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.)