Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Good Dog

So I’m stepping aside from writing about theatre to write an appreciation of my Mom’s sweet dog Sadie, who passed away a couple of days ago. This won’t be a regular occurrence but she wasn’t a regular dog.

Sadie was a hound of unknown pedigree, but was immediately recognizable to anyone who’s ever seen one of James Thurber’s cartoons. She was the living embodiment of one of his many sad-eyed hounds, dogs that seem not just melancholy but beset by deep insecurities. Sadie’s constant demeanor was morose even when she was joyous and her tail was doing circles like a helicopter propeller.

Mom brought Sadie home from the Juneau pound almost ten years ago. I remember my sister saying that she really couldn’t understand my Mom’s choice—the dog was already grown, not much of a “looker,” and at that time anyway was given to heavy bouts of enthusiastic, and none-too-fragrant, panting. But when Mom brought her down to her book store, Sadie headed right to a back corner, curled up, and lay there through the long afternoon as various customers came in and enthused over her.

Sadie had, like Gertrude Stein (whom she somewhat resembled), a deep but passive love of company. She would look up when you came in the room, perhaps give a few thumps of her tail, and then wait to see what you were going to do. If that was skritching her ears and giving her some belly pats, she would lay back and give you a grateful look that made you feel like you weren’t just petting a dog, you were performing a useful community service.

Sadie wasn’t what I would have called a “fun” dog. On walks she could be awful, tugging on her leash, or when released, disappearing on lengthy secret missions. Walks with Mom would often include a long bout of her calling her name while we would periodically hear her romping about in the underbrush.

But Sadie was a dog with soul. I remember Mom saying when she got her that the vet had said she’d had puppies when she was younger—fate of said puppies unknown. It was easy to believe. Sadie seemed to carry some sad wisdom always about with her, even if it was just the burden of a tough past and the knowledge that in the present she had it good.

And she did have it good. Mom tends to spoil her pets—not to the point where they’re intolerable, but certainly to where they’re well aware that they have a good life. The dog got more than her share of table scraps and treats. Mom and Sadie used to do morning yoga together, Mom curling herself up with her feet in the air and the dog nibbling the treats that her mistress had placed between her toes.

When I last saw Sadie she was depressed about Mom’s absence—Mom was off on her annual book-buying and cartographer conference trip to England and the Continent, while I looked after the house and dog, and went through the vast number of books I have stored in her basement. Yet after a few days Sadie cheered up to the point where she would actually play with me in a melancholy sort of way—she’s bring me one of her stuffed animals, I’d throw it, and she’d look at me reproachfully, as if to say “is that how you treat my toys?”

This last week Sadie got out of Mom’s house late at night and went rummaging. Unfortunately the poor old girl ended up with a fatal case of garbage gut—she’d never been the most discriminating of dogs—and though she received surgery she didn’t survive it. Though she was getting stiff and was easily satisfied with a short walk and a full dog bowl twice a day, she still had a few good years left, and it’s very sad to lose her. She lived an odd and seemingly melancholy life. But she had the pleasure of being loved by a lot of people—and that’s a considerable accomplishment for a lifetime.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Hmmmm to Persephone

From--"New World Under"


She was happy. I was happy. But up above, things got bad.


My daughter is dead!


Relax, Mom. I'm not dead.


She is dead!


Try yelling up through a well.


I'm not dead!


Gods! She has been buried alive.


That's more accurate.


And I will save her.


She will, too.


She won't. She can wail and scream and stomp around up there....


I will wail and scream and stomp!


But she can't come down here without a visa.


I wouldn't bet against my mother.


Knock knock!


I'll get it.

CERES (entering)



How did you get here?


I wailed and screamed and stomped and the earth turned gray and cold and they filled out a visa right quick, I can tell you.

Fairy tales and mythologies derive part of their great power to enthrall us because while they seem to make sense, there's always a lovely element of the irrational that is hidden there somewhere. Why "three" wishes?" Why does the Giant always announce his presence with "Fee, fi, fo, fum?" Why is it that of the three Gorgons only Medusa is mortal, and what do the other two do after she gets her head lopped off?

Since human nature also carries a lovely hidden element of the irrational (perhaps most strongly when are we trying to be our "most rational") there seems to be a correlation between these stories and our psychology. To understand people, it's worthwhile to try and understand our myths.

The myth of Persephone (the Roman's Proserpina) is one that I thought I understood. It's a very old story; the first time it shows up in Greek literature is Hesiod's
Theogony, a work that predates the 5th century Greek renaissance by a couple of hundred years. It's also one of those myths that seems a straightforward pre-scientific attempt to explain natural phenomenon.

Persephone, daughter of the Goddess Demeter (the Roman's Ceres, "Mother Nature"), is abducted by Hades (Pluto), god of the Underworld, who's fallen in love with her beauty. Demeter goes on a "hunger strike" until her daughter is returned, and the world suffers death and cold. Persephone is returned, but she's eaten food of the Underworld, some seeds of a pomegranate. As a result, it's determined that she must stay for part of the year with Hades. During this time without her daughter, Demeter mourns, the world grows cold and plants wither and die, and we have winter. Then she returns, Demeter's joyful, it's Spring, and the cycle begins again.

All pretty straightforward, right? I looked at the myth again a couple of nights ago, I found myself with some questions, particularly about Persephone. In the myth as told, she's merely an object of desire to both her mother and her lover, neither of whom seem to have much interest in her own will. She's just a child placed in a time share scheme between two feuding adults. (In fact in some versions, she also has to continue to serve part of the year as Zeus's handmaiden--and we all know what HE's like with the help!)

But what about what she wants? Being Mommy's little baby gets old when you're a teenager. And while upstairs you're a minor goddess who helps out with the family business, downstairs you're the Queen of the Underworld. It's not the simple choice it first appears.

So I decided to ask these questions in a 10-minute play, "New World Under," and I was surprised by some of the answers. (I was also surprised to complete it and find it fits snugly in the Arcana cycle as the "Death" card.)

"New World Under" had its premiere this weekend at Tacoma's Doubleshot 24 Hour Play Festival. Thanks to my director Abby Dylan, and my actors James Tweedale, Ann Flanagan and Shawn Baker for bringing it all to life (and death) in front of its first audience. And thanks to NPA and especially Bryan Willis for setting up the whole event.

I like this one. With a little luck, you'll be seeing more of it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Shepard Country

I’ve missed Sam Shepard.

Back when I was in my early ’20s and still in college I acted in a pair of Shepard one acts, Action and Red Cross. Both were from his gonzo years, when he’d write impossibly uncommerical plays that would be performed in weird little fringe venues—the sort of venues that I’ve grown to know and love here in Seattle. The plays were crazy in the best and most theatrical of ways. In Action for example, a collection of strange refugees from some catastrophe make some sort of life for themselves, trying and failing to communicate with each other in a series of interlocking monologues. At one weird juncture I would instruct a fellow survivor how to clean a fish that had come up in the bucket from the well. I remember wishing I could write dialogue this beautiful, despite how ugly and strange the world of the plays.

Later I went on to direct a production of True West at my home town community theatre—and since only one male actor came to the audition (and then backed out), it was cast with my cousin playing Lee, me playing Austin and our aunt playing our Mom. Despite the incestuous casting it was a hit in small town Alaska. I think a lot of people who came to saw it, who had ended up in this weird isolated island town instead of choosing to move there, understood the character of the dangerous grifter Lee better than I did.

Now Collektor Productions has staged Shepard’s play A Lie of the Mind in ACT's Bullit Cabaret, his mid-career epic from 1985, right at the height of Shepardmania (just after True West and his bravura performance as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff). I can’t in all honesty say it’s my favorite of his works—its length and the repetition of thematic elements work against it. At times it comes dangerously close to self-parody. (Can't anyone in this play remember anything about anything?) But it sure is great to get a passport back to the strange world of Sam Shepard, if just for an evening.

I wonder if the reason that his plays have lost some traction with our zeitgeist is that his characters always seem to partly inhabit the irrational world of symbol—the sheaves of corn brought in throughout Buried Child, the Father’s ghost in Fool for Love, and virtually everybody and everything in earlier plays like Tooth of Crime or Angel City, which take place in landscapes constructed entirely of symbols. Back in the ’70s and ’80s it was hip and enjoyable to deconstruct uniquely American symbols like cowboys, farmhouses and honky-tonk bars, to take them back from the ad campaigns, country western songs and half-baked "American mythology" and make something new.

But for the last decade we’ve watched a corrupt series of politicians use one symbol of "American mythology" after another in a largely successful attempt to gain our support for their klepocratic economic practices and two longstanding wars, one of which we were lied into. So when a character like Ray Tagavilla’s Jake wraps a flag around himself in A Lie of the Mind and sets out on a journey across state lines, it seems less resonant, more dingy somehow.

The other issue, perhaps, is that in the last decade the gulf between the people that Shepard writes about—the grifters, the dispossessed, the uneducated, the poor—and the people who go to theatre has become wider than ever. We have lost faith and covenant with these people and they with us. Let’s face it: the people who live in the trailer parks, isolated farm houses and dingy motel rooms of his imagination look an awful lot like the people who voted for George W. Bush not once but twice. (That is, if they voted at all.) Shepard cares enough about these people to elevate their language to poetry. But what writer today believes in turning the stage over to the wisdom and beauty of the poor white hick? “Curse of the Starving Class,” indeed.

Still, it sure was a blast going back to Shepherd Country for an evening. The show’s cast attack the material with fervor and conviction, and I’m reminded of just what delicious parts he writes for both men and women. The term “aria” is overused when discussing all sorts of plays, because it often means that the writer has stopped the play so that one of his characters can go all poetical on us. But Shepard’s characters sing out in beautiful language because they’ve climbed as far as prose will take them. Even though I find “Lie’s” extra running time diffuses Shepard’s material instead of elevating it, it is still a wonder to hear a speech about a man’s shirt like Aimee Bruneau’s Beth delivers, where the act of putting back on a borrowed shirt becomes an astonishing riff on the weight of the masculine persona.

So cheers to director Rob West and all of the actors of Collektor for revisiting Shepard. It would be grand if it kicked off a revival or two. Believe it or not, Shepard’s written no fewer than 10 plays since Lie of the Mind back in 1985—and some of them, including Simpatico and God of Hell, are pretty good. (As far as I know, only one, God of Hell, has received a local production.) Let’s see what that rangy old guy’s been doing in the last twenty years, Seattle.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

(This is not a Gregory Award. It is a very big trophy though.)

Back in April, something brought the Gregory Awards to my attention—I think it was the annual call for nominations.

I’ve attended the awards a couple of times in the past, but this year, my thoughts went something like this: “why the hell should I care? This is precisely the sort of thing that I’m never nominated for, and I’m tired of toiling away like an unappreciated ant in the world of Seattle theatre while being asked yet again to celebrate my more illustrious peers. Besides, awards like this mean absolutely nothing.”

Then last month I learned I was nominated in the 2010-2011 Playwrights Category.

“On the other hand,” I said to myself, “the Gregory Awards are an important way for Seattle’s theatre artists to recognize excellence in their ranks. It’s good to have events like this when we can come together as a community and celebrate our achievements.”

“And you know? It’s an honor to just be nominated.”

Okay, I’m being facetious. Really though, it IS an honor to be nominated. I can’t really speak to the work of Scotto Moore or Kelleen Conway Blanchard (the People’s Choice and Member’s Voice Nominees, respectively); to my regret I haven’t seen any of Scotto’s work and not enough of Kelleen’s to form an opinion. But the three other playwrights who were initially nominated with me, Elizabeth Kenny, Neil Ferron and Yussef El Guindi are all real talents.

I was fortunate to check out Kenny’s Sick on its closing weekend, and was delighted by its innovative narrative structure, where her autobiographical story of medication-induced mental illness was repeatedly yanked back to a linear form by her collaborator Tina Kunz. It perfectly mirrored the infinite parsing of a mind struggling in the shifting realms of schizophrenia. Neil was a student of mine, believe it or not, a couple years back in my 10 Minute Play Class at Freehold. His work wasn’t that of a student. Instead it was an undeniably mature voice that was already grappling with sophisticated technical issues of form and voice, and I looked forward to every exercise he turned in.

And then there’s Yussef El Guindi. We’ve worked together on several projects over the years, and were both members of a long-running playreading group. In the last decade it has been a sincere pleasure to see a man whose work I have respected and admired for such a long time being given the attention he deserves. He also happens to be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, even though his self-deprecation often reaches comic proportions. (At the opening night of Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, he told me at intermission that he thought that the show was off and the audience seemed distant and not very involved. After the show received a rapturous standing ovation, I told him that these were precisely the words I would have used to describe the audience.)

Awards, like critical reviews and productions, are arbitrary. We all know this. And individually, by themselves, they really don’t matter. But in my case, I’m sincerely grateful for being included this year, because as a theatre artist I’ve often felt outside of the main theatre community, and this is a reminder that I’m not. I couldn’t ask for better company in this year’s Gregory Awards—and that’s not even mentioning all my friends nominated in other categories, like Charles Leggett (Best Actor) and Billie Wildrick (Best Actress). It’ll be a real pleasure to put on a tie on October 17th and head down to ACT to share in the pride of working with great artists in a great theatre town.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Regarding 9/11/01

So today I hope is not about "remembering 9/11," but the letting go of such memories. This is not to say that a tragedy doesn't deserve mourning, but in the last ten years we've seen this particular event used for a whole series of very bad decisions by our leaders that have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people who had nothing to do with it.

Like every playwright I know, I took a crack at a 9/11/01 piece. It was staged at Babylon's "9 Holes" short play pieces in 2003. Here it is, a monologue entitled "After/Before."

(Sound of a door slamming. Then Julia begins speaking.)


I’ve been going through a bad patch lately. I’ve been wanting to sleep past the point where I can actually sleep. Maybe being cryogenically frozen for a couple of years or so. Like a bag of frozen peas shoved to the back of a grocery store freezer.

I’ve had time on my hands, On my feet, my back, my belly, my head. Manacled in minutes, shut up in hours, and walled up in Castle Time, where the only sound is the tick-tock of the guard’s walk.

I needed to kill time. To slaughter it. To waste it.

So I borrowed a friend’s TV.

I’m really a radio kind of person. I don’t own a TV. Haven’t for years. So at the time I didn’t see it.

I heard it. NPR. I loves me my NPR. Doesn’t matter how bad things get. “As the earth spins out of control and towards the heart of the sun, commentator Bailey White has some thoughts about how the unseasonable weather is affecting her tomatoes.”

So I heard everything.

But I didn’t see anything.

I didn’t want to see anything.

It was good to not see. Really. Some people say, “I had to watch.” But I didn’t. I felt like that’s what was expected of me.

Like that was the whole point of it, to make us watch.

A friend said, “I had to watch. Because my imagination would have made it much worse.” Not me. I pictured them as simply…gone. There one minute, the next not. I’ve got a tidy imagination.

And I had no real connection, you know? Been to New York twice, never fell in love with the skyline, never paid to go up the elevator and take a look. I had no friends working there. I knew no one on any of the planes.

It pissed me off how immediately everyone wanted a piece of the experience. Hungry to link themselves, somehow, to what had happened. They knew someone, they’d had their picture taken there, they’d almost been on that flight. Like some Media Event, like the new Star Wars installment, that they HAD to be a part of, waited in line for days to see it, could recite lines from it, had the action figures.

Not me. I thought it was bad and sad but I didn’t want it in my life. So no thank you. I had permanently abstained from a viewing.

And our leaders! Like they care. Like that little tinhorn dictator in the White House gave a damn about janitors or firemen or even stockbrokers. Like he thought anything at the time except “Jesus Christ! They’re coming after me next!”

So I borrowed this TV for the weekend. Because TV is a great waste of time. And sometimes that’s exactly what you want. Another friend loaned me a couple of bags of videos. She records TV somewhat randomly. Which is great. Tapes with labels like “Tuesday” or “Pizza Guy Episode!” or “Law and Order and Will and Grace.” I came straight home from work, made up some Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and got ready to spend the next three days in sweet oblivion.

I put an unmarked tape in the machine. But nothing happened. So I pressed the remote.

On the tape was smoke, and fire. Billowing clouds, but all cascading inwards, like being sucked up by a vast dragon’s mouth. Then, as I watched, I could see debris falling into the smoke, flying into it. Then more and more falling into the space, growing into a shape, dark and filled with fire. Then finally it was whole, and I could see the people flying up, into the sky, as if on wires.

I had hit rewind. By mistake.

I was watching it all go up again. Rising from the pillars of smoke, glass and metal and concrete shooting back to reattach itself to the sides of the buildings. Little figures flying up like souls called by the Rapture.

But it wasn’t the end of the world. It was a voyage back to innocence.

Okay, that’s bullshit. We weren’t “innocent.” We were na├»ve and complacent. We were the strongest, most powerful, DUMBEST nation in the world, and that includes the Australians so that’s saying quite a lot.

Nothing of consequence changed because of these events, only that everyone liked to say that everything had changed. And also the Republicans get away with all sorts of crap because they’ve got another monster to scare us, and the Democrats’ new tactic is shutting up and letting them do whatever they want.

But still, it was hypnotic. Watching it. Build themselves up. Construct themselves into a boring pair of office buildings out of fire and pain and smoke.

Up it goes. And up. And up. Reclaimed by the ordinariness of a typical Tuesday. Vanishing like a nightmare into blue sky and morning.

And Kennedy’s head snaps forward, expelling the bullet. And the battlefields of Europe and Asia are vast maternity wards for boys about to be sent home, the Great Wars becoming vague grumblings. Every vast mistake we’ve ever made is a peace born from chaotic and inexplicable implosions of blood and matter and clouds of smoke. The history of the human race reveals itself as sensible, but only when, only when, only when we run the tape backwards.

There are still villains in this revisionist history. Lincoln wakes up while watching a play and goes out to start a war that enslaves a race. But even this story ends happily, as hundreds of years later benevolent sea captains take the chains off and pack ex-slaves into their ships to sail to Africa, picking up some sick passengers mid-journey from the middle of the ocean.

We have a glorious future behind us. We will save the whales and the rainforests and the passenger pigeon and the dodo. We’ll ban the bomb, and the gun, and eventually even the sword and shield, in our race towards smaller wars. Countries will become quaint and charming, languages more diverse and richer, and we’ll finally get rid of TV, movies, and the novel and get back to poetry and drama. We will all adopt, voluntarily, the simple living movement. People will be gracious on a grand scale to each other, settling border disputes, leaving whole continents rather than disturb the indigenous people, and eventually the Romans will build up the Temple as a gift to the Jews and the Chinese, confident and industrious as ever, will dismantle the Great Wall. We will head back towards one race, one language, one country. Eden.

But I don’t need to see all of this. All I want to see is the towers go up again.

And for you to unslam that door and walk back in.

(the doorslam sfx from the beginning is played again, backwards.)


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thrillsville 2011

Tonight's the first public reading of my new play "The Sound in the Next Room" down in the PONCHO space at the Seattle Rep, as part of Northwest Playwrights Alliance monthly reading series. It's a comedy thriller, this draft anyway: some co-workers take an out-of-town trip for a "Mystery Weekend," and then discover that their own secrets might turn out to be not only dangerous but deadly.

It's envisioned as a fun light entertainment.

And it only took me eight years to write.

Usually I write quickly. Working as a journalist, I've had a lot of experience with deadlines, and believe that there's a valuable heat added to your writing when you're up against the clock. A good number of my shorter plays were written overnight, for 14/48, Doubleshot or other short plays festivals. Even when a play of mine has had a long development period--"Sherlock Holmes/Christmas Carol" had two and a half years of drafts and improvements--I usually write the initial draft in a few weeks, not months.

So what's up with this one?

To be honest, I forgot about it.

2003 was one of those times when I was up to my elbows in theater. Productions, scripts, parties--somewhere in there I was dating an actress. I was also time and again running into actresses who I had big talent crushes on. There were four that I particularly wanted to work with, and so as a playwright, I came up with a cunning plan: I'd write a play and have them read it for me.

The plan worked. All four participated in three developmental readings, and since I'd chosen four women who were not only talented but whip-smart, the post-reading discussions were invaluable. I really felt like things were humming along.

But theatre is always of the moment, and the moment when these four women were available went away. Two left Seattle, and the other two went on to other projects. I shelved the play and headed on to other shows as well.

Then earlier this year I noticed the play sitting on my computer. I had remembered it as being about 18 pages long but promising. So when I took a look, I was surprised to find 73 pages that seemed better than promising. This play looked almost done.

Well, it wasn't.

When I started work trying to finish the play, I found myself arguing with the playwright. Because the guy who wrote plays back in 2003 doesn't really write like me. He was way more wordy, pop-culture centered, and his plotting was clever but a little dull.

(I know I'm being hard on him. Whatever. He can take it.)

I just read a piece in Salon about "continuators," those writers hired by estates to continue the adventures of James Bond or Jason Bourne or some other valuable post-mortem franchise. That's what I feel like that in completing this play. A lot of what I was trying to do with the original script is now lost to me. And the world's moved on: thankfully there's even greater acceptance of open lesbian relationships now than there was back in 2003, and sadly all my jokes about "Stella Got Her Groove Back" are no longer funny--though maybe they never really were.

It's been a rough process. Sometimes I've cursed my younger self for leaving so many problems--unexamined motivations, plot snafus, jokes that almost but don't quite work (the worst kinds of jokes, really). But he didn't know any better.

The one thing that's been working for me in the last week has been the actresses I'm working with this time. It's rare that one EVER gets one's "dream cast," but that's what has happened. Frankly, any director in town would probably give their right arm to work with actors like Jesse Notehelfer, Susy Schneider, Nikki Visel, and Billie Wildrick--let alone all four. And the best part is that they're also all whip-crack smart, and their feedback has improved the script exponentially.

At this point my thriller is just missing one thing: thrills. That's generally provided by an audience. We'll see what the folks who come along tonight to the Rep (7:00 PM) feel like contributing.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Exit David Mamet, Stage FAR Right

Remember David Mamet, America's greatest playwright? The guy who dominated the stages of the 1980s with plays like "American Buffalo," "Glengarry Glen Ross," and "A Life in the Theatre" and who wrote such wonderfully intricate screenplays as "House of Games" and "The Spanish Prisoner?"

Of course I'm really not talking about the man who wrote the largely unfunny satire "November," the oh-for-cripes-sake-stop-being-so-obvious social screed "Race," or the mediocre films "State and Main" and "Redbelt."
That guy is clearly just trying to ape the brilliant dialogue and dramatic construction of the younger, more talented and much more subtle playwright who shares his name.

Great playwrights write bad plays. Every would-be Shakespeare has a "Two Noble Kinsmen" or "Henry VIII" in his past or in his future. And while the decline of a brilliant talent is a sad thing, it's the way the world often works. Success breeds success, but it also breeds complacency and intellectual arrogance.

But the saddest thing about David Mamet is that it's also bred intellectual vacuity.

If you doubt me, check out this article in
The Weekly Standard subtitled "A Playwright's Progress."

that Weekly Standard. The Conservative mainstay who's calling the lackluster Republican presidential field "formidable" and continues to champion the Paul Ryan "Kill Medicare" Budget even as every Republican up for reelection flees from a vote on it.

And the "progress" they celebrate is the descent of a once whip-smart social critic and superbly gifted artist into the sort of conservative bobble-head who says things like this:

“...I saw the liberals hated George Bush. It was vicious. And I thought about it, and I didn’t get it. He was no worse than the others, was he? And I’d ask my liberal friends, ‘Well, why do you hate him?’ They’d all say: ‘He lied about WMD.’ Okay. You love Kennedy. Kennedy didn’t write Profiles in Courage—he lied about that. ‘Bush is in bed with the Saudis!’ Okay, Kennedy was in bed with the mafia.”

Or on where he gets his political opinions: '“I drive around and listen to the talk show guys,” he said. 'Beck, Prager, Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved."'

Like many
overprivileged Republican white guys, the roots of Mamet's conversion are apparently a strange mix of fuzzily-perceived larger social issues (the 2007 Writer's Strike) and the petty and personal (an ordinance in his privileged Santa Monica neighborhood to keep hedges trimmed low enough so that neighbors could see each other's properties). Somehow this all has been brewed into the sort of potent conservative elixir that turns a man's mind to mush.

When I read this article (and depressing as it is, it's worth the read), I remembered an American Theatre profile of Mamet in the '80s, around the time of "Glengarry Glen Ross." The interviewer's question was something like "why do you just write about white men?" To me Mamet's answer was brilliant. He said that he found the American white male fascinating because he was going insane. He'd gone from this position of unthinking power and prestige into a tailspin because it was all going away, and the more he realized this, the crazier he got.

Poor David Mamet. How ironic that he should age into the same crazy white guy syndrome that as a younger, more talented and thoughtful man, he was so astute at portraying on stage.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

4 Culture: Positively Final Appearance?

So I’m having coffee this morning with Jim Kelly, the head of King County’s 4 Culture, on the eve of what may very well be the vote that sinks the organization. He’s filling me in on the complicated politics that have resulted in this state when he stops, laughs, and runs his hands through his hair. “I didn’t start this year with this much gray hair, did I? I swear this is turning me gray.”

You know, he may be right. And if you care about the arts in Seattle, 4 Culture’s current dilemma will probably give you some gray hairs too.

As Kelly outlines it, the political fate of 4 Culture, King County’s arts funding agency, has always navigated around some fairly treacherous shoals from both Republicans and Democrats. The current crop of Republicans, emboldened by the neo-libertarian codswollop of the Tea Party, repeat the old trope that the government has no business funding the arts—or health care, food safety, transportation or any other “non-essentials.” Though they’re not the majority in our state legislature they’ve done an admirable job in voting as a block—which is where our Democratic legislators inevitably fail. It’s far too easy to peel off a few Democratic votes on any issue, even one like arts funding, where they’ve long been the standard bearers.

In this case, one of the greatest obstacles to arts funding has been caused by a Democrat, Speaker of the House Frank Chopp. Though on paper Chopp’s a good liberal, like many long-time politicians (he was first elected back in 1994 and has been Speaker since 2002) he’s got some strange and immovable ideas about how things should be funded. Specifically, he’s made it clear that he’ll have nothing to do with arts funding that isn’t linked to funding low-income housing.

While both issues are good liberal causes, it’s baffling why they should be linked, but there you go: politicians don’t necessarily think like you or me. The result of this odd tic is that funding for 4 Culture has to be wrapped around a package of legislation that has little to do with it. In fact the most recent bill for funding 4 Culture, SB 5958, was described as “providing local government funding of tourism promotion, workforce housing, art and heritage programs, and community development.” Funding improvements for the Convention Center and low-cost housing might be necessary, but danged if I can see why the hell they have anything to do with funding what’s probably the most efficient and effective arts funding source in Washington.

SB 5958 missed by one vote last week. Here’s our best chance of getting SB 5961, the replacement bill that dropped on Saturday, to make it through the session TOMORROW (which is set as the last day of the session):

You can go here: and e-mail ALL of the folks in the Legislature.

Or you can e-mail and call the following three key Senators.

Phil Rockefeller (D, Bainbridge): he’s been on the fence and needs to hop off.

(360) 786-7644
Fax: (360) 786-1999

Same goes for:

Jim Kastama (D, Puyallup)

Olympia Office: (360) 786-7648
District Office: (253) 840-4701

And here’s another strategic thought:

Pam Roach, Republican (Auburn), has shown independence and a willingness to vote against her fellow Republicans often enough to really annoy them. Contact her at:

Office Phone: (360) 786-7660

Toll-Free: 1 (800) 562-6000

Fax: (360) 786-7819

All of this will take 10 minutes—and it’s really easy. No salesman will call, no one will yell at you, you don’t even have to mail in anything. And it just might save one of the best arts organizations in Washington.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Is Failure an Option?

On Wednesday night I saw Mike Daisey’s How Theatre Failed America at the Seattle Rep, a delight on several different levels. I’d seen Mike deliver it about three years ago at the CHAC (which itself "failed" a year or so later), and at that point I’d found its thesis a bit simplistic and the various story threads straining to achieve inner coherence. No wonder: as Mike told me afterwards, that performance at the CHAC was the second, third and fourth times he’d ever said the work out loud. (A couple years prior to this, I was honored to have been one of five people in the room when he performed the first draft of The Ugly American to its first audience in a hotel room across from Intiman.) Since then, he’s performed this piece many times, and it’s a lovely work now—funny, provocative, moving and ultimately very honest about the strange state of the modern American regional theatre, which does indeed seem to be either very sick or in its death throes.

Mike did the show as a benefit for the artists of Intiman who had their jobs disappear when the theatre was recently forced to close its doors. That was a classy move, and he (and the Rep staff who helped him put it up and publicize it) managed to raise almost $10,000 in a night where there was a healthy turnout from the Seattle theatre community. This was another part of my delight, watching actors and artists who were with us in the trenches of this town’s fringe scene with Mike laugh, applaud and ask questions at the roundtable afterwards.

Talking with Mike afterwards over drinks at Solo, I told him that for me the power of his piece is in focusing on a particular sort of theatre that is suffering, the regional theatre model that really only got started in this country after World War II. While it’s easy to conflate this model with all theatre, this is a mistake. I’ll bet in the late 1700s you could find sad companies of commedia dell’arte players sitting around bars saying to each other, “No one comes to our shows anymore, no one understands the great traditions of our craft—the theatre is dead.” And for them it was.

But really, this is self-defeating nonsense. Yes, the regional theatre may indeed headed for extinction. But theatre? Stand-up comedy, improv, poetry slams and literary readings—these are all doing very well for themselves. The effort to again redefine what is or isn’t theatre creates endless schisms—improv, musicals, sketch comedy OUT, Shakespeare, multiculturalism, performance art IN—of no interest except to the artists who make it. Sometimes I think we artists are so full of self-importance about what we do that we purposefully de-legitimize any theatre that isn’t the sort we produce. (Mike admitted that there are various critics and commentators who repeatedly tell him that what he's doing--unscripted monologues from behind a big desk--isn't really theatre either.)

A side effect of this—and it’s a very Seattle attitude—is that as soon as something begins to become popular with audiences, the suggestion arises that it’s not real theatre. Hell, I know plenty of actors who turn up their noses at musicals, and I suspect it's principally because their singing and dancing skills are not at a level where it’s possible for them to perform in them.

I often enjoy shows at The Rep, ACT, The 5th, and other large Equity houses. I appreciate the sheen that a dedicated crew of career artists can bring to a show, even when for various reasons it’s not art of the highest order. And I’ll try to support these companies with my art, my time and my (paltry) income. But whether they stand or fall in my lifetime, theatre will continue. It’ll be dying long after I’m dead.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Lies, Damned Lies and Theatre Criticism

I almost never comment publicly on another reviewer’s criticism. Yes, I’ve sent the occasional snarky note to a critic about a negative review, but having been a critic myself for five years, I know that it’s all just opinion. And arguing with someone about their opinion rarely accomplishes much.

(“I like Earl Gray!”

“Earl Gray sucks! I like Lapsang Souchong!”

“Well clearly, we both can’t be right!”)

But while I dislike arguments about opinion, I was always happy to get factual corrections. Misspelled names, misattributed quotes, wrong dates and places—while a theatre review is an aesthetic reaction to a work, and therefore personal opinion, it still has the fundamental journalistic requirement of getting its facts right.

This Saturday I was finally able to make it over to The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the most recent of Mike Daisey’s monologues, now playing at The Seattle Rep. I’ve been fortunate enough to see most of Mike’s pieces over the years; in fact, I was in the opening night crowd at Wasting Your Breath, his first-ever monologue, back in the old Open Circle Space on Boren. (Fun fact: as part of the show he gave me a lap dance. I still gave him a great review.)

Agony combines a hilarious overview of the career of Steve Jobs, Mike’s own tech-geek fascination for all things Apple, and the story of his trip to the Chinese factory city of Shenzen, where all things Apple are made. This portion includes details gathered from multiple interviews that he did with workers at the factories, many of whom are as young as 12 or 13, and all of whom work in conditions that are frankly appalling and inhuman. I loved the show, and not just because of the content. In the last decade Mike’s abilities as a performer have grown exponentially. To see him hold 900 people as skillfully in his hand as he once did a dozen or so in a black box theatre is personally inspiring.

After the show, I saw him and his wife and director Jean-Michele briefly. I congratulated him, and he thanked me, then said it’d been a tough week. Though I asked what he meant, I knew straightaway: Brendan Kiley’s review in The Stranger.

Now, Brendan says a lot of nice things about Mike in this review. He calls him a “master storyteller” with “a comic precision and conversational eloquence that should be universally envied.” But in the midst of all this, he also essentially calls out Mike for being a liar.

Here’s the passage.

“…Daisey alone knows this truth; Daisey alone has emerged from the heart of darkness of Asian industrialization to bring us the horror. In Shenzhen, he says several times, "there's no journalism." The "BBC fixer" who was supposed to help him out? Useless. The New York Times? It merely reprints press releases from Shenzhen boardrooms. Thank god Mike Daisey has crawled from the maw of capitalism to tell us the truth.

“Except that he's not telling us the truth. After getting home from the show, opening up my MacBook, and wiping the blood off the keyboard, I did a little Googling. In under a minute, I learned some things: The New York Times that Daisey derides as being nothing more than a mouthpiece for Shenzhen corporate interests? It's been writing about labor abuses in the city—child labor, days-long shifts, etc.—for at least five years. The BBC has written several stories about Shenzhen, including the suicides that Daisey talks about. Looks like there's journalism about Shenzhen after all.

“That wouldn't be damning—every good storyteller builds on the foundation of forebears—except that Daisey is extremely disingenuous about the story, his relationship to it, and what his forebears have said about it. And if he's disingenuous with the most basic, verifiable facts, why should we trust him with the complicated, Linkunverifiable facts—like those of his trip to Shenzhen, for instance?”

(a link to the whole piece is here.)

Now, Brendan is entirely welcome to his opinion—in fact, as a critic his opinion is requested. But he’s not welcome to his own facts.

I saw the show on Saturday night. Having read his review, I was listening for the section that Brendan refers to. It doesn’t, in the form that he criticizes, exist. When Mike says there’s “no journalism” in China, he’s referring specifically to a crackdown on Chinese-run media regarding the suicides in Shenzen, not a complete absence whatsoever of journalism. He does have harsh words about a Wired article, written by a “blogger journalist” who conducted some PR-assisted tours of the Foxconn factories and did absolutely no interviews with any of the workers. But to say that Daisey ever gives the impression that he “alone knows this truth” is a grievous and frankly slanderous misinterpretation of what he says.

As Mike said to me in an interview for my Seattle Weekly profile, he assumes that the basic facts about Chinese sweatshops aren’t a complete surprise to anybody. “I don’t think anyone leaves the show saying ‘and here I thought that China was a Worker’s Paradise!’” he said. “Everyone knows this on some level. But we’ve all kept ourselves from thinking about the details.”

While it is true that Mike does extemporize his text each evening, and therefore there may have been slight textual changes between the show Kiley saw and the one I did a week later, according to Daisey himself the script that I heard was the exact same one, regarding this issue anyway, that Kiley refers to. (It's also telling that not one of the commentators on The Stranger website agrees with Kiley's version of events.)

It’s tempting to speculate on Brendan’s motivations. Certainly it’s common for The Stranger to attack an artist that they themselves have helped turn into a star, particularly once they’ve achieved some measure of fame. Daisey’s been a darling of The Stranger for years; hell, they actually supported his recent show How Theatre Failed America by publishing an article by him on the same topic! Or perhaps Kiley’s own recent forays into investigative journalism have made him suspicious of the “professional blundering” that characterizes Daisey’s own work—showing up at the gates of the factory complex with an interpreter and wearing a Hawaiian shirt smacks of a Michael Moore stunt, even if he (as Moore routinely does) mined serious journalistic dirt in doing so. Or maybe he’s jealous. Or a closet Apple fanboy. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. The only thing that does matter is that in the middle of a review he makes a serious allegation about a performer’s veracity, and as near as I can determine, he’s 100% factually wrong.

But why does this matter? Again, let me pull a quote from my interview with Daisey, which didn’t make it into the Weekly article—but at least I can guarantee that it’s an accurate quote. Mike at this point was drawing a distinction between the people who’ve come to the show, and those who’ve just read about it in media. “To be clear, this is theatre. If they actually come to the show and I get them into the room, then almost invariably what I hear from them is positive. There’s the war in the room, and the war in the media that speaks about what’s in the room. The war in the room is largely lost or won based on my ability to create and who’s there. The war outside is about how I’m perceived and in sound bites.”

Kiley, knowingly or not, has just provided ammunition to the war outside the room. Not only is he helping the wrong side, but he’s doing so with a review that is factually incorrect. As a result, the person who should be concerned about their professional career here isn’t Mike Daisey. It’s Brendan Kiley.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lady's Night

It's opening night for
My Time with the Lady, the show that I've directed (and gave a bit of assistance in writing) based on the stories of the writer/performer Ron Richardson.

When Ron and I first started to work with these stories almost a year and a half ago, the Lusty Lady was still in business. We actually made a couple of "field trips" down to the place so he could talk me through what had changed and what had stayed the same since his days as a janitor/cashier/bouncer in the late '80s and early '90s. Actually seeing the narrow hallways and tiny booths that were the setting for Ron's reminiscences was a bit like walking through an archaeological site and trying to reconcile the history you've read about with the actual fact that living people had been involved in creating it.

At that time we were still lacking two vital elements: an ending to the show (which, alas! we got when the Lady closed that summer), and a company to create it. I suggested to Ron that what we really needed was a female perspective. When you're doing a play about a peep show that's narrated by a guy, you've got a pretty good chance at alienating approximately half your potential audience if you're not careful. So when we were still doing table work I asked my friend and past collaborator Mary Cutler to come on board. I've worked with Mary several times in the past, including as a co-director, and I have always appreciated how she's both completely non-judgmental about subject matter (even when certain details make her squirm) and has an acute eye for what makes a script work.

The next person to join the company was our dancer/choreographer Kirsten Lauzon. I say "dancer" because her shadow work will be what most people remember from this show, and yes, Kirsten's an amazing performer. She not only dances but creates 20 different characters during the course of the play, ranging from staff (men and women) to customers. But Kirsten's also been our graphic and web designer, script consultant, and enthusiastic collaborator since joining the project. I can't imagine what the show would look like without her.

The first techie we brought onto the team was Laura Ulmer, our sound designer. I'd heard her work at an "Erotic Shorts," and was impressed by both the nuance and the complexity of her creations. When I approached her she made the reasonable request for a copy of the script. I sent it to her with some concerns--after all, the stories that Ron tells aren't for everybody. But her response was enthusiastic, and she leaped into the creative process immediately, including creating complex atmospheric beds of sounds that perfectly evoke the muffled world of private passion of The Lady.

Also returning from our first production is Jayme Markham as our light operator, a woman who, as Ron recently said, you'd want next to you in a bar fight. There's something bewilderingly tough about Jayme, who combines a personal sweetness with a techie's no-nonsense attitude. And joining the crew this time round is our Stage Manager Eleanor Pawley, who's proven to be an absolute dream of organization, good humor and practical knowledge. She also knows how to drink.

I highlight all of these women because while we also have men supporting this run (virtuoso producer John Ullman, the unfazeable and unstoppably imaginative set/light designer David Baldwin, the dedicated and resolutely cheerful sound op Dave Lydon), it was always the women that I felt were key to the success of this show. Neither Ron nor I are equipped to tell the story of the Lusty Lady from the perspective of the women. And we weren't trying to; that's already been done to critical success, in books like Erika Langley's "The Lusty Lady" and Elizabeth Eaves' "Bare." What we've put up on stage is the story of a young man who fell in love not with a woman but with an entire business, a peep show where the dancers were fairly paid and well-treated, where the Show Managers were women and the attitudes were enlightened. It's the story of a community of powerful women. And as we open the show on this tempestuous April evening, I want to thank all of the smart, critical, beautiful and strong women who helped us bring these stories to the stage.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Family in Mourning

On Sunday night I had a friend in from out of town and we caught a preview at the Rep of "Of Mice and Men." It was grand seeing so many friends up on the stage tearing the hell through one of the undisputed masterworks of American theatre, and it was even more fun catching up with them at drinks afterward at Solo, which has become one of Seattle's Actor Bars. (I hope they know what they're in for!)

My old friend Charles Leggett, who as Lenny had spent the evening politely tugging the entire production away from his fellow actors, had some choice comments on the process of creating his role and I'm looking forward to seeing how audiences respond to the show.

Actors and artists in Seattle are given to the occasional rant about their status in the local theatre ecosystem, and this evening it was the turn of Mr. Basil Harris to take the floor. Basil, who I chiefly know from his days in sketch comedy troupe Bald Face Lie, was fresh from closing his own show "Go Dog, Go!" at the Seattle Children's Theatre, and I suspect a combination of closing night euphoria and whatever he was drinking were what led to his passionate rant about the necessity of local artists to actively pursue their own destinies. He enumerated the well-known reasons for why NOT to be an actor, and then said "really, the only reason to continue doing this is to be part of this community. The only 'career' you end up with in theatre is entirely based on working with your peers and colleagues. It's not about getting larger and larger roles until you're suddenly a star. It doesn't work like that in this town. The pay-off, the success, is the opportunity to do the work, and to do it with people who you respect."

Basil's comments have been going through my head today as I read the many tributes to actor Mark Chamberlin, who died unexpectedly this morning after a bike accident on the weekend. I knew Mark only slightly off the stage but had been watching his performances for years. I always carried a small amount of guilt that the first show I'd seen him in,
Hospitality at the old ACT, was frankly atrocious and my review said so. (He played a crack-smoking corrupt Immigration officer. I doubt it was his favorite role either.) Whatever; when we last talked, at the opening night of "The Odyssey" at Taproot, it was again clear that he wasn't carrying any ill-feeling about my unkind words of 15 years ago.

Regardless of how little we actually knew each other, Mark and I were both members of an artistic community that's still small enough to consider itself family--albeit the sort of loud, cantankerous and argumentative extended family that spends as much time feuding as celebrating. I feel honored to have seen so many of his performances over the years. He brought a quality of substance to his work that's rare. The eye was naturally drawn to his slightly craggy good looks, the ear to a voice--what a voice!--that he used like a musician his instrument or a carpenter his toolbox.

Thanks for your work, Mr. Chamberlin. I'm sorry we never had a chance to work together, because you were the sort of artist I aspire to collaborate with. We were distant relations but family nonetheless, and I join the rest of Seattle's artists in mourning your loss.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"A Highly Developed Set of Ethics"

I was once fired from a job—long ago, I might add. During our exit interview, I asked the reasons for my dismissal. After waffling around about this and that (the truth was a higher-up just didn’t like me), my new boss said, in a frustrated tone, “let’s just say you have a highly developed set of ethics.”

I will always treasure that comment.

I was a theatre critic for The Seattle Weekly and Backstage Magazine from 1995-2000. I really don’t miss it all that much. Poorly paid, flattered by some artists and hated by others, a punch-line to half the theatre jokes out there, being a critic had few positive aspects aside from the free tickets. But I do actually miss working in a profession with some ethics. Aside from don’t punch your co-workers and don’t steal from the petty cash, a lot of jobs out there really don’t have a professional code of conduct. Theatre criticism has a whole host of rules, formal and informal, that a critic is supposed to follow—particularly if, like me, you’re also simultaneously a theatre artist.

While some of these rules came from my editors, others I developed on my own. Here’s a few of them:

  • If you receive cash or a production from a company, you don’t review their shows. (I set this as a one-year ban and wonder if it should have been longer.)

  • You try to get your facts right. If you get them wrong, you print a correction.

  • You don’t puff your friends, and you don’t disparage your enemies—you write about the work. If you can’t do that, you don’t review the show.

  • You don’t nominate your own work for awards. (Yes, I actually knew a critic who did this.)

  • You don’t “get back” at companies that don’t produce you or artists who publicly criticize you. (I remember the discomfort of being evoked by name from the stage of the Re-bar during Dan Savage’s production of The Misanthrope. Being insulted in rhyming verse in public was an unwelcome novelty—but the show was undeniably good. After I gave the show a positive review, I got a call from the company letting me know that after they’d read it, they’d subbed in another critic’s name instead.)

  • When you have lunch with the artistic director at The Rep to discuss the new season, you don’t turn the conversation into a pitch meeting for a play you’ve just written. (The boon and curse of being a critic: access to everyone, artistic respect from no one.)

  • You don’t leave halfway through a show and not acknowledge it in your review, if you write one. (While I never took the same relish in doing this as Brendan Kiley over at The Stranger clearly does, I’ll admit that when I was a critic I did do this a couple of times. And I would do it again: those shows were horrible.)

But the greatest ethical requirement of a critic is that she or he gives a truthful reaction to what they’ve just seen. If you love it, even if you personally dislike the playwright, you praise it. And if you hate it, even if the company is a wonderful group of artists who’ve flattered you and bought you drinks, you say so.

One of the phone calls I treasure most during my time as a critic was from Kevin Joyce, who at the time was still with UMO Ensemble. Despite this being one of my favorite theatre companies ever, I’d just given their latest show a lacerating review. He told me that he’d just read the review, completely agreed with it, and thanked me.

Theatre artists give critics a lot of stick, mostly because we fear their opinion of our work and the effect that might have. But while theatre criticism might not necessarily be an art, it is an ethical profession. So to every critic out there who takes ethics seriously: thank you. Even if I disagree with your opinion, particularly of my work, I respect you working a job that asks you to behave in a morally responsible way. It’s not always easy hanging onto a set of ethics in the modern world.