Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Hit, and the Review

So two things happened this week with "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol:"

We just sold out every show for the rest of the run, and it runs till December 30.


We received several more reviews, including one from Misha at the Seattle Times.

As to point one: having a show sell out with four weeks left in its run is frankly amazing. On Wednesday night, Nikki over at Taproot sent me a note that they had 900+ tickets left for the run of the show. Thursday around noon, I got another note: there were less than 250 tickets left. By the time I went to the show Thursday night, they were completely sold out.

This is the textbook definition of a Hit.

As to the review: I'm grateful for Misha giving this show a full-length review in The Times. One of my concerns has been that since this is a Christmas show, we weren't going to get a thoughtful, full review of this show from a paper.

Theatre artists like to say that reviews are good for selling tickets, but that's it. I respectfully disagree. Good reviews can help you sell a play to other producers, so that your work can be performed with other companies across the country. They can reflect to your peers that you know what you're doing, and help build your local reputation. (If it's a bad review--let's not go there.)

And every once in a while, there's something that the reviewer says that can actually help you improve your show.

My rule with reviews is that I read them once, take a pull quote if it's useful, and then do my best to forget about them. Good or bad, reviews are one person's opinion, and if you start to believe your press, you're in trouble.

Misha's review is here:

It's not a rave, but I'd say she gives the show a B, B+.

There are several things I disagreed with when I read it. But again, it IS one person's opinion--even though in this case, you have to respect that she's done this for years and makes a living at it. I often disagree with Misha, but there's no question that when it comes to theatre critics, she's the most influential in Seattle.

If you're interested in what she has to say, I say read it.

Then come see the show and see what you think.

(If you can get tickets. There may be additional performances added. Stay tuned.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The First Review! (and a lot of blogs...)

Here's the first actual publication review Sherlock Holmes/Carol has received--a shortish blurb but it's a good review. Give it a read.

“Taproot’s got good news: a brand new mashup of the Dickens classic.” - Mark D. Fefer, Seattle Weekly

That was the first publication review. But it's the seventh review for this show.

Just five years ago I used "blogging" as a punchline in one of my plays, where an obsessive theatre critic starts publishing his journal online after he quits his job. But now? Bloggers are all over the place, and not a punchline. Increasingly they're becoming part of the necessary press coverage theatre uses to spread word about a show.

Bloggers vary widely, as do blogs--not just professional or amateur status, but in their fundamental approach to their writing. Many of these folks, like myself, are writing about a variety of subjects, including but not limited to theatre. Sometimes these reviews mix a lot more personal narratives in, and there seems more interest in offering opinions, not an overall critical response.

“my biggest gripe was the fact that the show was eventually going to end.” - Steven Gomez, The Russians Used a Pencil

“For some reason, the holidays are never complete without a good performance or two. Thankfully, I was able to locate just the right diversion this Christmas – Taproot Theatre is performing ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol.’” - Kim Martinez, Kim Martinez Staying Focused

Others are community-based blogs with multiple writers that mirror the fast-disappearing neighborhood newspaper.

“Stephen’s interaction throughout the performance is a stunning display of American theater at its best.” - Andrew Davis, Seattle P-I Greenwood-Phinney

“It’s the best of Dickens and Doyle. … You won’t want to miss this cheery, insightful and hilarious journey with some of literatures best.” - Meredith Pechta,

There are even magazines that have a blog element.

“It’s elementary, really. … it works seamlessly. … Holmes aficionados will find numerous delights.” - Machelle Allman, Seattle’s Child

What's interesting about all of these reviews is that with the exception of The Seattle Weekly and arguably The Seattle PI, these are are new voices that weren't writing about theatre just five years ago.

Which leads me to what is my favorite review, even though the reviewer probably liked the show less than anyone else:

Emma M. didn't like the show as much as most of the other writers. Some bits bored her and she's got some other criticisms. But right there at the top of the blog, you know what it says?

"Teenagers write this blog. Deal with it."

There are teens out there who actually want to go see theatre? And write about it? It warms the cockles of my ex-critic heart.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


"Sherlock Holmes/Christmas Carol" got its first pair of reviews already, from a couple of different bloggers.

Here's the link from blogger Gomezticator:

" biggest gripe was the fact that the show was eventually going to end."

And here's the one from the Phinney Ridge website:
Referring to Stephen Grenley's portrayal of Watson: "a stunning display of American theater at its best."

See what I did right there? I cherry-picked a couple of key quotes from these two reviews, each short, under a sentence. They make it seem like the reviewers absolutely loved the show and thought it was one of the best things they'd ever seen.

As a PR person, I'm wary of using this technique. The thing is, you can take a pretty mixed review and make it sound like a four-star sensation.

So: "the directing was far from brilliant, in fact hum-drum, and the production overall delivers none of the excitement you'd expect from a professional company."

Can become: "the directing was...brilliant...the excitement you'd expect from a professional company."

When I was reviewing plays back in the '90s I was called one day by the artistic director of a local fringe company. At that time of theatrical bounty, there were many groups in Seattle that produced sub-par work, but under this man's leadership this one ambitiously managed to produce mediocre productions across all genres, from Shakespeare to musicals, from improv to new writing.

He wanted to talk about the scathing review I'd given his most recent effort, a promising play that he'd managed to sink through his poor casting, desperate costuming, abysmal lighting and sound, and above all terrible direction. He was angry, but as we discussed each element he agreed that it wasn't very good.

Finally, exasperated and needing to end the conversation, I said, "Can you please tell me if there's anything inaccurate in my review?"

Gathering up his outrage, he answered, "I've read through this twice, and there is NOTHING here that I can quote!"

So: those reviews right above? The ones with the killer quotes?

Ah, go ahead and check. They're both raves.

Thanks, reviewers. I appreciate you taking the time to see shows and to share your thoughts about them--particularly when you had such a good time!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Wary Holmes Companion: Sherlock on the Radio

Cold enough for ya?

It is for me. This is one hardy Alaskan who prefers his Seattle winters gray and wet instead of icy and treacherous. The cold snap and mini-blizzard that's shut down half of Seattle has me abandoning portions of my house to the cold and retreating to a couple of rooms where closed doors and some weatherized windows make baseboard heating adequate.

But there's an upside to all of this. Being housebound is a great opportunity to listen to some radio theatre. I've long been an Old Time Radio enthusiast (read: dork), and these days you can track down thousands of these radio shows for free download.

Given my other interests, you're probably not surprised to learn that I'm a big fan of Sherlock Holmes radio shows, which began while Conan Doyle was still alive and are still produced by both American and British radio producers to this day.

The quality of these shows are variable. My personal favorites are the John Gielgud/Ralph Richardson versions from the 1940s. But here's a link to a charming 1948 adaptation of Conan Doyle's "Christmas Tale" The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle starring John Stanley as Holmes and George Spelvin as Dr. Watson, that I think is just as fun.

Perfect entertainment on a chilly November night!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hamlet: Good Grief, Sweet Prince

I saw Seattle Shakespeare’s excellent production of Hamlet this last week, and all of the good press the show’s gotten is richly deserved. Great cast, crystal clear directing, funny and somber and illuminating—a fine opportunity to reacquaint yourself with one of the best plays ever written.

But it also shows what I’ve long thought about the Prince of Denmark: he is absolutely the worst revenger in the history of Revenge Tragedies.

To recap: Hamlet is told by no less of an authority than the Ghost of his own dead Father that his Uncle is a murderous villain. On top of this, Claudius has married his mother, dispossessed the Prince, and shoots off the Royal Cannons whenever he gets drunk. Simple answer, right? Request a private conference with the old souse, run your sword through his gut, make excuses afterwards.

Instead he hatches several Cunning Plans, and the result is a stage littered with corpses—including his own.

You can blame Hamlet or his philosophy professors at Wittenberg or the Oedipal complex or the effect of Renaissance ideas on the medieval mind. Personally, I blame Horatio, the least effective sidekick in literature.

After painstaking research, I’ve reconstructed the following pages from Horatio’s private diary.

8 October: I met with H. again today to discuss his plans for revenge. He showed up with his stockings foul'd, ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ankles. He also had stuck some straw in his hair.

“What’s with the down-gyving?” I asked.

“I merely seem mad,” he said. “When the wind’s southerly, I can tell a hawk from a handsaw.” He then crossed his eyes and shook his cheeks with a “wubba wubba” sound.

“Uh-huh.” I replied.

“My antic disposition shall confound mine enemy.”

“It’s certainly confounding me,” I admitted. “Along with Claudius, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Horatio, Marcellus, Ophelia and everyone else in the castle.”

“That’s my purpose!” he said triumphantly.

“Why Ophelia?” I asked. “Do you think she had something to do with the murder?”


“Then why are you acting crazy round her?”

He looked ashamed for a moment. “She’s great, really, but you know? All we ever talk about is her gardening and whatever hey-nonny-nonny song she's listening to. It’s just not working for me, so I thought I’d let her down easy.”

“By pretending you’re insane?”


“Well, far be it for me to give unsolicited advice, but if your Uncle murdered your Father, just kill him! C
laudius is a loudmouth drunk who’s always cadging drinks and hitting on lords’ wives at official functions. You’re the rightful heir.I can create a distraction so his guards aren’t looking. I’ll say something like ‘Help! Help! I see a ghost!,’ while you run him through.There probably won’t even be an official investigation.”

H. looked confused. “The time’s not right. What’s today, Tuesday? It’s bad luck to kill your Uncle on a Tuesday. I read that somewhere.” He suddenly spotted Polonius. “Ah-ha! Off to confound the old man!” He hitched his right stocking down a couple of inches further and raced off.

I miss Wittenberg.

10 October: Talked to H. again, who’s in a fevered excitement about the arrival of some strolling players. Hey, I love theatre as much as the next guy (particularly comical-historical-pastoral—I go nuts for that stuff!), but that’s not what has him so goofy. “My plot is laid, Horatio!,” he said, brandishing some pages he was scribbling on. “I’m going to interpolate a scene I’ve written into tonight's performance, replicating my father’s murder!”

“Wow!” I said.

“I know, right? Stuck in the middle of this old Italian tragedy like a petard in a punch bowl.” He made a “KA-BLOOIE!” sound and thrust out his hands, fingers waving, in imitation of an explosion.

I smiled. He smiled.

Then, I had to ask. “Why, exactly?”

“I’m going to watch Claudius. I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench, I’ll know my course.”

“To cut him down while he’s distracted?”

“Absolutely!” he said. Then he looked a little shifty. “Or really soon, anyway.”

“So the ghost wasn’t enough?” He looked at me mysteriously.

“Maybe it wasn’t a ghost. Maybe it was a trick.”

“A trick?”

“Maybe it was a sprite disguised as a ghost, trying to get me to kill Claudius.”

"A sprite? Like a brownie?"

"Or a hobgoblin."

“That's pretty convoluted, even for a hobgoblin.”

“There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio….”

“I heard you the first time. Look, if your plan works Claudius will know you put the players up to it. Won’t you lose the advantage of surprise?”

He looked confused, then shouted “I don’t have time for this!” and angrily rearranged his head straw. “I’ve got to go find those players and give them some acting advice!”

“Well, I’m sure THAT will go over well." I said.

He ungyved his right hose a bit, and was off.

This afternoon I updated my resume. I’m applying for a job with the Swedish Royal Court.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dammit, Mamet! A Review of Mr. Crankypants' New Book "Theatre"

Is David Mamet, one of the greatest playwrights of the American stage, now its crankiest commentator?

I've just been finished his new book, modestly entitled Theatre. The answer is an unequivocal “yes.”

That doesn't mean that Theatre is not occasionally a fun read. When his earlier book True and False came out in 1999, I discussed it with Freehold’s director (and UW Professor) Mark Jenkins. That book was a radical and thorough attack on the Stanislavski-inspired system of acting training, with Mamet lambasting just about every central tenant of “the Method,” from “sense memory” to textual analysis. His objections were vituperative but seemed informed; Mamet had studied with Meisner and was a friend of Harold Clurman, among other original pioneers of The Group Theatre. He certainly sounded like he knew what he was talking about.

When I asked Jenkins, himself a graduate of The Actor’s Studio, what he thought, he said he strenuously disagreed with almost everything in the book. “But look at where Mamet is: he’s won the Pulitzer and has come close to an Oscar. He’s got a hit film out (at that time it was The Spanish Prisoner) and is married to a beautiful actress. He’s on top of the world and he knows it. Of course he’s going to write a book like this!”

But having railed from the top of Success Mountain against Theatre’s “false prophets,” a decade later Mamet’s provocative thoughts have calcified into list-making curmudgeonliness.

In Theatre, it’s not just theatrical training that gets bludgeoned. Practically every element of the art is savaged, including actors, directors, the rehearsal process, the cost of theatre tickets, subscribers, arts funding, political theatre, poetic theatre, and “victim theatre.”

Mamet’s value as an essayist is his pugilistic prose which declares, in short powerful sentences, his positions. But when you start to pull them apart in search of the meaning of the maxims, what’s there is at best bewildering and at worst fraudulent.

Take this paragraph, from the chapter provocatively entitled (but what isn't in this book?) “On the General Uselessness of the Rehearsal Process:”

“The better the play, the easier it is to stage. Why? A good play is clear. It is clear who wants what from whom. Knowing this, the director can merely stage the actors such that, scene by scene, their intentions are clear to the audience. Let the actor learn his lines and open the damn thing.”

Let's leave alone the grumblings about ease of staging, which sound like the exasperated yowl of a playwright who’s become convinced that the real problem with his wonderful scripts is that his stupid directors keep overproducing them.

Instead, let's examine this contention: “a good play is clear. It is clear who wants what from whom.” Since Mamet evokes Aristotle, Oedipus, and Shakespeare, I'll evoke Hamlet. Now, Hamlet's fundamental "want" is obvious: avenge his father, and kill his Uncle. Then why doesn't he do it? In the original history that Shakespeare used as his source, the Prince learns about the murder, hunts down his uncle, kills him, and then reigns happily in Elsinore to a ripe old age. Now that's clear. So why does Shakespeare’s Hamlet spend five acts assuming an “antic disposition,” breaking up with Ophelia, bewildering his friends, and even staging a play in court just to see Claudius’s reaction? The only thing that’s “clear” is that he's conflicted--he wants to kill his Uncle at the same time he doesn't want to, for reasons that he can't articulate and we can't fully understand. That's what makes Hamlet not just a good but a great play.

Theatre’s short chapters are filled with a laundry list of the dislikes of Mamet. Actors need to understand the “fact” that no one wants to see people crying on a stage. (Hey Electra! Get a room!) Plays about “victims,” and here Mamet means "social message" dramas about the dilemmas of gays, women, and people of color, are reminiscent (for reasons that aren't entirely clear) of Stalinist show trials. Subsidized theatres insulate artists from the healthy tonic of the marketplace. Subscribers feel conned because they've been sold on a season, not a play’s individual merits. Directors are simply unnecessary, an obstacle between the actor and the play.

After laying waste to so much of the theatrical landscape, what’s left? A paying audience; a few actors who can speak clearly, look up from the floor, and pick up their cues; and a good script—preferably, one infers, one written by David Mamet.

Whatever truth is here, these brisk unsubstantiated opinions sound like a crotchety old-timer less interested in sharing wisdom than on sounding off.

But just when his crankiness gets to be too much, he’ll come out with something like this: “Who are the correct teachers of writing? There are two….The speaking one is the audience.” Here he suggests that the greatest classroom for the playwright is sitting in on a performance and watching not just the show but how it goes over—the jokes that fall flat, the endings that don’t end, the scenes where an audience collectively rustles. From personal experience, I affirm: he couldn't be more right.

And the second great teacher? “…the silent teacher is the empty page.” I’m not even entirely sure I understand what Mamet’s saying here, but as a playwright, I feel it. And it’s beautiful.

There are two other things I unequivocally enjoy about this book. The first is that it’s not Mamet’s last word on Theatre. Thankfully, he’s still writing plays, not just sour essays, and I believe that there might be another masterpiece or two in that graying bespectacled head. The second? The spelling of the book’s title. In the great “Theater” versus “Theatre” debate, I've always been a “re” man. And like Mamet, while I have no solid basis in fact for this position, I am willing to argue passionately for it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Me and the SOBs

Tonight was a particular milestone for me. I presented a paper to the local gathering of The Baker Street Irregulars, known in this region as The Sound of the Baskervilles.

The paper, which was a study of fictional pastiche using the oft-repeated literary meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, was warmly received by the SOBs, several of who gave me invaluable corrections and suggestions. I only wish back when I was working on my MA that I had such a friendly and sympathetic audience.

Now, while I am tolerant and even admiring of much of what you might call geek or fan culture, I am not really a member of any of that tribe. Yes, I know how to role a 20 sided die and know what "armor class" is, I know both the first and last names of Bruce Wayne's butler, but particulars of the worlds of Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and even Lord of the Rings baffle me. The intricate creation of imaginary universes is occasionally fascinating to visit, but I rarely stay for extended periods of time in the worlds of Stan Lee, Gene Roddenberry, or even J.R.R. Tolkien (who I think we can agree was a better writer than even Stan or Gene).


It turns out I like being a Sherlockian.

Not enough to put on a deerstalker or pick up a pipe. I was invited tonight by the SOB's President David Haugen to consider taking a Canonical name, and I have no idea where to even begin. (Though I always liked the character of young Lord Baskerville, come to think of it.)

But when the trivia started flowing tonight around the book of the meeting, in this case "The Adventure of the Reigate Squires," while I was entirely unable to answer any of the questions, I was still fascinated.

Sherlockians (or in Britain, Holmesians) are the original fans. One of their most esteemed members, Vincent Starrett (author of the essential Holmesian critical work The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) practically invented the oddly enjoyable game of treating a literary character as if he had a real life outside of the pages of fiction. He wrote seminal essays on Conan Doyle's stories not as the fictions of a sly and eccentric Scottish writer, but as if Holmes was a living, breathing person whose adventures had been captured by his best friend, Dr. John Watson.

At this late date the rules of Starrett's game have become baroque and astonishing. Errors in the stories of dates, places and names that a literary critic would suggest came from a hurried Conan Doyle skipping his proofreading duties are attributed to Watson's faulty memory or other accidents that negate the need for a "real world" author entirely. There are books like Pierre Bayard's Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong that uses narrative implausibilities in Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles to argue that Holmes didn't actually solve his famous case.

It's all very silly.

And engrossing and charming and fun. I'm grateful for the SOBers for being such warm-hearted and enjoyable people. I'll be seeing a good gathering of them at the December 8th production of "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol." You should come too.

And if you find yourself interested in a meeting of the SOBs, here's a link to their website:

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sherlock and Me

Misha Berson writing in The Seattle Times has a great article about the latest incarnations of the Immortal Sherlock Holmes, including my upcoming play Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol.

You can read it here:

I agree with Misha: the new BBC series Sherlock is one to watch. Unlike the not-so-bad-when-you-think-how-bad-it-could-be Robert Downey Jr. film last year, the writers of the show pull off something wonderful: a completely faithful and relevant Holmes. That they can do this while transposing the characters to contemporary London is even more wonderful. (Though I'll confess: as much as I love the way London looks now, I get the occasional nostalgic yearning for a few hansom cabs and a pea-soup fog that the new show can't supply.)

But that's not to say that I'm not in constant ecstatic surprise at just how good Terry Edward Moore is going to be in the Taproot show. I sat in on a rehearsal on Saturday and it was an intense pleasure to see how the cast, led by Moore, has already mined more ore out of the script than I consciously knew was there. Lucky me, to have such wonderful actors and such a great company as Taproot willing to take a chance on a world premiere--a dodgy proposition in this economic climate, even for a Christmas show!

Happy Halloween, all. I'm spending mine providing a bowl of candy to trick-or-treaters and rereading a couple of my favorite stories from Conan Doyle's original--often imitated, never bettered.

(by the way, for more information on the Taproot show, go here:

Friday, October 29, 2010

McDonagh's Gift of Gab...And Gore

“It’s incidents like this does put tourists off Ireland.”

That’s Donny (drolly played by the habitually wonderful Sean G. Griffin) speaking to his friend Davey in his rundown cottage in rustic Inishmore, Ireland in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, currently playing at ACT till November 14. The incidents he’s referring to involve a catalog of horrors that begin with the death of a cat, and don’t end until said rustic cottage is strewn with blood and corpses—a conclusion that won't surprise anyone familiar with the writing of Martin McDonagh.

McDonagh’s reputation as a playwright was made through a series of plays set in rural Ireland, which he depicts as having a cultural life similar to how most Americans think of the Ozarks: the sticks, the backwoods, hillbilly country. Whether or not there’s any relation between McDonagh’s rural Ireland and reality is a subject of some debate, but there’s no question that his gleeful mix of lyrical dialogue with graphic violence has made him a name to be reckoned with.

His meteoric career as a playwright seems to have stalled slightly as of late. His most recent play A Behanding in Spokane, playing now on Broadway, is apparently an adequate vehicle for Christopher Walken, but critics have found it a thin excuse for some predictable violence. Like Tarantino (to whom he’s often compared), McDonagh seems trapped by his early success as a shockmeister.

While I have usually found McDonagh a morally bankrupt artist, he’s talented enough to do what any good playwright should be able to do: get your interest in the story, and hold it right to the end. We often talk of Grand Guignol as if any hack can pull off on-stage blood and guts, but the dramatic sense of how far you can go with your mayhem is a subtle craft. In certain works (Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus naturally comes to mind), scenes of torture, rape, murder and worse are used to illuminate actual truths of the human condition.

But that’s not this play.

Lieutenant is revenge tragedy as farce, where the death of psychopathic freelance terrorist Padraic’s pet cat leads to a tornado of death and mutilation. Shots are fired, humans (and cats) are killed, and what starts as a slovenly home devolves into an abattoir. But really, the structure of the play is no more sophisticated than an extended joke.

In McDonagh’s defense, this was an early play that was only dusted off and produced after the success of the superior Beauty Queen of Lenane and A Skull in Connemara, among others. As to its somewhat hyped “political commentary,” that’s pretty slim, mostly reduced to some caricatured names of IRS splinter groups that recall the “People’s Judean Front” scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

For me the sole line in the play that carries some actual philosophical weight is when Mairead (Elise Hunt), sister of Davey and romantically inclined towards Padraic, says near the end of the play “I thought shooting fellas would be fun, but it’s not. It’s dull.”

Over drinks after the show with actor Jeffrey Frace (who plays Padraic), he mentioned to me that during a few months in Ireland back in 1989 the young people he spoke to on both sides of the religious divide echoed this thought: they were simply bored of the violence and wanted it to stop. I recall similar conversations with my Irish friends around the same time—the violence wasn’t just horrific, it was dull. The younger generation frankly had little interest or passion for its causes.

And this points to one pleasant aspect of this play: it’s already something of a museum piece. The most significant thing about The Lieutenant of Inishmore as a play is that we’re far enough away from the horrific violence of “the Troubles” that it’s possible to conceive laughing at it. And, perhaps, that there is indeed a way of dealing with terrorists: you don't declare an unending "War on Terror." You stop killing them, and you sit down and talk with them.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Audience Reactions to Arcana: A Favorites List

Arcana actor Brandon Ryan accosted me on Friday night after the performance. (He likes to accost people.) "You've been coming to this show too many times!", he said, before feigning a kidney punch and vanishing backstage. (He also likes to do this.)

It's probably true. I saw the show at least once a weekend during the run, and a couple of additional times too. I saw it both Friday and Saturday this week, trying to discreetly show up just before the curtain so I didn't look like one of those sad playwrights who shows up for ego stroking before his own show or to loudly clap and laugh during it. (Okay, I enjoyed a certain amount of ego stroking.)

While it was fascinating to watch the show develop, I got just as much of a kick out of watching the audience. One of the reasons I think people enjoyed this show so much was that the effect of eight individual pieces was particularly varied. They got a chance to laugh, to think some, and to hopefully feel something--and isn't that the definition of a Good Night Out?

Because the evening was such a smorgasbord, it led to some interesting reactions from the audience. Here's a short list of my favorites, either witnessed by me or related by others:

1) The man sitting in the front row during "The Picnic" with eyes fixed determinedly several inches above Katherine, who was sitting just a few feet away splendidly naked.

2) The man sitting in the front row during "The Picnic" who fell asleep several feet away from Katherine while she was sitting there naked. (To which I say--"Dude--maybe you found all 10 minutes of the play dull, but are you really that blase' about having a beautiful woman sitting naked eight feet away from you?") Weirdly enough, he was awake and laughing by the next piece.

3) The two women who sat next to me and started loudly sighing with dissatisfaction during the comedy of "Petting Sounds," and then gave exasperated shakes of their heads at the top of "Affairs with the Moon." They seemed personally affronted by the idea of the Moon talking, and left during intermission.

4) The man who told Anthony, one of the actors in the show, "Man, I loved that. It held my attention every minute. And that's amazing, because I have ADD."

5) The prim older couple who sat disapproving through the first twenty minutes of the show then exploded with guffaws when Brandon revealed just who that was on the tape he was listening to in "Petting Sounds," and were still giggling through till intermission.

6) The delighted smile of the pretty young woman who received a wave and a wink from the Moon.

7) The collective intake of breath the night that Katherine staggered back to sit in her chair in "Balance" and almost missed it, catching it at the last moment with a desperate grab of her fingers. (And then delivered the rest of the monologue the best I'd ever seen it done.)

8) The expectant attention every night as the lights started coming down on Anthony's Priest at the end of "Wild River," and the laughs that would explode when he contemplated the "hotness" quotient of his new boss and gave a small secretive smile.

Thanks to all--actors, artists, and audiences--for an amazing run.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

One Last Chance for Some Arcana Love!

So this weekend we close Arcana. It's been quite the ride, and one that wouldn't have been possible without some wonderful artists collaborating with a greater degree of generosity than I think I've ever seen on a single project.

(FIVE Directors. FIVE people sitting in the dark, watching the work, finding props and costumes for each other, giving each other advice on everything from exits and entrances to sound cues. And even now we're all still talking to each other. How is this possible?)

The individual plays of Arcana have all been performed before at various venues; several of them, including "The Picnic," "Affairs with the Moon," and "Stardust" have been published as well. I feel sure that there will be further productions of these scripts. But I wonder if I'll ever see them all brought together like this again. That makes it a very bittersweet event, because while each work does stand on its own, it'd be a feat to recapture the particular resonance that they have when produced in this way.

Ah well. The last rose of summer, the treasured LP now scratched and unplayable. So many pleasures in life are fleeting, and that's of course the beauty of theatre--like a wonderful meal you can only eat it once. If you've been meaning to, but couldn't, but still could, come see this show.

And get your tickets NOW. Seattle Weekly just made us a weekly pick and we'll probably be selling out our final two performances. (They're on sale at Brown Paper Ticket here:

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Belles! The Belles!

Last night I headed off to see "Wedding Belles," the new play at Taproot. It's a simple--maybe too simple--tale of life in small-town Texas in 1942, where the four middle-aged members of a garden club adopt a young waif on her wedding day when they discover she's planning on getting married at the courthouse. In a frenzy of maternal goodwill they commandeer her life and plan everything from the cake to the ceremony, momentarily managing to ignore their own feuds and discontent.

I won't go into a review here, mostly because I swore off reviews many years ago. But I did enjoy myself--there's nothing like a committed veteran cast having a great time with a comedy to let you relax in your seat and forget about your troubles for a bit.

What really struck me though was a short conversation I had afterwards with Scott Nolte, Taproot's Artistic Director. Scott's an old friend, and to me a near-perfect template of what an AD should be. After every show, even the ones he doesn't direct, there he is at the front door, smiling, chatting and getting updates on everyone's life and opinions. "Now, is Susan still in high school?" I'll hear him say. "Marvelous! And how's your mother doing?" Scott seeks, and more often than not finds, a personal connection with every one of his individual subscribers.

I complimented Scott on his choice of the show, and he thanked me, then continued, "What really made this script work for me is that it's about how these four women are able to rise above their own somewhat petty concerns and help a stranger. That's been the focus of so many of the plays we've chosen this season, the gift that we can give of rising above ourselves and extending a hand. We're in tough times, economically and socially, and now's the time that we need to reaffirm our charity and our sense of community."

And here I thought I was watching a slight comedy about Texas hospitality....

It put me into a cheerfully reflective state of mind. And it again made me glad that this is the theater that will be premiering Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol on November 26!

(Photo by Erik Stuhaug: Karen Nelsen, Charissa Adams and Kim Morris in Wedding Belles.)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Back to Cool

One odd thing about having a "body of work" as a playwright is that you constantly have to make an assessment of which of your creations is calling to you. You're a parent of a dozen kids, and you're always listening to which of them is screaming the loudest--and which really mean it, instead of just making noise for attention.

As we count down to 2012 and the 50th Anniversary of the Seattle World's Fair, I've been hearing more from Eugene Wright, the protagonist of my 2003 play How to be Cool. Eugene is far too polite to scream or yell--he stands there smiling, waiting for me to notice him so that we can begin a conversation.

I met with Eugene's co-creator, actor Evan Whitfield, last night for happy hour and drinks at Il Bistro. (Which has, let me just say, one of the best Happy Hour menus in the city. Their calamari? Their goat cheese bruschetta? I purr.)

We're plotting a short film to introduce Eugene to the people at The Next Fifty, the group that's organizing the 50th Anniversary of the World's Fair. For those of you who haven't seen Cool, it's in an affectionate look at life back in 1962, a time when there was optimism about the future and the ability of our society to improve ourselves into it. Eugene acts as a guide to modern audiences to that time, when for a few months anyway Seattle was very possibly the coolest place in the entire world.

Although I've been feeling run down with all of the projects I've been involved in for the last couple of months, talking with Evan about Eugene was a joyous trip back to a delicious wellspring. I don't so much write dialogue for Eugene as listen closely, and out of the air it comes, always in Evan's tones of scarcely-contained enthusiasm.

We'll be shooting the film in the next month or so, and if I can overcome my technical illiteracy, we'll post it here. Maybe we could wait longer to do it--we've got over a year to pull this together, right? But neither of us wants to. Working with Evan on this show and this character is one of those few theatrical experiences that always gives me more energy coming out of it than I did going in.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Aww...I blush. Seattle Times review

Here's the review from The Times, written by Tom Keogh:

"The result is a vibrant, sometimes bracingly satirical, often deeply moving production of grace and imagination. With Longenbaugh's narrative and tonal variety, the malleability of an exciting ensemble of actors and the unique approaches to eight short pieces by five directors, the two-hour program feels constantly fresh."

Wow. It's been a very good week for reviews. Modesty precludes me cutting these all out, laying them on my bed, and rolling around in them--but only just.
Now let's hope that audiences agree with the critics!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

KSER Review of Arcana

For those keeping track, here's a transcript of my most recent review from Douglas Bailey, who runs the "Behind the Mask" radio reviews at KSER 90.7:

"Welcome to the KSER program "Behind the Mask"- Dramatic criticism of live performance in and around Snohomish County.

"Open Circle Theatre, who is now located in Belltown by the way (in case you missed their move from south Lake Union like I did), has just opened a clever and creative play. Arcana was written by local playwright John Longenbaugh, and is guaranteed to surprise and delight.

"As background, the Major Arcana are the special cards in a Tarot deck. You know, those mythic figures like Death, the Fool, that sort of thing. The play Arcana is comprised of stories inspired by eight of these cards. What playwright Longenbaugh does that makes this idea so fresh is he puts these characters into today’s world, then stands back to see what will happen to them.

"Take 'The Empress' for example. Our royalty lets us know she is the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, but she looks like the girl next door and is dating in a bar. Trust me it makes for some extremely humorous dialogue. April Davidson does an outstanding job of conveying a lot of information with very few words. By the time she’s introduced herself and said the new guy’s name you pretty much know exactly what kind of guy he is, and it’s very funny.

"'The Moon' card takes a different approach, albeit one just as successful. Several people lounge around at night watching the moon, remembering, falling in love, dreaming...each in different places. While the moon, sharply dressed in white tux, weaves around each one relating to them in their own unique way. It created a wonderful sense of magic on stage.

"Perhaps my favorite was built around 'The Star' card. On one side of the stage a young couple in love lays on the grass watching the falling stars in the night. Across the stage two stars sit and talk about their past, all the joys they have had in life, and what they can take on this journey that is about to begin. It isn’t difficult to figure out they are about to take a glorious but career ending trip through the night sky themselves. It is surprising how much empathy you can have for a star, believe me.

"Not all these short stories are as successful however. For example 'The Sun' is built around a visual recreation of Manet’s painting of the picnic. But The Sun is relegated to such a secondary role it had more to do with grass or clouds than it did the solar orb. It just missed an opportunity to create more.

"Beautifully acted all the way around, this is an extremely strong cast. Open Circle is a small but clearly dedicated theatre group given the quality of actors they brought together. I mentioned April Davidson’s impressive talents as the Empress, but she was brilliant every time she walked on stage. It is always so rewarding to attend any theatre, no matter the size, and see someone like April that knows how to create fully three dimensional characters and get you to love them immediately. I hope to see a lot more of this talented actor on stage.

"Brandon Ryan is a familiar face to theatre goers around town. His many roles in this production showcased the outstanding skill he brings to acting. Brandon is able to build characters with such quirky idiosyncrasies that you can’t help but be amused watching him. His reporter for the Rolling Stone magazine in one of the pieces was just about as good as theatre gets. Anywhere.

"Set design by Eric Gordon was sparse but totally appropriate for the small stage. He created a framework the actors would use effectively without it getting in the way through the use of a few simple platforms and props. With so many different scenes too often the designer feels a need to clutter it up with set pieces that have to be drug on and off every time. Eric uses just the right restraint and we all benefited from it.

"Arcana plays at the Open Circle Theatre through October 2nd. Performances are Friday and Saturday with a 7:30 curtain, and a Sunday matinee at 4:00. The theatre is located upstairs at 2222 Second Ave in the heart of Belltown. As the cool days of fall return we all start thinking of more indoor activities. I can say without reservation one of those activities should be the witty and totally enjoyable production of Arcana. Get out to see this one before it closes, you’ll enjoy every moment."

And just a short comment from me: it's always interesting when a critic interprets a play in a way that I didn't intend, but clearly delights them. I can't say I ever imagined the meaning of "Stardust" that Doug attributes to my play--but who am I to take away from his interpretation? There's an anecdote about T.S. Eliot being asked at one of his readings what the three white leopards sitting beneath a juniper tree in his poem "Ash Wednesday" meant. "It means that there are three white leopards under a juniper tree," he said. Meaning in literature occurs somewhere between writer and reader, playwright and audience. When it comes to metaphor, no one gets to claim the ultimate authority.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

My Favorite Review so Far...

Is here. It's by Margaret Friedman in the Seattle Weekly:

And here's my favorite quote.

"Longenbaugh & co. shamelessly heist your heart when you least expect it. You should let them."

On top of this being a wonderfully generous review, I love how Margaret isolates every moment in the show that worked for her, and then tries to figure out who made it happen so she can give them credit: David Baldwin's lighting in "Stardust," for example, or Anthony's protean appearance in "Moon."

It is rarely a pleasure to be reviewed. Even a positive review normally has something to annoy. Not this one. (Though to give credit where it's due: the "stunningly naked" actress in "The Picnic" is Katherine Suttie-Graham.)

Thanks, Margaret!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Saddest E-mail Ever

Or at least, the saddest I've seen in a very long time:

Valley Community Players is sad to announce that it has become necessary to cease operation after forty-six years of producing quality theatre for Renton and the surrounding area.

We are having a “Final Curtain” Sale

Saturday, September 18th and Sunday, September 19th, from 9 AM -5 PM.

VCP office 231 ½ Main Ave S. Renton.

Items for sale will include stage props, costumes, tools, furniture, doors, flats, set pieces and fabric.

**Cash Only Please

Sigh. I've never seen a single show produced by the Valley Community Players, but they've been doing shows for apparently a bit longer than I've been alive.

RIP, VCP. May your final sale attract a dozen local fringe theaters who'll take your costumes, tools, furniture, doors, flats, set pieces and fabric, and recycle them into wonderfully cheap sets of a hundred more plays.

And may all of your theatrical memories be happy ones.

Audio Arcana

Last month I did an interview with Marta Zekan over at Classical KING's Arts Channel.

Marta's one of the good ones. At a time when arts coverage has been steadily shrinking everywhere else, the Arts Channel is one place that not only features in-depth interviews with artists, but has its feet firmly planted in the Seattle Arts Scene. And a lot of their success is due to the passion, smarts and laid-back interview technique of Marta, whose genuine enthusiasm for the arts translates into some fun radio.

Classical KING is in the process of making the switch from for-profit to public radio, a move that everyone agrees will eventually be great for their listeners, but is of course fraught with anxiety about what and who will be carried over. Personally, I hope that they bring over the Arts Channel exactly as is--only with a larger budget. If you want to know why, try them out--makes for some great at-your-leisure listening, and you'll learn more about what's going on in the Seattle scene in an afternoon than you'd believe is possible!

Here's a link to the interview: Just scroll down to the bottom of the page and press "Play." And check out some of the other interviews as well--some of which are my colleagues, and a couple of which I engineered via my day job at The 5th!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Opening Weekend Magic

Arcana opened on Friday to a sold-out house. The next couple of nights we've had smaller crowds, but they've been equally enthusiastic, and we're getting good word of mouth. We'll see what the reviews are like, but in some ways it doesn't matter--everyone involved knows we have a really good show.

This hasn't been a trouble-free experience. There were a lot of cracks. Misunderstandings, scheduling nightmares, last-minute substitutions and late additions. But a little bit of theatre whiffle dust drifted into the cracks and it all has worked out well.

Fringe theatre has a lot of challenges. Everyone's working a day job (except for these days, when, alas, some of us are unemployed), there's little money for sets and even less for artists, and as for getting the word out, you're mostly reliant on free publicity because for advertising you have absolutely no money whatsoever.

But somehow, none of that feels like such a big deal when you've got a good show.

We've got a really good show, folks. You can wait till you hear about it from someone else, but I'm telling you, this one's special.

Man, I've been tremendously lucky during this whole project. Thanks not only to all of the artists and theatre staff who made this possible, but thanks to all of the friends and loved ones who supported me during an exhausting but rewarding summer.

I'm keeping away from rehearsal rooms now for a couple of months.

But I'll be back seeing "Arcana" next weekend. It's too much fun not to.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Our Audience Member

We had our dress rehearsal tonight.

In the house were five directors and one audience member. Which means that if he didn't like the show, we could have beaten him up.

But he did, and we didn't.

My good friend Yussef El Guindi did us the courtesy of being our audience this evening. I've known Yussef for over a decade and it's been a delight watching his fame grow. He's always been one of my favorite playwrights, and now there are a lot of people who agree with me.

Yussef's probably best known for his political plays. As an Arab-American, he's had an interesting decade. I remember him talking about what it was like to fly in the weeks and months after 9/11/2001, and it's been fascinating watching his plays turn from clever thrillers and neo-Shavian comedies into pieces that take on dark issues like interrogation of Americans of Arab descent (Back of the Throat, Language Rooms) and politically adept comedies that take on issues like Hollywood stereotypes (Jihad Jones and the Kalsnikov Babes) without becoming bitter.

He is a man of scrupulous manners, outstanding conversation and a laser-like critical eye. I, and more specifically several of my plays, owe him much.

After the performance one of the actresses, Sarah Rose Nottingham, came up to me. "I loved our audience!" she said. I laughed--she knew that aside from the directors there was an audience of one. But she was serious. "He watched. He really focused on us. I could feel him in the house."

It's true. If you've got the right person as your audience, even if it's just one person, theater happens.

Of course, we're hoping for better houses most nights. Let's see how this weekend goes.

The Healing Power of Pizza

Pizza is perfect food.
This was explained to me once by a 10 year old, and I happen to agree with him. No one dislikes pizza. Friends who are lactose intolerant scrape off the cheese, and those who can’t eat gluten seek out non-wheat recipes. To say “I don’t like pizza” is not just un-American, it’s oddly inhuman. (I think it’s the first question that they should have asked the replicants in Blade Runner: “do you like pizza?”)

At Tuesday night’s rehearsal the directors came in to see our stage partially covered in a series of sponged gold wedges. This, it turns out, was due to a miscommunication between our stage manager and one of the set designers about the need to “texture” the stage. It was a worthy attempt, but coming late in the game it was a surprise and not a particularly pleasant one. “What’s with all the pizza slices on the set?” said one of the directors. Some low-key grousing began, and at about the third mention of “pizza” one of the actors wandered out.

“Pizza?” he asked.

“We were just talking about the set,” I answered.

“Pizza! That’s what I want!” said another actor, peering out.

“Where’s the pizza?” said another, appearing.

The rumors of pizza were starting to become critical, so we had to explain that no, there was no pizza, and yes, we were continuing on with the tech as soon as we got the current sound dilemma solved.

Last night I ordered two big pizzas from Mad Pizza to be delivered to the theatre. It was still Tech Week, and our rehearsal still didn’t finish till nearly 10:30. But there were no more pizza slices on our stage, and thanks in part to the healing power of cheese, meat and vegetables covering a disc of cooked dough, the general mood transformed from somewhere between “Desperate” and “Despairing” to “Hopeful” and “Helpful.”

Thanks, pizza.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Accidental Audiences at Bumbershoot

We had a performance of my short play “Wild River” up last night at Bumbershoot, with Brandon as the priest and Anthony as the journalist, as part of our “Best Of” designation for the “Eat My Shorts” Play Festival. Mary Cutler, the director of “Wild River” for “Arcana,” has switched the boys in their two roles, so when the show premieres on Friday at Open Circle as part of a full evening of short pieces, it’ll be significantly different.

“Wild River” originally premiered on the Center House stage about three years ago as part of 24 Hour Theatre and it was a blast bringing it back to the same venue. It was also fun, though challenging, to see it in front of a Bumbershoot audience. As anyone who’s taken a fringe theatre show to Bumbershoot can tell you, it’s a whole different experience. Fringe theatre audiences consist of fans of the theatre company, friends of the actors and artists, and those brave members of the general public who enjoy unconventional work in small black box venues. (In marketing meetings we call these people “early adapters” and “innovators” and we covet them mightily.)

But Bumbershoot theatre audiences are, near as I can tell, made up of people who have grown bored of waiting in line for music and stand-up comedy and have just wandered in looking for something different. It’s an accidental audience, by and large, and you never know quite how they’ll react to anything. They’ll leave mid-show. They’ll laugh at drama and talk through comedies. And more than anything, they seem generally interested in the novelty of real live people just a few feet away telling a story.

That’s not to say that they weren’t a good crowd: they were, laughing at the appropriate moments and giving enthusiastic applause afterwards. But I always leave Bumbershoot thinking that as theatre artists we’re still not doing our job well enough to make these accidental audiences our audiences. We can and should do better at making theatre something people seek out, and not just stumble across.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Just How Many Chefs IS Too Many, Anyway?

Last night's rehearsal of "Arcana," my collection of short pieces that goes up at Open Circle next week, went well. Which was great, even though it defies common sense.

What makes this show different from any other production I've ever been involved in is that we've got not one, not two, but FIVE directors working on it. This came about partially through necessity and partially because I get bored of doing theater the same way time after time.

When Open Circle Theatre offered me their September/October slot for a production of eight short pieces in my "Arcana" cycle, I was of course excited. But I was also terrified. Not only was the decision for this made waaaaaay back in July (that's right--one month to plan, one month to rehearse, one month to run), but I had already committed to produce/direct "My Time with the Lady" with Ron Richardson in August. There was no way that I was going to be able to direct this show too.

But when I asked around, I couldn't find another director who was available, or at least available to direct a full production. BUT....I did know several folks who like me have full-time jobs and summer commitments, yet who could probably eke out enough hours to direct a 10-minute play or two.

So after some work on both my part and Open Circle, four other directors were found: Mary Cutler, Evan Tucker, Nikki Visel and Rob West. Not only are all four smart and versatile, but they're four of the most level-headed and pleasant people you could hope to share drinks with.

I won't lie. There have been problems. Scheduling has been a nightmare. Rob's got a kid, Mary had a couple of trips planned, Nikki's dialect coaching, and a couple of weeks ago Evan asked for a later production meeting on Saturday because he was going to a bachelor party the night before: his own, as it turns out. (Mazel tov, Evan!) We also all work with our own processes, and the cast occasionally look somewhat dazed and are probably suffering from directorial whiplash.

But last night was an example of how somehow this can, and will, all work. We delegated Rob to be the "Director's Director" for a rehearsal where we created transitions between the different plays. For the first time, what we saw was the beginning of not eight separate plays but an evening of theatre, with its own rhythms, themes and ritual. It was collaboration of the absolute best sort, with the actors stepping up as well and offering great ideas and suggestions. After three and a half hours, it was done.

As we head into the horrors of tech week, we do so with renewed confidence. A show with five directors shouldn't work. It defies logic and all of the experience I've had with theatre. But even though I've been doing this for 20 years, it turns out that there's still a lot I can learn.

Monday, August 30, 2010

One Down....

My Time with the Lady closed last night with a second sold-out house. For a two week run with not much in the way of reviews (though plenty of previews, I'll admit) that's extraordinary. Thanks to all who made it happen--particularly the audiences!

Ron and I have already had enquiries about what's next for the show, and we're still working all that out. I can tell you that you can expect an expanded web presence, and most likely a remount in 2011, with the venue still TBD.

There's a pride, and a special responsibility, that comes from producing a brand new piece of theatre. Unlike all those worthy productions of Sam Shepard, Teresa Rebeck, Arthur Miller or even Shakespeare going on at theatres across town and across the country, only one theatre in the world was playing "My Time with the Lady," and only those folks who made it during our two week run saw the show. Interesting thought, huh? It makes both the performers and the audiences feel like they're members of an exclusive club. And come to think of it, we are.

But it also means that the responsibility of taking this show towards its next incarnation is all down to us. This is a great show that deserves a longer life and more audiences. So we gird our loins and get out our calendars and start calling venues. And hopefully when we open the show again, we'll have a line out the door of people who missed it this last time round and have figured out that they really missed something special.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I am Omnipresent!

An article in the Seattle Examiner cracks me up:

My favorite line:

"Fans of John Longenbaugh have multiple opportunities to enjoy the Seattle playwright’s work over the next few months. And anyone who hasn’t attended a Longenbaugh play in a local theater will be hard pressed to avoid him now." (italics mine)

I love the image of some poor theatregoer who can't stand my writing fleeing from theatre to theatre pursued by marquees burning with my name.

Thanks to Rosemary Jones (one of the hardest working arts journalists out there) for the recognition and the laugh.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Theatre Ate My Life

If I haven't seen you recently, forgive me. I stumbled into a huge mass of theatre and I'm doing my best to climb out.

"Wild River," my short play about an interview with the Pope, just took audience and jury awards and so is being revived this weekend at Open Circle for their final weekend of their short play festival. Then it goes on to Bumbershoot.

This weekend is also the final weekend for "My Time with the Lady," the play I co-wrote with Ron Richardson and co-directed. We've had a blast so far and audiences have been warm and generous. It's a great show, particularly since we added Kirsten Lauzon to it. Rarely has a one-man show benefited so much from an additional performer.

Then AFTER Bumbershoot, "Arcana" opens. It's six short plays and two monologues all inspired by Tarot cards, including "Wild River," where the lovely Keridwyn Deller who's played the role so far will be swapped out for Erin Del Rosso in a crucial role. (Erin will also play the role at Bumbershoot.)

This is all wonderful and very exciting. But I hope those of you who may have thought that I was laying low will realize I've just been lying low.

(Possibly comatose. You might want to check my pulse.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Special Guest Appearance!

Help me. I'm doing a cameo.

This week I'm playing the surly bartender in a short play for the Little Red Studio's "Erotic Shorts." I have about eight lines.

Which means over the course of an evening of nine plays, I have over two hours to think about my minute of stage time.

That's way too much time to think.

I'll admit--I'm not doing this for the acting experience, but as a favor to the director, who I love dearly and who has done me many favors in the past. But I should have learned by now that cameo roles have strange and significant challenges.

I once had a slightly larger role--though still "supporting," as we like to say--about 17 years ago as "Actor #2" in a production of the very odd play "The Protagonist" by Georg Kaiser. It's probably best known for its music by Kurt Weill, which is quite lovely for those that like Weimar-era dissonant string music, and sort of "Psycho-lite" for those that don't. The show was produced at the Southwark Playhouse, a small fringe theater in London.

My friend the director had some inventive and clever ideas about the staging. The theatre was a converted warehouse, and towards the back of the stage was a trapdoor that led to a tiny little storage closet under the stage, about four feet square. At the top of the play, I and Actor #1 would enter with the Protagonist, and he would send us off to stable the horses or something. We exited not to backstage but down the trapdoor, where the two of us would wait for the start of the "play within the play."

There we crouched. I timed it out once at 37 minutes. In a 4x4 box. With another actor. "No talking down there!" the director had yelled at an early rehearsal--the lead actor, the one walking around over us, loved dramatic pauses, and if he heard us he'd complain to the director, and we'd get yelled at again. So we couldn't speak above a whisper. Not that there's a lot to talk about when you're crouched with another actor in a dark hole under a stage.

Once we emerged, we had a nice scene where I got to put on a silly dress (which really looked good with my full beard) and move seductively against a window, until the lead actor went nuts and knifed someone or took poison or something else very angst-driven and Weimar-era. But this was only for about 15 minutes.

The play ran three weeks, Thursday-Sunday, with me spending more time sitting under the stage than on it. At times while I sat there I fantasized that the show would be picked up by a West End producer, and of course I would follow the show into a professional theatre, where it would enjoy a year-long run. Where I would sit. In a box. For 37 minutes a night.

This time? I can always wander back to the bar.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Closing Night at The Lusty Lady

Last night I went down with my friend Ron to the final night of live dancing at The Lusty Lady, Seattle's last remaining peep show.

It was a research trip. Really.

Ron and I are pulling together a solo show about his experiences working the cashier's desk at The Lusty Lady in the late '80s and early '90s. He's got amazing stories about the people--the dancers, the managers, the backstage staff, and of course the customers. As he likes to say it was his dream job--when he was 18.

Final night was a carnival--an early arrival of "Playday," a Lusty Lady annual tradition where the dancers take the place over entirely for the night and amateurs dance with the professionals. The place was filled with a lot of curiosity-seekers. Plenty of women in couples and larger groups, which Ron said was unheard of during its usual times of operation. (At one point a short-haired lesbian couple headed to a back room for a four-dancer lapdance, and exited ten minutes later beaming.) Dancers stood out on the street in swimsuits and lingerie coaxing in passersby, just like they used to do back in the days when First Avenue was filled with porn theatres and stripclubs. Dancers wandered the halls chatting with customers, including old-timers back just for the night, wearing little tags like Ron's saying "Lusty Lady Alumnus." And dancers filled the red carpeted stage ringed by the booths, giving it their all through the glass for whoever was willing to step into a booth and put in a quarter.

The place was packed with the old, the young (lots of students) friends and those who consider themselves family. Film crews would circle around outside, and at one point someone dressed as an Imperial Stormtrooper wandered in. A dancer near the door gave a shriek of delight and ran up to a manager. "Can I give the Imperial Stormtrooper a free lap dance?" she pleaded.

Sweet, strange, erotic, and melancholy. As the night wore on Ron repeatedly flipped between sadness and anger. "I keep thinking I'm looking for someone to beat up," he kept saying. (I suggested the Stormtrooper, and pointed out that even though he'd actually not done anything worthy of a beating, you could say the same for a lot of guys dressed like that in the Star Wars movies. Wrong place, wrong time, and the wrong white armor.) But then his anger would ebb away and we'd again leave the club to get another drink in a nearby bar.

Ron requested the microphone from the young woman at the front of desk, and when she handed it to him he put on in his best barker voice and reminded the customers that a smile is always appreciated and so are the tips. We drifted about and he talked to old friends, strippers who stood with grown daughters that Ron remembered as babies in strollers. He'd stood on the sidewalk minding those strollers while their Moms ran in to collect their paychecks and grab laundry from their lockers. He chatted with the current door guy, who'd brought out the baseball bat that the Lady had recently retired. Ron turned the worn brown wood over in his hands. "This bat was here when I came," he said. "It might be older than I am." He pointed to names and initials carved into the wood, laughing in recognition of old friends. He couldn't find his own name, but as the cashier pointed out, the bat was so scarred, worn and taped that it wasn't a surprise.

All things change--that's the only constant.

More on "My Time with the Lady" in the weeks to come.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Producer's Eye View of a Show

Ah, the theatrical producer as God. I've always loved this picture of famed British producer "Binky" Beaumont, placing the last touches on some undoubtedly well-made play of the West End's golden age.

As much as it may gall us creative types, professional theatre is only partly the result of talented artists and technicians. There's ultimately a Suit (or several Suits) looming above the stage, and when we call them "Angels" it's with a mixture of love and fear. Those puppet strings Beaumont is holding are made of money. Without them, we may still have a show, but we won't have ushers, stagehands, posters, a theatre bar, or probably even a theatre for that matter.

Having met a fair number of theatrical producers, I'm usually struck by how pleasant most of them are--more than they need to be, considering how much power they actually wield. Almost anyone who works in theatre--artists, tech staff, administrators--could be making more money doing the same job someplace else, and that certainly includes those who raise the money and make the deals.
We're fortunate that so many of the God-like figures sustaining theatre are benevolent. Because whether they are or they aren't, they're the ones who are holding the strings--and when they cut us loose, though it's still possible to stand and support ourselves on our own, there's no denying that it's a lot harder.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Shamed Into Blogging!

Welcome to the early days of Longenblog. Before we get too far into this, here are a few thoughts about what I’m trying to do here.

Eventually, I’d like this to be a semi-regular look at Seattle’s theatre scene, with occasional “think pieces” about theater and its role in society, the give-and-take between artists and critics, and the importance of playwrights in the middle of this whole mish-mash of art, commerce and opinion. I’m hopeful that as someone with over twenty years of experience in theatre in different forms (director, playwright, former critic, semi-retired arts journalist, current PR professional), I can explore these issues from some complementary and unusual angles.

But right now what I’m doing is working through my ambivalence about blogging.

Consider: my last blog, an interview with the tremendously personable and talented Montana von Fliss, was completed over two months ago, but I only posted it when I realized with a shock that von Fliss had just opened “Cancer: the Musical!,” a project that was but a gleam in her eye when we’d last spoken. The prospect of avoiding Montana for the rest of our lives so that she didn't ask me, quite reasonably, whatever happened to that lengthy phone interview she gave me finally forced me to action, and with a grimace I went ahead and posted the piece.

Yes, that’s right: I was shamed into blogging.

Why? What’s the big deal about posting some thoughts on the Internet?

There are three things that really bug me about blogs.

1) No editor. Editors catch small and stupid mistakes that I’m prone to, like misspelled names and the occasional ungrammatical construction. What’s more, once you've experienced a good editor, unedited writing feels flabby and half-baked. (For example, a good editor might have told me that this entire post was a bad idea.)

2) No deadlines. Usually provided by editors, these largely arbitrary dates have the magical ability to put actual writing on an empty page when nothing else will.

3) No pay. Since the mechanics of actually making money from blogging are esoteric and involve such loathsome apparatus as selling ads and self-promotion (I kid—somewhat), the whole effort feels like a hobby. I moved from writing as a hobby to a profession about 15 years ago, and it’s strange and a little annoying to take this step back.

So there you go! Add these to all of the other reasons for not writing—and like any writers I have an impressive list—and you can see that keeping this regularly updated is going to be a struggle.

A little encouragement goes a long way though. If you've come across this blog and want to give me some feedback, please comment below or drop me a note. It’s always grand for a writer to know that one’s work isn't a proverbial tree in the silent forest, and that someone, somewhere, has taken a look.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Big Sky State, Small Intense Actress: A Profile of Montana von Fliss

At 5’4”, Montana von Fliss—blonde and pretty but with some surprising muscularity—packs a disproportionate amount of power into a compact frame. In this season’s WET production of Hunter Gatherers, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s new play about survival of the fittest among a quartet of 30-something friends, she literally went toe-to-toe, via some elaborately choreographed fight scenes, with fellow actors Patrick Allcorn and Hannah Franklin, each of whom is a six-foot-something. She more than held her own.

I was first introduced to Montana by Artis the Spoonman at a late-night cabaret years ago, and it turns out that’s no surprise: she’s spent a good portion of her life on the neo-Vaudevillian circuit. When she was 12, the house she and her mother had been staying in burned down, and the friend that they moved in with belonged to a performing troupe. “I just started going to rehearsals,” she recalls. “Pretty soon I was performing at places like the Pike Place Market and Bumbershoot and Folklife. I’ve been a part of that group ever since, singing dancing, skits, acrobatic stuff.” This same group of musicians and performers, neo-Vaudevillians and acrobats run the annual Moisture Festival now.

The eclectic training suited her. “I just wanted to do it all, right? I’d get up on the trapeze, get in tap shoes and be in the chorus line, play flute in the band, juggle, whatever they would let me do. But acting was the thing that really stuck. It was my favorite part.”

Before she went on the UW’s Professional Acting Training Program, she worked at “a lot of fringe companies, Annex and some companies that no longer exist. I would self- produce stuff in the Fringe Festival. Not much professional work, some stuff at Taproot.” Since graduating from PATP in 2008, she’s been in a couple of shows at Equity houses in town—The Three Musketeers at The Rep, Rock and Roll at ACT, and understudying for their Christmas Carol.

Since then there have been “numerous corporate training videos and Microsoft videos that I’m proud of,” she says, with a cheery voice that might be sarcasm—von Fliss is very good at cheerful sarcasm. But she’s sincere about the excitement of working at the big theatres. “I went to those theatres as a kid. Seeing shows on those stages while on school trips, that was what I aspired to as an actor. It’s a huge note in my tiny book that I’ve acted on some of those stages.”

I asked her about how she’d gotten involved with WET. “I was asked to audition for their first production, Laura’s Bush, and I wasn’t available. I was actually heading off on a cross-country road trip right after my Dad died. Then when I went back to school at the UW, I wasn’t able to be a member. So I was a fan for the first four years, and saw practically everything they did. After school when I decided to stay in Seattle, I realized this was my favorite company in town. If I had the opportunity to make work, this is where it should be. So I asked, and they invited me to join.”

As a company, WET slammed onto the scene in 2004 with productions that began winning critical acclaim practically from the moment they opened their doors. Founded by a group of ambitious young UW grads, they took original works and unconventional scripts and created the sort of theatre that fringe is reputed to be but seldom is: experimental, risk-taking, defiantly physical and subversively funny. But after a couple of years, company members began drifting off, the company’s critical reputation took a hit, and its audiences drifted to even newer companies like Balagan and Satori. (The problem with being Young Turks is that eventually you aren’t so young anymore.) I asked Von Fliss if she felt that “WET 2.0” is back to being philosophically and artistically sound.

“I do,” she answered firmly. “And it’s not back to being something great, it’s gone forward. I was always a fan of this company, and loved all of their productions. When I saw Crave [Sarah Kane’s harrowing play, produced by WET in 2005], I thought ‘this is what I need to be doing.’ But we’re not that group any more. In this kind of organization turnover is natural and positive. Even though I wanted to be a member of that company as it was, we’re coming to a new high point artistically.”

It’s clear that von Fliss has a big crush on WET, so we discussed what elements of the company had drawn her to working with them. “There’s the complete open courage. I remember thinking they were so brave. And I was really attracted to this idea of highly collaborative theatre. Everyone in the room has a voice. An actor might have an idea about lighting, and a lighting designer might contribute something like a directorial concept without a feeling of transgression. As I got to know them I realized that it may move slower and it’s not perfect, but having the openness of everyone’s creative input can make some amazing stuff. What you see on stage isn’t just the director’s vision; it’s the company’s vision.”

Von Fliss says that her great challenge with Hunter Gatherers was that the character of Pam was so tremendously different from herself, particularly in her passivity. “It’s easily one of the toughest roles I’ve ever played. I hope I’m a nice person but I’m not a Pam. She’s optimist where I’m pessimistic, she’s earnest where I’m sarcastic. One thing I focused on was Pam’s priorities. It’s more important to her that other people are happy and that things go well than anything else. Creating that as her strongest desire is really helpful. It results in a list of responses and expectations and reactions that made it seem plausible to me.”

Surprisingly, the fact that she had to spend the last 20 minutes of the show in her underwear wasn’t a challenge. “I’m not particularly modest in that way,” she laughs. “I thought of it as Pam’s superhero underwear. If she was a superhero outfit, this would be it. It’s more of a costume than vulnerability.”

Given all that Hunter Gatherers asked from its actors—the script mixes up comedy, drama, slapstick and stage fighting, I asked her where her comfort level was, and she had to mull that a bit before she answered. “Comedy. I like the structure of a joke—where does the funny live?” And that’s an easy segue into talking about her next project, which takes on the comedy question full-on. “It’s a solo show that I’ve written called Cancer: the Musical. It’s based on the true story of my Dad getting cancer, quitting my job to take care of him, and his subsequent death and what followed.” She says that the result is a show that deliberately mixes genres and tones. “Sometimes it feels like being in a lab trying to measure loss, Sometimes it feels like a musical. But there’s a lot of comedy. My family’s first response to anything is a joke.”

“This show is really an attempt to show that we really don’t have a lot of time here,” she continues, “and if you haven’t experienced something like this, you will, so seize the day. If your Mom always wanted to go to Paris take her now, because she won’t always be around. And at the same time it’s for people who are trying to navigate the awful map of grief. It is possible to get through it and laugh about it.”

Finally I ask if WET has become for von Fliss what so many artists want from a theatre company: a home. “Having been here for almost two years now—it does feel like home,” she reflects. “It feels a lot like the place I’m actually living, my apartment. It is absolutely perfect for right now. Since watching the closest person in the world to me die, I’ve just gotten out of the habit of planning too far ahead. I work at being in the moment every day, being here, now. I am actively practicing very hard.”

For more info on "Cancer: The Musical!" playing now at WET, go to: