Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Testament of Mary @ Mamaí Theatre

Anne McEvoy in "The Testament of Mary"
Some twenty years ago my partner and I went to see Annie Sprinkle give a lecture at Cleveland Public Theater. Once a sex worker and performer in pornography, Sprinkle had by this time earned a doctorate in human sexuality and had moved into education and sex-positive advocacy.

It was a full house that night, and as we streamed into the theater there was this one woman standing outside, entirely on her own, protesting the event. She had a sign and she was expressing her disapproval. I cannot recall what was written on the sign, nor exactly what her point of view was.

There are several arguments against pornography. The puritanical is perhaps the first that comes to mind, that performing sex acts on film or video for the enjoyment of others is wrong, improper, it is degenerate.

There are also more relevant arguments against pornography and more specifically the porn industry, which preys upon women, especially very young women, and can even participate in human trafficking.

If I remember correctly, this protester was against that evening’s event because sex work is generally anti-woman, that it defines women, the entire gender, as simply something to be fucked. A sound, feminist, anti-porn argument.

As the audience entered, we just kind of ignored her. But her presence impressed me. Whether I agreed with her or not, she was taking a stand for what she believed, all by herself. She wasn’t grandstanding, she wasn’t aggressively attempting to shame anyone. She was obviously outnumbered by the crowd and she had no support. She was just making her point, outside, in the cold.

We don’t protest theater in Cleveland. Not much. Too polite, perhaps. Or maybe it’s because no one cares or worse, that the vast majority of people in greater Cleveland who might be offended are entirely unaware of what happens in the theater scene.

Photo: Steve Wagner
Last spring, Talespinner produced my play Red Onion, White Garlic, and when it was announced that this Indonesian folktale would be performed by women in hijab (87% of the people in Indonesia today identify as Muslim) I was thrilled, and also concerned. We are a polarized country. Our president has expressed a general contempt for Islam. Would someone make trouble?

No one made trouble. Please. How would the racist dingbats of Northeast Ohio even know this were happening?

But recent events have made live theater an occasional lightning rod for controversy. Following a performance of Hamilton, attended by Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, the cast gave a curtain call speech as the man exited the hall. The outrage that followed in the media was scattershot; is it appropriate to lecture a captive audience following a play, shouldn’t they show more respect to the Vice President-Elect, must everything be about politics?

This was at Hamilton. You get it.

This summer the Public Theatre made headlines again -- this time with Shakespeare if you can believe that -- by presenting a modern dress production of Julius Caesar as one of their two, free productions at the Delacorte in Central Park.

Shortly after the election, The Public's Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis, decided to cast Caesar in the form of Donald J. Trump. This textually justifiable interpretation of Shakespeare’s version of Caesar as a proud, preening, feckless, needy, physically weak, power-hungry windbag would be on full display in the form of the actual sitting president, and in the president’s own city.

It would also mean depicting him murdered in the Senate, every single night.

Photo: Inside Edition
Even the discussion of the assassination of a sitting president is repellent to me. I don’t even joke about it, and I’ll joke about anything. First, I am an avowed pacifist. Then, the violent overthrow of a democratically elected figure is the diametric opposite of democracy. One individual or small number of people conspiring to violently undo the decision of the vast majority, it is anathema to the values upon which this nation was based.

This is, in fact, a dominant theme of the play Julius Caesar. Brutus is torn between his belief in the ideals of a democratic Republic against his deep love of his comrade Caesar. But the people want to make Caesar their emperor, their king, it’s what the people of Rome, for good or ill, have decided they want.

In murdering Caesar, Brutus utterly failed to teach the citizens of Rome that it was necessary to slay a potential tyrant. (Ironically, J.W. Booth also failed in this regard, and as an interpreter of Shakespeare he really should have known better.) Brutus's name was disgraced and eventually he threw himself on his own sword rather than surrender to a man  -- Octavius, later called Augustus Caesar -- who would soon become to first true emperor of Rome, regardless of Brutus’ sacrifice.

But your average Trump-supporting troglodyte wouldn’t know that. They couldn’t be bothered to watch this production, any production of Julius Caesar, let alone read it. They just saw the stabbing murder of a version of Caesar dressed like Donald Trump on a continuous loop on Fox News and on Breitbart. No other part of the play, just that one moment.

None of these people would have even cared about the production if they hadn’t been told to care about it by the people who tell him to think things on TV and on the internet. The production had been playing for weeks before the uproar began, and it was only through the final weekend of performances that protests took place in the form of Trump sympathizers interrupting the performance and storming the stage (death threats to Eustis and his family at his home came later) which created a heightened sense of expectation, wonder, and worry at those final shows.

After all, in Shakespeare’s day, when Caesar, and later Brutus then Marc Antony, make their speeches to the actual audience, certain members of  the audience called lines back to the stage, rehearsed lines. There we undoubtably audience plants at the Globe, and so it was this summer at the Public. How was an audience member to know if the person getting riled up next to them was an actor, a protester, or perhaps a domestic terrorist?

Last weekend I brought my mom to see The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, directed by Bernadette Clemens and produced by Mamaí Theatre at the Helen Theatre in Playhouse Square. Tóibín created a stir when he wrote the novel, a brief exploration of Mary, mother of Jesus, as a troubled, conflicted single parent to a religious zealot in a dangerous time. Adapted for the stage in a ninety-minute solo performance, she tells the audience directly of experiences at once familiar but seen from a fresh perspective; from a person who sees only disaster in what is to come, and from an intensely personal point of view.

Photo: America Needs Fatima
On Friday, July 8 a peaceful protest was staged on Euclid Avenue, sponsored by the Media Research Center, an arch-conservative lobbying organization whose founder, L. Brent Bozell once referred to President Obama as a “skinny ghetto crackhead.” They provided flyers decrying the depiction of “Holy Mary” for her “bubbling with contempt for her Son’s demented followers,” that she “threatens the writers of the Gospels with a knife,” and that for a time she “lives as a bandit, stealing to survive.”

These allegations are true, as are all the others cherry-picked and presented out of context from this compelling narrative. Anne McEvoy, one of our most talented performers and a good friend, imbues her character with pathos, and also the deep, painful wisdom of a mother and woman who has lived so long and seen so much. It is a passionate and moving performance.

Sitting in the house, however -- with my own mother sitting next to me -- I was keenly aware of the others in the audience around me. That one protest had taken place the week before. This Friday evening there were few people downtown anyway, a sleepy summer evening in Cleveland. There were no security offers checking bags or purses. I wondered how many attended as a direct result of the protests. I have to admit, it motivated me to get a ticket.

But what if one of those in attendance had ill-intent? To interrupt the performance, or worse? These things happen today.

I am not a person of faith, and am accustomed to seeing things from a variety of points of view. I guess that’s relativism. If a person of faith cannot glean insight from a reinterpretation of their beliefs without flying into a rage, they need to breathe, to begin again, and to reconsider the foundation of their faith.

Mamaí Theatre presents "The Testament of Mary" at the Helen in Playhouse Square through July 23, 2017

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Boy Camp 2017

For the eighth year running, the boy and I have been left on our own for a weekend in July, a weekend we refer to as Boy Camp. The truth is, we have plenty of father-son time during the course of any given year. In January my wife and daughter headed to the Women’s March in DC and the boy and I - and Sarah - saw theater, ate poutine and attended the Science Fiction Marathon at Case.

But Boy Camp has become a strong tradition, something we both really look forward to. The weekend has not disappointed. True, we did not go bowling, but we have made a date for the near future. But other stereotypically testosterone-inspired events have transpired.

For example, yes. We began with a trip to Home Depot. Seriously. His call. He has wanted for some time to make his own practice swords, like those we employ in the residency program, and that required ½’ PVC pipe, foam and duct tape. He also bought a dangerous looking utility knife and almost immediately nicked himself with it. Lesson learned, I hope.

We also headed to Game Stop to remit a gift card he’s had, like, two years. His computer and phone have kept him away from that Xbox he bought at the police auction a year or so back, but he only had one controlled. Now he has two and we stayed up late Saturday night playing WWF Smackdown ‘13.

After shopping we headed to Ensemble Theatre, where The Whiskey Hallow was giving a free concert. It should have been out in Pekar Park, but was rescheduled for indoors under threat of heavy storms which never materialized. The bands includes on of the boy’s teachers from School of Rock and a former student, they’re pretty amazing and it was a great show. Wish it could have been outdoors, though.

However, it did afford us the opportunity to check out the ARTFUL artists studios on the second floor of the former Coventry Elementary space. Only two years ago we were rehearsing scenes for Timon of Athens up there, and there was nothing but open, wanting space. Now there are studios and classes, and real work going on.

Unfortunately, the school district plans to sell the building, which puts this new endeavor, Ensemble Theatre, Lake Erie Ink and another important local arts organizations out on the street. I should write a letter.

That evening he made a sword (cut his finger) and we watched three episodes of The West Wing before bed.

Saturday morning he indulged his father, joining me for a theater-related meeting and bearing through it pretty well. I had promised fried chicken and waffles, which is where we headed directly after - to Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles. Folks in the office have been telling me about this place, and we had a fantastic lunch there. However, I think he learned that real pieces of chicken fry better than the boneless kind.

Then to Shaker Square Cinema for Spider-Man: Homecoming. It was the best of the Spider-Man movies. I never liked any of the previous Spider-Man movies.

Before dinner, some exercise. I ran, he biked, some three or so miles through town. We talk about anything on these runs, I am grateful for them. When he comes along on the bike I get water, and take a few breaks. The running has been very challenging the past several months.

Before dinner we had to get bananas, and of course some ridiculous-flavored ice cream. I planned to make fried banana and sunbutter sandwiches, but he persuaded me to slap a piece of cheese on them. He was correct.

We dined watching Most of Buckaroo Banzai. He really wanted to play Xbox but I suggested we watch something while our hands were occupied with the sandwiches, watermelon, Fritos, and Twinkies ice cream. He agreed, and we made it most of the way through the movie before his desire to lay the smacketh down became too overwhelming.

Now, I had made a promise the night before which I seriously did not feel like keeping this morning, which is this: he wanted to fish. I, having been ill for the past ten days, was delighted to not only sleep through the night, but to sleep late. By nine I had no intention to find somewhere to drop a line during the hottest part of the day.

Fortunately, before he woke some friends called asking if he didn’t want to go with them and their son for the day. And so, Boy Camp drew to a close - for me - a bit early, as I sent him to hang out with his best friend in the beautifully resurrected Edgewater Park.

There’s so much more summer in store. I am sure we will get out into it together soon.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Infinite Wrench @ The Neo-Futurarium

This week the family is enjoying a few days in Chicago, following a weekend wedding in Aurora, Illinois. The kids haven’t been here since before they can remember and we have a full slate of touristy things planned for them, city walks and museums and so on.

My son is already familiar with the Neo-Futurists. He has listened to the CD recording they produced in the late 1990s of sketches from Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind (an attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes). He became a fan of the work and wistfully remarked he would like to see the show some day, but only if they sell out because he wanted the pizza.

When they sell out, they “order out.” Get it? One large pizza, divided more or less equally among two hundred audience members.

Following the election, I was surprised to read that Neo-Futurists founder Greg Allen had announced he was pulling the rights to Too Much Light (TML) with plans to create a new version designed specifically to "combat the tyranny of censorship and oppression." I posted something on Facebook about the announcement, ignorant of the larger story at play.


I assumed he was disbanding the current troupe of Neo-Futurists, unaware that he left the company several years ago. He doesn’t own the rights to the name Neo-Futurists, in fact there are permanent companies in New York and San Francisco, he only owns the rights to the name “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind” and licenses the concept to these companies and any others who wish to create their own version of the show. He had pulled the rights to perform TML from the Chicago branch only.

Long story short and without getting into any more details, the NY and SF troupes dropped TML in solidarity with the Chicago troupe and worked to create a new framing concept which is called The Infinite Wrench. That is the name of the show we saw last night.

And it’s virtually the same as TML in all the ways that matter.

Twenty-five years ago my colleagues and I contacted the Neo-Futurists to speak with them about their work and to let them know we were hard at work on our own late night program of very short plays performed in a random order, inspired by TML. There were a few brief questions.

Q: Do you call the play Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind?
A: No.

Q: Do you call yourselves Neo-Futurists?
A: No.

Q: Are you performing any written work previously written by Neo-Futurists and performed in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind?
A: No.

And that was about it. Our format was reverse engineered from theirs, presented in the style of a TV game show, but how can you copyright the idea of performing short plays, even when presented in a randomly decided order?

So it goes with The Infinite Wrench. They were stripped of the iconic title but otherwise the show functions much as it always has.

I cannot recall the last time I saw them perform, but it was certainly before the children were born. The baton has passed entirely from those members of Generation X who made the core company when I first saw them in 1991 – many who have made their mark far beyond the Neo-Futurists, like Ayun Halliday, Greg Kotis, Spencer Kayden, Lusia Strus – to these Millennials.

The differences are subtle, where they are even apparent. Most striking were the emotional, thematic, substantive similarities. There is a philosophy behind writing for this show, for being a member of this company.

Improv comedy troupes like to promote the idea that improvisation means every show is different, when the exact opposite is true. Just because you have no script does not mean every iteration of Party Quirks doesn’t feel like every other performance of Party Quirks.

Yet there is an inherent spontaneity to the writing of the Neo-Futurists, the fast-paced rolling out of the sketches throws an audience member's expectations off-kilter. Many works I experienced last night have the some loopy vibe as those I saw a quarter-century ago, though much of the issues and events addressed are intimately tied to those today.

And this filled me with an intense personal melancholy, as I realized something I thought I understood before but was finally brought into sharp relief. We tried to bring the spirit of TML into our work in Cleveland, but we had no philosophy. We had rules about content, which is not the same thing.

One of the main tenets of The Neo-Futurists is that they do not imitate life, they present it. They never do impressions, they always perform themselves. This is not strictly accurate, one performer last night was a dog, for example – but this was in the service of telling someone else’s story.

When I was twenty-four and twenty-five years old I wrote some great short plays for our show. Those two years spent writing and writing and writing, thinking about writing when I wasn’t actually writing, I learned and grew in my practice every day, laying the groundwork for my future work. But I was entirely immature and unprepared to tap into the kind of emotional honesty present in any single play I saw in just this one performance of The Infinite Wrench.

Last night’s show was a special show, however. Yesterday was the Chicago Pride Parade, and this was the annual "30 Queer Plays In 60 Straight Minutes" performance. The company does not necessarily discourage parents from bringing younger audience members but also could not promise the content to be “appropriate” for them. Our definition of appropriate is different from most people's and I am much more concerned with all the violence my son perpetrates through his video games than watching a series of silent, brief vignettes which describe one intimate evening in a lesbian relationship.

It might also be pointed out that my children are not unaware of LGBT issues. In fact, issues of inclusion and equality are very important to them. It was all cool.

The Neo-Futurists continue, as relevant and fascinating and fresh as when I first experienced their work. It was an inspiration and a reminder.

Best of all, my son got that pizza.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

A personal reflection for June 25, 2017.

So we returned from Great Britain. I developed a severe migraine headache, as I always do when traveling east to west, across the sea or land. It happened last year when I flew to Alaska. And the very next day I began work in a summer arts camp with no opportunity to relax and contemplate what had just happened.

I did perform I Hate This again, for Cleveland Public Theatre in 2011, and once again a year ago. Two other gentlemen have performed the show, in Manchester and at Hartwick College.

But the tour brought to an end a five-year journey, first developing the show, fringing it, and then sending it around as an educational tool for hospitals and bereavement organizations.

What I decided not to do was to further pursue the piece professionally. I am sure I could have marketed and sold I Hate This, gathering the proper technical equipment, an educational guide written by experts, producing promotional materials, flying around the world to tell this story.

After five years, however, that was not my direction. In fact, ten years ago was when I began my work as a playwright in earnest. That fall I presented a new work at Cleveland Public Theatre’s “Little Box” and by the next year was at work on “the running play” which I took to New York in 2009.

I joined the Cleveland Play House Playwrights’ Unit, received a Creative Workforce Fellowship, and began writing outreach tours for Great Lakes Theater, and later the newly founded Talespinner Children’s Theatre.

I’ve been a director and an actor, but I always wanted to write, and finally I found my voice as a writer and was creating the work. Revisiting these blog entries from ten years ago has been a personal reminder of how much I have had the opportunity to accomplish since then.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Seventeen: London to Cleveland

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

I don't like summing up. Summing up is for the book, the article or the play. A blog is life in motion, and trying to draw any grand conclusions at the end of a long journey is as pointless as trying to draw one at the end of any given day.

Often I do exactly this when composing a blog entry, and I generally find myself simply dropping the last paragraph before publishing.

"Publishing." That's funny. Getting paid is nice, but what the hell, we'll call it publishing.

Non-stop from London to Cleveland. That's my idea of luxury. Once we arrive at Hopkins, My wife will turn around and board a plane for Vermont. It is year two of her work at Goddard College and she has a week on campus in Plainfield, that leaves me alone with the kids until next Monday. Well, alone with my stage manager/childcare specialist, my parents, and anyone else who will help.

Yesterday was a frazzled attempt to bring things to an enjoyable close. I had floated the idea of getting half-price tix to take the girl to see Mary Poppins. While my brother drove most everyone and our bags back to Battersea, My wife, stage manager, and I took a way around Leicester Square - which in the middle of a Saturday afternoon was an insane crush of tourists and opportunists. The lowest ticket price was £32. We called home and said the show was sold out before lingering around some bookstores.

My brother made curry, and we had an amazing relaxed evening around the vicarage, drinking, talking, watching Monsters Inc. (the girl just loves that movie.)

Yesterday morning I took a six o'clock run around Plymouth. Today I rose in London. Tomorrow I get up at dawn in Cleveland Heights, take the kids to school, and embark on an arts camp for city of Cleveland middle school students.

I could really have used a weekend before starting in on that.

Original blog post: June 24, 2007

Friday, June 23, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Sixteen: Plymouth to London

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Mayflower Steps
Today I took a two-mile run around Plymouth. I actually ran up the Mayflower Steps, into the Old World. Maybe that's where I belong.

Actually, I ran up the steps next to the "Mayflower Steps," those were steps that led up from the car park in the marina. And those aren't even the real Mayflower Steps, the atucal stone steps Francis Drake descended on his journey to the New World are reportedly in the women's loo in the pub across the street.

I followed the water around the Barbican, up through the city, and back down the West Hoe (yes) making a full circle. It was a fantasy of mine that I would finish by the lighthouse, run down the steps to the ocean, and take an insane, frigid plunge into the Atlantic.

But the tide was out. That would have been an uncomfortable, long wade. I would have looked not like a man triumphant, but rather someone determined to drown himself.

It was a good, brisk run. Two runs in Britain. Worth bringing the shoes.

Original blog post: June 23, 2007

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Sands UK Tour, Day Fifteen: Plymouth

Ten years ago this month, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (SANDS UK) sent my solo performance I Hate This (a play without the baby) on a seven date tour of Great Britain.

Friday, 22 June 2007 


Salvation Army Hall
The schizophrenic weather of Plymouth kept us on our toes all day. The folks took a lovely boat ride in the harbor, while it intermittently pissed rain and shone bright, warm sun. Meanwhile, My stage manager and I met our contact at the hall for tech.

It's a big room, the Salvation Army meeting hall, and our contact had high expectations. There were twenty seats purchased in advance, there were notices in local papers and he did an interview which was played several times, yesterday and today, on the radio station, Plymouth Sound.

I asked him what the pitch was. He is quite familiar with I Hate This, having seen it last October, and listening to the radio drama several times. Describing it over lunch he made it sound like a gripping, exciting drama, one that anyone could get into. So that sounded great.

They'd set up chairs for maybe two hundred on the main floor, with overflow capacity in the balcony for another fifty. I know he was being cheeky when he suggested we might need all those seats, but I also know he was holding out hope for a large turnout.

You can see where I am going with this. In fact, if you have any previous knowledge about the history of this production, the fact that the house was small shouldn't surprise you. It didn't surprise me, and I was not disappointed by it, It was odd that almost half the people who had made paid reservations did not show up, though there were a few walk-ups.

That included one very tall man who had made a reservation for the Exeter performance, and called the day-of to ask for directions, and was surprised to find only that way that the event had been cancelled. He said he drove like mad to get here tonight.

It was challenging balancing the small crowd (I am thankful they were asked to move to the front of the house) and the large space. There were points where I stepped down off the stage and stood right in front of them.

Following tea and cake, our Q&A was almost like a group session, we treated it as one. My wife and I weren't up on the stage, we were down with everyone, talking about our stories.

That reminds me of an interesting thing ... yesterday, after we'd split into two groups, Our contact and my stage manager and I were wandering through Drake's Circus. She went off to the loo, and he and I were just standing there in the middle of this busy mall.

I just blurted out, "So ... what's your story?"

He blinked, inhaled, and told me. And that was good.

Smeaton's Tower
You know, over the course of the past two weeks, My wife and I took a little time to grow into our role as child loss ambassadors, or whatever you might want to call us. In Carlisle we were a bit too scattered to be as personable, or sensitive as we might have liked. I'm not saying we were impolite, but my interactions with our contact there were very business-like -- I need this, I need that, do you think these things can be taken care of by tomorrow -- and we spent most of the intervening time relaxing, making sure the kids were adjusting, and so on.

We'd even showed up late that first afternoon, because we were enjoying ourselves in Glasgow, and didn't bother to call her to let her know.

It wasn't until after the performance that I had a chance to chat with her husband about their little boy, and then say something to her some time shortly before we departed for the evening. I can make excuses about being wobbly, nervous and uncertain, but I still wish I'd started off better.

And yet, "What's your story?" I don't think I'd ever asked anyone about their child so bluntly in my life. It didn't hurt that our Plymouth contact seems like a guy who you can talk to like that. I also wondered after the fact if it's because I don't usually ask guys about their children, I usually start with the women and the approach is much softer.

The discussion was very warm and everyone was very kind. There were an awful lot of men in that small crowd, and it was good to see them, sitting so stoically in their seats. But when the time came I heard what I am always glad to hear, that this story is like theirs, there is so much in common in my story to theirs.

The wife observed a few days ago that she sometimes feels it is odd, sitting up on a stage, talking about our loss, and having so many people ask us about it, as though our loss is more significant than theirs. I don't see it that way. Maybe I am the guy who stands up publicly to tell his story not because my story is more poignant, it isn't, but it's a story, and I tell it and people can point to it and say, that's my story. Like, it makes their story more poignant, because of the great similarities of emotion and circumstance, and they can share it with friends and say, see, that's what I am going through. That story is my story.

Original blog post: June 22, 2007