Seattle up along the Pacific coast is a very popular vacation and I know a lot of people who’ve done it.

Well, last night we took our own cruise along part of the Alaska coast.  This was a two-hour cruise through Prince William Sound and by the Shoup Glacier.  Almost all of the VLFTC company went along and we saw some spectacular wilderness along the shoreline, spotted a group of otters playing in the water, and even got to touch a piece of the glacier.

Here are some photos in no particular order.  Enjoy.

Map view of where we were on Prince William Sound.

Heading down the Sound.

The Shoup Glacier.

Those little black dots in the water is a group of otters playing. This is as close as they got to us.


A piece of the Shoup Glacier.

More waterfalls.

The conference ends today with a monologue presentation, a slam of ten-minute plays (including “Ask Me Anything”) and a gala dinner. Tomorrow we all head for home.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

It’s Showtime

Today’s the day my play “A Moment of Clarity” goes up in the play lab.  (It’s at 3:00 p.m. AKDT, which is 7:00 p.m. EDT.)

I had my one and only rehearsal yesterday.  I have a great cast, and I’m sure it’s going to be a hit.

Last night at the raucous Fringe, they did my one-minute “Gee Your Butt Smells Terrific” where Sam the terrier and Ben the beagle discussed the strange antics of their two-legs, and tonight they’ll do my other piece, “Planning Ahead,” a quick look at how marriage equality dealt with unexpected barriers.  Finally, on Saturday afternoon, there will be a performance of “Ask Me Anything” in the Play Lab Slam: six plays in rapid succession and anything can happen.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

This Isn’t Florida

I’ve lived or visited a lot of different places with different climates, and I learn to appreciate the differences.  For instance, in Florida you are very aware of the intensity of the sun so putting on SPF 50 to go out and work in the yard is part of the deal, assuming you care about not getting skin cancer.  Here in coastal Alaska in the summer you carry industrial-strength Off! in your pocket or purse.

This was sent by Bob, and while it’s humorous, it’s applicable. The skeeters here are not as big as the ones in the sign — I think that applies more to northern Minnesota or Michigan — but they’re just as annoying.

The other adjustment is the amount of daylight in the summer.  As I noted previously, this close to the Arctic Circle this time of year, the sky is lit up for 24 hours and the sun is up for over 19.  In Florida we are used to basically 12 hours of daylight year-round and virtually no twilight: when the sun goes down, the sky goes dark almost immediately.

It rained yesterday afternoon and evening. In Florida we’re used to downpours that are localized and heavy. Here on the coast of Alaska, it’s more like a light drizzle and mist that settles in for a while.

I haven’t included any pictures of the plays yet because they haven’t done mine yet.  That changes today — or tonight, actually — when “Gee Your Butt Smells Terrific” goes up at the Fringe.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

So Far So Great

This is an amazing place to have a theatre conference, and no, we don’t spend all the time in a room watching plays and eating.

Actually a lot of us spend time walking around the town.  Everything is within walking distance, including restaurants and other venues, and the local people have been very welcoming.  Valdez is a summer tourist mecca for trips into the Alaska interior and fishing, and even if the temperatures aren’t subtropical, it’s a nice break from the humidity that awaits my return next week.

As for wildlife, I was told to be on the lookout for moose.  So far all I’ve seen are some of the local indigenous population of rabbits.

And, yes, I have wasted no time doing some shameless self-promotion. If I don’t do it, no one else will.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Preview Of Coming Attractions

As you might know, later this week I’m going to the Valdez Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska.  (That’s why the content here has been a bit sparse; there’s a lot to do both at home and the office before I go.)  I promise to take a lot of pictures and post them, either while I’m there or when I get back.  But here, via Alaska Life, is one of the views on the way into town.

As much as I like living in the warmth of the subtropics, I still have a place in my heart for the mountains and the wilderness.  Interesting side note: my first produced play was about wilderness survival.

The conference and all the things that go with it will keep me busy, but I’ve been assured by the people who’ve been there before that there’s plenty of time to explore the scenery and just revel in the beauty of the Last Frontier.

Photo via Flickr-Mr Hicks46.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Friday, May 17, 2019

Happy Friday

I’ve been finding out that four-day work weeks are becoming a Thing,  A lot of my co-workers and fellow commuters on the train are either doing ten-hour days to get the day off or are doing what I’m doing; using up excess vacation days — that’s a Thing, too — and are sleeping in or taking short trips to visit friends, family, or just get away.

So I’m trendy and didn’t even know it.

Just a heads-up to let you know of some things coming up that will impact the content and quantity here.  Next Wednesday I head out to Independence, Kansas, for my annual trip to the William Inge Theatre Festival where we will honor the work of Octavio Solis and I will present a paper on the depiction of addiction and recovery in Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba.”

I get back in time for Memorial Day, and then on June 7 I leave for a week in Valdez, Alaska, and the Valdez Last Frontier Theatre Conference where “A Moment of Clarity” will be done in a staged reading, along with a great group of other plays and playwrights.  The week will also include a Ten-Minute Play Slam where “Ask Me Anything” will be performed, and there’s also a monologue workshop where a piece from “Can’t Live Without You” has been selected.  I’ve also entered two one-minute plays in the Fringe event, so I’m going to be busy… but not too busy to enjoy the scenery of being in Alaska.

This photo was taken on May 17, 1983, in Estes Park, Colorado, as I was helping set up camp for the summer at Cheley Colorado Camps where I worked for ten great summers between 1976 and 1986.

Yes, it had just snowed about two feet and so the idea of getting ready for summer camp was a tad ironic.  But that didn’t deter us then, and I just saw a Facebook post where the pre-camp crew has arrived at camp and they’re getting ready already.

I’m happy to report there’s no snow here today.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Random Youtubery

The immortal Peter Ustinov.  I had the thrill of seeing him play King Lear at Stratford, Ontario, and it was inspiring.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Daddy Issues

Paul Waldman in the Washington Post on Trump and his fear of revealing his tax returns:

There are two explanations for what Trump is trying to conceal. The first is that there are scandalous or even criminal activities that he has engaged in — partnerships with shady characters, cases of money laundering — and the returns would point the way to discover them.

To understand why, you have to remember that the Trump Organization is not an ordinary corporation in the way you might think of it. In fact, it is an amalgam of approximately 500 separate partnerships and pass-through companies (which is why Trump almost certainly reaped millions of dollars in tax benefits from the 2017 tax law, which included a 20 percent deduction for pass-throughs). If we had Trump’s returns, each of those arrangements could be investigated, and no one who has reported on Trump’s business activities would say there aren’t shocking things to discover.

The second explanation for Trump’s determination not to allow the returns to become public is in some ways more innocent: that as so many have speculated, he’s not nearly as rich as he always says. Is it possible that Trump’s motives are only the most petty, shallow and vain ones? After all, we’re talking about Donald Trump.

Of course, both things could be true. Trump’s returns could show him to be less wealthy than he says, and also reveal instances of scandalous or criminal behavior. If I had to hazard a guess I’d say that’s what’s most likely.

I think the biggest reason is that Trump has spent the last fifty years or so trying to get his father to like him.

No, I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist.  But I am a theatre scholar and I spend a lot of time analyzing plays that deal with family, and this Trump story has daddy issues written all over it.

Think about it: the failed marriages, the serial lying and boasting, even the obsession with his appearance; he’s trying to win approval and be seen as a success to the one person who could make him feel fulfilled and gain acceptance.  This sort of pathology is the root of drama going all the way from Oedipus and Shakespeare and through modern drama — Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Robert Anderson (“I Never Sang For My Father”) — and on and on.  Even the bible is rife with characters seeking their father’s approval, including the big one: the New Testament.

It’s not like he’s the first president trying to win paternal blessing.  Our history has a lot of men who played out their family dynamics on the national stage as well as around the kitchen table.  But with Trump this particular drama seems to be on a tragic arc that not only drags the audience along with it but the whole world.

Sunday, April 7, 2019