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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Size Matters





Synopsis:
1.  a brief or condensed statement giving a general view of some subject.
2.  a compendium of heads or short paragraphs giving a view of the whole.
3.  a brief summary of the plot of a novel, motion picture, play, etc.
When someone asks for a synopsis of a play I’m submitting, I wonder exactly what they want. Some folks want to read the entire play start to finish in six or so sentences (as in #3 above). Others want a short one-line idea of what the work is about (#1 above). Most places do not specify which one they ask for.
My dilemma when submitting and see the dreaded words “include a synopsis” is which of these to supply. Should they want the whole shebang condensed, I’ll probably nullify my submission by sending a teaser (#1 above). Who’s going to bother getting back to ask me for the full synopsis? No one. Whoops. Sorry.
In reverse, should they need just a teaser and I send the condensed entirety, that also will probably cause too much effort on their part to rectify the error.
Places that invite submissions are usually understaffed and have no time to bother with trifling mistakes.
Let’s look at the various possibilities.
Teaser: Hamlet cannot decide how to avenge his father’s death and deal with his mother’s incestuous relationship with his uncle, who usurped Hamlet’s lineal claim to the throne of Denmark.
Full synopsis: Hamlet, called back from Wittenberg because of his father’s untimely death, finds out that…
***INSERT 32 PAGES OF DETAILED PLOT REVEAL***
…leading to the entire royal family being murdered during a fencing match, leaving Denmark without a government and now under the occupation of Norway.
Clearly, one must be specific as to which of these they want us poor submitters to supply. Especially when they plan to publish the “synopsis” (really “teaser”) on their web page or in their program. Maybe a middle ground?
Condensed full synopsis: Hamlet’s youth and inexperience in dealing with his father’s murder and mother’s incest causes mayhem in the Denmarkian royal household leading to nearly every character with a speaking part being killed off for no good reason and the whole country taken over by the Oh-hi-just-passing-through Norwegian army.
Hey, honey, wanna see this?
Naaah. I know what happens. Is Walking Dead on?
Synopsis or teaser? It matters. I’ve decided to send both from now on.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Chin Up, Eyes Forward





The great miraculous bell of translucent ice is suspended in mid-air.
It rings to announce endings and beginnings. And it rings because there is fresh promise and wonder in the skies.
Its clear tones resound in the placid silence of the winter day, and echo long into the silver-blue serenity of night.
The bell can only be seen at the turning of the year, when the days wind down into nothing, and get ready to march out again.
When you hear the bell, you feel a tug at your heart.
It is your immortal inspiration. – Vera Nazarian

Not sure where I got this from; it was probably leftover detritus from a way-too late-night red-eyed Internet session. But I stuck it into a file I keep for things that plink my cerebrum in a certain way. Yeah, it’s melodramatic and a wee tad new-agey, but it reflects the feeling I’m having about now, that autumn is once again coming, the world is again going into hibernation, and the Carnegie Deli is finally closing after a gazillion years. Funny how you never think of things until you know you’re gonna miss them. Funny how you know you’re going to miss certain things anyway.

Sandwiches literally several inches high. Where do you see that anymore?

Change. Always comes with some cost. Always inevitable. Always unavoidable. It’s the one true expectation: no matter what you do, strive for, dream about, it will change. Get used to everything—everything—being temporary.

I prefer to look at it as Tom Stoppard put it in one of my favoritest ever plays, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in a much leaner way: “Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.”

(And try not to trip over the threshold. It's so inelegant.)

Friday, April 8, 2016

It’s the White Privilege, Stupid.



So I'm in my tavern of choice, shooting a few games of pool with an acquaintance. There's a huge crowd filling the rest of the place, and I mean wall-to-wall. As I scan the Joneses and Millers I noticed one... wait, two, no, three . . . six (?) . . . nine (!) uniformed officers of the law present. Fully armed, too, I may needlessly add I have an uneasy awareness of guns. I do not have a great respect for people in general. I fully believe that our biggest flaw as “thinking, reasoning” human beings is that we habitually create things we cannot control.
Never been particularly comfortable with armed people nearby. I have this nagging, worrisome micro-phobia about possessors of weapons of possible mass destruction: their capability, outlook, judgment, and plain old personal attitude problems.
Today's soireé turns out to be a retirement party. Another moment's thought and rationality and rationalization kick in and I shrug it off. And I continue missing the six ball.
And then I see my buddy (let's call him “Mike”) at the bar, squeezing in to grab a beer. The bartender gives him a big smile, shakes his hand (Mike is a regular and, in ineffable Willy Loman style, well-liked), and hands him a pint. Mike sips, eases languidly back against the bar, casually eye-sweeps the crowd. Once across, once back. Then his eyes narrow, hand stops in mid glass-raise, and his body tightens. He stiffens because he realizes he's the only African-American man in a bar full of partying cops, cop families, and cop-shop staff.
My game's done (bastard six ball undid me), so I pack the cues away, shuffle over and snag the seat next to him. A quick “Hey buddy, whazzup?” and we settle in, facing the bar, eyes away from the gendarmes and entourage.
I know this guy for a few years; he's on one of my pool teams, always been easy to get along with, excellent sense of humor, and quite often a snazzy dresser. (Again, like Willy Loman, Mike is a salesman and appropriately appearance conscious.) So, yeah, I've seen him pissed off because he's playing like shit one night or maybe he had a shitty day selling Hondas. I've seen him after a few beers, cheerful, joking, and suavely flirtatious. But I have never seen him like this: truly and sincerely frightened. And not just frightened; part of what his face is saying is the knowledge that this is now a day gone really bad.
We have an African-American man (the only one in the whole entire bar) amidst a raucously white armed party. Seriously: what could go wrong?
Spoiler: nothing did go wrong. We hung out while he drank his beer, talked casually about how his job sucked, spent some time on the somewhat back and forth of the local weather, and of course the way some of our cohort shoot pool. And all the while there was this bigass shadow over his head, and you could see it in his face the whole time: ONE black guy in a white cop bar.
At one point, after a change-of-topic silence, he turns to me. “Ever walk into one of your top ten nightmares?”
I can see the effect this situation is having on him. I can't know it intimately cuz I, purely by benefit of my skin color, can do almost anything in this bar and probably walk out on my own steam. I've seen the numerous videos of black men and boys (and women and girls) beaten and/or killed by white cops. By virtue of genetic roulette I'm safe and sound, completely without the daily onus of being a walking, shopping, breathing, talking, running, driving target. His face is telling me different things, but the craziest of all is the look that (I think) says “I'm fucking tired of feeling this way. I'm fucking sick of being scared. I'm fucking had it with having to have this possibility hanging over me every minute of my life.”
Maybe the cops in this bar are the good ones. Who knows? I'd like to think so. Our small city is a very forward, progressive town. Hell, our mayor wants to provide our town addicts with a safe place to shoot up instead of having them OD in a playground. But then again, wait . . . two years ago the police used heavy duty military equipment to raze a family home with a depressed guy inside, all because they were trying to serve him a summons he didn’t want to accept. In his own home. The guy, terrorized, committed suicide. African American boys have been accosted and beaten by our local cops; a lesbian, hands cuffed behind her, was deliberately jostled around in the back seat of a cop car. She had not committed a crime.
Cell phone cameras capture more and more instances of police act in over-the-top ways. I just rewatched the video of the Chicago cops shooting black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times.
So maybe we're both a little justified in being suspicious and uneasy.
The guy I was playing before I camped at the bar is a cop. Good guy, from what I can tell. Don't know him all that well. Good shooter, plays fair. Dunno what he'd do if it came down to having to either protect Mike or side with The Brethren. (White cop, by the way.)
That's the thing: who knows? I'm not black, nor am I a cop. I have no inside info on either camp. I'm a middle-aged white dude whose most deadly brush with the law was wearing a set of handcuffs and having some over-the-top bravado screamed into my ears because of a nickel bag in Ewen Park. I don't put myself in daily danger because my job requires that I possibly go up against dangerous criminals. I don't have to worry about getting home in one piece . . . simply because I have white skin.
But I do know we need to change some economic and sociological bedrock issues before we can stand behind some of the things our jingoistic schoolbook rhetoric claims to already have in this country . . . like equal protection. Because hard-working, honest, law-abiding people should not have that look on their faces when all they want is a fucking beer and some downtime.




Sunday, January 17, 2016

Shorter of Breath and One Day Closer.




David Bowie died a few days ago. Didn't know him personally, and never saw him in concert. Liked a lot of his music.
 
Lou Reed passed away last year. Didn't know him personally, and never saw him in concert. Liked a lot of his music.
Both deaths made me stop and reflect significantly. Since my early teens I have recognized musicians and the releases of their singles and albums as life milestones. Music has always been important to me. It said things my heart knew but I couldn’t articulate. It sang about aches and dreams—and sometimes even the cheesiest of lyrics managed to sum up what I was feeling as a nascent adult. (In those days I was soooo melodramatic.)
In a previous blog I ran through how many rock concerts I've attended. Playing an album/cassette/CD/8-track over and over, bopping my head ceaselessly to the beat is one thing, but it's about as personal as . . . Okay, it’s not personal. Watching the real deal, the actual artist, perform live has always been the clincher. When you have played Aqualung about 73 kajillion times and you finally get to see Jethro Tull on stage, up close and for realsies, it is a totally different, mindblowing experience. And if this is repeated with Physical Graffiti, Dark Side of the Moon, Tapestries, Brain Salad Surgery, and about sixty other albums and the artists who made them, well, it starts to become your own personal game with life: Who else can I manage to see before it's too late?
I’m not talking about seeing Paul McCartney before he becomes living-challenged and joins the choir invisible (or I do). This is about watching our lifelong popular icons, one by one, cast off the Muu-Muu of Life and jump on the Jitney to Forever.
Keith Moon and John Bonham, both faves of mine, became room temperature waaaay back, when I was still but a lad of hormonally-crazed teenagement. Shockers both, indeed, but neither's too-early passing caused me any serious metaphysical reflection at the time. And likewise I was too young to be shaken by the deaths of Mama Cass, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or Jim Morrison. Never even heard of Phil Ochs. I'd have to say the first “holy shit” moment was John Lennon.
My Dad, steady and loving though he was, was not exactly the most socially progressive guy in New York City. On more than one occasion in the late ’60s and early ’70s I'd heard words such as “long-haired faggots,” “pinkos,” and other such colorful Archie Bunkerisms escape his lips.
So when he put the paper down in front of me that December morning and I read “John Lennon Slain Here,” my heart skipped a beat. Almost as stunning was Dad’s concerned, “Are you okay? I know you were a fan of his.” I'd heard him disparage Lennon more than a few times for his “love-in,” hair, drug use, supposed lack of personal hygiene, etc, but this concern was unusual.
It was the first time I had the glimmer that beautiful things in life really do come to an end. Lennon? Fucking gone? At age 20, having been raised in the relative metaphysical and philosophical safety of a middle-class urban neighborhood, I still had the idea that Shit's Just Gonna Go On Forever. Party on, Wayne.
Those in the lawyering profession have some terms they like to use, among them “slippery slope” and “parade of horribles.” Let X happen and then A, B, G, V, and an endless and unpreventable parade of horrible things will follow. (Lawyers also show their briefs to each other in chambers, but that's just something my immature mind finds titter-worthy.)
How had my parents felt watching the icons they’d lived alongside for 50 years, the staples of their popular culture, check out of the Heartbeat Hotel and grab a seat on the Flatline Express? Probably a little more isolated, a little more aware that we're getting to the narrower end of the Christmas Tree of Life and This Grand Parade of Kodak Moments Most Definitely Rounds the Final Street Corner.
Bowie was only 69, a relatively young man. His creativity and boldness to go where no rock musician had gone before never waned. But, on the other hand, the Stones are all in their 70s and still pumping it out.
In the meantime we said goodbye to Cory Wells, John Entwistle, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Warren Zevon, Joe Strummer, Natalie Cole, Isaac Hayes, Lemmy, Chris Squire, B. B. King, Ben E. King, Joe Cocker, Joey Ramone, and myriad other music icons of my own era.
Who the hell is gonna go next? One gets a chill looking through the list of reunion tours featuring one-hit wonders with bad hair replacements Dodge Dart-ing their ways across the Great Plains over the past 20 years. Or even more remarkable: The Who, minus one half of the original lineup, still crabbily windmilling around stadiums everywhere. “I hope I die before I get old”? Screw that. Party on, Garth.
I'll tell you this: When Keith Richards, who’s outlived all the above mentioned plus Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Jerry Garcia, Johnny Winter, Ray Manzarek, Davy Jones and Frank Zappa finally goes, it will definitely all be over.
(Added note: as if this week wasn't morbid enough, we also mourn the passing of someone else way too young to have his too-solid flesh melted, thawed, and resolved into a dew: Alan Rickman. Not an album producing musician, but nonetheless a true rock star in his own profession.)

(Added note #2. January 18, 2016. As if all this wasn't enough... Glenn Frey of the Eagles moved on. Age 67.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Company


There's a reason it's called a “Company.”

Company n.
1. a number of individuals assembled or associated together; group of people.
2. companionship; fellowship; association.
3. a number of persons united or incorporated for joint action, especially for business: a publishing company; a theatre company.

The middle word in #2 is critical: fellowship. In theatre companies, well, at least the theatre companies I inhabit, fellowship is paramount. I bring this up because of a recent incident in a newly forming company producing its very first production. One actor was given (poor) direction by someone other than the director (a fellow actor and coproducer). When he demurred, for valid reasons (he was not comfortable with the suggestion), he was then set upon not only by the non-director but by three other actors. In essence, he was shamed and bullied. And the inexperienced director stood by and let this abuse happen.
My first urge, perhaps because I'm male, half-Italian, and a Leo, is to get all up in y'all faces about protocol, respect, and professionalism. And who knows? Maybe I will later. But for now I’ll take a breath and concentrate on another element of a good theatre company: safety.
When I direct or teach playwriting or stage directing, I make a non-negotiable rule on the first day that the rehearsal room, classroom, or studio we use is a safe zone. At no time will any student disrespect, belittle, or coerce any other student for any reason. Of course, the teacher is equally bound by this rule. I stress this emphatically. And I enforce it. Or I would, if I'd ever had to. I've never had to.
Classrooms and rehearsal rooms must be places where artists can feel free to take risks, try unsure choices, and explore the boundaries of their craft. One cannot do this with consistent expectations of success. Students, actors, and writers fail. Face it, everybody fails.
In our over-protective world where kids get trophies for showing up and are told they are each very special, we diminish the possibility of reaching new heights. The farther you stretch, the farther you fall when (if) it all goes kerflooie. It's a law of nature. But if you don't stretch, you never achieve. Risk is an inherent factor in some things. Fear is part of creative work.
Therefore, when members of my class or company take a chance, they know that they are in a cohort that will be there to sympathize, critique constructively, and respect their chance-taking. They are in a safe zone. Because only in a safe zone can you genuinely make unsafe choices. We are there for each other all the time.
This is one reason why cast parties can be full of tears. Over time you build close relationships with your cast and crew mates. You've depended on them, cheered them, and enjoyed every minute onstage and in rehearsal with them. Because they had your back and you had theirs.
So when this is transgressed, as it sometimes is, my hackles stiffen and my canines grow longer. I've seen directors who run their shows with harsh words, disrespecting actors and crew, treating the entire company with disdain. Personally, I'm too old to put up with that kind of self-indulgent, megalomaniacal horseshit. No role is that good to pass up. But I'm more experienced and much less unsure of myself these days; in younger days I might have been the abused.
So when I heard of this instance within a new company with which I had become associated, I was taken aback. It wasn't so much the instigator's actions that appalled me, but the fact that others allowed it without objecting. (To the actor who was victim of this abuse but chose to not follow the improperly given and, as it turned out, somewhat childish direction, I give all kudos; he did not knuckle under to the pressure from his fellow cast members. More on him in a minute.)
In every pack there is an alpha. And this alpha was part of a new company that had had no experience in running a production. The thrill of being in the driver’s seat overwhelmed them, and being young and without supervision, they ran amok.
It is a strict rule in theatre companies that no one but the director gives direction to any actor at any time. To have a producer override the director shows disrespect for both director and actors and sows the seeds of anarchy. A company that is not secure cannot produce good work. Everyone needs to agree upon and follow protocols. And when an actor says, “No, I do not feel comfortable with that direction,” that must be respected. There are ways of working direction out and coming to an agreement. When an actor tells me that she’s not comfortable with something I’m asking of her, I back off simply for two reasons: the actor may instinctually know the direction is not a good one for her character, and even if she pursued it, her lack of faith in the proposal would more than likely result in a half-hearted attempt that failed, wasting valuable rehearsal time.
I always talk about these instances with my actors. There comes a time, late in the rehearsal period, when they have to know better than I what's best for Willy Loman. Why put a particular actor in a role if not to have that actor particularly bring it to life?
Back to safety. Not all of us are on Broadway or a tour or in a big regional. Many of us do this for the sheer joy of it in a community setting. I can't overstress the need for safety in the rehearsal room and classroom. These writers and actors put their egos and asses on the line, and regardless of success, they must be in a place where they are ready to do so again. They must be among allies who will respect their instincts and choices, whether they be good ones or not.
Back to the actor in this situation: He and some others came to me later. Understandably, he was severely upset, not just because he was an object of shame and group derision but because this disrespect came from people he had worked with in acting class for several semesters (not mine) and had thought of as friends he could trust and depend on.
This young actor learned a very hard lesson. The one positive element is that now he knows how to behave in a similar situation, knows his rights as an actor, and knows what protocols need to be observed. He'll do much better work, be more self-assured, and be able to invest in his cohort more effectively from now on simply by knowing how to react should a similar situation arise.
We go through some hard and painful lessons in this journey. Taken unawares, it's difficult to step in, play Parent, and shut down the session, especially when you have never had to do so before. This is one instance I wish hadn't happened. But now we have an actor who can be aware they he has to look out for his fellow company members, and perhaps help them become equally respectful and supportive. Can you ask for anyone better to work with?