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The Pandemic Paradox

This Should Really Be Titled “My Pandemic Paradox,” But Then It Would Sound Less Like A Robert Ludlum Novel, Which Is Frankly My Goal With All Of My Titles.

I think the Pandemic may have broken me. And before I even start, I want to make it clear I’m not on the front lines of the crisis; I’m dealing with neither the stress nor the horror of being on the front lines of the Pandemic, nor suffering from the disease, nor watching someone I love suffer from the disease. I’ve suffered financially, but am getting help on that end, too.

In other words, I’ve had a pretty freaking easy time of it, all things considered. In fact – here’s Paradox #1 – as a writer, I’ve seldom been more productive. Since March, I’ve redrafted a new play, re-outlined and completely rewrote a one hour television pilot, written the first draft of a new full-length play, written a one act play to be performed on Zoom, and am 25 pages into another new play. Also, I started this blog. So that’s good, no? Busy is good, right?

But Wait, There’s Less!

The first two months of the lockdown, I had and often expressed the hope that as brutal and awful as this plague is, that it gives a chance to relearn some key life lessons, and that I hoped most of us would emerge from the pestilential fog with more gratitude for our relationships IRL, for actual human connection, and less reliance on the synthetic substitute of social media, which we’ve all known for a while are largely empty calories, but have continued to live on anyway (BTW- I get it, I’m using social media in order to decry its corrosive effects on us; I majored in irony in college). I still hope that’s true.

The last month or so, however, despite my deepening loneliness, I’ve found myself more and more, by subtle degrees, more numb to everything. Including people. Especially people. Especially, I must confess, the people I love. I mean, I still love them, please don’t misunderstand. But more and more it’s come to feel more like an observation than a feeling. “I love my family. I love my friends,” I observe to myself, perhaps in order to reaffirm and remind myself I’m capable of the emotion. (Paradox #2)

But here, in late July, I confess I feel less whole, less fully human than I maybe ever have. And I hate to admit it, but that’s saying something: I’ve lived most of my life questioning my wholeness.

I Blame Society. Phew. Feels Good To Shift The Blame!

It’s been a year of stark contradiction in general, no? We’ve witnessed brutal acts of racially-based violence and hatred, but have also borne witness to much of the country becoming galvanized as never before to acknowledge and strive to mend the deep, bleeding wounds of our nation’s systemic racism.

We’ve watched in horror as friends, loved ones, and strangers alike have battled and sometimes lost to a cruel disease, while simultaneously stared in awe at the too, too many to name heroes who have stepped into the breech at the peril of their own safety to bring comfort and heeling the afflicted. (Paradoxes #3 & 4)

And, on a personal note, I’ve written a great deal of theater at a time when theater isn’t really a thing for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps my sense of detachment is a case of sensory overload. 2020 has had far too much trauma, far too much tumult, for a year to reasonably sustain. And we’re in July.

Being With People Is Not Like Riding A Bike. The Physics Alone Are Completely Different.

As I mention often, I am in a play-reading group that meets every Thursday evening. Professional New York and L.A. Actors, currently scattered around the country, who to a person, in addition to being gifted professionals, are all kind, smart, sort of impossible-not-to-like people. These were the qualifications.

And in addition to providing many hours of great entertainment and quality acting, this group has been largely my only access to people outside my immediate circle of family and significant others (or, other, in this case. There’s no plural, just to be clear. Let’s face it, it’s a minor miracle I have even one). And, as I’ve mentioned more than once, they’ve been an oasis in this dessert.

We’ve spoken more than once about the need to all meet up in person after this monstrousness ebbs. And though I know it’ll be great fun, I hope I’ll be able to deal with it. Because I have a feeling that my reentry into general peopledom is going to be bumpier than I would’ve assumed back in March, or even May.

There are thousands of gestures, some spoken, most not, that we decode and transmit in our daily interactions with the world. They’ve become so ingrained in us, they’re almost always unconscious. My fear and suspicion is that some of those unthinking, intuitive signals have faded from my emotional vocabulary. I think it may take me a while to relearn them.

I also think that, just perhaps, I won’t be alone in this. I hope we’ll be understanding and forgiving of each other and ourselves.

But You Started Off Mentioning A Paradox Of Some Sort. What’s The Paradox?

Well, in my defense, I think I’ve offered several. Hell, I even numbered them for you. Go back and check, dammit. But I think the key one, for me, is that I’ve never been lonelier, yet I find myself less able to muster up the energy required to meaningfully connect with others than ever. Which is not only a paradox, but almost rises to the level of a “Catch-22″* – I know, they’re in many ways the same thing, but I’m trying to drive my point in the home stretch.

Yes, I’m writing more than ever, but will any of it ever be seen? Yes, there’s nothing I crave more on the one hand than being out in the world among friends, but on the other hand I feel ill-equipped to handle that. I want company. I want to be left alone.

It’s Like Plato’s “The Allegory Of The Cave.” But In Reverse. Kinda.

And that’s not depression speaking, or at least it’s not just depression (on this, I know whereof I speak. So much so, I’m confident employing “whereof” in my sentence). Plato’s Allegory of the Cave claims that, because of the limits of our worldview, it is as if we are all chained in a cave, facing the back wall with a fire in front of us providing the only light. We can make of the world only what we see in the distorted shadows that play across that wall. Freed from such chains and able to leave the cave and see the world as it is, how many of us could recognize it? How many of us wouldn’t be consumed with terror and retreat for the comfort of the familiar shadows?

I kinda feel like that’s where I’m getting to. We’ve all been quarantined in a cave, albeit with Netflix. I’m afraid I may be growing to used to the shadows. I hope I won’t stay that way.

*

  • Fun fact about Catch-22: Joseph Heller and his editor went round and round about what number to use. For a while, it was going to be Catch-17. But another novel had recently came out with “17” in the title, so they eventually landed on “22.” Thank God, right? It’s just so much better, though I’m not sure why. Maybe the symmetry? Maybe the hard consonants? Maybe both? Art can be so weird and arbitrary and I’ll never get close to figuring it out.

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An Interview With Rachel Spencer Hewitt

An Interview With One Of My (And Soon To Be Yours) Favorite Actors About Theater, Arts Advocacy, And The Play She’s In Streaming This Wednesday With Paula Vogel’s “Bard At The Gate” Play Initiative

Rachel Spencer Hewitt is one of the most extraordinary actors I’ve seen. Ever. Anywhere. She has an MFA in Acting from Yale’s School of Drama, and has appeared on Broadway (King Charles III) and Off-Broadway (The Seagull, directed by Max Stafford Clark), (A Civil War Christmas, by Paula Vogel and directed by Tina Landau), and (Peter and the Star Catcher at New York Theatre Workshop).

I also had the good fortune of having Rachel create the role of Marilyn Monroe in my play Fellow Travelers, directed by Michael Wilson at The Bay Street Theater. Her performance was among the most technically extraordinary and emotionally rich I’ve ever witnessed on any stage. She’s also in my Thursday night play reading group, where she additionally serves as a no-nonsense de facto stage manager.

Rachel is also the founder of Parents Artists Advocacy Group (or PAAL), whose work has been featured in The New York Times, American Theatre Magazine, and NPR. She explains the work of this wonderful organization in depth in our interview.

This Wednesday at 7, she will appear in Meg Miroshnik’s The Droll via “The Bard at the Gate,” on Paula Vogel’s website http://paulavogelplaywright.com/bardatthegate, with all proceeds going to charity. You’d be a fool not to watch it. A fool, I say! Also, you’d be one to pass up this chance to get to know this extraordinary artist and person by reading this interview:

Tell us a bit about the play and why it’s especially resonant these days.

The Droll’s alternate title is “a Play About the End of Theatre” and it asks the question “What would it have been like to discover a passion for acting during the 18 years in which theatre was illegal in 17th-century Puritan England?” It follows a band of players as they perform illegally throughout London and the surrounding areas. The Droll was written by Meg Miroshnik and performed in 2009 at the Yale School of Drama’s Carlotta Festival. I was fortunate enough to be a part of the original cast of students to perform this piece, and almost all of us are part of this zoom reading of it.

It’s not only been incredible to reunite with a company of players who all connected over this piece, but also to see what profound relevance this piece has right now as we wrestle with art in a global pandemic. Ten years ago we put up a stunning black box production of the grit and darkness and laughter and bonds that come from creating art in a world that’s shut down around us. Now, we get to share this story when so many of us are finding new ways to connect with a creative community.

We also are so lucky to have Devin Brain return to direct it. He directed it originally at Yale, and his ability to find beauty in the pain of a character’s story as well as find raw, relatable human reasons to move a story forward make his pairing with Meg, especially in this piece, always a thrill to be a part of.There’s so much heart in this stoy that explores how far people will go to find each other and make art when fear, illness, and the immediate surroundings make us vulnerable. When the theatres shut down this year, I instantly thought of this play – to the point I had a dream about it. The next morning I saw Paula Vogel post on social media about remembering it as well, and the rest is history.

Will this be a cold reading, or has there been any sort of ad hoc rehearsal process?

Many of us haven’t visited this piece in a good decade, but we were allotted some rehearsal chunks under the Theatre Authority agreement for benefit performances, so some refresher work using the latest version, and then we did somewhat cold reads with each other and recorded it all over zoom. Meg’s plays always send me into rapture because she writes with such specificity that I always know where I am in the world even while she starts snapping its rules in half. It’s the 17th century except when it’s not; it’s our English except that it’s not, and all the while we know and follow and dive deeper into the story. Her magic is in breaking the rules so we live in a new world to meet people we deeply want to know.

You’ve mentioned to me this play has always stuck with you. Why do you think it does?

 I think because of the center of many of our conversations together – that for many artists, creating is equivalent to our very survival. It’s how we understand and navigate the world and ourselves. The hope for many of us is that any illumination we find through this art we also get a chance to share with others for their own illumination, wherever their imagination and empathy takes them.

For The Droll, specifically, it provides historical context for a time when laughter itself was worth doing great evil to find, how the lightness of a play can rid someone of their personal darkness for only a moment, and – also very relevant – how beautiful groups of players have structural flaws that can harm the very people who love creating more than anything. This play allowed me to live through my characters’ path, one of the players who desired to be a maker in the company more than anything, and how her life was changed by the betrayal of rejection from that community.

Meg writes each player with such strongly pulsing heart, that I could fully dive into Doll’s (my character’s name) depression, passion, grit, defiance, pain, and victory knowing full well the play would open up to all her humanity at the same time. My character is vey much a product of her time as well as a figure we recognize fully today. Her raw talent and trauma make her a hero of survivors, even if her methods are suspect. But I won’t say any more to keep from spoiling anything! In the playwright’s notes in the script, Meg writes that it’s “a love letter to actors” and on every page, its so evident that she has a love for every single character speaking. That love makes the playing of this piece all the more vibrant.

What’s it like working on a piece with Paula Vogel? What unique energy does she bring to the (in this case, virtual) room?

Paula’s advocacy for the artists who make new work, in every room, is indefatigable. Her whole mission with this series is to produce plays and playwrights she believes in now that the “factory” part of play development has shut down. When Paula speaks to a room of artists, we are all instantly in her family, and she brings warrior energy that lets you know wherever you want to take this play boldly, she’ll go with you. That fearlessness is contagious. Her belief in what we do as artists is nothing short of life changing.

I worked with her in the room on plays at Yale and in her piece A Civil War Christmas at New York Theatre Workshop. When she said goodbye toward the end of that production, she took me by the shoulders and looked me square in the eyes and said, “Always keep your heart open!” I don’t know if she knew it, but at the time I was engaging very deeply with a character in that play that I struggled to shake when I would leave the theatre, and her strength in that moment became an anchor for me as I matured in my art: to remember my openness and vulnerability as a strength. That the answer for sustaining myself would never be to close my heart but to fortify myself in other ways, in my belief and self-worth. Now, years later, she’s still jumping on zoom calls to grab us by the shoulders and look us in the eye, her twinkle and mischief and fire as strong as ever, and remind all of us of the power of open hearts on every call. It’s life changing, to be honest. 

Also, just relevantly speaking, she is constantly speaking up and speaking out about what’s happening in the theatre and society in terms of injustice, so when she brings plays into production, as she’s doing with this series, she’s a necessary voice because of her ability to connect the art of storytelling to the movement of people, and that’s a belief I share, so she’s a leader I look up to very much in that way.

You founded the Parent Artist Advocacy League. Would you talk a bit about its mission and why it’s so close to your heart?

When I became a mother, my art opened up in a way I had needed for a very long time, but the support that was already lacking for me as an artist in our society plummeted – even though I had all the privilege, connection, survival job opportunity in the world, it was absurdity at best and starvation at its lowest. Childbirth is older than even the theater, and still…there was no handbook, there was lack of communication about others doing art and mothering at the same time in a real, intentional and institutional way, and – the worst part of all – I was complicit in silencing myself for a very long time.

The moment that changed that for me was when I learned of mothers who left the field all together and was told by a male colleague not to speak about my successes, and all the silencing from being sexualized in my twenties now threatened to repeat itself in my motherhood, and I told it, internally, in not so many words on the way home, clutching my daughter in my arms fiercely, to f*-off-I-will-not-be-quiet. And instead of taking the advice to be quiet about my motherhood, I began writing about it, researching it, and then organizing for mothers and parents who deserved the support this industry is so stingy in giving them.

I found in this advocacy a community of people who I now call some of my closest friends, most gifted artists, and hardest working, intelligent contributors and creators. It’s just that their opportunities and support are slashed to ribbons when they exercise their social right to a family, or care for an ailing relative, or are the sole provider for a dependent with disabilities. And that’s unethical and unjust. And art without justice, in both its content and process, is not art at all, or bad art at best, and I refuse to play in a world like that, so it needs to change. 

This advocacy is close to my heart because the very thing that opened me up, my motherhood, I was told to be quiet about; artists exercising their right to care for family forced them out of the community. I’ll be talking about this for the rest of my life. Caregiver access and support is directly tied to class disruption, gender parity, intersects with race, and affects the disability community exponentially. Creating support is necessary action for forming truly accessible spaces and processes in the theatre.

How does PAAL connect with the Paula Vogel series and the play you’re doing that is showing on July 15?

We are so incredibly honored that PAAL is one of the organizations receiving donations from those who donate on Wednesday at the streaming of the Droll in this series from Paula Vogel. In our work centering anti-racism for caregiver support in theatre, the second round of PAAL COVID Emergency Grants will be going to Black artists with families. PAAL is also partnering with Blackboard Plays – an organization founded over ten years ago to support and develop Black playwrights by incredible playwright and the PAAL Chief Rep of NYC Garlia Cornelia – to produce a powerful new project: The Black Motherhood New Play Festival where we are creating an open call nationally for play submissions on Black motherhood to create a platform, opportunity, and funding for Black artists and their work. We will be sharing a lot of details about the project soon. Garlia has been producing Black artists for over a decade, is a fierce playwright, producer, and mother, and I’m beyond honored to call her my friend and engage on this project with her. I can’t wait to introduce you – she’d be a great interview as this project develops. She’s unparalleled in terms of leadership and vision. So, I encourage everyone to subscribe to your blog, Jack, so they get the updates on that. 

In the meantime, everyone can watch The Droll and connect with centuries old and immediately relevant experiences of creating in a pandemic, donate to PAAL to get vital work off the ground, and stay tuned for even more groundbreaking projects on the horizon. These links can make for an exciting week for those of us quarantining! 

How can people tune in to see you in this performance on this Wednesday?

Subscribe to the Bard at the Gate YouTube channel or just check out the feed at PaulaVogelPlaywright.com/BardAtTheGate, and it will be streaming there at 7:00 PM EST on Wednesday, July 15! It’s theatre, so it’s temporary and everyone needs to check it out ASAP before it disappears! And you saw my instagram post with the skull, and that also makes a cameo, so check it out to spot the Yorik, at least.

You can follow Rachel on Instagram @rachelspencerhewitt

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Are You Into Discipline?

How Your Writing Routine Shapes Your Writing. Or Not.

It was said Tennessee Williams wrote every day of his life, usually in the morning. Literature is crammed with the works of other authors I was too lazy to google who had/have rigid writing routines. However, others either avoided routine consciously, or failed to establish a routine despite earnest efforts. But does a lack of routine mean a lack of discipline in one’s work? I, for reasons that will become transparently self-serving/deluding, argue no.

Many writers are vocal advocates of writing every morning, preferably journal writing. I believe the much vaunted book, The Artist’s Way, preaches the virtues of this practice. more than that: it claims it as essential. More than a few colleagues I know and respect believe this exercise has made them better writers.

I’m in no position to doubt it. However, like most endeavors in my life, like trying to learn a second language, eat more healthily, or stay married, I’ve been unable to maintain the habit. But unlike the above examples, I’m not sure that, for me, sticking to a set writing routine would benefit me in any way.

Don’t Knock It Before You Try It.

Of course, I could be wrong, and, to be clear, the list of things I’m not willing to try to help me be a better writer is pretty short. I believe, but cannot recall with absolute clarity, that there was a period (likely too brief for anything to take hold) where I did try to journal every morning. It didn’t take hold. The task felt like homework to me (“How would you know?” I can hear my high school teachers asking, “You never did yours”).

I found myself easily discouraged and unable to write in the stream-of-consciousness style that was prescribed. Few things feel more self-conscious to me than trying to write in a stream-of-concsiousness style. Not that I haven’t done so before – but the minute I realize that’s what I’m doing, the spigot (FYI: for no discernible reason, among my favorite words) turns itself off. Ah, the inside of my head: a rat’s nest of random facts, meticulously curated perceived slights, and scores of cunningly engineered self-sabotaging traps. But that’s for another post.

I Come Not To Bury Routine, But To Contextualize It

Part of my problem with “routine” (whom am I quoting, exactly?), I think, is that when I have something to write about, I become more or less consumed by it. Not that I haven’t spent many of those days staring at a blank screen for hours. But the play/screenplay/whatever/thingy is never far from my conscious thoughts, and always simmering in the back of my mind. When it flows, I can easily write for six hours at a time and not feel the least bit winded (those days are admittedly rare). When I’m trying to write a new play, I see almost every action or interaction in my life through that prism. Routine, I think, restricts me. Of course, that could simply be laziness. If I’ve any self-knowledge at all, it’s this: never rule out laziness as the prime motivation for anything I may do.

Habits, Tricks Of The Trade, Shortcuts, Call Them What You Will

It’s not that I don’t ever journal (Ugh, are we collectively OK using that as a verb now? I guess, what with the worldwide pandemic and rising tide of fascism, I’ll have to quit tilting at that windmill for now). I used to write routinely in my journal about my life in general. I took a break last summer because…well…I don’t know. Just did. I’m slowly starting up again.

Regardless, what I do find useful is, if I get stuck at certain point in my script-writing, I will (after I’ve stepped away for a day or two, always my first course of action), write down in a journal what I think I’m having a problem with and why. Nine times of ten, I either solve the problem, or put myself on the tentative path to solving it. Is that discipline or even a habit? Not really, I suppose. More a trick I find tends to work for me.

I admire writers who have a set routine for the same reason I admire people who can keep their homes spotless all or most of the time. Because I find I can’t do it. I suppose my point is that, like so much in life, you need to be open to trying different approaches until you find what works for you. In my half-assed (be honest, quarter-assed) way, I have taken some stabs at routine. But it’s not a natural fit for me.

Ah, HERE’S My Point. I knew It was Somewhere Around Here.

However, I think it’s vital to make a clear distinction between discipline and routine. People often assume they’re synonymous, but I would (in fact, I appear to be doing so at this very moment) argue that they are not one in the same. I do not have set routines. But when I am in the midst of a writing thingy (not to bog you down in jargon), I am quite tireless in trying to get it right, and as ruthless with myself as I know how to be in honing my writing to its sharpest possible form. Some efforts are sharper than others, inevitably, but it’s not for lack of effort. So, yes, I would consider my self a very disciplined writer, albeit one utterly without routine.

I’d love to hear from other writers their thoughts about routine and discipline in their work.

And now, I’m off to clean my apartment (that’s usually code for binging some British panel quiz show on YouTube).

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(Maybe Not) Only (But Still) Connect.

Some Thoughts On The Virtues Of Interdependence On The Eve of Independence Day.

Tomorrow is July 4th, and so tonight, I will, as I do on every Independence Day Eve, lay out a mug of ale and tray of pornography for Ben Franklin’s ghost. But to be sure, this year the holiday will, like every other day of 2020, feel different than all the ones that have come before.

Of course, Fourth of July celebrations are uniquely American. It marks the day we formally announced our freedom from the British Empire. If there’s one thing Americans pride themselves on, it’s their independence. It’s threaded inextricably throughout our national ethos of “Rugged Individualism”; it is the backbone of our idealized national narrative. So much so, in fact, that to most Americans, the idea of “Independence” is synonymous with “Freedom.” Most dictionaries would agree with that formulation. But I’d like to take a moment to say: screw that.

Don’t Tread On Me As I Breathe On You At Close Range

I had hoped that the one consolation of the Coronavirus Pandemic would be a reimagining of our sense of community. Surely, if anything could remind us of our collective commonality and reliance on one another, it would be a virus. A virus doesn’t care about your political ideals or religion or favorite team. In the eyes of a virus (I don’t think they actually have eyes, but I’m not a scientist), we are all inextricably bound and irreducibly the same. We would realize this, I reasoned back in March (Remember March – will we ever be that innocent again?), and be drawn together in our fight against a common enemy.

Whelp. My bad.

Leave it to America – late capitalist, late empire, deeply alienated, and atomized into endless demographic spheres America – to find a way to politicize an illness. Suddenly, believing doctors became a matter of political affiliation. Taking precautions against the spread of a potentially deadly disease became an affront to our freedom in many precincts of our nominal republic.

As a consequence, we are suffering more from this disease – physically, socially, and economically – than any other nation that falls under the dubious heading of “modernized.” And many Americans seem content to die (and infect you along the way) rather than give up any of their blinkered and selfish misconceptions of “Freedom.”

But here’s the thing: we are not independent. No one ever has been or can be. Not totally. And it’s in that small, liminal space of “not totally” that makes our dependance on one another not only necessary, but beautiful.

It Takes A Village To…Make A Village

We need one another in all sorts of ways. Our economy, our civilization itself, takes this fact for granted. But we need each other on a more fundamental level. We need to talk to each other, laugh with each other, learn from each other, and just plain spend time in each other’s company in order to be our truest selves as individuals. These months of forced solitude and social distancing have brought that home to me more than ever.

I’ve mentioned the weekly play reading group I’m in every Thursday night, and I have to say I wake up a little lighter in my heart on Friday mornings than I do any other day of the week. Seeing the faces and hearing the voices of this far-flung community every week helps me feel more whole. Just as Hamlet taught us that the purpose of art is to hold the mirror up to nature, we are the mirrors we hold up to ourselves. Just by being a part of my weekly life, I owe them an unpayable debt.

So this year, let’s have a little less hoopla about Independence. Independence, in the end, as we’re grimly discovering, can be overrated. This Fourth of July, let’s sing the virtues of Interdependence. If the last few months have shown us anything, it’s that we truly are dependent on each other. May we always remember to be grateful for that.

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Is The Play Even A Thing Anymore?

In Many Ways, Theater Remains As Much On The Fringes Of American Culture As Ever. It’s Also Never Been Needed More.

In the endlessly wonderful Canadian television show, Slings and Arrows, set in a fictionalized version of the famous Stratford Shakespeare Festival, one character snarkily (but aptly) observes, “More people listen to the radio than go to the theater. And nobody listens to the radio.” Ouch. Of course, critics and artists have been bemoaning theater’s waning influence on American culture for decades. I was a teacher for many years, and when we began to study a play like, say, The Crucible, more students than I’d like to remember expressed shock that there was such a thing as plays that weren’t musicals.

I have likened wanting to be a professional playwright in America to growing up in Kenya and pursuing a dream to be a professional hockey player. It’s true theater has nothing like the cultural reach of television, movies, video games, Twitter, Instagram…the list goes on for a depressingly long time. Still, there are some of us out there, devoted to the damn enterprise, typing, designing, directing, producing, acting, and promoting our hearts out because we recognize something of deep worth in the endeavor.

Do I Contradict Myself? Very Well, I Contradict Myself. They’re Recalibrating My Meds, And So That’s Gonna Happen Sometimes

I’ve written before about my skepticism regarding overtly political theater. There are obvious exceptions, but generally these plays tend to do little but preach to the converted. However, as I look around at our country’s cultural moment, the word I think it that best describes it is: ruptured. It staggered me that Covid-19 became a source of political division, but it shouldn’t have. Science itself has been an openly partisan issue for well over a decade now.

We can and do have people who watch the same footage of the same acts of brutality, and come away with completely different versions of what they saw. I don’t think a neutral word like “divided” cuts it anymore. We need a word that captures the distance and violent nature of our disagreements. Hence, “ruptured.” Our communities have been systematically smashed into jagged demographic shards, and the sharp, blood-drawing edges are virtually everywhere, including families.

There’s Not Enough Duct Tape In The World

Here’s what I think, though: what theater does best, when it’s at its best, is show us our commonalities. It can tell the story of America’s founding with a multiracial cast playing White slave owners. It can show us that “attention must be paid” to everyone, not just the winners, but those left behind. It can show us the folly of depending on “the kindness of strangers,” while simultaneously reaching down our throats, grabbing our hearts and wishing it weren’t so. It can show us how a passed down piano can hold a family together or wrench it apart. It can not only tell us, but show us why “The Great Work” must begin.

I’ve been struggling for a less pompous way to write this paragraph, but as you’ll soon see, I came up empty. The Greeks told us theater was about Catharsis, but too often we (read:I) tend to think of that in terms of the individual. Really, the whole point of it is that it’s experienced communally. We see each other not only in the characters onstage, but in the strangers sitting next to us. We come into the theater strangers, but we leave, in some ways, forever a community.

At the moment, we’ve been deprived of that chance to experience that. We’re aching for it. But we will get it again. And so, I hope all of us involved in theater will try strive to, in whichever way we choose to, emphasize our commonalities. And the great news is, there’s countless ways of doing it. More diversity, yes, 100 times yes, but above all else, let’s use that diversity to show us, despite the uniqueness of our struggles and disparities of our histories, the commonality of our natures.

We may be on the fringes. But we have to start somewhere. And we have the perfect instrument with which to do it.

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A Brief Intermission

Having Zipped Through Act One Of My New Play, Time to Let My Subconcisous Catch Its Breath Before Writing More, Maybe

So, the last couple of weeks, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been writing a new play. The good news, having finished the first act, I have yet to reach the inevitable phase of crippling self-doubt and loathing about my work as a writer or worth as a mammal that has usually come along well before this point. This may be a or good or bad sign; it’s most likely it’s no sign at all.

As I mentioned earlier, I wrote it with specific actors in mind (a thing I seldom do): three, to be precise. One has written back very encouragingly about the first (draft) of the first act. The other two haven’t, but they’re both taking care of small children, living seemingly fulfilling lives, and sitting down to read an entire act requires time and solitude – something neither woman has much excess of these days, I’m guessing. So, I’m in no way worried or upset about that.

“That’s Not Writing, That’s Typing.”

That’s what Truman Capote said when he heard how fluidly and quickly Jack Kerouac penned (or, more literally, typed, On The Road). Point taken. Just because it’s coming quickly, almost unconsciously, means it’s any good (Not to disparage Kerouac’s famous work). I’ve certainly gone over and and over and over what I write as I write it, and am forever cutting, altering or adding things (a decided advantage of writing on computer), so it’s a little disingenuous to call it purely a first draft.

Besides, Edward Albee allegedly wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in a weekend. A freaking weekend. Maybe it was like President’s Day Weekend, but still. And Arthur Miller started and finished Death of a Salesman in roughly six weeks. So, speed is clearly not always a bad thing.

I’m up in Maine, at my girlfriend’s cottage (it’s technically a camp, she informs me, and she should know, but it feels cottage-like to me), away for about a week to get some much needed escape from my more or less self-isolating apartment I’ve spent the better part of six months in (an earlier illness of my father’s more or less kept me there since December). I’m trying hard to relax, an oxymoron, I know. But I’m partially succeeding (relaxation always feeling unintuitive to me).

A Cottage/Camp/Cabin/Building In Maine On A Lake! What A Delightfully Cliched And Pretentious Way To Spend Some Time Writing!

I assumed I would, in addition to spending some quality time with my smart and lovely girlfriend (a writer herself), spend many happy hours clicking away on the keyboard, trying to suss out Act II. The thing is, I haven’t felt the urge to write a thing since I’ve arrived. I mean, I’m been thinking about the play, though not nearly as often as I usually do when I’m working one, and even then only fleetingly and vaguely.

Instead I’ve gone on walks, read by the lake, and just tried with all my might to relax (again, I know, a potentially self-defeating approach to relaxation. I’m working it). I read a short and brilliant new novel by Lydia Millet, A Children’s Bible, and it’s one of those books that’s so good, so multi-faceted, I can’t speak intelligently about it all yet. I need a lot of time to gather my emotions and thoughts on it. It’s that good, I think.

Anyway, what I realize is that, when I’m writing at my best, it’s seldom, if ever, an intellectual process. I don’t do too much plotting (just enough to see a little bit ahead, and get a vague feeling about what might happen). What I think is, I’ve basically written everything I know about the story so far. The non-thinking part of my brain needs a little while to catch up and give me some intuition. I’ve decided to allow myself to be OK with that.

Besides, Sadly, There’s No Existential Rush.

I mean, who knows when theater will get back on its feet? Ugh. Let’s not even focus on the for the moment. The truth is, like many writers, I don’t write because I like to or necessarily even want to. It’s simply that I find I have a hard time not doing so for an extended period of time.

Anyway, The Point Is, I’m Trying To Teach Myself It’s OK, Maybe Even Good, To Step Away For Brief Interludes.

This is so self-evident, it’s axiomatic. But, to paraphrase Orwell, to see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle. I’m learning to have confidence that, though I’m a firm believer of not stopping to getting in your own way when things are humming, it’s OK to try to recognize when that hum diminishes, and to have faith that it will come back when its ready to.

In the meantime, I am going relax and de-stress if it kills me.

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Checking My Privilege (Or Trying To)

The Long, Slow, Learning Curve Of A Man Who Thought He Was Reasonably Enlightened

Let’s get this out of the way – I’m a White, straight, cis-gender man. And let me state something else fairly obvious to most of us- I TOTALLY pull it off. I’m also lucky in that my parents taught me that racism (or any sort of prejudice), was an absolute moral abomination. That the world is an often confusing, nuanced place, but racism was a non-negotiable evil. And I’ve always tried my best to live my life with that at the forefront of my mind.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also increasingly tried to become aware of my inherited privilege: inherited not just through my parents’ hard work, sacrifice, and love (though I was privileged by that, too), but by a society – hell, a WORLD – that has been set up for millennia to give me advantages so varied and numerous, it’s impossible for me to even be aware of them all. Even now, if I tried to write out a list naming every indignity I’ve been spared or advantage I’ve been given, I know there’d be a not inconsiderable litany of items I wouldn’t even be aware of that I’d left off.

When I Find Myself In Times Of Trouble, Tobey Maguire Comes To Me

Now, if I learned anything from the first Spiderman movie (And I like to think I did), it’s that 1) the idea that spiders, no matter how much you irradiate them, can give you superpowers is, tragically, NOT TRUE, and, 2) with much power comes much responsibility. And, through no doing of mine (Lord knows, no doing of mine), simply because I am a White, straight, cisgender man, I am endowed with certain powers. The power to not be looked at with suspicion by strangers on a subway platform, or routinely followed by store security while shopping. The power of not being called slurs by strangers (any insults I’ve been given were totally earned on my own, thank you very much). Etc., etc., etc. And that’s only some of the relatively minor stuff. Everyone knows this.

My point is, every time I think I’ve got my sense of White, straight privilege correctly calibrated, a situation or a friend will point out to me I really haven’t. I have to fully accept I won’t ever be able to fully grasp it. But I do know that I have a moral obligation to try to keep learning, and to try my best, in my absolutely unimpressive and microscopic way, to make the world less like that before I check out. I need to read more, watch more, listen more. I need to interrogate myself for any unconscious acts of prejudice I’ve committed (and I have). In other words, I’ve got a lot of work to do.

Do I Think That, As A Writer, I Have A Special Responsibility To Address These Issues?

I think my responsibility as a writer is to write as truthfully (“truthful” here meaning keeping as near to the fundamental truth of a subject rather than a documentary-like repetition of and fidelity to facts) and engagingly as I know how. I try to write characters who, in many cases, need not be a specific race. When I do write a character whom I feel must be a BIPOC, I tread extra carefully, because I’m aware that while, fundamentally, I believe people are people, of course, I’d be an idiot not to recognize such characters have experienced the world through a markedly different lens than I have.

Now, this may be true for White, straight, cis-gender male characters, too, and like any half-way decent writer, I try to be mindful of that, too (Hell, we all see the world through slightly different lenses; Hence, drama), but I go the extra yard when dealing with any character who doesn’t fit those parameters. I have smart people I depend on to check in with to see if my writing feels right to them, and I always try to be highly sensitive and open to suggestions from the actors who portray them. This is not only the ethically right thing to do, it would be artistic suicide not to do so.

Defeated, Not For The First Time, By Math

There’s a mathematical term, “asymptotic,” which describes the concept of lines approaching ever closer but never touching. That describes my approach to writing: knowing I’ll never quite get it right, at best. However, I’ve only recently come to think of my understanding of these issues that way. I’m sure I’ll never get there, but I can at least try to get nearer. So, to those of you not White, and/or straight, and/or cisgender, and/or male, I will try to be a better ally and friend. I will try to be better, period.

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C’est Ne Pas Une Blog Post

I’m Far Too Depressed To Write A Blog Post This Week, So I’m Writing This Instead.

Thursday was a minimum movement day. Grudging forays out of my bed were rare, unimpressive in scale and ambition, and deeply resented. Was there a reason for my depression commandeering my life with such force on Thursday? Yes and no.

I received some bad news. Let me be clear: the news was bad: not earth-shattering, not terrible, not irrecoverable, and not, by any stretch of the imagination, tragic. But it was enough to strip away the tissue-paper thin patina of performative normalcy that I often rely on to fool people (including myself) that I am, for lack of a better phrase, functionally functional.

Who Are You, And How Did You Get Into My Brain?

One of the most insidious elements of my depression is that, when I am in its clutches, it convinces me that this is the real me: the truest expression of my essence. Honestly, my depression has done such a good job over the years on that score, that I believe that to be essentially true regardless if I’m in the throes of an episode or not. The part of me that is capable of joy, or even basic even-keeledness, is sham, and a pretty transparent one at that.

I’m working on that bit. Because, I’m assured by smart people, that’s actually not true.

For me, my only way out of it, besides the fact that, as the noted philosopher/musician George Harrison observed, “All Things Must Pass,” is to actively separate myself from my depression. Sometimes I can only pry myself from it by a few inches (centimeters, actually, but like all Americans, the Metric System makes me uneasy), but it’s essential for me to do that. To look at it as an observer would. And, as much as I can muster, with some clinical detachment: “Ah yes, I am experiencing depression right now.”

We Are Stardust, We Are Golden, And, In My Case, About 14% Cupcakes

My depression is always going to be hanging around me in my life; it is the party guest who will never get the hint and leave (ironically, that’s very often me, too). But it’s important for me to remember it’s my depression, and that it, therefore, belongs to me – not the other way round.

Separation is key. Yes, it’s a part of me, but so is my eerie ability to quote from Monty Python verbatim (women LOVE when I do that, I’ve found. Hell, everyone does), my Yankee fandom (I don’t want to hear your hate about that. Donnie Baseball forever!), my poor math skills, my inability to ever spell bureaucracy correctly (auto-correct did that for me), and my potent, raw sexual charisma (well, let’s be honest: that actually does largely define me).

It’s just one thread in the multi-colored, slightly chunkier than I’d like to be these days tapestry that is me. In fact, I’m going to give it its own name: Edgar (after another depressive writer; but it’s also the sort of name the damn thing deserves). “I am vast,” as Walt Whitman wrote, “I contain multitudes.” It’s OK that it’s part of me. In fact, I know it’s given me a lot of the things I like about myself. But that’s for another post; I’m still too annoyed with Edgar to give him any props today.

What The Hell Does This Have To Do With Writing?

Actually, that’s a rather complicated question, but I take your point. This post isn’t about writing. In fact, as I said at the top, in French (because that’s how bad it was), it isn’t even a blog post. The weird thing is, I’ve been writing like crazy recently. It’s actually not so weird – it’s a chance to take a vacation from myself. I highly recommend it: being away from myself is lovely this time of year.

Anyway, it’s a lovely day, so I’m going venture outside. I hope you’re all feeling outraged by the world, but good about yourselves.

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In The Beginning, Was The Word, and The Word Was…?

For Better Or For Worse, How I Start Plays

Over the course of my weekly play reading group, two actors for whom I have the utmost respect but were previously unknown to one another, have hit it off particularly well. So, in the middle of the night the other night, the idea occurred to me about how much fun it would be to see them in a play together, and that I should try to write one. Only problem was, I had no ideas for a play, and coming up with something to write about is what I suck the most at. I’d just finished a play this spring, and it seemed awfully soon for another idea to come down the pipeline.

I mentioned this desire to my friend (one of the two actors I had in in mind), and she responded enthusiastically. A little while later, apropos of nothing, she sent me a picture of the ultra-aweseome Prime Minister of New Zealand, and (half, I suspect, maybe less than half, if I’m honest) jokingly requested that her character be like her. Because, who wouldn’t want to be?

Well, I Reasoned, Maybe That’s At Least A Start.

A few hours later, out of seemingly nowhere, an idea popped itself into my head. Actually, idea is the wrong word, because, to be honest, I have no clue what that idea actually is. Still. Actually, it’s better described as more of a nebulous intuition, a vague scenario that seemed to present itself with a dramatic arc and interesting characters. It has, by the way, as those down under might themselves might say, “Fuck all” to do with Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s impressive P.M.. At least, not directly. Or more appropriately, yet.

It’s simply a private, fancy hospital suite with an unseen man hooked up to a myriad of life-support equipment, and a wife waiting patiently at his bedside to for him to die. After a moment of this, a daughter of the couple comes blazing in, obviously annoyed at…something. Dialogue then ensues.

It generally takes me 6-10 pages to figure out if I’ve got a play. The most clear sign is that the characters appear more or less fully formed, and that they seem to know a lot of important things about themselves and their present crisis that, if I’m patient, they will eventually be willing to reveal to me and thus, the audience.

Wait A Minute – That Sounds Nauseatingly New Age-y And Ridiculously “Mystical.” Yuck

I can’t honestly say that I disagree. But what can I say? In my experience, there’s a lot you have control over as a writer. That’s the craft part, and it’s vital. But the inspiration, the “spark” of something out of seemingly nowhere that gives you the courage to take a Kierkergaardian leap of faith, isn’t a part I understand intellectually. And not only am I OK with that, I’m grateful for it.

This way, unlike almost everything else in my life, I can’t get in my own way. I realize this may sound a little precious and eye-rollingly twee and mystical. But to be honest, that’s usually how it works for me.

So, I’m Now 10 Pages Into This, And You Now Know More Or Less Everything I Do about What This Play May Be

All I know is that, as of now, it appears to be a play-like thing. It may not be a very worthy one in the end, but one must always trick oneself into believing you’re writing the next Long Day’s Journey Into Night. There’ll be plenty of time for the inevitable disappointment that it isn’t in the editing, readings, and if you’re very lucky, production.

Anyway, writing for me, is always an exercise in hope. You have to start out with that hope and cling to it throughout the inevitable periods of doubt. Hope is the key. And hope, these days, let’s face it, is a rare and necessary thing.

I’d love to hear from other writers how they start writing a new work. In the meantime, stay safe, and be heard.

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This Will Be Brief-ish

An Experiment: To See, If, On The Cusp Of What Feels Like An Imminent Deep Plunge Into Depression And Emotional Paralysis, I Can Mitigate Any Of It By Writing About It

Let’s face it: 2020 has been a great year for a small but no doubt real niche of face-mask enthusiasts, but a soul-fuckingly stressful one for the rest of us. For those of us who always struggle to keep our darker, more hopeless thoughts from commandeering the narrative in our heads, this has been a true crucible for our emotional health.

I always find it useful to look around at my circumstances and see what emotional response my environs objectively warrant. This way, I can decide if my depression/anxiety/despair/German-word-of-your-own-choice-that-combines-elements-of all-of-the-above is a rational response, or simply me spiraling downward because of lack of serotonin/unique, perhaps unconscious psychological triggers, like I’ve done so often and, if I may say so, so expertly my whole life.

The Answer, In This Case, Is An Unambiguous “Yes” To Both

If you can look at the state of our world and not feel at least occasionally overwhelmed by sadness and anger, then, with all due respect, shame on you. Of course, I refer to the worldwide pandemic, but just as depressing to me is our ability to make it a politically divisive issue. If we couldn’t acknowledge for months the obvious fact that the Coronavirus was even a threat, and then, once that became untenable, that taking sensible measures to slow its spread was considered partisan in nature, even I, no mere amateur cynic, couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.

So, yes, that. And now, the unspeakable horror of the brutal ad hoc execution of George Floyd on a street in Minneapolis thrusts in the face of the world the undeniable and seemingly intractable systemic racism and cruelty infecting our institutions once more. The guilt and shame I feel that such a ubiquitous fact of American life needs a murder rendered in hi-def digital quality to put it in the forefront of my mind, as opposed to the quiet little corner of my brain where I, as one of the “privileged,” can easily afford to store it, is real and maddening and disempowering.

You Should Know, As If You Had Any Doubts, I’ve Got Zilch In Terms of About How To Solve This

In a triumph of prose stating the incredibly obvious, this a self-evidently scary, pivotal time. So, yes, I think it’s OK to feel anxious. I think it’s OK to feel depressed. I think it’s OK to feel rage, even. Maybe especially. In fact, I think it’s a sign of emotional and ethical health. It shows you’re morally awake.

But the one thing I’m feeling that I don’t think is acceptable to do is to settle into paralysis. To be honest, this is often my M.O. And for some of us, it requires what feels like a super-human effort to overcome it. Just getting off the couch seems herculean. But that won’t do. The deeper I sink into my couch cushions, the further I delve down into my old, toxic, familiar mental rabbit-holes.

If I can find a way to muster the energy to propel myself into what little, little action I can to do something, no matter how microscopic it may be amid the vastness of the maelstrom, my sense is I’ll feel better. Getting out of my head and trying to do something constructive usually does.

Far, far more importantly, I won’t be sitting totally idle as world, literally, burns.

Conclusion: ?

I can’t imagine I’m the only one who’s feeling that way these days. And for the few who may see this, if this speaks to you in any way, then maybe that’s a good thing: a reassurance that we aren’t alone in our feeling of helplessness and aloneness. And, if I can offer any note of optimism about what we’re all watching around us, it’s that yes, there is violence and opportunists and brutes. But it looks to me like they’re outnumbered. And that’s a thought to fling in the face of the inner despair you may feel creeping up in you, as it does in many of us.

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Beating Swords Into One Acts

Writing In An Age In Which The World Seems To Be Ripping Itself Apart

No thinking person has to be persuaded of the power of words to sway hearts, minds, and even history. “We declare these truths to be self-evident…” “Four score and seven years ago…” “I have a dream…” “Leggo my Eggo.” These phrases still give me goosebumps.

No, I come not bury words, but to ask the age old question of what, if any, responsibility, do writers have to address the political and social ills of a given period? Who knows, Neil Simon may have had a brilliant social satire in him if he’d been so inclined, but by all indications, he seems not to have been. Yet that doesn’t lessen his “worthiness” in my estimation. For others, like Brecht, Ibsen, Miller, Kushner, Lori-Parks, Hare, and so many more, their work is inextricable from their politics. Ditto the late Larry Kramer, whose work did a very rare thing: helped to shift the culture in a new direction, and inspire legions of others to build on his foundations.

Write What You Know (You Care About)

I’m a person of rather strong political views, as anyone on my Twitter feed (and why on earth wouldn’t you be?) will quickly learn. And I’ve written a couple of plays that could be considered political in nature. My play Fellow Travelers, for example, ran in 2018 at the Bay Street Theater, and concerned the complicated relationship between (among?) Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan, and Marilyn Monroe. It dealt in great detail about the perils of McCarthyism, and how the different paths Kazan and Miller chose in dealing with those pressures forever altered their close friendship and their work.

Most people seemed to enjoy the play, which was very gratifying, and would often corner me afterwards in a bar (an experience with a wide degree of pleasantness) and remark to me with a knowing look and lowered voice how “timely” a play it was.

I suppose that’s true (my guess is in American life, reminding people about political paranoia rarely isn’t timely). And although I think it’s clear ultimately where my sympathies lie, the story was not written with a political agenda in mind or moral to teach. In fact, I went to lengths to try to give both Miller and Kazan equally compelling arguments for their choices. I wasn’t interested writing a play that was instructive or prescriptive in any way. I just wanted to write about smart, complex people under the greatest stress of their lives.

Because, And This May Be Just Me, But It’s Just Me

While I have confidence in a great many things (Beatles trivia, Yankees stats…the list thins out considerably from there), I also think of myself as having been absent the day at school the day they taught “How To Live Successfully As An Adult.” It’s taken me years to realize that, there was no class (at least not at my public school). Despite the desperate appearances many people project, in the words of the great William Goldman, “No one knows anything.”

We’re all winging it, to a certain extent, every day. It’s a realization that, depending on my mood, brings me great comfort and/or great despair. I do not always (read: often) have the answers as to how I should act and behave in the world, let alone feel I can tell others how to. I have a distinct sense that trying to be nice and give people the benefit of the doubt plays a big part, but beyond that, I can’t say too much with any sense of authority. But that’s my job as a person: to try to continually work at figuring that stuff out better. And sure, my writing, I believe, can help me with that.

But I believe my job as a writer is to tell a story in as truthful and entertaining way as I can muster.

Now, entertaining, to me, is a very elastic word. The Iceman Cometh I find highly entertaining. Ditto A View From The Bridge and King Lear. But also Noises Off, Barefoot in the Park and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I tend to write dramas that deal with very hard and sad things, but are hopefully a lot of laughs along the way. That’s just how it’s worked out so far. But, I confess, I don’t think there are many writers who can pull off being angry about something, or being desperate to instruct us about something, at the expense of making us emotionally invest in the characters, in a way I find satisfying.

Another Thing I Feel Passionately Unsure About

There’s a more pragmatic reason that plays redolent with a MESSAGE tend to make me itchy inside. This doesn’t apply as much to television writing (where it’s less rare to begin with) as the theater. I mean, aren’t the vast bulk of theater artists (artists in general) at least vaguely singing from the same hymnal? I’m sure there’s some exceptions to this, but in Fellow Travelers, for example, at no point did I feel the need to show that The Red Scare was a bad thing. I don’t think anyone interested in coming to see this play was likely to be on the fence about that.

Saints and devils bore the hell out of me, and, I think most audiences, too. I was very lucky to meet and briefly talk on Opening Night to Jules Feiffer, who lived through that era and both knew and loathed Kazan for his actions. Mr. Feiffer sought me out afterwards, and was very kind to me when he saw the play, which I was obviously quite nervous about, especially because I go to pains to show Kazan’s existential struggle was every bit as real as Miller’s. But, being a great writer, he understood what I was at least attempting to do – to create three dimensional, often contradictory characters struggling with their uncertainty and self-interest. He could appreciate the portrayal without abandoning his core convictions that Kazan was in the wrong.

When I Was Younger, So Much Younger Than Today (Actually, I Hadn’t Been Born Yet)

Way back when, Broadway was an essentially democratic institution, or at least had the patina of it. Middle class people could go to see plays on Broadway with a fair amount of regularity. It had some cultural currency. Playwrights used to make the cover of Time. I mean. Things have changed, no?

And while these audiences expected to be diverted, they also expected to be challenged on occasion. There’s the possibly apocryphal story of the owner of Macy’s, on opening night of Death of a Salesman, turning to his wife after the curtain call and vowing to write a memo to his managers forbidding the firing of salesmen because of age.

It’s certainly pretty to think so. But today, Broadway, and increasingly, Off-Broadway, have often become destinations out of reach to all but the obviously privileged. And I get the cynical suspicion that many audiences today go to so called “serious” plays, in part, at least sometimes, as a salve to their consciences, or perhaps worse, just to have something to chat about with their peers. “Yes, that is a terrible thing that’s happening to those [fill in the blank],” they say as they impatiently wait for their Uber. “I’ll definitely have to mention it at brunch next weekend.”

And maybe that helps. I’m sure it can and does, in fact. And maybe it’s always been thus. Probably. I guess I’m just saying, if being a social justice warrior is your bag, I’m with you! However, if I saw something going on that I felt a burning need to address, there are few less direct or effective ways of doing so than writing a play about it. I mean, 1) if I get it produced, it’s possible it will be like five years after I wanted to address the issue and 2) I’m likely preaching to people who agree with me already.

Before I Start To Sound Too Cynical, Let Me Add A Little More

I attended a theater conference last year, which I was excited about: meet seem people, make some connections and friends, perhaps unleash my killer karaoke version of “Caribbean Queen” to a grateful throng. I was expecting workshops and panels on the nuts and bolts of getting your plays done and how to improve your work as an artist. Instead, I found it all a bit alienating. Like a Woke Olympics – with literally more safe spaces than play readings.

Now, I’m White, straight, and a man, so I get that I even though I think I get oppression and systemic marginalization, I know I don’t really. I try to be vigilant about this: I sometimes succeed, and surely many times fail. I believe it’s long past time to hear more voices in theater from oppressed and marginalized communities (how brave of me). I think, in fact, it’s vital for whatever culture relevance theater has left.

I’m just ultimately of the opinion that most – if not every great work of literature, even if overtly political – is successful based on how well we empathize with the characters on a human, non-political level. For all the brilliant political insight of Orwell‘s 1984, it’s the moment when Winston, the rats inches from his face, screams, “Do it to Julia!” that still hits me in the gut most.

That unquestionable masterpiece, Angels in America, written by Brecht acolyte Tony Kushner, employs many of Brecht’s techniques in the two plays. Yet, I would argue, it’s when Kushner breaks free, and even contradicts some of Brecht’s edicts, that make the plays scorch the minds and souls of its audiences. Kushner’s ability to make us feel for his indelible characters gives this two play cycle its rightful place in the Pantheon. If we don’t feel Prior’s fear and bravery, soften to the initially implacable Hannah, respect and fall in love with Belize – hell, if we aren’t moved, in spite of all logic, by Ethel Rosenberg and Louis saying Kaddish for the hateful Roy Cohn, the plays don’t work. But work they do.

Wait: Scratch That, Reverse It

But then there’s the late, great Larry Kramer, whose work as a writer and activist, as I said earlier, truly shook our culture. If it didn’t remove the scales from mainstream America’s eyes about the AIDS crisis all by itself (and it did more than its share), it paved the way for others to carry the message into the mainstream. Anyone who cares about playwriting, or theater, or the power of activism, or simply human empathy should mourn his loss. Because, despite his palpable rage – maybe because of it – he never lost his power to move with words, and to make clear the issues he was passionate about were deeply human.

I guess, in the end, that’s all I’m after as a writer. To try to make what I write about feel recognizably human. I think that’s our only non-negotiable job. Even with the characters we don’t like or agree with.

We live in an age where people are given permission, indeed often encouraged, by our “leaders” to view other groups of people as less than human. So, rather than aiming for a play in which everyone exits the theater chanting “Strike, strike, strike!” as they supposedly did after watching the premiere of OdetsWaiting For Lefty, I’d just like the audience to see a bit of themselves, or those they care about in the characters. And some humanity with those whom they they don’t agree with.

And yes, as I rather glibly stated before, in theaters we’re mostly preaching to the choir. But hearing the choir sing words you love and feel deep in your bones feels like a necessity these days.

Actually, in the America of 2020, reminding people of their common humanity is a political act. That’s what its seemingly come to.

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Learning To Love The Struggle Of Learning Something As You’re Struggling

My TV Writing Learning Curve During A Nasty Full-Frontal Assault of Depression

One of my current projects – arguably my central one these days – is working on new historically-based television series with, it’s recently been decided, a potential three season arc.

I wrote the original series, clocking in at about 11 hours or so, in a period of two and half months last summer/early autumn. I was generally pleased with the work, but I also knew this was only going be a first draft. It’s the story of famous family, whose most famous member, the one that would draw initial interest, is of the second generation. Nonetheless, as a draft, the best approach for me was write it chronologically, knowing that this was unlikely to fly in its final incarnation.

Few Things Are More Pompous And Self-Aggrandizing And Yet Totally Meaningless In This Industry Than Saying, “I Took Some Meetings.” But I Took Some Meetings.

And while there is, I’m happy to say, some interest in some quarters in the project (which I mean, come on, is there a less meaningful statement than that?), I’ve been working a bit with a smart, seasoned producer-director who has helped me rethink the series’ structure. Thus far, I’m totally on board. So I’m currently re-working the pilot to address our new direction, and what I’ve found is something everyone knows and says, something that I know and say, but I’m finally getting: there is a clear overlap between playwriting and TV writing, but they’re ultimately quite different skill sets.

Well, Duh

The most obvious one is the one that, no matter how often I reminded myself of, is a trap I still fall into. My playwright’s instincts are to rely on language to tell my story, and in television, no matter how good you think the dialogue might be, that can get boring quickly. One needs to think visually whenever possible. I admit this a challenge for me. A challenge I’m happy to embrace, but a real one nonetheless. The result is every I time I look over my script, I hear my director’s voice saying “Why, exactly, do we need to know this? And why must it be told rather than shown through an action?” I’m astonished at how often I don’t have a good answer.

Words, Words, Words – Please Cut Them

Now, full disclosure: even as playwrights go, I’m an over-writer. I try not to be, but I’m also not too bothered by it because, I know the actors and directors will make clear to me through their work and comments what needs cutting. By the time a play gets to rehearsal, I seldom re-write very much. I am, however, forever shaving dialogue.

Of course, different writers have different voices, and some are wordier than others. I think that’s all kinds of OK. I don’t mind if my characters talk more than others’ might, as long as what they’re saying is important, entertaining, and moves the damn thing along. Now, in my TV series, it’s set in the 19th Century (a wordier era), and among people who wield language as their stock and trade. So I’ve got a little leeway.

But what I’m finding is, rather than feeling constrained by the fact I need to shed more lines and, sometimes, whole scenes, it excites me, because ultimately, it frees me up to get to even meatier stuff. For example, I wrote a perfectly entertaining scene about a character buying a ticket to see a play. Only after polishing the dialogue to a fine sheen did I realize: who the hell cares how he buys his ticket? We just need to see him in the damn theater. So, that scene become, “Cut To: Character finds his seat in the theater,” and we’re not only where we need to be, we’ve saved two pages. And pages are precious commodities.

Anyhoo

The bottom line is, thank Buddha I have something new like this to wrestle with. Because, like many of you I’m sure, I’m finding myself more and more at the end of my tether in terms of emotional health. Maybe it’s the “Holiday Weekend” that feels, to me, nothing like a holiday, or maybe it is the accretion of maddening isolation, despair, and uncertainty that’s been the central motif of 2020, but I’m grateful to have some means of escape. It also could simply be a regular attempt by my depression to wrest the steering wheel from the backseat, as it it is wont to do. Probably a hybrid of all these things.

In any event, I’m grateful I’ve something as absorbing as learning the nuances of a craft I haven’t devoted as much time to as I have to playwriting to focus on.

No Matter How Bad A Moment It May Feel, It’s Only a Moment (Or Ten)

To be frank, It hasn’t proved enough thus far, not close to enough, but it’s something. And if 2020 has sought to prove anything, it’s that you should grab what you can get with both hands. Hope everyone is hanging in and staying safe out there. Have as good a holiday as you can. We’ve all earned it.

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My Naughty Weekend Fling With Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard

Often overlooked among his many accomplishments was his ability to look good in a bow tie.

What I May Have Learned Spending The Weekend Completely Rewriting The Dialogue To This Beloved Play For My Quarantine Zoom Reading Group.

It’s a rite of passage for many young (and, in my case, not so young) playwrights: trying your hand at adapting a Chekhov play. A few summers back, just as an exercise, mind you, I wrote the first two acts of a modernized Uncle Vanya. When my then agent asked me what I was up to and I told her, she shouted into the phone: “Stop! Literally every person in New York has written an adaptation of Uncle Vanya! Cabbies. Hedge fund managers. Halal cart vendors. Every member of The New York Knicks organization. Everyone!” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. I still thought it had potential value, though, seeing if I could learn anything by essentially tracing over the blueprint of a great playwright’s great play. I can’t honestly say if it was. At minimum, it saved me from enjoying nature or interacting with family members.

Necessity (With A Dash Of Hubris) Is The Mother Of Invention

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m part of a Quarantine Zoom reading group. We read a play every Thursday evening. It’s become a highlight of my week. The people on it are all supremely gifted and terrific company. It’s definitely high up there on the small list of things keeping me sane these days.

There was some clamoring for Chekhov, and so I thought: great. I thought, given our little company, The Cherry Orchard might suit us best. The problem was, there are so many iterations out there. I even looked into buying Sir Tom Stoppard‘s translation of The Cherry Orchard (Can’t go wrong with good old Sir Tom, right?), but the copies wouldn’t arrive in time. Also, and this is hard to stress enough, I’m very cheap.

So I looked online at several public domain versions of the text, of which there are no shortage. But, to be frank, I found them all stilted and well, dull. Most of them were translated around 1915, so that could be part of the problem. Plus, to be honest, I’ve always found the fact that The Cherry Orchard was explicitly labeled a “comedy” by Chekhov himself somewhat baffling. I get comedies don’t have to be knee-slappers, but still.

From Russia, With Love of Human Suffering

I’ve always had a suspicion that many Americans (read: me) aren’t getting the full scope of the man’s genius when we read Chekhov. I think it’s mostly the Shakespeare Trap: everything is too reverential, too earnest, at least when done badly (which isn’t uncommon). I once knew an American actress who grew up in Russia, and asked her what we Americans didn’t get right about Chekhov and she immediately shouted (we were in a bar), “Oh. My. God! Chekhov is hysterically funny!!

And I thought, really?

Much of it, she explained to me, is that Russians and Americans have very different senses of humor. Russians, she claimed, were not as into witticisms (although she claimed they do enjoy a good pun. But again, those really don’t translate). They find the heartbreak and self-deception so many of his characters endure inherently comic, which, yeah, I can kinda see that, but I think we tend to lean more into the heartbreak of it all.

That conversation always stuck with me.

So, What the Hell, I Thought, I Only Have The Respect of Theater Artists I Deeply Admire To Lose Forever. I’ll Give It A Whirl.

I had two main goals when I set about re-writing (actually, that’s way too pompous a term for what I did. I’d call what I did more of a rephrasing) The Cherry Orchard: not to change the plot or the characters’ natures (as I read them) one iota, and simply try to make the language sound natural coming out of American, Canadian, and Australian actors’ mouths in 2020 while still honoring the period of the piece (no cursing, for instance, or references to Zoomba. Nor does anyone at any point refer in my version to the Cherry Orchard estate as their “crib”).

Oh, and I also wanted to try, if I could, make it occasionally funny without altering any of the characters or circumstances.

Task One: I Had To Put Out Of My Mind That I Was “Re-Writing” One Of The Greatest Plays Ever Written

This became much easier for me when I realized I wasn’t re-writing Chekhov, but someone else’s version of what they thought Chekhov wrote. That was surprisingly freeing. And, as the hardest thing for me to write – by far – is plot, and that in this case the plot was taken care of for me by a Master, I found the writing went very quickly. Whether the endeavor was at all successful or a crashing failure, I won’t have a clue til Thursday, at least. Having said this, here’s a few things I noticed along the way:

Dramaturgically Speaking, The Cherry Orchard Is One Weird-Ass Play, In Terms of Construction and, Well, Other Things, Too.

The play sets up what we think is going to be the play’s central dramatic conflict – the potential loss of the Cherry Orchard – almost immediately. Pretty high stakes. It is an ancestral estate, after all. So far, so good. But, then, like two pages later, it clearly provides the solution to the great dramatic obstacle. Like, an obvious and immediate solution.

Lopahkin, almost literally on page 10, explains exactly how the family can keep its land and save its dwindling fortunes. Yes, he admits, it will necessitate chopping down the orchard and the pulling down the ancestral home, which isn’t exactly un-fraught, but the family is saved from financial ruin 15 minutes into the play!

Except, it turns out, the cherry orchard isn’t the main issue at all. Because Lubov and Gaev (the owners of the estate) refuse to listen to Lopahkin for some never explained or even broadly hinted at reason. Perhaps because he’s the son of a Serf? Or maybe they just can’t accept that their world, one way or another, is about to permanently change. At times, it’s as if they literally can’t hear him.

I firmly believe (I’m sure this isn’t an original idea), Chekhov doesn’t give a hoot about the cherry orchard; so, what does he care about? What does he want us to care about? If I had to pick one central theme (because I think there’s a few of them), I’d say that he’s most interested in people’s unwillingness/inability to adapt to inevitable change and the toll it exacts on them.

To Quote Bob Dylan, “There Was Music In The Cafes At Night, And Revolution In The Air.”

Change surrounds these characters: a vast social shift that would culminate in the Russian Revolution. The rumblings of this conflict were none too subtle to most Russians as Chekhov wrote this. And yes, Chekhov is clearly interested in commenting on this development, especially through the character of Trofimov. In characteristic Chekhovian fashion, much of what Trofimov says is prescient and true, yet he himself is such an imperfect messenger – one minute eloquent and full of ideals, the next full of idiotic notions of being “above love” and offstage pratfalls – it’s hard to take his lofty ideals too seriously.

Even with the things Chekhov clearly agrees with politically, such as the Emancipation of the Serfs, he has a few characters (former Serfs themselves, sometimes) express great ambivalence about it. This is, of course, something all great writers do: they dig into the contradictions inside our motives and the ambivalent outcomes of all human behavior and endeavor, however well-intentioned. And yeah, tip of the cap here to Chekhov for doing that as well as pretty much anyone who’s ever written drama.

But if this were a play mainly about social upheaval, I don’t think it would resonate with people as much as it does. Nor is it, I think, Chekhov’s main preoccupation. No, as I wrote earlier, in my very humble and under-read opinion, it’s about the tragedy of change, and many people’s resistance/inability to adapt to it, both in their world and within themselves. He wants to show us the folly of how we go about trying to protect ourselves from the inevitable.

Speaking Of Turn Of The Century Geniuses With Poor Health

I keep coming back to what James Joyce answered when he was asked what his short story collection, Dubliners, published a few years after The Cherry Orchard, was about: “Paralysis,” was his one word response. It is, I think, one of the most human of traits. Both men were writing about societies on the cusp of revolution. But ultimately, it’s personal paralysis they’re both more interested in. Our inability to unstick ourselves, even when we know it’s what we should do.

What else can explain Lubov and Gaev’s refusal to heed Lopahkin’s obviously sound and, believe me when I say, repeated advice? How to justify why Lopahkin, the smartest and most confident character in the play in many ways, is unable to propose to Varya, when he knows it’s not only what he wants, but he also knows it’s what she wants, too? He just has to ask the damn question!

Is it that, finally, the successful son of a Serf cannot picture himself being worthy, or happy, living with a woman whose grandparents owned his? Or is it simpler? Is it basic human shyness and interpersonal incompetence at sharing our true feelings? Maybe it’s a mixture. It’s seldom one thing in life; it’s just as rarely one thing in Chekhov.

In the same way, what else can justify Lubov’s tragic dedication to a man she knows to be a cad? And yet, though we clearly see her devotion to him is dumb and self-destructive, and even she says it’s dumb and self-destructive, who among us can’t empathize with her plight at least a little?

Chekhov portrays one of the few characters in the play who isn’t afraid of change, the faithless, socially climbing footman Yasha, as without regard for anyone else around him, including his own mother. In order to move forward unencumbered, unweighted by the past – Lubov calls her love for her unnamed scoundrel “like a stone” – do we need to be equally heartless? Are we all, ultimately, only fully committed to and, equally, trapped by, ourselves, as perhaps the last moments of the play suggest?

Remember, it’s a comedy, people.

Other Dramaturgically Odd Choices In The Play That Would Likely Earn Him A C+ And A Terse “See Me During Office Hours” If Chekhov Were In A Grad School Writing Program

Chekhov makes reference to the tragic drowning of Lubov’s young son, which prompts her leaving the cherry orchard estate to begin with. And while it may arguably hover over the play and its characters throughout (just because there’s no direct evidence of this doesn’t make it untrue), Chekhov makes barely any mention of it after the first act. That’s a big thing to leave not only unresolved, but unremarked upon.

Plus, and here’s where I get all edgy and brazenly commit theatrical sacrilege, Chekhov’s expositional writing is often so clunky, so in your face bad, I refuse to believe a writer of his genius wasn’t doing it on purpose. Though I’ve yet to figure out what’s gained by it.

On The Other Hand…

To counter my bold assertion (so typical of me, the universally acknowledged “bad boy” of playwriting blogs), actress Jill Eikenberry offers this:

“I think in those expositional speeches, they’re just trying to figure out how their lives have turned out this way.  They all think of themselves as the center of the universe.  They’re Russian.  Also, Chehkov was in cahoots with Stanislavsky and they were all about the inner lives of the characters.  It was such a new idea.  When I played Yelena in Uncle Vanya at Yale, I thought too many of her speeches were filled with ennui and self-pity.  I thought the audience would hate me.  But at the first preview, when I finished one of my least favorite monologues and swooned onto the divan,  the audience laughed hysterically.  And I thought ‘Hmm.  This guy might know a thing or two about playwriting.'” Touché, Jill, touché.

Although I think it would be silly to entirely discount the comedic power of swooning on divans. It’s gotten me out of more than one sticky situation, both in my plays and my life. I recommend it highly.

Oh! And He Also Does This!

He also breaks HIS OWN SUPER FAMOUS, INCREDIBLY VITAL, CLICHED, AND BASIC PLAYWRITING 101 RULE. You know the one: “If we a see a gun at the start of the play (or start of ACT II in this case), be sure it’s fired by the end.” He breaks this rule. Not once. But twice. Twice.

And Yet…

The beautiful (seriously, he was kinda dreamy looking – the man looked hot with a goatee – a GOATEE) bastard (actually, by most accounts, an extraordinarily nice man) gets away with it; I think he gets away with it all. There’s no getting away from the power of his characters’ sloppy, deeply relatable humanity. Maybe, in the end, to capture that, you have to be willing to write a less than “technically perfect” play. Probably doesn’t hurt to be a genius, either.

Please! Share your thoughts on Chekhov with me. Praise my insight or call me out on my stupidity! I want to hear from you! I’d love to hear your thoughts on adapting works in general! I’ll let you know how the reading goes.

Who Gets To Tell What Stories And Why?

Some Interesting Questions Raised By A Recent Column In The New York Times Claims That Colorblind Casting Is Well-Meaning But Perhaps Ultimately Damaging To BIPOC.

In a column published by The New York Times on July 8th, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/08/arts/television/hamilton-colorblind-casting.html Maya Phillips argues that “even well-intentioned efforts at creating diversity create complications.” I personally found the article cogent and compelling. I found myself largely nodding in agreement with Ms. Phillips’ arguments. But I have an honest question. The article’s thesis seems to be that, however well-meaning colorblind casting is, it is by its very nature, inauthentic.

This may be true. But if that’s a central pillar in your argument, where is the line drawn? I mean, certain things seem obvious to me, and to be fair, the column confined itself largely (though not completely) to issues of race. That White actors shouldn’t play BIPOC roles seems a no-brainer to me. However, in the name of authenticity and fairness, why are we somewhat arbitrarily stopping there? If it is a question of using a rubric that states the oppressor should never play the oppressed, fair enough. That makes sense. We’re done here then, right?

I Find Few Things More Intellectually Lazy Than Talking About A “Slippery Slope.” But Isn’t This A Slippery Slope?

But does that mean a straight actor can never play gay character? Should a Non-Jewish actor be allowed to play a Jewish role? Certainly the Jewish experience is innately different from that of the WASP. If “authenticity” is a central concern, wouldn’t this apply the other way around, too? Should Dustin Hoffman not have been cast in The Graduate?

It’s Not Just Race: Ethnicity Is Problematic, Too.

Phillips castigates the racist assumption that “Chinese is synonymous with Korean.” Again, I don’t disagree. But then it has to be asked, why stop at the conflation of those two nationalities? Should Nebraska farm boy Marlon Brando not have been allowed to play Stanley Kowalski, a Polish-American WWII vet? His Polishness is, in fact, a subject raised more than once in the text (not as a central theme, admittedly). But he talks about his war experiences, of which Brando had none.

Should he have been allowed to play the Sicilian Vito Corleone, who, at 8, witnesses his mother’s murder and is smuggled out of his native Italy to America? For context, let’s remember that well into the 20th Century, many in America considered Italians and those of Mediterranean descent to be a separate race. I know, right? We’re a pretty f#%$ed up nation. In fact, in the 1920s, Massachusetts law forbade Italians from having romantic relationships with Whites.

Even leaving that aside, I would argue the horrible experiences young Vito underwent are overtly traumatic and formative and were totally foreign to Brando’s life, just as I’m confident Meryl Streep didn’t have to choose in real life which child to sacrifice to the Nazis at a death camp. To not have a problem with these casting choices would, I think, seem to take for granted that being White is a sufficiently homogenous experience to make such portrayals OK. Which is, I think, naive at best.

Art Is “Holding A Mirror Up To Nature,” Right? But Aren’t Reflections Inherently Inauthentic, Too?

To quote the article: “Any casting of a performer in the role of a race other than their own assumes that the artist step into the lived experience of a person whose culture isn’t theirs, and so every choice made in that performance will inevitably be an approximation.”

Totally fair. But that describes the craft of acting in general, no? Again, I’m not posing these questions rhetorically, nor am I saying it’s fine for Emma Stone to play an Asian-American in a film (yes, that actuallyhappened). The reasons for that being wrong are multiple -obviously, the cultural erasure, but also the sheer fact that Hollywood isn’t overflowing with roles for Asian-Americans.

Because the underlying assumption of the article seems to be that unless you’ve experienced the world more or less precisely (an oxymoron, I know) as your character has, you have no right to play it. This creates a very problematic framework for the making of art, I think. Most troubling of all, it also seems to implicitly argue that our common humanity is a nothing but a naive, well-meaning myth. And, to me, as the kids like to say, the implications of that are chilling AF.

I’m not trying to be provocative; I’d love some feedback. Let me close by saying I think it’s a good thing that we’re openly tackling these questions, and trying to find equitable and morally sound answers. I’m curious as to how my fellow artists feel about this.