We Read To Know We’re Not Alone

Someone Famous Said That, I Think, And Yet My Laziness Is So Potent That I Can’t Be Bothered To Look It Up. And I’m At My Computer. Google Could Not be More Readily Accessible To Me If It Were Implanted In My Brain. Which Is Coming in 2024.

“We read to know we’re not alone.” That’s always stuck with me, and struck me as a deep truth, However, I’m having trouble reading these days. And not just the long and hard words, like “avuncular,” or “schadenfreude.” Even the simple words in large print with accompanying illustrations elude me. Reading has always been a refuge for me, an escape, a lifeline to, well, life. These past few weeks, however, for reasons I can only partly identify, have been some of the hardest of my life, and my capacity to read, which would normally act as a much needed solace, has vanished. My loneliness and sense of isolation are maxed out.

In its place? Despair. Costco sized pallets of it. Real, unassuageable, unreasoning, screaming-like-a-toddler-at the-top-of-its-lungs-for-attention-at-a-eulogy despair. No tragedies have befallen me nor those I love. My daughter’s college closed its campus because of Covid-19, which breaks her heart, and therefore mine, but all in all, my family and I are still relatively lucky.

In All Fairness, We May Feel Alone Because The World Right Now, To Quote Emily Dickinson, “Sucks.”

The world is quite literally on fire, and as tragic as that is, that may not crack my top three or so places for unvarnished tragedy and evil stalking the world and, more specifically, my country. 2020 has been to indescribably awful years what The Beatles were to 20th Century music, and Friday’s death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg may well have been its Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Alas, as an avid Beatles fan, I’m all-too aware that the Beatles arguably went on to top Pepper with masterpieces like The White Album and Abbey Road. So no, we’re not out of the woods (which our president tells us may contain exploding trees, but let’s not even unpack that).

I’ve been undergoing a course of Ketamine treatment most of the summer, and while it initially held some promise and even, for about five glorious days, made me feel fully human for the first time since the Clinton Administration, it has backfired spectacularly these last few weeks; in fact, never have I felt more truly alone. Not to worry, I have a dedicated team of professionals working with me, but to be honest, I believe we are with mental health roughly where we were with bodily health around 1790. I’m hopeful for geometric strides in the field soon, but for now, I’m essentially being prescribed a course of leeches.

I Believe The Coronavirus Will Not Defeat Us, But It’s Sure Has Hell Beaten The Crap Out of Me, And I Haven’t Even Had It.

As Joni Mitchell taught us long ago, “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone,” and that’s what it’s been like for me and reading. Now, luckily, I have been writing copious amounts for the last six months more or less uninterrupted.

So at first, I didn’t notice it. But, for the moment, all the drafts have been all drafted as they can be at this stage, and so I turned to books and found they just couldn’t cohere in my brain. Music, too. Music, that I love actually sounds unpleasant to me right now. So, whatever the “it” is that I’m in, I am pretty firmly ensconced inside of it.

I’ve been alternately anxiety-riddled, disconsolate, and arbitrarily teeming with rage (Was it was stupid, mean, dangerous, and pointlessly toxic to yell at the man with the pickup bearing Trump stickers taking up two slots in the parking lot, “We get it: you have a small penis”? Of course it was.) And yet…

Anyway, the point is, I’ve become a pretty loathsome person of late. And just as we need, more than ever, to be KIND as possible to each other. Just my luck. So, yes, the isolation and feeling of alienation from so many of my fellow citizens has, for the moment, knocked me onto the canvass.

I’m writing this not to garner pity or sympathy (although let me be crystal clear on this point: that’s not beneath me), but because I think many of us are wrestling with at least a vaguely similar feeling. Hopefully not as badly as I am, and hopefully you’re coping in less toxic and ill-advised ways. Maybe this might make you feel a little less alone, or ideally, smug about how much better you’re handling than I am.

But Lo, Rising From The Ashes Of My Shattered Psyche Like A Phoenix, Or Like The Idyllic New England Town’s Christmas Carol Singalong In The Last Ten Minutes Of A Hallmark Movie, There Is Hope.We Are Not, In Fact, Alone.

I’m not talking about the whole world right now, but just us. This sense of isolation. It’s largely illusion. We will get through it. Have so far. Even the reading will come back. If I can’t get through a novel, I’ll try a short story. If that’s too overwhelming, a short poem: not a deliberately-in-your-face-screw-you-with-my-obscurity modernist type poem, but a digestible one, designed for humans. If that fails, there’s always The Lockhorns (man, they REALLY don’t seem well-suited for each other).

I read a bit of Rilke last night, largely because I wanted to casually drop into my essay that I’m the kind of person who reads Rilke, but the point is I was finally able to feel a connection again, especially this bit:

““Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

That’s good advice. And it’s always, I admit, a sightly sadistic comfort for me in knowing the loneliness and isolation that even a great soul and mind like his must’ve endured to be able write this. Even if the feeling less alone is through pain, uncertainty, or despair, you’re still less alone. That’s the closest thing I can offer to hope to all of you and to myself today. But it’s enough.

Why Am I Even A Writer?

I’m Being Totally Serious

I’ve led, by most objective standards, a pretty privileged life. I’ve had the advantages of my parents’ love and hard work, my race, my gender, my sexual preference, and my (brooding and magnetic) sexuality to provide me with opportunities that, statistically, place me very much in the minority. From a material standpoint, I was quite comfortably middle class.

My life growing up was far from perfect, but leaps and bounds better than many others. I won’t bore you with my individual emotional scars, because we all have them, and I’ll bet some of yours are way more gnarly and impressive than mine. I was attracted to the arts at an early age (an opportunity afforded to me by my privilege), and found, luckily, I had some natural aptitude for music and, in particular, acting and writing. No more aptitude than thousands of others, of course, and indeed quite likely less than thousands more.

Fascinating, Griping Stuff, Jack, So Far. What’s Your Point, Again?

As long as I can recall being cognizant of my emotional life, I’ve fought a more or less perpetual battle with gnawing depression and deep alienation (I moved around a LOT as a young kid. Could that be a part of it? Maybe? It also runs in my family. Frankly, who cares why in the end? It just was/is). Still, in even this, I was relatively lucky. My family wasn’t perfect (thank God – material!), but I never doubted I was loved. A basic outcast in elementary and junior high school (who among us wasn’t?), by high school I had the great fortune of finding a group of smart, warm, true friends, most of whom I’m lucky enough to still have meaningful connections with.

Ditto college. I ended up going to to three colleges. The first one gave me still more wonderful, lifelong friends, as well as the third (the second college I attended, SUNY Stony Brook, I found to be what I’d imagine it would look like if your local DMV ran a university. That’s just my experience; that’s not on Stony Brook). I left my first college due to an emotionally devastating break up, which was not the first, but certainly the most tangible sign, that I was not as emotionally resilient as I would like to be. 30 (30??) years later, it is still very much a work in progress.

Wow, This Is Sooo Gripping, Jack. How Have You Not Optioned This Yet? What’s Your Point?

I had already shown clear signs of emotional instability by my adolescence. I half-heartedly tried therapy, but found it pointless. I have since been through almost every therapy and therapist you can imagine (I believe they eventually formed a Facebook support group for each other). The arts – theater, particularly – was the only place I’d ever discovered where I felt truly like myself – the same experience countless others have had. That sense of loneliness and alienation was absent.

Of course, as any professional knows, the great irony of the theater business is that it’s 98% a carnival of isolation and alienation. Artists tend to be thin-skinned and emotionally vulnerable (or available, if you’re an optimist), and yet they work in an industry that can be nothing short of brutalizing to one’s ego and psyche. My 20’s, when an actor needs to spend every waking hour hunting and making connections, was basically a blur of bed-ridden, game-show watching depression for me. I may (or may not) have had the talent to work, but I lacked the toughness and discipline.

However, what I discovered relatively late and after several aborted attempts, was that I could write a little. Moreover, I could do it while working a full time job, because I now had two children, who insisted on eating, without exception, every single goddamned day.

Finally, The Writing Part. At Least I Hope.

With some luck and encouragement, I started to gain a little headway in the field. Not an exorbitant amount, but enough to convince myself wasn’t being delusional. I’ve been a professional playwright for over ten years, and while I’m always going to want to achieve more, I’ve been reasonably lucky. Most importantly, I get to be in rehearsal rooms again – which are truly, besides the times I spend with my now somehow largely grown children, the only time I ever I feel I belong. So, in a phrase, I write because it affords me rare access to feelings of acceptance and belonging.

That’s Sweet, I Guess, But Strictly Speaking, Is That A Good Enough Reason?

I’ve never been sure of that. And the last years have only intensified that question for me. Because, as I’ve made clear, my reasons for writing are selfish. And with the world literally on fire these days, isn’t it ultimately indulgent to do something largely because it makes you feel good? I mean, talk about privilege.

I’m writing this because this year, as I know it has for many of us, forced us into a stark reevaluation of purpose. It’s not like I don’t work for causes I believe in, but shouldn’t I just drop it all and use whatever meager talents I have in the service of helping to make this current cultural hells cape slightly less hellscapish? Maybe doing so would even fill me with a sense of purpose, which might go a long way to quelling the despair, anxiety, and alienation I still wrestle with daily.

Perhaps. But.

The truth is there’s a reason I’ve written three full length plays, a lengthy monologue, a TV pilot, and a one act play in 2020. It’s because that’s what I need to do to keep myself going. There’s been more than one moment as a writer, after a particularly bitter disappointment, where I’ve said aloud, “I’m done,” but I knew I was kidding myself. Who knows when theater will rise from the ashes and what form it will take, yet here I am, typing away. If I stopped writing, even if I never get so much as a reading the rest of my career, a large part of myself, the one part of myself that doesn’t always feel a bit lost, would be utterly at sea.

I write because, through various bends along the road, somehow I became a writer. I can only contribute what I can contribute. Believe me, I’d be a worse than useless frontline worker in this pandemic. I write because it gives me my best shot as being an acceptably tolerable father, son, friend, partner, and citizen. I also write because, hopefully, in some small way, some of it may speak to someone else out there, and at least make them feel a little less alone. But that’s pretty lofty.

I have to be contented with that. Not that I can’t and won’t work as a citizen to help out in other ways, but I have to believe that as long as I’m writing the best way I am capable of, than that serves as reason enough.

2020 Gets Even 2020ier

I’m Back, And I’m Not Even Sure Where I Went

It’s been a while since I’v posted on here – well over a month. A confluence of factors, some good, some less than ideal, conspired to keep me away. Like most of us this year, I’ve sort of lost a real sense of time, so my last post, published on July 25th, feels both like just a few days and a lifetime ago.

Mostly, I’ve been busily writing the first draft of a new play, which is certainly a nice thing to be preoccupied with. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been writing more or less continually this year, which is part dumb luck and part, I’m sure, my brain feverishly trying to find a place into which I could escape from my thoughts and the world in general. This most recent play is based on historical figures, which is even better in terms of sucking up time and attention, as it requires a requisite amount of research.

Ignorance: It’s Gotten Me This Far

The two characters at the heart of the play are quite famous, but lived in the 17th and 18th centuries. As a result, although there’s no shortage of biographies on them, there are sections that are either merely speculative or lost to history altogether. For me, this is sort of a sweet spot as a writer. It gives me lots of room to play around. I was vaguely aware of their biographies. And I delved and learned a fait amount more. And as both men are famous classical composers, and my knowledge of that genre is scant, I needed to study up on that. Specifically, each man’s contributions.

Eventually, if this play ever sees the light of day, I’ll need to bring aboard a Musical Director, who will have to help guide me where I’ve gone egregiously astray. But the thing is, I feel that while you owe a degree of fidelity to the essence of who these people were, it should only be in the service of advancing the story that you want to tell. And, as the events I depict in my play are lost entirely to history, I don’t even have to worry about warping a narrative just to fit my story.

If You’re Looking For A Good Documentary, May I Recommend Netflix?

Amadeaus is among my favorite plays. Peter Shaffer is a genius, I think. It’s brilliant. Yet, anyone coming away from the play or film believing they now know the real story of Mozart and Salieri is woefully mistaken. There’s no real evidence to suggest Salieri was outraged by Mozart, let alone that he plotted his death. And while Mozart was indeed, shall we say, eccentric in some of the ways he’s portrayed in the script, these quirks are heightened for dramatic effect. I think a dramatist has a responsibility to get at what they feel is the emotional truth and circumstances of the characters (as they see them), but a rigid adherence to facts not only doesn’t ensure this, it often hinders this task.

Historians would be appalled if your thoughts on King Richard III were shaped solely by Shakespeare’s portrayal of him. Dramatists are not, nor should try to be, documentarians. Of course the closer you get to present day figures, the more carefully you need to tread. Legal reasons compel this more exacting approach as much as moral ones.

I once spent an hour and half talking to a lawyer from the Shubert Organization about my play Fellow Travelers, which concerned the lives of, among others, Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller, and Marilyn Monroe. As it happens, I stuck fairly closely to the facts of the story as it unfolded in real life, but some compressions and embellishments were necessary. and of course, the vast bulk of the dialogue was entirely invented. As it turned out, my script passed legal muster.

“History Is A Nightmare From Which I’m Trying To Awake” – James Joyce

I hear you, James. I feel the same way about current events. At any rate, history is a slippery, and, counterintuitively, very much living and present thing. At least our understanding of it is constantly evolving. Most of my plays are entirely fiction. But a handful are based loosely on real people and events.

This has pros and cons. Personally, I always struggle with plot – writing about history greatly alleviates, although not entirely obviates, this problem. However, and I’ve had this happen, you’re guaranteed to have people approach you in the lobby or bad after a performance, indignantly demanding why I place a certain event in 1952, when in fact it happened in October of 1950. My strategy of nodding politely while slowly but surely walking backwards away from such people has generally served me well.

After All, In The End, Aren’t We All Simply Figments Of Each Other’s Imaginations?

No. Ugh. God, shut up. That’s stupid, despite the fact people like David Hume could never really disprove it. In the end, I believe, as a writer, I have a responsibility to approach historical characters with the respect, fairness, and as close an understanding of their actions and beliefs as I can get at. I feel the same way about my fictional characters. And, come to think of it, people in general. I think my main job is to engage an audience and earn their ticket price. For me, that entails telling a story as honestly as I can. This is not to be confused with a recitation of facts.

Art Has An Obligation To Truth, Not Facts

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m very much pro-fact. One of the key issues afflicting us today is the great epistemological divide in our culture. Everyone, Right and Left, takes most things on faith (e.g., do I know the world is round? Yes, absolutely. Can I, personally, prove it? Ummm…not so much. But I can point you to sources who can). Whom we choose to place our trust in, and the sharp fissure between the Right in Left in its options, is killing us. That’s our problem – our chief one, I’d argue – as citizens. But that’s another blog post, I s’pose.

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.

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.

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

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).

(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.

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.

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.