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.