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.

Exclusive Interview With Jill Eikenberry

Jill Eikenberry has had, to put it mildly, a remarkable acting career in film, television, and theater. Best known to the public as Ann Kelsy on L.A. Law, she’s a five time Emmy Award and four time Golden Globe nominee (winning in 1989 for Best Actress in a Drama Series). But that only scratches the surface.

She also won an Obie award in 1986 and was nominated for a Drama Desk Award in 2011. She was also brilliant in the role of Rachel in my play Jericho Off-Broadway in 2013. To this day, I can’t believe my good fortune in having her agree to do that play.

She and her husband Michael Tucker are also brilliantly funny in the web series I co-wrote and co-produced called “The Small Time” (here’s a link: www.thesmalltimeseries.com). She also brings it in a major way every week to my quarantine Zoom play reading group. As is her nature, she was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me.

What drew you to acting? Was there a “moment” you knew you had to act, or was it a more gradual series of decisions?
I was always drawn to acting as a kid.  I did plays in high school and musicals in summer stock.  And I played Iolanthe at Barnard, where I was studying to be a cultural anthropologist.  But the “moment” happened when I played Ophelia at Columbia.   I was in my dorm room memorizing her monologue “Oh what a noble mind is here o’erthrown”  and I noticed that large tears were running down my face. Now the thing is –  I was not a cryer.  My parents had divorced when I was 15 and I didn’t even cry about that!  So, needless to say, when a friend suggested I audition for Yale Drama School in the spring,  I found myself on a new career track.  And the world lost a fine cultural anthropologist.

You’ve worked with a lot great actors. Are there any specific lessons you’ve learned from some of your colleagues over the years?  
The best acting lesson I ever got came from a playwright.I was playing Miss Alma in Eccentricities of a Nightingale  at Playwright’s Horizons in Queens.  It was directed by a young woman who believed that more is better.  She wanted an obvious display of nervous behavior from me (the nightingale), and because I was a good girl,  I became more and more eccentric with every passing day. The night of the invited dress rehearsal, much to our surprise, Tennessee Williams showed up.  I was a wreck, naturally,  but I thought I gave a pretty good performance.  Actually we all did.  Tennessee loathed it.   Without a moment of hesitation he announced that he would take over the direction of the play and rewrite two of the scenes.  The cast was of course thrilled – and more than a little intimidated. The night of the first preview – right before places – he came into my dressing room and told me to drop all the mannerisms I had been developing for the last 5 weeks.  I was speechless.  I mean the whole play was based on Miss Alma’s nervous condition!   But what could I say?  He was Tennessee Williams for Christ sake!  I walked onto the stage feeling completely naked – and paralyzed with fear.   The first scene was agonizing.  But half way through Scene 2  I started to realize that there was nothing for me to do but talk and listen.  And by the end of the performance I understood what the play was about.  When I came off stage,  Tennessee said,  “Good.  Now you can start to put the poetry back.”  At the opening night curtain call he came up on stage, took my hand, and said to the audience, “I want to thank these wonderful actors for helping me finally finish my favorite play.”

Is there a specific quality you look for in the roles you take? What kind of roles excite you most? 
I always love to play a woman with a secret.  The most fun is when I’m playing a character I can’t relate to at all.  I mean it doesn’t seem fun at first because of all the resistance and agony I go through.  But then – at some point – there’s a moment when this character shines a light on an unexplored part of myself – a part I might have preferred to leave in the shadows – my own secret.  And there’s a huge freedom that comes from letting it show.  In other words I like to play characters that teach me more about who I am.  

You’ve obviously had a great many successes in your career. What roles/projects stand out most for you, if any, and why?
I was a young actor at the O’Neill for a number of years.  And that really stands out as one of the great learning experiences of my life.  When I arrived there I was consumed with the question,  “How am I doing?”  I was over-thinking and over-working every part I played.  The O’Neill changed me in two ways.  First of all the focus there was not on the actors.  It was on the play. How could each of us help the playwright find the play?   And secondly, you only have 3 days of rehearsal at the O’Neill.  Then the audience files in and you have to take an enormous leap.  There’s no time for self-consciousness.  All the actors have to rely on is the words and each other  – and our instincts.  I learned at the O’Neill that I could trust my instincts.  It was a revelation.   And it has served me in every part of my life – not just acting.

What qualities, if any, do the actors you’ve most enjoyed working with share? 
Generosity is important.  Competitive actors are not much fun to work with.  I feel safer and freer on stage with actors who are totally present –  who see me and hear me and surprise me every night.  And I love to work with actors who are not afraid to go deep.  Their courage makes me braver.  Our dear friend, the late Mark Blum comes to mind.


Is there anything you’d tell a just starting out in the business Jill Eikenberry to worry less about or more about?

Worry less about what people think.(Good luck with that)   Don’t compare yourself to other actors. (Totally impossible)  Never stop trying to get to know yourself. (I’m still working on that at age 73) The more you know about all your triggers and all your issues,  the more you can keep them from getting in your way. (Sometimes) Do all your work and then let it all go and just play. (The best feeling in the world!)

From your point of view, what has changed the most in the tv and theater industries over the last decade or so?
Well of course the advent of talking pictures was a big transition for me! Sound has also changed in the theater.  I did 5 shows on Broadway in the 70s and 80s – 4 plays and 1 musical – and nobody used microphones.  Now they’re everywhere. I think stage acting has become more naturalistic in the theater.  Maybe that’s because of the microphones – or because of the intimacy of TV acting.  A friend of ours came to see Mike’s play ‘Fern Hill” at 59 E 59th last fall.  He told us before the show that never goes to the theater because he hates the “acting” style.  So he was shocked when he saw us up there behaving so realistically.  He loved it.  It occurred to me that I hadn’t really noticed the change,  but it works for me.  I’ve always been a 4th wall kind of actor – even in musicals.  I did “Onward Victoria,” – my first and only Broadway musical – in 1980.  And  I knew I was in trouble when I saw that some of my older co-stars faced front the whole time.  They never looked at me.  The director wanted me to do the same, but it felt so unnatural.  I finally found the solution.  My character, Victoria Woodhall,  listened to voices in her head all the time.  They were her guides.  So I just placed my voices in the back row of the theater and everyone was happy.  Well not everyone.  The show closed on opening night.

Has your approach to acting changed in any ways over your career? If so, why? 
I’ve gotten more heart driven – less cerebral.  I have more access to my feelings and that’s where I want to live – on and off stage.  I’ve learned to trust my instincts more and more with each passing decade.  What really turns me on is the element of chance.  Who knows what will happen tonight on stage?   That’s the magic of live theater.  I really hope it comes back soon.


OK, you get your pick of any role ever written to play when Broadway re-opens. What’s your pick?

I’ve always wanted to play Blanche.  She’s the one.  I’m too long in the tooth at this point, but I can dream, can’t I?


Special Performance Celebrating the Life & Work of Tennessee Williams to Be Performed Online

The actor Harris Yulin and I put this together for Williams’s centennial and will be reperformed online Saturday starring Mercedes Ruehl and Harris Yulin.

Interview with: Michael Tucker

Two-time Golden Globe and three-time Emmy nominee Michael Tucker has had prolific and much lauded career as an actor. Among his most well known achievements as an actor are co-starring in Woody Allen’s Radio Days and starring as Stuart Markowitz in the hit television series L.A. Law from 1986-1994. He’s also an accomplished, author, with four books to his credit, most recently After Annie: A Novel.

Tucker has focused on playwriting the last few years, and the results have been impressive to say the least. His latest play, Fern Hill, had an acclaimed run Off Broadway this past fall, with www.broadwayworld.com hailing it as a “wonderfully crafted play…humorous and entertaining.”

He and his wife, the great actress Jill Eikenberry, were also kind enough to be in a Web Series pilot I co-wrote and co-produced called “The Small Time,” in which they were comedic perfection. Recently, he was kind enough to sit down and answer some questions for me:

You’ve obviously had a great deal of success as an actor, but in recent years it seems you’ve focused on your work as playwright. Had you always had the itch to write? 


I always wrote but for the first fifty years or so I didn’t show it to anybody.  It was something I did for myself.  Then in 1994 — I remember because it was the last year of our TV show — I showed a friend of ours – a writer on LA Law — a story I had written.  He said, “It’s a book.”  And that became my first book.  I guess I just needed a little encouragement.  When I started on my second book I thought of myself as a writer and that’s where I am now.  When we moved back to New York, I felt the pull of our old theater community and I wrote a play.  Then another; and now a third.

To what extent have you found your acting experience has shaped your approach as a playwright?


I write like an actor.  I’II say the words out loud until some person, some character emerges from the primordial ooze.  Sometimes the first thing she does is rewrite the lines..  They’re cheeky, characters.  It’s a fun, creative experiment until I get into production and the actors have a whole other sound in their ears.  And that’s show biz.

Would you say there have been any playwrights who’ve directly inspired you? Apart from merely admiring someone’s work, are there any writers from whom you’re trying to attain the similar effects as? 

 I am continually inspired by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht and Beckett.  I’m sure there are others but these are the ones.  They’re — each in their own way, of course — observer/participants of the human condition.  Our despair puts a smile on their lips. I’m not saying I can write like that — but neither can anyone else.

When do you know – or at least suspect – you’ve got a good idea for a play? Are you one of those writers with notebooks filled with ideas?  Or does something have to strike you intuitively?

No notebooks.  I tried that once but it didn’t work out.  Whenever I finish a piece of writing I feel that I’ve just said everything I know.  There is nothing more.  Check, please.Then – somewhere down the line I become aware that there’s been something on my mind for a while.  I’ve been obsessing and not realizing it.  It’s usually some thing about my life. The last thing it is is a play.  And then – further down the line I remember that I should write about what’s on my mind.

How do you generally begin – from an idea of plot, character, or theme? Or does it vary?
 

As I said, I find a voice.  Or sometimes two voices.  I know that these voices are going to be delving into that thing that was on my mind but I don’t know how yet.  I pray that they’ll take over and lead me to it.  Sometimes they do.

Do you outline? If so, how much do you do before you start writing?

I have never outlined.  At least not at the outset.  Sometimes – when I’m cooking – I’ll get an idea for another scene or scenes while I’m in the middle of the one I’m working on.  Then I’ll do some outlining just so that I don’t forget.

I believe you worked a couple of years ago at the prestigious O’Neill Playwrights Center. Talk about how that experience influenced you as a writer. 

Being a playwright at The O’Neill was a culmination for me.  Jill and I had worked there as actors in the 70’s.  Because everything at the O’Neill is designed to serve the play and the playwright I was forced to stop thinking about myself.  And this turned out to be the best acting lesson I ever got.  Self-awareness; self-consciousness is the death of good acting.  Then to go back as a playwright was … well, a culmination and I took full advantage of it.  I learned that I like to to re-write and that I’m pretty good at it.  That was big.  There was a night when I crept out of bed at 4:00 in the morning, being careful not wake my leading lady, and by the light of my Iphone I re-wrote her last scene in the play.  It had come to me.  I remember saying to myself, “Remember this moment.”

Have you found certain recurring ideas threading through your work? If so, how would you describe them?

Relationship is always in there.  Seeking myself is big.  And I’m an elusive little sucker.  Seeing things from an ironic perspective.

Your plays strike a neat balance between humor and dramatic stakes. Do you work consciously at that balance or does it find its own way?

I just can’t resist a cheap joke.

Have your characters ever surprised you with their behavior?

They constantly shock me.  It’s one of the joys of my life.

How much redrafting/cutting do you tend to find you do?

I re-write constantly.  What looked good on Monday rarely works on Tuesday.  Then on Wednesday — well, Wednesday is a whole other ballgame.  I tend to trust who I am that day and I rarely trust that scoundrel who was here yesterday.  They’ll take me away in a straight jacket.

When do you let Jill read what you’ve got? Do you check in with a trusted few as you write or only after you’ve written a draft?

She has a difficult job.  If I feel good about something — a scene or even a snippet –  I’ll ask her to read it and I’ll stand there and watch over her shoulder.  She has to be honest and yet fully supportive.  Critic/muse is a hard line to walk.  But she does it and it’s vital to me.I have a few other early readers but only when the project is finished.

When do you know, as you’re writing it, that the scene is really cooking?

I learned from acting that when I’m feeling particularly brilliant that’s the night the director comes backstage and asks me if I’m feeling okay.  It’s a dicey business, this feeling brilliant thing.  I recommend waiting until Tuesday.

You’ve acted in your own plays. I find that in some ways, harder than acting in someone else’s counterintuitively. What about you?


Hopefully I’ll never do it again.  I didn’t want to do it the first time but we ran into a casting snag and the theater and the director wanted me to do it.  It robbed me of the playwright experience is what it did.

Any advice for fellow playwrights?
Keep washing your hands and run away if somebody coughs.

A-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom!!

A Man Who Shook The World Passed Away. To Quote Arthur Miller, “Attention Must Be Paid”

Little Richard has died at 87. John Lennon was not wrong when he claimed “A-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom!!” Is probably the greatest line ever written in rock history. If Chuck Berry provided much of the ground work for Rock’s musical inventiveness, Little Richard gave it its raw, infectious energy, its invigorating, leading from the heart and groin power that has sustained it through today. 

Without Little Richard, there likely wouldn’t have been a Beatles. Paul McCartney claims Little Richard is the one who taught him to perfect that raspy, quintessential rock and roll voice. 

He inspired Elton John’s piano style. He inspired David Bowie and Prince. He more or less introduced – no, introduced is the wrong word – thrusted androgyny onto America. If genius is doing what comes naturally to you what no one else could have thought of, then he was surely a genius. 

I’d say Rest In Peace, but that doesn’t seem like something he’d have been that into.

Social Distancing From Myself

Getting Out Of My Head’s Even Harder When I Can’t Get Out Of My Apartment

Ok, obviously, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I do get out of my apartment a bit. I take my dog for long walks a couple of times a day. I’ve had the whole “Costco as Thunderdome” experience. But as someone for whom inner peace has usually been an oxymoron, being trapped indoors is a real challenge.

I Have Become (Not Very) Comfortably Numb

I started to notice about a week or so ago feeling a bit numb (an odd expression, when you think about it, “feeling numb.” It is, by definition, impossible. But I digress…) I started to look at people I know and love very much as if I were viewing at them via a museum exhibit entitled “These Are People I Love.” They (or rather, I) were at a distance, as if through Lucite (“Lucite – for all your transparent screening needs” I’m trying to get sponsors). It took me a day or two to realize I was experiencing that same disconnection within myself. This is bad news for me as a writer; it’s worse news for me as a person.

I was asked to write a play specifically to be performed over Zoom, as Richard Nelson recently did for the Public Theatre. I admit I began with very little confidence in my ability to tackle the project. I was just too…foggy, too distant. However, I pushed myself, and decided to go right to the heart of the matter: to write a play that is loosely autobiographical in nature. Something in my life I’ve struggled with immensely for years. And it turned out to be the best decision I made in a while.

No Pain, No Gain

I’m not sure I did it consciously, but the decision to revisit a place of unresolved trauma cracked open that Lucite-like barrier I’d built up (please notice I wrote Lucite “like.” Because Lucite’s been clinically proven to be 83% more crack-resistant than its leading competitors*. Come on, Lucite, throw me a bone). Oddly, I wrote the play, which is shortish (about 30 minutes), almost entirely in a couple of two hour spurts about a week apart. The story took on a non-autobiographical life of its own, and I felt that happy and rare experience of the play making its own decisions kicking in. I’m actually fairly pleased with it, and it looks like it will be broadcast by a respected theater company later this month (I’ll reveal more when I know more).

My point is…actually, I’m not entirely sure. I suspect it has something to do with the hard work of constantly checking in with yourself and, if you find yourself adrift, making the necessary course corrections, no matter how unappetizing it may seem or how tired and uninspired you feel. That goes doubly for the people in your life outside of your head. I’m taking the opportunity to be unabashed in vocalizing my appreciation and love for my friends and family as often as I can without being nauseating about it.

My Zoom play-reading group, which is loaded with some of the best actors in New York (seriously, I’ve been very lucky) had another reading last night, and the act of not only watching great actors ply their craft in a great play (last night was August: Osage County), but seeing their faces, hearing their voices, and having animated talk with smart people refueled my tank. It made it impossible to be emotionally distant, despite the real physical separation. It made me hungry for more, which is a great motivation to be on the lookout for slipping into the distance without realizing it. Incidentally, the picture you see at the top is obviously not of my reading group, but a generic and free pic of generically free and happy people. You can tell this isn’t my Zoom play-reading group because: 1) They’re all in the same room, and 2) With two exceptions, my play-reading group is significantly more attractive.

Wherever You Go, Make Sure That’s Where You Are

I don’t feel qualified to offer counsel to anyone; all I can say is what’s brought me back off the ledge during this pandemic more than once. Inevitably, it’s been connecting with other people, even if only briefly. That, and the arduous, steep uphill push that is my attempt to challenge myself to stay engaged and productive. I hope you’re all coping out there, but if not, feel free to reach out. Especially if you’re an advertising rep for the good people at Lucite International.

*That’s a totally made up stat, just like 57% of all stats that appear here, including that one.

Alexa, Correct My life Choices

Why Covid-19 won’t destroy theater in the long run, but will in fact help people realize how much, despite what technology has lulled us into thinking, the need to be in groups is an absolute necessity to feel fully human.

Optimism comes about as naturally to me as, say, an appreciation of Post-Structuralist criticism comes to the average pod of orcas. Nonetheless, I’m an ardent aspirant to a positive worldview. Science seems to have proven it generally has a positive effect on the optimist and those around them alike, and I do believe that can build a kind of momentum.

There’s a lot of fear in the theater community about when/if theater can survive this pandemic. The gist of the argument is this: why would people be willing to congregate in large numbers again, given the fear of of Coronavirus? The answer is: I have no idea.

I also have no idea why scores of people congregated tightly in city parks this weekend, sans masks, in direct violation of the quarantine protocol. Which, by the way, I think is a terrible idea, as is the evidence that crackdowns on such gatherings seemed to happen only to communities of color. None of this is good, just, or wise.

However…

Such behavior suggest to me Mother Nature has driven home the message rather forcefully to most of us: we need each other. We need to see each other in the same spaces and to feel each other’s presence.

Enter Theater

Surely, this is the whole point of theater. Sure, movies are better at car chases, but for the sheer experience of sharing an emotionally gripping experience communally, nothing touches the theater. I’d urge playmakers to create plays that emphasize that need now more than ever, in whatever way we can. The emergence of Zoom Theater speaks forcefully to how deep that basic human itch is, while at the same time proving that the itch can’t be fully scratched through a computer screen.

My Theory: Past A Certain Point, Things Designed To Free Up Our Lives Make Us Lonelier.

Most of us have seen or heard of those shows where a group of people have to live life like they did in the 1850’s or 1910’s, and the take inevitably is how incredibly laborious and grinding daily existence was compared to now. I do believe technology has improved our lives, but only the way that money does. If you live in poverty, improving your income will tangibly improve your happiness. But only to a point. Most studies suggest that in, America, the difference in happiness between earning $50 K and $100 K is tangible. But between $100 K and $200K? Not so much. It pretty much levels off. And that’s where I think we’re at with technology.

For a few decades now, we’ve embraced technology that more and more, requires less and less human contact. And I’m not even talking about the empty and sometimes toxic calories of “social contact” on social media. “Alexa” caters to most of our whims without the messy inconvenience of human contact. When I was a teenager and wanted to buy music for my Victrola, I had to go to a record store, interact with at least one clerk (who usually made it clear I didn’t really “get” music like they did), wait on line with other customers, etc. Now, Alexa will give me literally any music I can think of just by asking.

For some people, that may sound like paradise, and the old fashioned way seem like a chore, but study after study confirms that we need regular social interaction, even with – sometimes especially with – strangers, to have improved mental health and stave off loneliness and depression. Twice as many people today self-report as “lonely” as they did in the 1980’s. That’s staggeringly sad.

Seriously, I Think This Is Where We Come In

Theater, I believe needs to actively embrace our communal aspects in the in the months ahead. We must make a conscious choice to forge ahead with work that demands collective experience. Because, when we emerge from this ungodly massive psychology experiment we’re all now living in, we’ll be hungrier for it than ever. It will be, in its way, a massive opportunity to assert Theater’s necessity. Let’s go do it.

April Was The Cruelest Month

It’s important to stay positive, but I think it’s also OK to face up to when things objectively suck, too.

I’m no expert on T.S. Eliot (actually, I’m no expert at a surprising amount of things, though Eliot is the only relevant one here), but I feel safe in saying the man wrote a few good lines. So, in my White, male, privileged way, I’m gonna leave aside his casual (actually, knowing Eliot, more semi-formal) anti-Semitism, and steal one of his most famous opening lines as my blog title (he did, after all, tell us that great artists steal. So, thanks for saying that, T.S.).

Can we talk about April, 2020, for a second?

Now, bear in mind, my birthday is in April (April 6th, FYI. And I think a full calendar month is a completely acceptable range to give presents; there’s still time. But I digress…), and it’s the traditional start of baseball season, so I’m predisposed to liking this month. But I think most will agree it’s been one of the worst months on record for virtually everything. Economically, it may well be the worst month in American history. And by this point, many know of people who’ve lost loved ones or have battled mightily through this virus, or are battling it themselves. I know of several who’ve suffered from Covid-19, and tragically, lost a friend of mine, the esteemed actor Mark Blum, (whom I was lucky enough to have appear in a play of mine in 2018, and improve it through his talent and generosity) in late March. And although I looked at the start of the lockdown as chance to “get stuff done” and “self-improve,” my record has been spotty at best.

There’s no need for me to catalogue the countless egregious offenses of this April. Instead, I’m going to try to sift through the rubble of this disastrous past 30 days and find some things to feel hopeful about and gratitude for (this is not my forte as a rule; so bear with me).

On The Plus Side

I’m now in a play reading group on Zoom which will have its second reading tonight. The first one, Richard III, was terrific. Not only because of the play and the quality of the acting, but because it brought home to me how lucky I am to know people of such intelligence, wit, passion, and talent. Just to see their faces was a blessing. Tonight’s play, David Hare’s Stuff Happens, should be great. Great to hear, and to great to see my friends ply their trade.

On my birthday (once again, April 6th; belated gifts can sometimes show the most love, when you think about it), my dear friends threw my a Zoom birthday party. Friends I’ve known less than a year, friends I’ve known most of my life. So many friends who took the time out to spend some virtual time with me. I’ve been lucky all my life in terms of my friendships.

In the midst of a creative doldrums, a good friend urged me to write a “Zoom play,” like, let’s face it, half the writers in America are doing these days. But it was a task, and though I started with nothing, I now now have 17 pages of what may be something. At least it’s a new challenge.

May Will Be Better (I mean, It HAS To Be)

Here’s my silly, sappy thought about all of this. This experience of isolation is simply, in one sense, an exaggerated version of the lives we’ve (or at least I’ve) been living the last few years. More connected than ever to people on social media, feeling more lonely than I have have before (and that’s a high bar). I think, as I’ve written earlier, this will give me (us) a deeper appreciation of and dedication to actual, IRL interactions and relationships. College students today report TWICE the level of anxiety and depression as they did in 2009. Think about that. These are people who’ve grown up knowing virtually nothing but the virtual. We hav a chance to consciously repair this. I’ll try my meager part.

Even Feeling Hopeless Is a Feeling, And It Will Pass

Remember, this world we’re experiencing at this moment is fertile ground for depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. But it’s also a chance to stare those things in the face, and refuse to be conquered. As Arya Stark would say were she a therapist (not to give away the premise of my new HBO pitch), “Not today.” I’ve had days, yesterday for example, where the dread and hopelessness came thiiiis close (I’m holding my fingers a very small space apart) to capsizing me. But it didn’t. That’s the take away: it didn’t. I hope all of you keep sailing along, too, even through the choppy waters of April into a hopefully slightly saner May. And please, feel free to comment on the stuff that’s keeping you going!

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Always Listen to John Cleese

In which I discuss some of his more salient points in my post re: writing advice.

John Cleese is a genius. And “genius,” like the words “avuncular,” “jazzercise,” and “zoftig,” are not words I use lightly, which is why they won’t be appearing in this post (apart from just then, obviously.) That Cleese wrote some of the most inventive, witty, and brilliant stream-of-consciousness comedy of all time, and that he could tether both the highly cerebral with the aggressively silly, often within the same sketch, is in and of itself testament to his brilliance.

That he could then go on to co-author with his wife (and then ex-wife Connie Booth) one of the most brilliantly scripted, character based, wit-driven, situational comedies ever in Fawlty Towers seems almost unfair for the sheer malleability of his comic gifts. As an actor, he has one of the greatest senses of comic timing I’ve ever witnessed (one random, and obscure example – listen to his “Bookshop Sketch” recording on Monty Python‘s Contractual Obligation album. His pause after Graham Chapman asks for “the expurgated version of Olsen’s Book of Standard British Birds” is mathematical in its precision for utmost comic effect).

But Enough About Him

But I come not praise Cleese, but to analyze something he urged me to do in his post to me last week. He gave the sage advice (no less wise because of its popularity as a dictum) to look inside myself and see what interested me. A more eloquent version of “Write what you know.” I wouldn’t dare disagree with Mr. Cleese (in addition to his legendary status, he’s also significantly taller than I am); in fact, he’s totally right. I would simply add that this is, I think, not only inevitable among most writers, but to a certain extent, impossible not to do.

Finally, On To Me

I’ve written only one overtly autobiographical play in my life (and I found it both clunky and traumatizing – too soon, as they say); my other plays range in subject matter considerably. From the early days of Beatlemania, to the checkered career of a potential Poet Laureate, to the tangled relationship between/among Mariyln Monroe, Elia Kazan, and Arthur Miller, to a play in part about a secular Jewish family on Long Island wresting with its son’s post 9/11 conversion to extreme Zionism.*

Yet, there is inevitably some inextricable piece of my mind and experiences embedded in each play’s DNA. It’s been pointed out to me by those who’ve seen several of my plays that, despite variety subject matter, they often tend to concern themselves with the same over-arching ideas: the search for and importance of community, the struggle for true connection with each other, and how societal forces often chafe against our better natures.

Wherever You Go, There You Are. I Hope They Have Pizza

It’s possible. I certainly never – well, seldom – set out out to write a play with a specific theme in mind. In fact, when I’m excited about a play idea, I’m often hard-pressed to articulate exactly why I am. For me, in fact, half the fun in writing a play is discovering what in fact I think and feel about a subject. But, inevitably, your mind finds you.

Do I self-consciously lift moments from my life to insert into my plays? Absolutely. But more often, for me, anyway, the more often I can stop thinking so much and plotting out in advance and let the characters lead me where they want to go, there better off I am. I’m not trying to be mystical about this at all. I just think when a writer feels as if they’re “channeling” their characters” (a term at which I instinctively lapse into a Liz Lemon worthy eye-roll), what I think is happening is that they’re merely letting their subconscious minds take the wheel.

Generalizing the habits and minds of writers is a fool’s errand, and yet, watch me: we are, wittingly or not, always absorbing the language, gestures, and behaviors of others, while simultaneously, more than often than not, trapped in our own heads, replaying incidents and moments from our lives long-since forgotten by everyone else on a loop like a psychological Zapruder film. And, at best, it’s a roll of the dice as to whether such talmudic analyses of one’s inner-self yields positive change or merely deepens the pit.

But when we write (especially dramatic narrative) it can free us from our self-concisousness. We’ve got too much else to worry about: why does a character need this particular thing (fork, liposuction, gun, Delta flight to the greater Tampa-St. Pete area) in this particular scene, why does another character need to stop her, how does this scene advance the story forward in as streamlined a way as possible, what’s a funnier word – “knish” or “kugel” (spoiler alert: it’s “kugel.” It’s inevitably “kugel”)?

In other words, when it’s working, it clears the clutter. It allows, for me, anyway, the closest thing I’ve ever felt to a term that’s a too casually tossed around these days: mindfulness. All I know is, my head is clear, and I’m focused only on the now and the now’s immediate consequence. We’ve all heard, “I don’t like writing, I like having written.” And yeah, OK, for sure.

The Good Stuff, Though

But those other moments, the ones where you’re not even aware you’re in the room, that’s usually when the best stuff happens. That’s why I’ll keep writing for the rest of my life. Well, that, and all the prestige, acclaim, and financial stability that writing plays in America brings. Seriously, it’s like living in Uganda and dedicating your life to being a speed skater.

As for Mr. Cleese’s lovely citation of Blaise Pascal’s famous quote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” I think I have a theory on why that is, which this mass quarantine has confirmed. I can’t imagine it’s too original: it’s just not in our nature. We need others. Desperately, as it turns out, even we introverts, even when – sometimes especially when – we know it’s not good for us. As I believe these past weeks have driven home with brutal clarity.

I hope we’re finding ways to get by. For me, it’s been a roller coaster, honestly. Actually, no: roller coasters are often fun. I’m just trying to be productive and go easy on myself when I find that I haven’t.

Hang in there!

*I have Jewish ancestry, but was raised Catholic. Bebe Netenyahu’s brother attended an Off Broadway performance one night of this play, Jericho – why he was there to begin with is another, not interesting story- and sought me out loudly after the performance, embraced me to him and, tears in his eyes, exclaimed to the whole lobby with clear pride, “Only a JEW could have written this play!!” I didn’t have the heart to recite the Rosary for him)