Friday, April 3, 2020

Happy Friday

“Happy Friday” is a wish, not a declaration.  In the midst of this crisis, we are all looking for something, large or small, to keep our spirits and hopes up.

How about some good news, at least for me?  My play, “A Life Enriching Community,” has been picked up for publication by ArtAge Publications of Portland, Oregon, and will be available soon for reading and performance from their catalogue.  It was originally written in 2014 and first presented in December 2014 at the Miami 1-Acts Festival, then in readings at the William Inge Festival New Play Lab in 2016 and at the Midwest Dramatists Conference in 2019.  It was slated to be read at the Valdez Last Frontier Theatre Conference in June, but it’s been postponed until 2021.

I’m entering my third week of self-imposed isolation.  I have, however awkwardly, figured out how to work from home; I’ve had a couple of Zoom meetings, and next week I’ll be guest-lecturing a theatre class via the internet.  I’m working on new plays, maintaining contact at a distance with friends, and making new ones through this dance of electrons and pixels.  My housemate is conducting his broadcasting arts classes to his middle-schoolers via Zoom and Team, keeping his office hours from the dining room table, doing his martial arts exercises on the patio, developing film in the bathroom, and painting in watercolors, all under the watchful eye of Sombra, whose feelings are kept to herself, as is the practice of all cats.

Stay well. Stay safe.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sunday Reading

Trump’s Quackery — Steve Coll in The New Yorker on the need for rigorous science in the midst of the worst pandemic in history.

On March 18th, researchers in France circulated a study about the promising experimental use of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, in combination with azithromycin, an antibiotic, as a treatment for the disease caused by the coronavirus. The study was neither randomized nor peer-reviewed, and other scientists soon criticized its methodology. But Tucker Carlson, on Fox News, highlighted the work. The next day, President Trump promoted hydroxychloroquine’s “very, very encouraging early results.” He added, mentioning another unproven therapy, “I think it could be, based on what I see, it could be a game changer.”

At a White House press briefing on March 20th, a reporter asked Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whether hydroxychloroquine could be effective in treating covid-19. “The answer is no,” Fauci said, before yielding the microphone to Trump, who countered, “May work, may not. I feel good about it. That’s all it is, just a feeling, you know, smart guy.” A few days later, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, said, “Using untested drugs without the right evidence could raise false hope and even do more harm than good.”

Trump’s quackery was at once eccentric and terrifying—a reminder, if one was needed, of his scorn for rigorous science, even amid the worst pandemic to strike the country in a century. Yet his conduct typified his leadership as the crisis has intensified: his dependency on Fox News for ideas and message amplification, his unshakable belief in his own genius, and his understandable concern that his reëlection may be in danger if he does not soon discover a way to vanquish COVID-19 and reverse its devastation of the economy.

New York City now faces a “troubling and astronomical” increase in cases, according to Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the emergency is overwhelming hospitals, straining drug and equipment supplies, and threatening to cause a shortage of ventilators. The grim course of events in the city is a “canary in the coal mine” for the rest of the country, Cuomo said, and leaders elsewhere must take decisive action lest they, too, become inundated. Trump, though, spent much of last week promoting a contrarian gambit that has been percolating in the right-wing media. He said that, to revitalize the economy, he would like to lift travel restrictions and reopen workplaces across the country within weeks, perhaps by Easter, which is on April 12th, because, as he put it repeatedly, “we can’t let the cure be worse than the problem.”

Public-health experts immediately warned against such a reversal of social-distancing rules. “The virus will surge, many will fall ill, and there will be more deaths,” William Schaffner, a specialist in preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, told the Times. When a reporter asked the President whether any of the “doctors on your team” had advised him that a hasty reopening was “the right path to pursue,” he replied, “If it were up to the doctors, they may say, ‘Let’s keep it shut down . . . let’s keep it shut for a couple of years.’ ” Public-health specialists have said no such thing; they have spoken of a conditions-based approach (“You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline,” Fauci has said), while advising that, to save the most lives, local leaders must wait to lift restrictions in their areas until the data show that the virus has stopped spreading. Trump said that any loosening of rules he might seek around the country—he mentioned Nebraska and Idaho as possible sites—would be “based on hard facts and data,” but he also said that he chose Easter as a target date because he “just thought it was a beautiful time.”

It is true, as Trump also argued, that enormous job losses and an all but certain recession caused by the pandemic will harm many vulnerable Americans, and claim lives, as ill people without health insurance, for example, forgo care or struggle to get it at stressed clinics and hospitals. Yet, at least in the short term, over-all mortality rates fall during recessions; the reasons for this aren’t fully clear, but social scientists think they may include the public-health benefits of a decrease in pollution, as a result of the slowing economy. In any event, the case the President made for hurrying an economic revival against the advice of scientists was morally odious; it suggested that large numbers of otherwise avoidable deaths might have to be accepted as the price of job creation.

Public-health officials spoke frankly to the press about the catastrophic prospects of the President’s Easter folly. (“President Trump will have blood on his hands,” Keith Martin, the director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health, told the Times.) Trump responded on Twitter by lashing out at the “LameStream Media” for reporting such forecasts, calling the press “the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success.” Last Wednesday, after Mitt Romney, the only Republican who voted to convict the President, on a charge of abuse of power, during the Senate impeachment trial, announced that he had tested negative for COVID-19, Trump tweeted mockingly, “I’m so happy I can barely speak.” At the White House briefings, surrounded by the sorts of civil servants and experts he habitually disdains, Trump has adapted awkwardly to the role of solemn unifier. When he leaves the podium to tweet nonsense at his perceived enemies, he at least provides his opponents among the country’s homebound, screen-addled, and anxious citizenry with a galvanizing dose of his immutable obnoxiousness—a splash of the old new normal.

The journal Science asked Fauci why he doesn’t step in when the President makes false statements in the briefings. “I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down,” he said. America’s public-health system is fragmented and market-driven, conditions that only compound the challenge of quashing COVID-19. In the Trump era, however, decentralization has a benefit: the President is not solely in charge, and in the months ahead governors and mayors will continue to shape the odds of life or death for great numbers of Americans. Last week, Trump reviewed the possibilities for quarantine in New York City, his ravaged home town. He rambled about the stock exchange (“It’s incredible what they can do”), before going on to pledge, “If we open up, and when we open up . . . we’re giving the governors a lot of leeway” to decide how this should be done. We can only hope so.

Home Theatre — Ben Brantley in The New York Times has some suggestions for plays to read with your family gathered around.

Our stage was always a sofa — the long one that faced the fireplace. It could easily seat four or five, but my mother and I would huddle at one end, sunk into extra cushions, with our books on our laps.

And my 12-year-old self might say to her, “Now, mother, what’s the matter?” And she would answer, “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.”

That’s from “Hamlet,” of course, the scene where the title character confronts his mother in her chamber about her unholy marriage to his uncle. We were, I should hasten to add, too caught up in a cracking, plot-propelling confrontation — and the gorgeous language in which it was expressed — to be consciously thinking about how it might mirror any tensions between a real-life mother and son in the 1960s.

No, the play always was truly the thing, a fascinating story that you understood better on every occasion you read it aloud. Though we went through “Hamlet” at least several times together — as we did with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Twelfth Night” — it always surprised us.

We’d read an act or two at a time, and there’d always be a certain point when the words would make sense in a new way. I’d feel so privileged to be saying them myself, with my voice, and hearing my mother answer me in the same language. And I’d start to feel a hum of undiluted contentment, pitched at the level of a cat’s purr, that was so very rare during my adolescence.

Those moments have been much on my mind in this time of shuttered theaters and social isolation, when a drama critic is deprived of his livelihood and memories have a way of surfacing amid the silence. Though I have yet to coax my partner into picking up a script with me, reading plays aloud is a tradition I’d love to revive — and one I would highly recommend to those looking for ways to find magic in empty hours.

I can’t recall exactly when my mother and I started reading plays aloud together, or which of us first suggested we do so. Her father, an English professor, specialized in Shakespeare, so the canon had always been part of our lives. Though my mom, like my dad, became a newspaper journalist, she had loved acting in college and community theater productions when she was a young woman. And, by the age of 8, I was taking acting classes and appearing in local shows in Winston-Salem, N.C., where we lived.

We’d select works not only by Shakespeare, but also by Kaufman and Hart, Oscar Wilde, Noël Coward, Philip Barry and occasionally something grittier — Eugene O’Neill, say, or Clifford Odets. We weren’t reading scripts to flex our muscles as thespians or to show off for each other. (OK, maybe I was, a little.) This was just our version of stress-free, parent-child bonding, an activity that took us out of ourselves for an hour or so, while confirming our mutual love of theater and words.

You don’t have to be a Meryl Streep or a Mark Rylance to enjoy this pastime, any more than you have to be Tom Brady to play touch football. All that’s really required is the ability to read and to speak — and, well, a willingness both to suspend critical judgment and to let whatever you’re reading take over your imagination enough that self-consciousness retreats.

Remember that plays — even those lofty classics that show up on college reading lists — are meant to be spoken and heard. And saying their lines aloud, no matter how clumsily, helps you hear the music and cadences in them. This is true not only of Shakespeare, but also of linguistically rich latter-day writers like August Wilson, Caryl Churchill, Edward Albee, Suzan-Lori Parks and David Mamet.

If play reading at home captures your fancy, here is a list of suggestions. Because times are grim, I’m mostly sticking to works that are easy to follow and fun to read — and driven more by dialogue than visual effects or physical interaction.

This is my choice for a first dive into Shakespeare out loud. It’s sinewy and relatively short, and moves as fast a Scottish warrior’s steed on a battlefield. It is also irresistibly lurid, with lots of opportunities to go over the top in interpretation. (Those witches!) It also seems fair to say that all of us these days — who have become weary experts in hand-washing — are prepared to take on Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, in which she endlessly scrubs at hands she imagines are permanently bloodstained.

Thornton Wilder’s portrait of small-town American life in a cosmic context is written in plain and forthright prose that grows in power in the recitation of it. Perfect for those who would just as soon avoid flashy histrionics, and a good choice for families. (An alternative could be O’Neill’s uncharacteristically sunny domestic comedy, “Ah, Wilderness.”)

This one’s definitely not for children. But Albee’s immortal, four-character look at marriage as a blood sport (which was to have been staged on Broadway this season, with Laurie Metcalf) has a fierce momentum that can be ridden like a roller coaster. This is the play that the woman I lived with my senior year of college and I would trot out for postprandial entertainment when we had guests for dinner. And no, I do not want to think about what this says about my character at that age.

Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winner from 1987, set in Pittsburgh during the Great Depression, turns the classic domestic drama into an exploration of the legacy of slavery. It’s the most immediately accessible — and family-friendly — of his plays, and it has a poetry all its own that approaches Shakespearean heights.

Another favorite from my college days, Coward’s peerlessly urbane tale of a couple who can’t live together and can’t be apart provides an occasion to put on plummy English accents and arched eyebrows. Just the sort of thing to read in a dressing gown, with a dry martini or two at hand. (An alternative: Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite,” a series of comic vignettes set in the hotel of the title, which had been scheduled to open on Broadway this season with Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick.)

Lillian Hellman’s great potboiler about greed and chicanery in small-town Alabama in 1900 allows plenty of opportunity for camping it up wickedly, and with a Southern drawl to boot.

For those who are feeling that life is indeed an endless waiting game these days and are brave enough to take on the ultimate literary evocation of that feeling. Not exactly escapist fare, but a lot funnier than you may remember. (An alternative: Parks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning two-hander “Topdog/Underdog.”)

For the British mystery lover, these theatrical adaptations of Agatha Christie novels are equal parts cozy and creepy. And the reassuringly stock characters require no special actorly finesse to bring to life. (Ayn Rand’s “The Night of January 16th,” a longtime favorite of high schools, could be an alternative. I played the gangster my junior year.)

Most of these plays are available for download online. One warning: This kind of project can affect the way you talk. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself saying “methinks” (if you’re doing Shakespeare) or calling people “dahling” (if you’re reading Coward). But, really, what’s wrong with bringing a little flash to everyday conversation at a time of stay-at-home monotony?

Actually, I have another list to offer: my own plays are on New Play Exchange and they offer a variety from one-minute comedies to full-length dramedies.  If you want copies for your in-home entertainment, let me know via e-mail: mustangbobby (at) barkbarkwoofwoof.com.  I mean it.

Doonesbury — Ladies first.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Happy Friday

This has been a tough week for the whole world, but in our way, we are doing our best to make it through with determination and that indomitable human spirit.  We are finding ways to cope with this pandemic with inventive means and even with humor, which is, in its own way, an essential service.

As I noted earlier this week, a lot of us theatre people are finding ways to create, to share, to inspire even if the venues and stages are shuttered.  We are supporting our fellow crafters with funds where needed, a helping hand where possible, and just plain uplifting spirit that carries us through.

I myself came across a play that I started in 2009 called “Tucumcari Tonite!”  I had written about nine pages, then stopped, and never went back.  I don’t remember why I stopped, but two days ago I picked up where I left off, finished it (if plays are ever finished) and posted it on NPX.  It’s a light little buddy comedy one-act that takes place on the side of a highway in the middle of the New Mexico desert.  It’s nothing profound, but in times like these, we need a little lightness to make us laugh, even if it’s only for thirty-two pages.

Stay safe.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Virtual Community

It’s one thing to do social distancing; staying home, staying away from others.  But one thing that has blossomed is the virtual community I’m a part of, and that’s my fellow playwrights.  We’re all hunkered down, watching the world, and writing about it.

Through the social network, be it Facebook or some other app like Zoom, we’re keeping in virtual touch, sharing our work, supporting and attending virtual readings, and finding new works.  So an art form that depends on gathering people together in one place is, in its own way, thriving by being isolated.

The show must go on.  And it will.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Sunday Reading

Going Native — Steve Coll in The New Yorker on Trump’s knee-jerk nativist response to a global pandemic.

In late July, 2014, near Monrovia, Liberia, two Americans, Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, contracted Ebola. They had been working in a missionary hospital, trying to ameliorate an outbreak then racing across West Africa. The Obama Administration dispatched an air ambulance to carry them home, swathed in white protective gear, for treatment at Emory University Hospital, in Atlanta, and this touched off a media spectacle. The chyron story line was: Ebola comes to America. (Brantly and Writebol soon recovered.) Donald Trump, who was then less than a year away from announcing his run for the Presidency, weighed in on Twitter: “Stop the EBOLA patients from entering the U.S. . . . THE UNITED STATES HAS ENOUGH PROBLEMS!” He tweeted about the epidemic dozens of times during the next months, and called for a ban on travel from West Africa (“STOP THE FLIGHTS!”). The White House’s Office of Digital Strategy later concluded that one of Trump’s tweets, to the two and a half million followers he had at the time, was a “crystallizing moment” in the Ebola crisis, as Amy Pope, Obama’s deputy homeland-security adviser, put it, and that Trump had “created a level of anxiety in the country.”

He was just getting started, as we now know too well. Last Wednesday, the President sought to reassure the nation in a prime-time address from the Oval Office, as the COVID-19 outbreak was poised to morph from seriously worrying into the stuff of a bad Hollywood pitch: Italy a sixty-million-strong detention camp, the stock market in free fall, March Madness called off, Disneyland shuttered. The hope that Trump might someday grow into the dignity and gravity of his office was never realistic, but in this speech he put his narcissism and his reflexive nativism on exceptionally discordant display. “The virus will not have a chance against us,” he said, promising that he had put in place “the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history”—as if diseases had nationalities. He declared that “testing and testing capabilities are expanding rapidly,” only to be contradicted the next day by Anthony Fauci, the respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who told a House hearing, “The system is really not geared to what we need right now. . . . It is a failing. Let’s admit it.” (Last week, South Korea, with less than a sixth of the population of the United States, administered at least ten thousand novel-coronavirus tests a day, while in this country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only some thirteen thousand tests had been administered since January.) On Wednesday, Trump advised the “vast majority” of Americans that the risk they faced was “very, very low.” Fauci had already testified, however, that “it’s going to get worse,” and that, if the response proved to be inadequate, “many, many millions” could be affected.

Trump won the Presidency while pledging to wall America off from the world; the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced his deep-seated belief in this impossibility. Quarantines and travel restrictions are a necessary part of a science-led approach to containing such outbreaks, because they can delay the spread of a dangerous virus, protecting hospitals from crippling surges of patients and buying time for researchers to develop treatments and vaccines. Trump often praises himself for his decision, announced on January 31st, to limit travel from China, a policy that public-health officials had recommended.

Yet travel limitations are only a part of what is necessary to manage a pandemic; coördinated action by governments is at least as important. Last week, Trump blamed the European Union for allowing the virus to spread on the Continent, and, as he announced a thirty-day ban on travel to the U.S. from European countries (the United Kingdom and Ireland, among a few other countries, were excepted—a decision with no grounding in science), implied that he was defending the nation from the epidemiological equivalent of a European invasion. He reportedly did not consult the E.U. before announcing his restrictions, a churlish decision that will do nothing to ease European leaders’ exasperation with him. On this, as on so much else in his foreign policy, Trump’s needless provocations have undermined U.S. security; it is absurd to suggest that the United States can contain this pandemic behind its own borders without extensive help from allies in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

On Thursday, Joe Biden gave a speech on the crisis that sounded like the start of his presumptive general-election campaign to unseat the President. “This virus laid bare the severe shortcomings of the current Administration,” he said. “Public fears are being compounded by pervasive lack of trust in this President.” Biden’s victory over Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday was one of the great Houdini acts of American politics, the result of his strong support among African-Americans as well as, evidently, the desperate desire of many Democrats to be rid of Trump by whatever means may be the most plausible. But, in the life cycle of a Presidential campaign, November is a very long way off, and the role of the present crisis in the election is no easier to predict than the trajectory of the pandemic itself. The promise of Biden’s normalcy—his respect for science, knowledge of world affairs, capacity for gentleness and empathy, boring social-media feeds—will surely be enough for many voters, come what may. Yet it is unusual to win the White House simply by not being the man who currently occupies it.

In 2014, as a Twitter provocateur and fearmonger during the Ebola epidemic, Trump auditioned a political voice that he now exercises in full, to extraordinary effect. He presides over a social-media and talk-radio ecosystem that inspires intense devotion among his following, even as it spreads misinformation that will inevitably complicate the efforts of those who seek to navigate the pandemic by searching out reliable facts. On Friday, at a White House press conference, he declared a national emergency—“Two very big words”—a move that, he said, would free up fifty billion dollars to fight the outbreak in this country. He added, “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the slow testing rate. The President is steering the country through a challenge of yet unknown magnitude, one in which honesty and accountability will be at a premium. We know that he will not change. One way to survive the pandemic may be to tune him out.

Theatre In a Time of Plague — Daniel Pollack-Pelzner in The Atlantic.

As with everything that the coronavirus leaves in its wake, the suspension of operations by most major theaters around the country feels surreal—though surely both inevitable and necessary—and follows yesterday’s announcement that Broadway will turn off its lights for at least the next month. Only two days prior, the producer Scott Rudin had offered $50 discount tickets to his Broadway shows, including West Side Story and The Book of Mormon. “I can’t pretend that great theater is the panacea we’ve been waiting for, but in the meantime we could all use a few hours away from the evening news,” Rudin said in a press release, implying that his shows might, in some form, offer at least emotional inoculation from a pandemic.

Whether theater provides an entertaining diversion from “the evening news” or might be the cause of further suffering, however, is a debate that goes back at least to Shakespeare’s day. Elizabethan theaters were frequently shuttered in London during outbreaks of the bubonic plague, which claimed nearly a third of the city’s population. The official rule was that once the death rate exceeded thirty per week, performances would be canceled. (As an infant, Shakespeare himself barely survived an outbreak that killed his older siblings.) Like New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo, who has banned gatherings of more than 500 people, London officials in the 16th century worried that people flocking to town to “see certayne stage plays” would be “close pestered together in small romes,” creating the means “whereby great infeccion with the plague, or some other infeccious diseases, may rise and growe, to the great hynderaunce of the common wealth of this citty.”

In the first decade of King James I’s reign, the plague meant that London theaters were likely closed more often than they were open, and Shakespeare’s troupe, The King’s Men, had to rely on royal gifts and provincial tours to replace their lost box office. (No such luck for Broadway shows on tour; my family’s tickets to Frozen were canceled—regrettably? mercifully?—this weekend in Oregon, where the governor has banned gatherings of more than 250 people.) In The Year of Lear, the scholar James Shapiro notes that nascent epidemiologists weren’t the only ones who blamed the spread of disease on tourists breathing the same foul air in enclosed entertainment venues; religious zealots also came after the theater’s purported immorality: blasphemy, lewdness, cross-dressing. One Elizabethan preacher proclaimed that because “the cause of plagues is sin” and “the cause of sin are plays,” then “the cause of plagues are plays.”

Conversely, plagues may have caused plays. It’s long been thought that Shakespeare turned to poetry when plague closed the theaters in 1593. That’s when he published his popular narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, in which the goddess begs a kiss from a beautiful boy, “to drive infection from the dangerous year,” for, she claims, “the plague is banish’d by thy breath.” Love poetry, it seems, could be spurred by the plague, and—the seductive fantasy runs—even cure it. But Shapiro suggests that another closure of theaters, in 1606, allowed Shakespeare, an actor and shareholder in The King’s Men, to get a lot of dramatic writing done, meeting the demand for new plays in a busy holiday season at court. According to Shapiro, he churned out King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra that year.

Given that the bubonic plague particularly decimated young populations, it may also have wiped out Shakespeare’s theatrical rivals—companies of boy actors who dominated the early-17th-century stage, and could often get away with more satiric, politically dicey productions than their older competitors. Shakespeare’s company took over the indoor Blackfriars Theatre in 1608 after the leading boy company collapsed, and started doing darker, edgier productions, capitalizing on a market share that was newly available. In addition to business opportunities, the plague provided a powerful stock of dramatic metaphors. As Shapiro points out, references to the plague and its bubbling sores, called “God’s tokens,” surface in Shakespeare’s scripts from the period. In Antony and Cleopatra, a Roman soldier fears that his side will fare “like the token’d pestilence / Where death is sure.”

The ghost of a 17th-century plague victim haunts Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, probably the best known work in recent decades to respond to a plague—the AIDS epidemic that ripped through Broadway in the 1980s. Kushner’s HIV-positive hero, Prior Walter, is visited by his ancestors, prior Priors, who tell him of the “spotty monster” they faced in earlier eras, and prepare him for a revelation to come. The angel that crashes through Prior’s ceiling at the end of the play heralds an era of painful renewal—both for AIDS survivors, and for the theatrical community that rallied around Kushner’s work. The red-ribboned organization Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS now follows many a Broadway performance with a fundraising appeal. If a plague could cause a play, perhaps a play could help to stop a plague.

The fear that remains, however, is that the very qualities for which live theater is celebrated—communities coming together to witness human stories, responding in bodily synchronicity with laughter, tears, gasps, and coughs—could accelerate its danger. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, written just after the end of the 1593 outbreak, the friar who’s supposed to tell Romeo that Juliet is only pretending to be dead gets prevented from delivering his message because he’s quarantined with a fellow priest who’s been helping the sick: “The searchers of the town, / Suspecting that we both were in a house / Where the infectious pestilence did reign, / Sealed up the doors and would not let us forth.” Romeo never gets the message, of course, and he kills himself before Juliet revives.

Adapting Shakespeare’s play for the musical West Side Story, the playwright Arthur Laurents thought that a plague was too implausible a contrivance to bring about tragedy. In Laurents’s version, he rewrote the ending so that Maria’s messenger—her cousin Anita—is rebuffed by Tony’s racist pals, who assault her. You could see that assault staged in graphic detail, projected on a giant video screen in Scott Rudin’s Broadway production. But as the coronavirus spreads, the quarantine plot twist that Laurents disparaged may come to seem all too plausible. And a screen may soon be the only way to see the tragedy Shakespeare understood centuries ago.

Of course, it’s not only communal narratives that are being lost, but also the livelihoods of thousands of theater workers across the country. Shakespeare’s model provides little solace: Write while you wait out the closure; lean on wealthy patrons for bailouts; exploit your rivals’ demise. But maybe his plays themselves offer a remedy. I’d been planning to take my students at Linfield College, where I’m a Shakespeare professor, to a new adaptation of Measure for Measure at Bag&Baggage Theater in Oregon this weekend. Instead, we’re following the theater’s lead: “We’re continuing to wash our hands (à la Lady Macbeth) as frequently as we can.”

The most heartening lesson from Shakespeare’s era is that the playhouses will likely survive and reopen, again and again. What plays to perform when they do? There’s naturally been a lot of attention to Naomi Wallace’s 1997 play about the bubonic plague, One Flea Spare, a bitter diagnosis of gender and class divisions that rupture like one of God’s tokens when strangers are quarantined together in 17th-century London. But I’d nominate a play about communities of care that form in crisis: Water by the Spoonful, Quiara Alegría Hudes’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner. Hudes grew up in Philadelphia as AIDS and crack devastated her neighborhood, and the twin pincers of the Iraq War and the so-called War on Drugs rendered brown people disposable. Instead of despair, however, she offers a vision of recovery. The play is set in an online chat room for crack addicts, and then spills into the messy, physical world as virtual acquaintances learn to support one another’s bodies in need. It ends with an extraordinary scene of hand-washing—not as guilty expiation or necessary precaution, but as a ritual of healing.

Doonesbury — All you need is love.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Super Tuesday

It’s Super Tuesday in more ways than one.  If you’re in one of the states or territories that has a primary today, get out there and vote.  Chances are your candidate or one of your alternates dropped out of the race since last week — Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar — and announced that they’re endorsing Joe Biden.  You have to wonder what’s going to happen to the rest of the field; who they’re going to coalesce around now that the Democratic primary is basically down to Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren.

Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who ended his presidential bid in November, joined Biden on stage at the end of the Dallas rally — and concluded a speech by inviting him for dinner at a nearby Whataburger.

Biden seemed taken aback by the swift change in fortunes. He told Buttigieg that he reminded him of his late son, Beau, the highest compliment he can offer. He told the crowd Klobuchar has a long political future ahead, and he told O’Rourke, whose candidacy was marked by liberal positions on gun control, “You’re going to take care of the gun problem with me. You’re going to be the one who leads this effort.”

It was the second straight day that moderates, previously paralyzed over whom to rally behind, rushed to join Biden’s campaign. Harry M. Reid, a former Senate majority leader from Nevada, endorsed Biden along with other Democrats including Susan E. Rice, a former national security adviser to President Barack Obama; political activist and actress Alyssa Milano; Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the widow of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.); and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

In other news:

  • The coronavirus COVID19 is spreading and showing up here in the U.S., including Florida.  One of the schools where I work part-time is implementing common-sense precautions such as encouraging hand-washing, avoiding unnecessary contact, and handing out hand sanitizer bottles.  Hand-shaking has been replaced by polite bowing and the “Namaste” hands-together greeting (which is less awkward than touching elbows), and learning just how long it takes for a vaccine to go from Eureka to injection.
  • Chris Matthews abruptly “retired” from MSNBC.
  • And to top off a busy day, I got invited back to the Valdez Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Alaska in June.  Yes, I’m going.

Go vote if you can.  The world is counting on you.

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.

Thanks.

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.

Waterfalls.

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.