Sunday, January 31, 2021

Sunday Reading

“Our Town” and Our Towns — Peter Marks on the timelessness of the Thornton Wilder play.

All through his research for his new book about “Our Town” — the seminal, deceptively placid play about ordinary life in a New Hampshire town — Howard Sherman kept coming back to a single paragraph of dialogue. Sixty-one words in Act 3, spoken by the play’s narrator, the Stage Manager, as he gives the audience a tour of the town cemetery, pointing out meaningful landmarks.

“Over there are some Civil War veterans,” the Stage Manager says. “Iron flags on their graves . . . New Hampshire boys . . . had a notion that the Union ought to be kept together, though they’d never seen more than fifty miles of it themselves. All they knew was the name, friends — the United States of America. The United States of America. And they went and died about it.”

Sherman, a freelance writer who once ran the American Theatre Wing — co-producers of the Tony Awards — read the passage again after the Jan. 6 desecration of the U.S. Capitol by a violent mob. He was struck anew by the potency of the spartan language in Thornton Wilder’s 1938 work, and how eternally pertinent the images. Here in one brief vignette about “boys” who fought for a nation they barely got to experience was an explication of why the Capitol riot was such a violation of their sacrifice.

“It’s really something, the way this play can work on you,” Sherman said in a Zoom interview. “I learned how much nuance there is, and how many very small moments, words, phrases can hold such meaning.”

With the country splintered, its institutions shaken, a book documenting a classic American play affirming shared life experiences and bedrock values seems especially timely. Published Jan. 28, “Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’ in the 21st Century” is an oral history of a dozen or so recent productions of this famously stoical and spare play. It’s a drama so scrubbed of artifice that the first stage directions in the script are: “No curtain. No scenery.”

Sherman conducted more than 100 interviews with directors and actors — from Oscar winners such as Helen Hunt to inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility — for an exploration of “Our Town’s” extraordinary, enduring impact.

“I just wanted to let people hear the voices of these people who, I’m fond of saying, lived in Grover’s Corners for a while,” Sherman said, invoking the name of the fictional town — Pop. 2,642 — in which the play is set, in the early 20th century. Wilder’s three-act survey of life and death in a small town is so durable that it remains one of the nation’s most oft-produced plays, and it has been translated into 80 languages. The last time it was done on Broadway, in 2002 — one of its five incarnations there — the Stage Manager was played by none other than Paul Newman. And plans are in the works for a production with Dustin Hoffman as the narrator when Broadway reopens.

Sherman, an erstwhile theater publicist, had been looking for a classic play around which he might construct a production history. He had been taken with a celebrated off-Broadway version of “Our Town” directed by David Cromer a dozen years ago, and more recently found himself deeply touched by one directed by Kate Powers at Sing Sing, cast entirely with inmates. When he discovered that no such book existed about “Our Town,” he decided it would be an intriguing springboard for inquiry.

“The bottom line is, why this play?” he said. “Why does this play get done at every level, from junior high to major professional productions? Why has this play been done around the world, virtually from the time it was written? So, what’s there, and who better than artists who are interpreting the work to say what was there?”

Why indeed “Our Town”? It doesn’t exactly provide belly laughs or edge-of-your-seat thrills. As Mr. Webb, the town’s newspaper editor, puts it: “Very ordinary town, if you ask me. Little better behaved than most. Probably a lot duller.”

Following the comfortable rhythms of the Webb and Gibbs households through two acts — and culminating in the wedding of Emily Webb to George Gibbs — the play feels like a template for the warm family sitcoms of the 1950s. And then, in Act 3, it takes off in a metaphysical direction, as the plot moves ahead in time and shifts to several characters now deceased and seated in the town cemetery. They are, as the saying goes, speaking from beyond the grave. It’s clear that one of them, Emily, who has recently died in childbirth, can’t let go of her past and, granted a last chance to revisit her life, learns a heartbreaking truth that often leaves “Our Town” audiences in tears.

Sherman believes it is the recognition of mortality that drives the proceedings: “You start hearing about death within the first couple of paragraphs,” he said. But other meanings are illuminated in his book and may also shed light on why “Our Town” remains a play for our time. The drama is protean, its portraits and format adaptable in ways that Wilder himself could not have foreseen. (The original Broadway production ran for 336 performances, from February to November 1938).

In 2017, for instance, Jane Kaczmarek played the Stage Manager in a production by Deaf West Theatre and the Pasadena Playhouse, alongside deaf actress Alexandria Wailes.

“It was a revolutionary idea,” said Kaczmarek, a Yale School of Drama graduate best known as the mom on Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle.” Kaczmarek, one of the dozens of actors Sherman recorded, said that sharing this central role with a deaf actor felt disruptively positive: They had to rely entirely on each other.

At the time, Donald Trump had become president, Kaczmarek recalled in a telephone interview, “and there was this idea in the production of taking the time to look at each other, to talk to each other, which made it the perfect play to do.”

For Wailes, the “Our Town” experience deepened her understanding of what might seem the most transparent of depictions of everyday life.

“Working on Deaf West’s and Pasadena Playhouse’s ‘Our Town’ revealed and reminded me of the simpler truths of existence,” Wailes said. “Well, life isn’t exactly simple, but I definitely found myself leaning into how timeless certain human wants and needs are.”

Sherman’s march through recent theater history inevitably provided a canvas of how diverse the casting of “Our Town” could be. Part of what keeps a classic fresh is its ability to re-form to the contours of society in flux. Thusly, the same year as the Deaf West/Pasadena Playhouse production, Miami New Drama produced a version directed by Michel Hausmann with Black actor Keith Randolph Smith in the lead.

“This quintessential American play is not usually done with an African American actor as the Stage Manager,” Smith said in a phone interview. Playing to an audience that drew from Dade County’s vast Cuban American and Haitian American communities, the production was performed in Spanish and Creole with English surtitles. Smith said it affected him deeply to see how moved audiences could be, even far from the time and place of “Our Town.”

“I love this play,” added Smith, who was in the Broadway cast of August Wilson’s “Jitney” early in 2017. “We keep asking the questions: ‘Why are we here? What should we do with the time we have while we’re here?’ It’s that third act, when Emily says, ‘We really don’t look at each other, do we?’ I don’t know where Thornton got that inspiration.”

The impulse to examine the play’s relevant boundaries was tested that same year in Britain, where the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester staged an “Our Town” a few months after a suicide bomber at an Ariana Grande concert killed 22 people there. Director Sarah Frankcom approached Youssef Kerkour, a ­Moroccan-born Englishman who had acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company, to play the Stage Manager with a clearly stated agenda.

“She was upfront about it,” Kerkour recalled via Zoom. “She said, ‘Listen, the reason I want to hire you for this is because you’re a big, bearded man, and you represent what this town is currently afraid of.’ I love roles where I feel I’ve been presented with the eye of a needle, and I’ve got to thread my Arabic camel through it.”

Wilder himself identified his mission in an introduction to the script: “It is an attempt,” he wrote, “to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” Sherman found so much to commune with in “Our Town” that one day last fall, he drove from New York to Peterborough, N.H. — the inspiration for Grover’s Corners. Sherman ventured into the cemetery, the one about which the Stage Manager waxes poetic.

“I actually read some of the play aloud as the sun was coming up on a really cold October morning, with the blue hills receding into the distance,” he recalled. “It was really, really something.”

Doonesbury — Envy.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Sunday Reading

Creating Theatre in a Time of Plague — Mark Kennedy at the Associated Press on how performers and playwrights have adapted to take the stage during the pandemic.

Jefferson Mays performs his one-man show “A Christmas Carol” for streaming. Photo via AP

There’s theater on Broadway. You just have to adjust your sights.

More than a hundred blocks north of Manhattan’s shuttered theater district but on that same famed thoroughfare, an actor recently read his lines from a huge stage.

But there was no applause. Instead, all that was heard was a strange command for the theater: “And cut!”

Tony Award-winner Jefferson Mays was performing multiple roles for a high-tech “A Christmas Carol” that was being filmed for streaming this month at the empty 3,000-seat United Palace.

The one-man show is an example of how many who work in theater are increasingly defying COVID-19 by refusing to let it stop their art, often creating new hybrid forms.

“Because it’s such a roll-up-your-sleeves business, theater people figure it out,” said Tony Award-winning producer Hunter Arnold, while watching Mays onstage. “Of everything I’ve ever done in my life, it’s the place where people lead from ‘how?’ instead of leading from ‘why not?’”

The coronavirus pandemic shut down theater and the TV/movie industries in the spring. Film and TV production have slowly resumed. Live theater is uniquely tested by the virus, one reason it will be among the last sectors to return to normal. Props and costumes are usually touched by dozens each night, an orchestra is crammed into a pit, backstage areas are small and shared, and audiences are usually packed into seats. New ways are needed.

Mays’ “A Christmas Carol,” which was filmed on a high-tech LED set, veers much more filmic than most other streaming theater options and is raising money for suffering regional theaters — one stage production helping others during the pandemic.

Other green shoots include radio plays, virtual readings, online variety shows and drive-in experiences that combine live singing with movies. The cast of the musical “Diana” reunited on Broadway to film the show for Netflix before it opens on Broadway.

The San Francisco Playhouse recently offered screenings of Yasmina Reza’s play “Art,” an onstage production captured live by multiple cameras, with a crucial wrestling scene reimagined to keep social distancing. A musical version of the animated film “Ratatouille” is being explored on TikTok.

“We will conquer it. We are theater people. By God, we will conquer it and get it done,” says Charlotte Moore, the artistic director and co-founder of the acclaimed Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City.

Her company has put on a free streaming holiday production of “Meet Me in St. Louis” with a dozen cast members, each filmed remotely and then digitally stitched together. Moore directed it — appropriately enough — from St. Louis. Other theater pros are calling to ask how she did it.

The cast was mailed or hand-delivered props, costumes and a green screen. They rehearsed via Zoom and FaceTime. A masked and socially distant orchestra recorded the score, and the sets were beamed onto the actors’ screens.

“You learn minute by minute by minute along the way what works, what doesn’t, what to do, what not to do,” said Moore, who starred in the original Broadway run of “Meet Me in St. Louis” in 1989. “It’s torture and it’s thrilling — thrilling torture.”

Like many other theatrical hybrids venturing into the digital world these days, it’s not clear what to call it. It’s not technically live theater, but its soul is theatrical.

“It’s not definable in our current vocabulary,” Moore said. “It has to have a new definition, truly, because it’s certainly unlike anything that has been done.”

One of the companies to show the way forward was Berkshire Theater Group in western Massachusetts, whose “Godspell” in August became the first outdoor musical with union actors since the pandemic shut down productions.

Artistic director and CEO Kate Maguire refused to entertain the notion that the company — established in 1928 — would have an asterisk beside 2020 that said no shows were produced that year.

“We’re theater makers, we’re creators, she said. ”We should be able to figure out how to create something.”

So they used plexiglass partitions between each masked actor. The performers were tested regularly — at a cost of close to $50,000 — and had their own props and a single costume. Each was housed in their own living space — bedroom, living area and little kitchenette. In an open-air tent, they managed to pull off a crucifixion scene without any touching or lifting, itself a miracle.

Audiences underwent temperature checks and were separated by seats. Staff were placed in three protective bubbles: artistic, production and front-of-house. And there was monitoring: Last year it was an intimacy officer; this year it was a COVID-19 one.

Maguire thrashed out a 40-page agreement with the stage union Actor’s Equity Association. “We never had a positive test,” Maguire said. “We had five false positive tests,” which was “harrowing.”

She thanked grants for allowing her to keep her staff on payroll, making the stress level tolerable. It was clear audiences were hungry for theater: “I would watch people shoulders shaking as the show started because they were weeping,” she said. They’re doing another outdoor show now — “Holiday Memories.”

Since that first brave step, other theater companies have plunged into the void. Play and musical licensor Concord Theatricals says theater companies across the country are looking for flexibility in case of virus restrictions.

“We’re seeing many groups applying for small cast, easy to produce, plays and musicals. They’re even seeking casting flexibility and asking for permission to perform with or without an ensemble,” said Sean Patrick Flahaven, chief theatricals executive.

“There’s also a trend for groups to apply for both live performance and streaming rights. Many amateur theaters are producing single virtual performances to keep revenue flowing.”

Playwright Natalie Margolin decided to write a new play during the pandemic but not a conventional one. She imagined what the world would look like when it was a given that all social life existed on Zoom.

Hence “The Party Hop,” a play specifically to be performed on Zoom that’s set three years into quarantine in which three college girls hit the town — online. It became her first published play, and she got stars such as Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein and Ashley Park to perform in an online version, currently on YouTube. She hopes high schools and colleges will be attracted to a play reflecting the era.

“It was just exciting to take part in something where it wasn’t a placeholder or a replacement, and no one needed to imagine they were anywhere else than where they were to fully realize the piece,” she said. “It’s been exciting and heartwarming to see different ways theater has reinvented itself during this time.”

Theater makers have also leaned into the storytelling part of their craft, making The Broadway Podcast Network a hub for everything from audition advice to behind-the-scenes stories.

Launched shortly before the pandemic with 15 podcasts, the theater shutdown initially wiped out its revenue streams, advertising and sponsorship. The network has since righted itself and is growing with some 100 podcasts — from the likes of Tim Rice and Tonya Pinkins — plus benefits, show reunions and original programs, like the digital theater-based frothy soap opera, “As the Curtain Rises” with stars Alex Brightman, Sarah Stiles and Michael Urie.

“Even though we had lost all of our advertising, we just knew that this was important to our community, to keep our community connected and continue to tell stories,” said Dori Berinstein, co-founder of the network and a four-time Tony-winning Broadway producer. “It’s not anything that will ever replace live theater, but it’s an extension. It’s a different way of doing that.”

Barr’s Break — David Rohde in The New Yorker.

The Fox News host Lou Dobbs was among the first Trump supporters to denounce William Barr. On Tuesday, Dobbs began his nightly program by announcing “progress” in Donald Trump’s effort to remain in office and to vanquish “the insidious, radical Dems, corporate America, Big Tech, and the deep state, who have tried to overthrow his Presidency for more than four years.” Dobbs paused, briefly, and then lambasted Barr for having told the Associated Press earlier in the day that the Justice Department had found no evidence to corroborate Trump’s claims of election theft. “Today, a member of his own Cabinet appeared to join in with the radical Dems, and the deep state, and the resistance,” Dobbs said. “For the Attorney General of the United States to make that statement, he is either a liar or a fool or both. He may be, um, perhaps, compromised. He may be simply unprincipled. Or he may be personally distraught or ill.”

Barr’s actions during his tenure as Attorney General may be up for debate, but he is not compromised, distraught, or ill. Nor is he a member of a deep-state coup. There is no deep-state coup. As state and local Republican officials in six battleground states and nearly fifty judges have found, Joe Biden decisively won the 2020 election. Barr’s refutation of Trump’s false claims came late, but, nevertheless, it deserves praise. At long last, the country’s chief law-enforcement officer has defended American democracy. And that, in the waning days of the Trump Presidency, could cost him his job.

Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis, the lawyers for the Trump campaign, immediately issued a statement accusing Barr of failing to seriously examine the President’s claims: “With all due respect to the Attorney General, there hasn’t been any semblance of a Department of Justice investigation.” Online, Barr was vilified. Joe Hoft, at the Gateway Pundit, wrote that Barr had destroyed “his name for all eternity” and claimed that he has spent his time in office working surreptitiously to keep Hillary Clinton, James Comey, and Robert Mueller out of jail. “Now we know why the DOJ didn’t arrest anyone for the past four years,” Hoft wrote. “The reason is they wanted it this way. . . . They never were going to arrest anyone.” On pro-Trump Reddit channels, Barr was declared a “deep state” agent. The President was reportedly livid at Barr. Asked at a White House event on Thursday if he still has confidence in Barr, Trump replied, “ask me that in a number of weeks from now.”

What actually motivated Barr is unknown at this point, and nothing is likely to become clearer until after Trump leaves office, on January 20th. This week, an associate of the Attorney General’s told me that Barr and Trump have barely spoken for weeks. The associate said that Barr had intentionally distanced himself from Trump as the election approached, because he wanted to perform the traditional role of Attorneys General—declining to take legal actions during an election season that favor one candidate, particularly the President who appointed them.

That explanation is charitable. During Barr’s interview with the A.P., he hedged, as he has in the past. He disclosed that, in October, he had secretly appointed John Durham, a federal prosecutor investigating the F.B.I.’s 2016 Trump-Russia probe, as special counsel. That move will please the President and make it more difficult for Biden’s new Attorney General to curtail Durham’s work. Then, after Barr’s comments about the election were attacked, his office released a statement saying, “The Department will continue to receive and vigorously pursue all specific and credible allegations of fraud as expeditiously as possible.”

The week’s events exemplified the tragic, destructive, and cynical nature of the Trump-era Justice Department. Barr has clear legal and political convictions—many of which infuriate liberals—but he has pursued them consistently throughout his career. Like other Republicans, he seemingly embraced an alliance of convenience with Trump. An adherent to the obscure legal view that the Presidency has too little power, Barr contends that special-counsel and congressional investigations have become so excessive that they hamper a President’s ability to govern the country.

Barr viewed the F.B.I.’s 2016 Trump-Russia investigation, the subsequent appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel, and the convictions of Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Roger Stone as illegitimate. He did his best to reverse each of those measures, by undermining Mueller’s report and lessening the punishment of the Trump allies who were successfully prosecuted by Mueller. During Trump’s impeachment, Barr accused Democrats of “waging a scorched-earth, no-holds-barred war of ‘Resistance’ against this Administration,” adding, “it is the left that is engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law.” Critics accused Barr of doing the same, in helping Trump to demolish decades of effort to build public confidence that the law is applied equally to all Americans, regardless of their proximity to the President. They contend that Barr’s politicizing of the Justice Department will lead him to be considered one of the most destructive Attorneys General in modern American history.

Until now, Barr has delivered virtually everything that Trump could possibly have wanted politically—from the Justice Department arguing that Manhattan prosecutors should not have access to Trump’s tax returns, to defying subpoenas from congressional oversight committees. Those acts and others that Barr has taken set legal precedents that have made Trump one of the most powerful American chief executives, in legal terms, since Congress and the courts curbed Presidential power after Watergate. In the final weeks of the campaign, though, Trump went too far, apparently, even for Barr. In the pursuit of victory and vengeance, Trump publicly called for him to open a criminal investigation of the Biden family, and demanded that Barr announce the results of the Durham investigation in time to sway votes. After the election, Trump’s campaign pressured Barr to become the first U.S. Attorney General to aid a de-facto coup attempt—albeit a chaotic and, at times, comical one.

Barr’s public defense of Biden’s victory—at a politically existential moment for Trump—was an irreversible step for the Attorney General. If Trump or his allies maintain control of the Republican Party, Barr will now have no future in it. George Terwilliger, who worked for Barr in the Administration of George H. W. Bush, told the Times that Barr’s intention this week was “just to be responsible.” Terwilliger added that, when false conspiracies are being spread about the Justice Department, “it is responsible to say no, that did not happen.” Barr’s statement showed an Attorney General doing what is required of him in a democracy. It also showed how utterly this President has failed to do the same.

Doonesbury — A meeting of the minds.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Almost Adults Zoom Theatre Event

Tonight at 6 PM ET, tune in to see three short plays presented by Almost Adults Theatre of Santa Fe.

Here is the link to the reading.

The plays are:

Repetition by Doug Devitta (New York, NY)
Directed by Bradd Howard (Albuquerque, NM) with BJ Stokey (Santa Fe, NM) Juliana Liscio (Chicago, IL), Mark Westberg (Santa Fe, NM)
Trouble ensues for soon to be childhood friends and next-door neighbors Phillie McDougal and Barbie Bradley, both soon to be 25-years-old, as they are drunk and alone on New Year’s Eve.

Last Exit by Philip Middleton Williams (FL)
Directed by Matt Cogswell (Clinton, MA)
With Rob Salerno (Los Angeles, CA) and Aaron Leventman (Santa Fe, NM)
Moving day brings closure to a relationship. Or does it?

X, Y, Z by Emma Meyers (Santa Fe, NM)
Directed by Andra Laine Hunter (Dallas, TX)
A young woman’s odyssey takes her to encounters with her friend at three different parts of her life.
Rachel Wilson, Carmen Gallegos, Elizabeth Rich, Margaret Lyman, and Aaron Leventman.

 

The running time for the plays should be about 45 minutes in total.  There will be a talk-back after the readings with the playwrights.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Friday, August 7, 2020

Happy Friday

I’m honored to be a part of the growing family of playwrights and plays now published and licensed by Smith Scripts.

This month we welcome over 40 new writers; it has been a pleasure to make contact with each and every one of you and to read many outstanding new scripts. Many of these writers are based in the USA and our resultant increase in customers and interest in the US has become self-evident. Thank you for joining us.

Along with writers new and old the catalogue at SMITH SCRIPTS has been expanded considerably. We have just published script Number 700 – a rise of 250 since the start of the Lockdown period in March. This is a phenomenal increase in our listings.

The net result of this increase is that our traffic through the website is now around 400% above what it was before lockdown and sales have increased 10-fold. Licensing is still, understandably, slow, but it is happening and we have issued a number of performance licences in recent weeks.

I have eight publications with Smith Scripts, including an anthology of eleven short plays, and soon to be joined by another collection of seven short plays. I hope you’ll check out my page and take your pick.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Happy Friday

According to Charles P. Pierce, yesterday was a pretty good day.

“And, on fourth-and-15, here comes veteran John Roberts, back to kick. Takes the snap, and it’s a long one. Waaayyy down the field. It takes a huge Camp Runamuck bounce and it goes out of bounds, pinning the Republic back on its own three-yard line. Roberts really outkicked his coverage…”

I’m sorry about that. God, I’ve got to get another sportswriting gig.

The Supreme Court on Thursday did what most people expected it to do on the matter of El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago’s financial records. It denied Congress’s attempt to subpoena the material, but it did rule that New York County DA Cyrus Vance, Jr. one day could go gamboling through the vast vista of scams and grifts and frauds likely contained therein. Indeed, in ruling in Vance’s favor, Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the Court’s unanimous opinion on that point:

No citizen, not even the president, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding.

This is a major statement on presidential power and, in that regard, it can rank with US v. Nixon and Jones v. Clinton. And hooray for that. (As far as the congressional subpoenas go, there is at least an arguable separation-of-powers claim to be made. Clearly, Roberts swung the entire Court onto the institutionalist side of his conscience. I wouldn’t make it, but it’s at least worth piling up the billable hours on.)

But the two rulings also ensure that he country will not get to see this information any time before the November election. The case of the congressional subpoenas will go back into the maelstrom of the lower courts. Vance was clearly luckier than Congress was but, after Vance’s own fandango in the lower courts, all of the documents under subpoena will go to a grand jury, the proceedings of which will be secret and, therefore, the information in the documents will remain inaccessible, at least for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, the president* responded on the electric Twitter machine by going utterly bananas.

PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!

“We know what took place. We have already seen criminality. What is happening? Biggest political scandal of our time.” @MariaBartiromo You are 100% correct, Maria, it is a disgrace that nothing happens. Obama and Biden spied on my campaign, AND GOT CAUGHT…BUT NOTHING!

PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT!

We have a totally corrupt previous Administration, including a President and Vice President who spied on my campaign, AND GOT CAIGHT…and nothing happens to them. This crime was taking place even before my election, everyone knows it, and yet all are frozen stiff with fear….

No Republican Senate Judiciary response, NO “JUSTICE”, NO FBI, NO NOTHING. Major horror show REPORTS on Comey & McCabe, guilty as hell, nothing happens. Catch Obama & Biden cold, nothing. A 3 year, $45,000,000 Mueller HOAX, failed – investigated everything…

.for another President. This is about PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT. We catch the other side SPYING on my campaign, the biggest political crime and scandal in U.S. history, and NOTHING HAPPENS. But despite this, I have done more than any President in history in first 3 1/2 years!

This certainly sounds like the reasoned rebuttal of an innocent man.

(For the historical record, here’s how the Nixon White House, through attorney James St. Clair, responded to the 8-0 decision demanding that he hand over the subpoenaed White House tapes: “[The president] has always been a firm believer in the rule of law.”)

All in all, it was a pretty good day for the Republic, although it’s still got a long way to go before it hits pay dirt. And hope does spring eternal. After all, in the other decision by the Court on Thursday, almost half of the state of Oklahoma was determined to belong to Native Americans. Wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch (!):

On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise. Forced to leave their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama, the Creek Nation received assurances that their new lands in the West would be secure forever. In exchange for ceding “all their land, East of the Mississippi river,” the U. S. government agreed by treaty that “[t]he Creek country west of the Mississippi shall be solemnly guarantied to the Creek Indians.” The government further promised that “[no] State or Territory [shall] ever have a right to pass laws for the government of such Indians, but they shall be allowed to govern themselves.” Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law. Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.

The “government” to which Gorsuch is referring was sitting in 1832. Andrew Jackson was president. John C. Calhoun was vice president. Henry Clay and Daniel Webster were in the Senate. John Quincy Adams and James K. Polk were in the House. John Fcking Marshall was still Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Of course, shortly thereafter, the Jackson Administration began the genocidal campaign that ended with the Trail of Tears that brought the tribes. including the Creek people, from their ancestral lands in the southeastern United States to Oklahoma where, on Thursday, the Supreme Court ordered the United States to live up to the deal it cut with those folks lucky enough to have survived.

Mills of the gods. Arc of the moral universe, and all that. If the Creek people can wait this long to settle a land case, we can be patient about a bunch of paperwork from Deutsche Bank.

In other news, I am happy to announce that “All Together Again,” the long-awaited sequel to my award-winning play “All Together Now,” has now been published by Smith Scripts. Check it out, or better yet, order a copy.

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Show Went On

Fantasy Theatre Factory of Miami presents Short and Sweet: Let’s Play!  These are eight plays by local playwrights, including two by yours truly: “Viral Love” and “Begging the Question.”  Thank you to Marj O’Neill-Butler and Arianna Rose for producing the program, and to the good folks at FTF for putting it all together.

Thank you also to Cassidy Sadler for directing my two plays and to Noah Levine, Jesse Castellanos, and Courtney Poston for starring in them.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

“A Tree Grows in Longmont”

For those of you who I didn’t reach with my massive invitation to watch the live premiere of “A Tree Grows in Longmont” last Sunday (we had tech trouble that delayed the opening), here it is as produced by Silver Tongued Stages, directed by Ricky J. Martinez with Tanner Prace Collier and Kent Chambers-Wilson.  The running time is 62 minutes.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Dramatic News

Even with the virus, the show must go on.

My play, “A Tree Grows in Longmont,” will be presented on Sunday, May 3, at 3:00 pm ET by Silver Tongued Stages via YouTube.  There’s more information at this link.

I hope you can make it.  Seriously, what else have you got to do?

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.