Saturday, December 31, 2016

Top Ten Events of 2016

Obligatory "Hamilton" sidewalk selfie.
There are those who have suggested that 2016 is the worst year in recent memory. They are generally referring to the deaths of numerous pop culture figures from the 1980s and the election of Donald J. Trump.

My father died this year. In fact, two of my great friends from my youth, their fathers also died this year. Everything else can go hang, it has been a year of personal mourning, it’s all subjective, ask the children Aleppo how this year has gone. Kind of puts the death of the inventor of the Red Solo Cup in perspective.

Every year sucks. Every year is amazing. Here is my entirely subjective top ten list (in chronological order) of the most amazingly awesome things that happened to me this year, and only a few of the incredible people with whom they happened.

  1. I Hate This (a play without the baby): This one-night-only, 15th anniversary performance, directed by Chennelle Bryant-Harris, was an eye-opening rediscovery of a work I thought I knew, and I got to share it with a wonderful audience.
  2. Cleveland Marathon: Chris Fornadel and I survived the CLE Half Marathon through an absurd, freak mid-May snowstorm. Could not have done that without this hilarious running partner, but that was crazy.
  3. Last Frontier Theater Conference: Playwright Kevin Armento was an inspiring and encouraging lead panelist for my new script. Also glad I got to see a performance of his Good Men Wanted at the conference, his personal philosophy of writing is one I can get behind.
  4. Cavs Victory Parade.
    The Chosen One.
  5. Twelfth Night (As Told By Malvolio): Celebrating the First Folio in Cleveland, I adapted and directed a 45-minute version of Twelfth Night with some of my very favorite young actors, which we toured to Cleveland public libraries around the city.
  6. Saw fucking Hamilton.
  7. Cleveland Playwrights Festival: Playwrights Local presented a script-in-hand workshop of my new work, The Way I Danced With You, directed by Melissa T. Crum, who, with Chennelle, has been instrumental in my development of this script. Response was very positive and the entire weekend of events was an instructive experience.
  8. Tony Kushner & Sarah Vowell: This Think Forum event, ostensibly an open discussion about the life of Abraham Lincoln, the evening was a bleak, hilarious and ultimately reassuring post-election balm.
  9. Reception: My wife and I began holding a salon of arts and ideas at our home late in the year, and we seem to have discovered a wonderful coven of brilliant hopeful minds.
  10. 28th Annual Great Lakes Theater A Christmas Carol Writing Contest: Always a delight and an honor to help shepherd this contest for Cleveland middle school students, this year’s winners all felt particularly poignant, their interpretation by performers from GLT's production A Christmas Carol delightful. Have you listened to the broadcast yet?
He judges my blogging.
This list only mentions a few people and barely scratches the surface of the productions, festivals, parties, personal moments, journeys, concerts, school, neighborhood and campaign events, and all the details which make up a year well-spent.

There was so much pain in 2016, from the very first day (when I have have to admit I was terribly hungover) to this day. Well, not today, actually, today has been pretty calm and relaxing. 

I hope you have also been blessed with good times this past year, walking between the raindrops (as they say) and wish you great and wonderful things in 2017.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Alan Freed

Last summer I caused a bit of a stir when I suggested that the gigantic banner heralding the historic achievements of Garrett Morgan had been unfairly “whitewashed” prior to the Republican National Convention. My suggestion that racism had anything to do with the decision was slammed by numerous parties, I was accused of jumping to conclusions, and creating unnecessary controversy.

After all, Garrett Morgan had not invented the stoplight. The banner was incorrect. He improved on the design, and it is very important that we do not provide credit where it is not due. It had nothing to do with his ethnic background, nor the color of his skin.

My post on the subject was one of my most widely read of the year, and concluded on an upbeat note. A new, smaller banner had been posted more accurately announcing that Garrett Morgan was the creator of a stoplight, not the stoplight.

This new Morgan banner, which for the time being still exists, is among many such banners on Euclid Avenue, including the one which states proudly CLEVELAND DISC JOCKEY ALAN FREED COINED THE TERM “ROCK AND ROLL” IN THE EARLY 1950S.

YOU GUYS.

HE DIDN’T.

The term “rocking and rolling” dates back to at least the early 20th century.

The Boswell Sisters recorded a song called Rock and Roll in 1934.

The Rock and Roll Inn music club opened in New Jersey in 1943.

Around 1951, Alan Freed began to “popularize” the term on his Cleveland-based radio broadcasts.

To coin is to invent, to originate. Alan Freed made popular the term -- for a white audience -- and is therefore widely credited with having created it.

As we move into this era, may I suggest once again without argument that African-Americans must validate their legitimacy to an extant that Caucasians do not.

God, am I pissed I didn't catch that last summer ...

Please read my original July 15, 2016 post on the Garrett Morgan banner.

Source:
Wikipedia

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Burr (book)

Aaron Burr in "Hamilton"
We have spent the week vacationing with my in-laws. There are several ways to reach Athens, Ohio from Cleveland, none of them anything like a straight line. Though it is quicker to take I-71 through Columbus no one hates themselves that much, so we usually take 77 to Marietta and the one of a number of ways to get to 50 West.

A newly completed bridge, part of state road 50, spans the Ohio River, and lately we have taken that route. Connecting Parkersburg and Marietta (yes, you actually go into West Virginia for a few miles) it vaults over the western tip of Blennerhassett Island, site of an historic meeting which would doom the island’s Irish namesake and also the political aspirations of that most mercurial of American icons, Aaron Burr.

Blennerhassett Mansion, where the one-time Vice President and murderer of Alexander Hamilton met Harman Blennerhassett and his wife Margaret to make plans for an expedition down the Mississippi to New Orleans, was located at the opposite end of the island, an historic recreation is there to visit today. Twenty-five years ago I performed in a musical inspired by these events, Eden of the River, which was presented on that site.

Driving or flying, as it were, over that island, as we do most times we visit my in-laws, I am reminded not only of all the time I spent on it, but how little of it I explored. It’s not a very large piece of land, yet the only time I stepped away from the boat landing or the area immediately surrounding the mansion was that one time I and another chorus member escaped to the woods to make out.

We didn’t go far and we did not stay long. You can interpret that as you will.

What was it like in December 1806, two hundred and ten years years ago, when Burr returned to Belle Prairie (today pronounced BELL-pree) to raise men, funds and supplies -- yet no weapons -- for his ill-fated expedition party? There was no bridge to the island, there still isn’t, this one goes over it, as I said, not to it. How dense the forest, how passable the terrain? Were there any native peoples in the vicinity, how isolated were the Blennerhassett from Western civilization?

The characters of Harman and Elizabeth do play an important role in Gore Vidal’s Burr (1973) an historical novel told from the point of view of the young Charles Schuyler (a fictional character and no relation to the Schuylers in themusical Hamilton) and one part of a collection of American histories the author wrote and named Narratives of Empire.

Never read Vidal before, have to admit, I know him as a talking head in The Celluloid Closet, commenting on his own work as one of numerous writers for the screenplay for Ben-Hur (1959) starring Charleton Heston, his personality as an arch literary satirist of the twentieth century has largely come to me via osmosis. My father shelves, which we are currently culling, include several of his works. I am under the impression that any man of my father’s generation with a standard liberal arts education would be wanting without them, though my father was better read than most. Certainly better than I.

The book has taken months for me to read, not because it is not compelling, it is, and a satisfying read. My days have been so long, my responsibilities continuous and varied, and though I would pick it up most nights I would make it through three or so pages before being overwhelmed. I even tried reading a few pages that long, dark night of November 8, when my thirteen year-old daughter was so crestfallen she could not rest and we compelled her to sleep with us. True, this novel's content pertains to history, American history, but removed as it was from current events it provided a mild distraction.

In fact, it is because of current events that the novel itself comes as something of a comfort. Vidal is a member of a bygone era, Vulture called him a “dapper, left-wing bomb thrower” -- not a literal bomb-thrower, but that kind of old-school gadfly who could verbally cut you to the quick and leave you incoherently enraged. But first you have to a) be listening and b) understand that you have been insulted. Today’s right-wing demagogues owe their present success to simply refusing to do either.

Burr, the novel, provides the author the advantage of providing savage commentary on icons of American history from a vantage point twice removed, from either his main subject, once Senator, then Vice President, but always “Colonel” Aaron Burr, or his narrator, Mister Schuyler, a young man who in the course of just a few years rises from a desperate, penniless, inexperienced newspaper writer to a comfortable position in the the Van Buren administration.

Schuyler’s commission is to write a memoir of the ageing Burr (now eighty, some got half as many) and over their time together not only develops great admiration for the Colonel, but also absorbs his worldview, restrained temperament and even to some degree his remarkably subtle wit.

Aaron Burr in "Eden on the River"
It is this wit, however, in recounting Burr’s version of the American Revolution and all that came after, that provides the subject, and in fact the author, to portray George Washington as a colossal failure on the battlefield, exhibiting terrible judgement (and apparent fantastically large buttocks) winning only one battle - Yorktown - and not without foreign assistance.

Later it is Jefferson, not Burr, who appears to hold no moral center, shifting any position necessary to keep the nation a loose confederation of states, denying strong federal power and yet as President freely violating or proposing to violate any of new bill of rights to maintain the status quo (i.e.: slavery) or to destroy his perceived enemies (i.e.: Aaron Burr.)

The legendarily soft-spoken Jefferson, always clearly articulating his position, is rendered a slippery cipher, always scheming, fiddling with his inventions, and in constant opposition to Burr who by his own description of events made the appropriate decisions necessary for Jefferson to become President. For the sake of the nation.

Of course, this is Burr speaking. And he speaks to an impressionable man who develops such admiration for him, delighted by his “exquisite irony” and “serene good humor.” It takes a moment to realize that the true object of such a compliment is Vidal himself.

And this is comforting how? Donald Trump has made a mockery of American history with his arrogant run for President. Assuming he would never win, he was also more successful as a sloppy, right-wing bomb thrower, capitalizing on resentment, anger and outright racism to propel himself to be the loudest and most visible opponent to Barack Obama. His goal was self-aggrandizement, but unfortunately for him and the rest of us, he now needs to lead, something he has never been successful at doing.

It is demoralizing to imagine we are ending an era in which a young Puerto Rican-American with a Broadway musical under his belt could be granted an audience with the President of the United States to rap a song about the largely unregarded first Secretary of the Treasury which caused a YouTube sensation which inspired him and a company of talented artists to create a new musical which sparked a national conversation on what it means to be American, to be America.

Donald J. Trump does not inspire confidence, he can’t make anything great, and the only artwork he has ever inspired in my neighborhood was a great, hideous nude statue someone dumped on Coventry last summer.

"The Emperor Has No Balls"
Ginger (2016)
Vidal wrote Burr in the era of Nixon, his novel reeking of cynicism, every player a player, twisting words and circumstance to his own advantage. His America of the early 19th century is a murky backwater where the rich stuff their faces and drink and smoke and spit and talk and talk and talk.

He chooses a protagonist in Aaron Burr, worshipped by the common people, heralded wherever he goes, once he has been exiled by proper society for the murder of Alexander Hamilton.* In tearing down icons and exalting this scoundrel, Vidal makes you reconsider all you believe you know about the Founding Fathers. Good Lord, the man even suggests Davy Crockett was raped first before being killed at the Alamo.

So, the United States of America has elected to be its Chief Executive a scoundrel, a self-serving villain who do what he can to subvert the Constitution to maintain the status quo and destroy his enemies, again. We got this far, citizens. The Republic will prevail.

Exactly how we will overcome, that is a terrible mystery and one which we carry into the new year. It has been suggested that Vidal’s type of scorched earth criticism of those with whom he disagrees has brought us to our current level of discourse. For when your facts are correct, but you are arrogant about it, why would your opponent even respond with an intellectually supported response? Why not just say,”Fuck you, you’re wrong.” and listen to the multitudes cheer? It certainly worked in 2016.

*About that; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton taunts Burr to mention a “specific grievance” from over “thirty years of disagreements” for which he should apologize, there was one specific, heinous, personal insinuation made by Hamilton in mixed company and behind Burr's back, an insinuation which had absolutely nothing to do with Burr’s political or professional machinations, which might lead one, were they so inclined, to challenge one to a duel.

Monday, December 26, 2016

George Michael

Since learning last night the news of George Michael's demise -- Christmas Night, of all nights -- I have been a little at sea and without knowing what to say.

Gen Xers treating the year 2016 like some kind of mummy's curse of a year due to the loss of so many popular icons need to come to grips with the fact that all their childhood heroes are going to die someday. It's called time.

My own personal feelings of grief were better described when I said it feels as though all the doors of my life are closing behind me.

But there's more to that with George Michael, because he became my personal totem, in spite of or perhaps because he was widely seen as a has-been.

"You're a joke, George!" yelled James Cordon in a very funny scene he and George Michael performed together for Comic Relief five years ago. When George was regarded as a lightweight 80s pop star, I protested without irony that I love him and I love his work as my way of keeping it real.

He has such an incredible voice. At the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in early 1992, artists like Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant and Axl Rose embarrassed themselves trying to sing the songs of Queen. Only George Michael had the range and the soul to match the powerfully angelic Freddie.

Like Freddie Mercury, George Michael's success in America was much shorter than it should have been due to lingering homophobia which, while it hasn't entirely gone away, no longer necessarily dooms one's career in the United States. First, artists simply passed as straight, but in the 1980s as many took risks walking that line of sexual ambiguity, George bravely or foolish stepped over it several times.

Halloween 1988: The year everyone dressed like George Michael.
Finally forced entirely out of the closet in the late 90s due to a charge of cottaging, the American issue of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Best of George Michael was missing an amazing duet with Mary J. Blige of Stevie Wonder's "As" -- again, who on earth could dare out-sing Stevie Wonder? -- which led to rumors at that time that Blige's management did not want her associated with this "controversial" artist. Regardless, as an original single on the collection, it should have been a hit in the United States. It went to number four in Britain,

As my feelings about homosexuality evolved, as they have for so many straight men of my generation (I have written about this) George Michael kept pushing me in the direction of acceptance and understanding.

And there is more to it than even that. The fact is, I started to love both Wham! and then his solo work after the first tremendous blush of his popularity. In 1986, I dated someone who really liked his work, and I am nothing if not an emotional chameleon who immediately conforms to the artistic and cultural interests of the women I find appealing.

So, though I knew all the Make It Big hits that inundated the airwaves and MTV during my junior and senior years, it wasn't until "The Edge of Heaven" that I began listening to George Michael, you know, without prejudice. That one is aggressively sexual, but also suggests a fatalistic view of relationships, identifying sex as the one thing that keeps some of them together (see also, that summer's Peter Gabriel single, "Sledgehammer.") Not exactly the best lesson for a callow fellow about to enter college.

Working backward, the betrayal and deception inherent in hits like "Careless Whisper" and "Last Christmas" and the child-like response to a one-night-stand described in "Nothing Looks The Same In The Light," are a template for poor interpersonal relationships. Lying awake last night, thinking of songs like those and pretty everything on the album Faith, I was struck by how easily dismissed his music, production, performance and appearance was, while his lyrics tapped into this dark and shamefully honest corner of human behavior.

My new work, The Way I Danced With You, the one I took to Alaska and was further developed at Playwrights Local, was originally titled The George Michael Play. Several of his songs get name-checked, but it is really the underlying theme of his songs themselves which provided the inspiration for the script. While I never had any illusion about sharing this script with him, it is another thing altogether to have to accept that I never can.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Wonderful Christmastime (song)

My father was a religious man, and growing up Christmas was a religious holiday. I have no memory of believing in Santa Claus, it wasn’t a story my parents told. But I believed in the nativity, the virgin birth, the love of Christ, no room at the inn.

It was a religious holiday, with presents. I had learned early on not to get too carried away. I would mark up the to section of the Sears catalog, circling all of the superhero action figures and had a particular interest in playsets with which you could make and ideally sell things for money. The snow cone machine, the easy-bake oven.

But I never got those things, my gifts were always very practical and age-appropriate. The gifts would accumulate beneath the tree over the course of days (because Santa wasn’t coming suddenly drop them in one night) and I would speculate upon their contents based on size and weight. The ABBA album I requested turned out to be the soundtrack to the recent TV version of The Hobbit. A RPG solo adventure was actually a wildlife calendar. My hopes were high, my expectations grounded.

On Christmas Eve we would attend the late service, which was one of my favorite traditions. It always began with The March of the Wise Men, the lights dim, the choir entered in pairs bearing candles, processing up the center aisle to the quire, as their numbers increased the slow, steady, low hymn would build and build, rising to a tremendous pitch. It’s the kind of deep organ music which settles in your abdomen, and travels up your spine to make the hair stand on your neck. I believed in Jesus, this music was my proof.

This is actually completely awesome.
There were imaginings of Santa Claus, but it was hard to square them with reality. Accidentally missing any of the stop-motion, Rankin Bass animations, which firmly established the late twentieth-century Santa mythology, was cause for tears and deep regret. (The first few are canonical - like it or not, Mickey Rooney is the only voice for Santa - by the time they were creating nonsense like “Happy the New Year Baby” the bloom was off the rose.)

My first grade teacher had a glowing crystal ball on a pedestal through which we were told Santa could see us and hear our questions, like a benevolent palantir. The night of our school Christmas concert I peeked into my classroom and saw that it was not glowing. I walked over to it and saw the cord and switch which I had not noticed before, and what had been magic was rendered merely mechanical. I wanted to believe, but I knew better, even at six.

Christmas songs, as a child, seemed eternal. It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (1963) and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (c. 16th century or earlier) were most certainly conceived of by the same man on the very same day, they are each found in the Bible, are they not? But as I grew into preadolescence and became aware of world events, so also did I begin to understand time and context.

I’d never heard John Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War Is Over) until that night he was shot and killed. I was twelve and it was December. Released in 1971 it is both Christmas single and a protest against the war in Vietnam. No one played it in the late 1970s, the anti-war message was dated, but suddenly it was given new life as programmers filled the air with the works of the slain artist, and after all, it was Christmas time. Now, of course, it is regarded as a standard.

Wings does not appear.
The following year I became aware of Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime, which had actually been released two years earlier. It hadn’t even charted in America that season, but by 1981 it was making its way into holiday pop rotation here. It is very of its time, almost entirely synthesized, it was recorded entirely by McCartney, by himself, and sounds like it.

This piece, like so many others, could easily be dismissed as just another British holiday pop song (they make so many more than we do, seriously) except that coming from a former Beatle the recording is held up for particular derision and is even regarded as the worst Christmas song ever made, which, considering company, you have to admit is pretty harsh.

My own lingering affection for this song is a matter of timing, really. Wonderful Christmastime was popular in that season when I had my first girlfriend. Christmastime is many things to many people, deeply sacred, a midwinter celebration of light and joy, it can also be a time of great romance, and like it or not this is my first romantic holiday song.
The moon is right
The spirits up
We're here tonight
And that's enough 
It is evocative of walks in the snow and through the woods, of holding someone, having someone. Taking comfort in knowing you belong, that you are special and that you have someone special. Feeling love. Being happy. And it’s got sleigh bells in it and I love those.

If there must be secular holiday songs, Sir Paul's unbreakable chestnut ticks all the boxes. Its message is basic; the people I love are happy together, here at this moment. This season, that is all the Christmas I need.


You know you want to.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Secret Transmissions

January 2, 1994. Outside, it is 2 AM. 

It’s a trick, you know, balancing a hot-dog in one hand, working it out of the wrapper so’s just a little bit sticks out, enough to get two bites, maybe, even though it’s covered in Stadium Mustard, coleslaw and chili, while steering with the other hand, trying not to fishtail, driving home, alone, down Lorain, toward Carnegie Avenue.

Especially if you’ve had a couple drinks and all of a sudden there’s a cop you pass every block, every single block, like, I wish these guys were around to help people during the day when there’s actually traffic, Jesus.

But things were so I needed to look forward to this. It was not just that we didn’t cook at home, or that I should have been hungry for some reason. I needed a reward for getting through another show, another day, and I needed to feel I was connected with the city, that I had my own city-oriented ritual, my own personal connection.

So I went to the Hot Dog Inn for one of those dogs, or two or three, and I listened to college radio on the journey home. Not The End, but Honest-To-God experimental radio. I had Wainstead All Night on WCSB, who had his own Harper’s Bazaar kind of list going where he recited all this shit from wire reports, like News of the Weird only it’s the Government that’s weird. 


Or a hip-hop show on WUJC where all the fellahs were giving their “shouts out" or taking the crank calls from guys trying to get the chance to say “fuck” or “ba-ba-booey” on the air. 

 Or WRUW was playing I don’t know what they were playing, whatever the hell it was they decided to play that night. Odds are good it was dub. It still is.

Thousands of people my age might have been listening to The End or Jammin’ 92, but how many could actually have been listening to this stuff at that moment? Doing what? Doing nothing? Sitting in their dorm or using it as a soundtrack in the basement, smoking weed, the radio full of chatter over here, the Dead playing on the tape deck over there? 

These were secret transmissions, in the middle of the night, signals sent through the sub-freezing temperatures reaching, whom? Maybe I was absolutely the only person listening at that moment, skidding through drifts of road-slush, careening past the towering, sightless, Guardians of Traffic

Someone was sitting warm and cozy inside a booth behind locked doors in Rhodes Tower or in the basement of Mather Hall, spinning records and telling the Truth before dawn so that a lonely guy driving from point A to point B would have something different to listen to.

Driving slowly down Carnegie, past the new ball park (opening soon) with a messy hot dog in my lap, feeling connected. To that. A mouth full of salt and sugar and fat, ears full of local, unpolished noise, with one hand on the wheel navigating the slippery boulevard. All my senses were full and I was alone. 

And in that place, that personal space, in limbo between the theater and my house, for a brief moment I felt like myself.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Shakespeare's End

Shakespeare totally did not write this shit.
Gentlemen, goodnight! Here our play has ending.
Let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.
And more such days as these to us befall!
One feast, one house, one mutual happiness.
See high order in this solemnity. Let us not leave till all our own is won.

Never was a war did cease (ere bloody hands were wash’d) with such a peace.
Never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo,
For their sake in your fair minds let this acceptance take.
Grace my mournings here in weeping after this untimely bier.
I will rule both her, the King, and realm.
Yet he shall have a noble memory. For here, I hope begins our lasting joy.

Your gentle hand lend us and take our hearts.
Nought shall make us rue if England to itself do rest but true!
Where, in a happy hour, I trust, we shall arrive, three kings, two princes, and a queen.
We that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Well, while I live, I’ll fear no other thing so sore, as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring;
To Master Brook you yet shall hold your word, for he to-night shall lie with Mistress Ford.
(‘Tis wonder, by your leave, she will be tam’d so.
Her life was beastly and devoid of pity, and being dead, let birds on her take pity.)

Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases, and at that time bequeath you my diseases.
Myself with straight aboard, and to the state this heavy act with heavy heart relate;
Let's sadly hence to perfect unknown fates, whilst he tends prograce to the state of states.
(The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo,
My tongue is weary, when my legs are too, I will bid you good night.)

So bring us to our palace, where we’ll show what’s yet behind that’s meet you all should know.
So thanks to all at once, and to each one, whom we invite to see us crown’d at Scone.
Give me your hands if we be friends, and Robin shall restore amends.
So call the field to rest, and let’s away, to part the glories of this happy day.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be, let your indulgence set me free.

Hastily lead away.
We’ll strive to please you every day.
God say Amen, bid me farewell.
Ladies, bid ‘em clap.
Strike up, pipers! Let our drums strike!
Go bid the soldiers shoot.

William Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon died four hundred years ago, on April 23, 1616. These are the final lines from each of the forty plays he is known to have written or to which he is thought to have contributed.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

On Cold

Devon Turchan is the Emcee in Cabaret (Blank Canvas Theatre)
We work in the city. The spaces we inhabit for our art and our the nourishment of our souls are made of cement and brick and glass, those man-made substances least likely to trap or keep heat. And yet, that is where we go, to occupy empty storefronts where we scheme and build, so close friends and friends we haven’t met yet can huddle against the elements to have our little moments before scattering to our various sectors once again.

Last week the wife and I went to the 78th Street Studios, once the design headquarters of American Greetings, then another largely vacant warehouse in the largely vacant near west side. Today it is a feature of the Battery Park district, an artists’ haven with spaces for galleries and also private functions (I have attended a wedding reception there) the site of several temporary Theater Ninjas installations and currently home to Blank Canvas Theatre.

We were attending a sold out performance of Blank Canvases’ acclaimed production of Cabaret. They had sent an email message to all those who had reservations (God, the things we could have done with email back in the day) warning us that parking would be an issue, as the entire building would be packed with interested shoppers taking the Holiday Bazaar. They recommended we arrive early, as to have time to find a parking space and then leisurely browse the wares of dozens of local artists.

I have seen a couple of shows at Blank Canvas, a tiny space with roughly ninety seats on three sides of the stage. Have you ever seen Cabaret in someplace the size of an actual cabaret? It is a rare treat, I will tell you that. They had a wait list, the best of their shows often do. It doesn’t matter how many seats a theater has, you want it full, people like to know they are part of something special, something in demand.

We (not me, the collective we) used to create these spaces, carving them out of the unhappy emptiness of urban abandonment. A storefront in Tremont with a single light over the door lighting a hand painted sign that read “The Actors’ Gym.” On any given Saturday evening we would wait for five or six the trickle in. Then there was the coffee shop carved out the space between two buildings with a metal roof over it, “The Brick Alley.” They offered folk music and the occasional dramatic offering.

John Coltrane's Christmas Meditation (Moko Bovo)
12 Bands of Christmas Sing, 12/22/1992 (Cleveland Public Theater)

Our new theater company used this space to produce a modern-dress yet otherwise pretty traditional three-hour Hamlet which was surprisingly well received and was also selling out its run, filling each of its ninety seats. People would drive in from their homes in the suburbs, park on St. Clair or 40th Street, see the show and then promptly vacate the area.

Cleveland used to have one major urban entertainment center at a time. Once, you had the Flats. Then it was the Warehouse District when everyone began fleeing the Flats, later East 4th. It was as though the number of people coming downtown weren’t enough to accommodate two neighborhoods at once.

Last week there was a public hearing regarding Cuyahoga Arts and Culture’s decision to eliminate the Creative Workforce Fellowship, and many opinions were expressed regarding how these individual artist grants contributed to the cultural strength and vitality of neighborhoods like Tremont, Ohio City, Gordon Square, Waterloo, Hingetown -- those last three are names that were made up in the past ten years, they used to be called the Detroit Shoreway, Collinwood and, uh, Ohio City (?) as they have each become distinctive downtown neighborhoods where people actually hang out instead of scurrying right back to their homes.

So, we were seeing Cabaret in this tiny space in the middle of a large warehouse. Audience members with beer and popcorn jostling for position in our seats, remaindered from some defunct movie theater, trying to find space for all of our large, poofy coats. It was happening, the dream is real. I was reminded of that strange opportunity we received, almost twenty-five years ago. This guy owned the Union Gospel Press Building and wanted our company to move in. He wanted us to do our work there, we’d be pioneers, the rent would be seriously cheap and we could do whatever we liked.

We also wouldn’t have a lease, because he didn’t believe in those. I can only imagine what it would have been like if we had moved the entire operation, lock and stock, into that space on the edge of Tremont, overlooking the only recently completed Interstate 490.

We would have had off-street parking but no one would have stepped foot into that place just to see us, and even if we were able to turn it into a success we’d be out on our asses the moment the guy decided he didn’t want us there any more. That's not urban homesteading, that's like subletting on the surface of the moon.

Jean-Jacques Sempé (2005)
The other night I began a new project in the service of another writer, we had our first read-through in a former storefront, part of the massive Cleveland Public Theatre complex. The mercury was in the teens, but a fragile pane of glass was keeping us from dense, muscle-deep and piercing cold. We gather together to read a new play script.

This evening my wife and I will welcome folks into our home for the final salon of the calendar year (more on that some time) building a wall against despair and disillusionment, against the cold. It's what we do. It is what we have always done.

One of my very favorite New Yorker covers is by Jean-Jacques Sempé. Published in January, 2005, it features a street in the city, winter, cold, snow falling. The neighborhood is dark except for one street-level club, the lights are on, the band is playing, people are heading in wearing their heavy winter coats.

Outside, it is winter. In there, it’s so hot.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Death of a Salesman (1966)

Last night my colleagues and I watched Death of a Salesman, the 1966 made-for-TV movie, starring Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock, who originated the roles of Willy and Linda Loman on Broadway seventeen years earlier, and also a young George Segal as Biff and a affecting Gene Wilder as Bernard.

Directed by Alex Segal (no relation) this CBS production was adapted and moderately abridged by the playwright, Arthur Miller, and it succeeds brilliantly in its edited state, with an urgency I have never before seen in a production of this play.

The truth is, I have never experienced a production of Death of a Salesman that I can honestly say I have enjoyed watching. Willy Loman has always been an unreachable character to me, distant, erratic and altogether unlikable. I could not understand why anyone in his family or anyone else cares or ever cared about him at all.

Most significant in this production is the very real sense that Willy’s memories are entirely false. Not that the facts are untrue, but we are never lulled into the sense that we, the audience, are experiencing Willy’s past the way it actually happened.

That part of the first scene, in which his teenage sons are washing his car and his wife comes smiling out of the house carrying a basket of laundry (her gray wig swapped out for a brown one) is almost cartoonish in its picture of domestic bliss.

And I have never been more convinced that “Uncle Ben” doesn't exist at all, that Willy doesn’t even have a brother, or that if he did, he went away when Willy was very small and never saw or heard from him ever again. No one in the real, present world of the play ever speaks of him, and neither does Willy himself. Ben is an absurd character, the personification of lost opportunity, but never actually human.

So, rather than just seeing an old man wandering in and out of his memories (like you do) there is this palpable sense that he has entirely lost his hold on reality, and that he is obsessed with his failures, his mistakes, that he lives every moment in perpetual doubt.

One of us watching last night mentioned that everything Willy says sounds like something Donald J. Trump has said or could say. When I repeated this observation on social media this morning, a friend objected, stating that unlike our transparently deceitful President-elect, “Willy actually believed in his platitudes.”

And you know what? I disagree. That is the thing. I used to believe that myself, that Willy Loman’s “tragic flaw” is that he was so wrapped up in his own bullshit he drove himself insane.

It is true I have not seen a great many performances of this play, but I can say, for example, that Dustin Hoffman (CBS, 1986) played him as a peevish asshole and Hal Holbrook (Great Lakes Theater, 1994) was very regal and collected. In each of those performances you got the sense that Willy did actually believe in his platitudes.

Cobb's Willy Loman does not.

Perhaps it is the element of the television close-up, where we can see Cobb’s Loman, slack-jawed and exhausted, but never at rest, we see him hearing what is being said to him and you know he is rolling through every action he has ever taken in his entire life and second-guessing every single one. But he can’t say it. He can’t admit it. That is his tragic flaw. His doubt. He knows. And he cannot accept.

It helps that Cobb is supported by a company that very clearly communicates not only their love for this man, but the reason for that love. John Malkovich (Hoffman's Biff) has never played an actual homo sapiens, but Segal is at once manly and childlike as Biff and his adoration of his father is real.

Then there’s Gene Wilder. He easily plays the goofy memory of “anemic” Bernard, but it as the confident, adult lawyer, a young man who is believably successful and prepared to testify before the Supreme Court, where he truly shines. He treats his former neighbor, a man who always picked on him and taught his sons to pick on him, with dignity, respect and above all that soft kindness with which fans of Wilder are so familiar. But his Bernard is also free of nonsense and artifice, and cuts directly to Willy’s soul with his one probing question.

Cobb’s response to that question -- What happened in Boston, Willy? -- that made me believe for the first time,that Willy Loman himself hadn’t put it together himself until that moment. And maybe he had, some time in the past, or countless times before, but it was like he was figuring it out again for the first time. It happened right then, it was heartbreaking, and that is the hallmark of a great dramatic moment.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Twenty-Seventeen

"Twelfth Night"  at Cleveland Public Library
Photo: Catherine Young
What will the new year hold, apart from malfeasance and kleptocracy at the highest levels of government? Hard to believe an entire year ago I was already fretting the Presidential election, and what do you know, it actually played out pretty much the way I expected. I can deal with it. I am more concerned about the children.

But this is about playwriting. This time last year I believed I would only be producing two adaptations. I was unaware that I would remount I Hate This, that I would be going to Alaska, that I would be further developing a new work I had started two years earlier, that my father would die.

Great things that did happen in 2016:
This spring I have the honor of presenting my third world premiere at Talespinner Children’s Theatre. Red Onion, White Garlic will spin no less than three Indonesian folk tales into one narrative of two grown step-sisters. I am so happy that I have had the opportunity to create three very different stories for this company, from the dreams of a child to a wacky princess adventure to this mature story of familial responsibility.

What else, I cannot say. Received a query about performing the stillbirth play in Turkish, that sounded very interesting but I have not heard back. If the recent past has taught me anything, however, it is that surprises, good and ill, await around every corner.

What’s next?

Friday, December 2, 2016

On Race (three)

Alia Shawkat as Alexander Hamilton (Drunk History)
Here is the billion dollar question about Hamilton, moving forward. What happens when this “wonderful American story,” (to quote the message from the company to the Vice President-elect made two weeks ago) which was created to be performed told by “a diverse group of men [and] women of different colors, creeds, and orientations” (again from last Friday’s speech) is licensed to be produced at colleges and high schools across the nation?

My high school alma mater is part of a community which is not terribly diverse. Largely Caucasian, almost entirely Christian This did not prevent Bay High from producing Fiddler on the Roof a few years ago. No idea how it was received, that’s a good play, great song, I am sure it was fine. No doubt an educational, experience, too. Let’s face it, the cast photo of those teenagers wearing fake beards looks no more or less ridiculous than if it were of a company of teenagers from Beachwood High wearing fake beards.

What happens, however, should my hometown high school chose to produce In The Heights? That’s an important story about an American community, and if the community that tells it does not have significant Latino representation, then that, too, is an educational opportunity, correct? Or is it something else? What is the difference between performing as a person who is Jewish and a person who is Hispanic?

I mean, we're talking about representing a diverse number of Latino characters, it's not like producing Bye Bye Birdie.

Good Lord, I hate Bye, Bye Birdie.

My own personal memories of racist moments in theater are painful to recollect. We presented Anything Goes my senior year and in the final scene my character disguises himself as one of the several Chinese converts who had been shuffling around after a Western missionary, replete with straw hat and uttering brief statements in “pidgin” English.

When my brother was a child actor, I saw him perform once in yellowface and once in blackface. That was wrong. Last week, however, we saw An Octaroon at Dobama Theatre where we saw a black man in whiteface, a white man in redface, and a brown man in blackface. That was satire.

So. where are we in our cross-cultural American experiment? Can a white actor can play a role created for a Latino or Black actor inspired by an historical white person? Can a woman?

As part of the school residency program, our actor-teachers perform scenes from classic literature. They also cast students to perform roles in these scenes with them. We provide scripts and costumes, and we have a few ground rules.

For example, students are asked to use their own voice, and not to put on a false voice. Part of this is honesty. If you are acting fake, you can't come close to the true emotions and decisions. Part of this is to avoid uncomfortable circumstances.

Yes, we present scenes from Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin In The Sun in rural Ohio. Once I was asked if a white student playing Lena Younger could use a Southern accent.  I said, "No, because this is Chicago." That seemed to him to be a satisfactory answer.

Our actors also have what we call our non-specific gender policy, to wit; “Boys can play the girls roles, girls can play the boys roles.”

Recently, however, our people have reported to me the increasing number of self-identified trans and non-binary students they have been encountering, from elementary school on up. The old instruction seems no longer appropriate. It is arcane, even.

After all, this is theater. Theater is play. And anyone can play anything.