Monday, November 15, 2010

What a Bizarre Theater Season in New York!

From week to week—from the heights of shows like A BRIEF ENCOUNTER to the depths of shows like THE PITMEN PAINTERS—it’s never been clear to me whether we’re entering new glory days or witnessing the decline of creativity on stage—which, I suppose, is frequently the case with this “fabulous invalid” of a thing called theater (though I guess that phrase was originally intended to refer to Broadway and I’m applying it here to all theater on the island of Manhattan). And as one with no interest in sports and sports rankings, I’ll nevertheless lay out my recent experiences in a sports-like way, using my own “Thumbs Up/Down” ranking scheme.

For me, the season began on an ambiguous note with the Roundabout Theatre’s production of MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION and the Patrick Stewart-starrer, David Mamet’s A LIFE IN THE THEATER. In both cases, despite excellent performances, the plays fell flat. I think the problem is that these are just not great plays. So, despite some wonderful monologues in MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION and evidence of a clear affection for the stage in A LIFE IN THE THEATER, I give both productions “Thumbs Sideways.”

BRIEF ENCOUNTER. “Thrilling and wildly theatrical!” That would be my recommended pull-quote if I were a theater critic. I don’t want to say too much in order not to spoil the many surprises on stage at Studio 54, but I will say it provided my best evening at the theater so far this season. (And the perfect show to see with a loved one.) “Thumbs Up.”

BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON. This one started off very powerfully, and I kept thinking that the combination of this show and BRIEF ENCOUNTER would surely make this the greatest season in years. But then things ground to a near halt in the final third and the show went flat. On balance, still an enjoyable show—very funny, clever, rock-filled, eye-opening—but a few steps short of being great. “Thumbs Up (With Reservations)”

THE LANGUAGE ARCHIVE by Julia Cho. A wonderful play. Fascinating for anyone interested in linguistics in general, and dying languages (not to mention relationships) in particular. All I can say is, “Mir Neglishia.” (You’ll have to see the play to know what I mean.) Highly recommended for anyone interested in intelligent, thought-provoking theater. And, of course, Jayne Houdyshell—reason enough to see any play. “Thumbs Up.”

WINGS. A man in the audience actually shouted back at this play at one point. The couple next to us left (in the middle of a one-act play barely 80 minutes long). I guess people really don’t like this play. Jan Maxwell is certainly trying very hard (though she did seem very pissed off at our audience after the man shouted out—and gritted her teeth through the curtain calls.) I would never shout back at a play (unless asked to do so) and I would certainly never walk out of a play in the middle of its one and only act, but I have to say I didn’t like it either. It was a brilliant depiction of what it must feel like to be in the middle of a stroke (and afterwards). And that’s no mean accomplishment. But it wasn’t much of a play. Very hard to sit through. Boring, really. And I think Jan Maxwell was probably miscast, since Constance Cummings played the character as a much older woman in the original version. “Thumbs Down.”

LA BETE. Great performances by all 3 stars in the cast. Fun, compelling, intriguing, surprising—it’s all these things, and it rhymes. But enough already. It quickly grew tiresome. “Thumbs Sideways.”

THE PITMEN PAINTERS. I learned something about a small chapter in art history, and it was certainly earnest, but this play plodded along, unrolling its plot points and other points in an uninteresting linear fashion. In the end, there wasn’t much of a story here—very little conflict. “Thumbs Down.”

SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical. A delightfully-old-fashioned musical presented during the New York Musical Theatre Festival. (Full disclosure—the author of the book, Richard Seff, played Earl Mumford in my “best-short-play-award-winning” play, THE DAKOTA.) It has a wonderful score and an enjoyable and uplifting story. The young man who played the main role was terrific—and could well grow up to be a Broadway star. Some have (all right, I have) compared it to Oliver and Annie. Any producers out there looking for a big, family musical? “Thumbs Up.”

MATTHEW BOURNE’S SWAN LAKE. This made a brief return to New York at the City Center. (I missed it the first time around.) A brilliant and mesmerizing piece! It even survived the endless chattering of the two ladies sitting behind us. (Word of advice: if you speak pointedly—almost to the point of having what some might describe as a meltdown—to people like this during intermission, they may hurl insults at you, but they DO shut up during the second act.) “Thumbs Up.”

THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS. I love Kander and Ebb (and Susan Stroman). I heard great things about this show. I was SO looking forward to it (which may have been the problem). And it turned out to be the biggest disappointment of the season so far. It wasn’t bad, exactly. Some strong numbers, good (and great) performances, interesting story, and very powerful ending that almost justified what came before—but it was all a little repetitive, a little boring, a little off. Maybe I should give it a second chance. “Thumbs Sideways.”

EDWARD ALBEE’S ME, MYSELF, AND I. (Playwrights Horizons). I saw the original production of this play at the McCarter Theater in Princeton a couple of years ago. Albee is one of my two favorite playwrights. (Tennessee Williams is the other.) I think some of my writing may even be a little Albee-esque—at least I aspire to that. So, I’m happy to report that this play shows him still going strong, but I don’t think it’s everyone’s cup of tea. (Though that may not be a criticism—some people don’t even drink tea.) It’s an absurdist play. Perhaps a more accessible version of a Beckett play (which shouldn’t be surprising, since Albee loves Beckett and has had his plays on the same bills as Beckett’s). It’s very funny. Its self-referentiality and play on and with words are delightful—if you like that sort of thing (which I do). Elizabeth Ashley is wonderful in her very strange role. (Tyne Daly played the role successfully at the McCarter. Elizabeth Ashley is even better.) Brian Murray—one of the theater’s treasures—is also very good, although he doesn’t have a whole lot to do here. But in the end, I think it’s very hard to pull off absurdist works. Maybe I’ve just come to want a little more reality—or maybe three-dimensionality—in plays. Still, it’s a must-see play for theater lovers. “Thumbs Up (With Reservations).”

A FREE MAN OF COLOR. I think critics are the sons and daughters of Satan, just waiting for an opportunity to pull someone down rather than celebrate the good things that one can always find in any play or production. But then I see a play like this and understand the desire to destroy. It’s just SO easy to mock bad plays. It provides the writer an opportunity to be creative—who can resist such a thing? But, I’ll resist that urge and just say that this was definitely the worst play of the season so far. A third of the thin audience left during the intermission. Let’s leave it at that. (No, let’s mention that it has beautiful costumes and that Geoffrey Wright is always worth observing—and that John Guare has created some wonderful other plays.) “Thumbs Down.”

COLLECTION and A KIND OF ALASKA. Two plays by Harold Pinter at the Classic Stage Company. Excellent. Eliminated the bad taste left in my mouth by A FREE MAN OF COLOR. I don’t always love Pinter’s work, but these are excellent plays. The first one is a typical piece of Pinterism—an odd situation, where something is a little off, but it’s not quite clear what it is, and it’s never clarified in the end, so you have to fill in the blanks yourself. Maybe this works better here than in some other cases, because it’s a one-act. It’s also extremely well performed and produced. The second play has an amazing performance by Lisa Emery playing a woman who has been asleep for almost 30 years (a la Awakenings). I hope to track Ms. Emery down and see everything she ever does after this. “Thumbs Up.”

AFTER THE REVOLUTION. (Playwrights Horizons). An excellent play about an intergenerational conflict among lefties on the upper west side of Manhattan. It’s good to remember a time when “liberal” wasn’t a dirty word and most of my college classmates (and I) aspired to be far left of the “liberals.” I don’t think Sarah Palin would like—or get—this play, but it’s intelligent and moving. Excellent performances—especially by Lois Smith and Peter Friedman. I was thrilled to discover on the way out of the theater that the play was based on a real family’s dilemma and that I was sharing the elevator with the real-life sister of the character played by Lois Smith. “Thumbs Up.”

THAT HOPEY CHANGEY THING. (By Richard Nelson—at the Public Theater) An interesting experiment, but little more. A play just about as current as physically possible. It took place on election night this year, even though the run of the play was from a week before until two weeks after the election. It presents a family discussing the election whose returns are in progress—even though they can’t know the outcome and, depending on which night the audience sees it, we either do or do not know the outcome. Sounds intriguing, right? But the real surprise was that it presented very convincing, three-dimensional characters. With a little more work, this play might not need this gimmick. In fact, the political discussion was the least interesting aspect of it. Sadly, though, the play didn’t really go anywhere, and felt simply contrived—and unfinished. “Thumbs Sideways.”


Brief Encounter
The Language Archive
Shine! (New York Musical Theatre Festival)
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
Collection + A Kind of Alaska
After the Revolution

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Edward Albee’s Me, Myself, and I

The Pitmen Painters
A Free Man of Color

Mrs. Warren’s Profession
A Life in the Theater
La Bete
The Scottsboro Boys
That Hopey Changey Thing


For information about my work, go to:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Wisdom for Writers from Comic Con

Ross Ritchie and Jimmy Palmiotti, at Comic Con, drawn live by Claudia Carlson

Fellow River Writer Claudia Carlson (also an accomplished artist, see sketches!) braved the fierce crowds Saturday at Comic Con to see the panel Comics, Hollywood - What Creators Need to Know.

One of the biggest challenges to any creator is sticking to their projects and getting them out the door. This panel, which featured Jimmy Palmiotti (creator of Daredevil) and Ross Ritchie of Boom Studios, and was moderated by Buddy Scalera, explored that issue in depth on a number of levels. The ostensible topic of the panel was taking your work to Hollywood, but a deeper theme was about how to connect outward as a creator. To start out with, Jimmy asked for a show of hands; the room was filled with writers from all genres, so that’s where they focused their discussion.

First they offered a helpful set of definitions and guidelines for writers with Hollywood dreams, beginning with a definition of a producer. In Hollywood, unlike in NYC theater, the producer is the person who walks the project into the studio. The producer may or may not be involved in the actual production of the picture; the same goes for the executive producer. In TV the executive producer is top dog; in movies it is the producer.

Producers option properties. Options give someone the exclusive right to try and sell your property within a limited time frame. The money offered by the potential producer is deducted from the final amount of the sale; so if you get a property optioned for $2,000, and it sells for $100,000, you are owed $98,000.

They then described the difference between agents and managers (and even if nobody in Hollywood ever buys my work, at least I now understand the difference between what E and Ari do on Entourage.) In California, an agent’s fees are set by the state at 10%. Lawyers (and they strongly advised everyone to have their own lawyer) run about 5%. Some people have managers and some do not; managers offer more personal representation than agents, who have a slate of clients. Managers may actively scout out properties or try to make deals. Manager’s fees are unregulated by the state of California but generally run 10 to 15%. Jimmy has an agent and not a manager; Ross has both.

Jimmy was particularly interesting on the subject of how to make connections. “No one likes an Eeyore at the table,” he said. People will have to work with you over a period of time; they want to work with someone they like and are comfortable with. He suggested it is important to be nice to people, to be genuine, and not to fall for exaggerated Hollywood flattery. Not everyone with a headset and a Lexus is capable of making a deal. “It’s your job to take every opportunity, like Comic Con, to get out and meet people and give them the chance to get to know you and your work.”

Toward the end of the panel, a question was raised by a 43-year-old cop. “I have a 200 page story, illustrated by an amazing artist. How do I get people interested?”

Jimmy said that this is a grassroots effort; your first job is getting the graphic novel published. Ross said that Boom Studio is too big to take something like that on, but at the small press section near Artist’s Alley, there were many small publishers dying for content. Other options would be using something like Graphic.-ly to self publish, or go to the Web. Once you have something in hand, your job is to always have it with you, and talk to everyone you know about it. Your first sales are going to be the people who know you, and from there it travels outward. He said to the cop, “Next time you arrest someone, say, ‘You’re going to have plenty of time in jail, here’s something to read.”

Both Jimmy and Ross emphasized that the key to your success will be your connections with other people. You can use Facebook, Twitter, blogging, etc., but in the end it goes back to people you know telling other people about your work, and a network sprouting from those initial contacts.

Jimmy underlined the idea that it’s important to realize not everything is going to be a success, and not to get stuck on one project. “We’re creative people; we have a parking lot full of ideas. If we can get one or two of those ideas out, we’ll make room for more.”

The most important thing, he said, is to know your goal. He asked, “Is your goal a swimming pool, fancy house and car, or to create your own work?” The comic books and graphic novels are the real work to him, so he can relax about what Hollywood does or does not do to his ideas. He will always have the initial work, the comic book, the graphic novel—whatever anyone else does to it, he has completed his own complete project.

“The real secret to my success is that so many people who started out with me have given up,” he said. If you know your real goals, and stick to them, you will be ahead of almost everyone else.

And that panel alone (although all the free stuff was also cool!) made New York Comic Con a really great way to spend the weekend with 100,000 of my new best friends.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Little Game for Writer's Block

In an admirable effort to foster a more literate America, the folks at ReadWriteThink have created a little game that guides you through the writing acrostic poems. Now, for those of us who occasionally suffer from writer's block - or if not block, at least stalling - I often recommend writing a haiku or ten to get the brain crackling again. This little game might work just as well, and has the advantage of being completely supervised - you are told what to write where, all you have to do is fill in the actual words. On days when putting a whole sentence together is too much, it might be just the thing. Okay, it is supposed to be for kids, but aren't all writers very young (albeit a tad cynical)at heart? Check it out - Acrostic Poems

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Slow Starts

I start very slowly, and don't actually begin to write the book until I can't stand not to write it. This method derives from my sense that one can start a book too soon, but almost never too late. (Stevan Polansky in GlimmerTrain)

We writers and artists almost always have a bad word to say for ourselves, and often it is on our inability to get started on a project. Sometimes, even if we have a deadline, even if our food and rent depends on it, we just cannot begin. We have an idea, yes. We may even think it is a pretty good idea. But it isn't ready. We aren't ready, and we aren't sure we will ever be ready.

How do we know when to begin a project? Steven Polansky says it all when he says, "one can start a book too soon, but almost never too late." (Of course, we haven't heard from his editors on the subject.) But perhaps the reason most of us have drawers full of unfinished manuscripts, basements full of half-done canvases, hard drives full of video and photographs we're not sure about and scripts without an ending, is not because we don't have the will to finish, but because, driven by our own anxiety to begin, we started too soon.

Great ideas may seem sometimes to spring out of nowhere and demand our full attention, but the truth is, they've probably been stewing for some time, in some form, before they assume a final shape. Our minds take a little bit from here and a little bit from there, throw in a dash of this and that, do a rain dance to the muses for inspiration, and only then hold the concoction under our noses and insist - okay, okay, this is how it will be! Pay attention and get going! And it is in that moment when we really do have to build up some steam and prepare to chug away.

This isn't like waiting to be hit on the head by an apple (although one can argue that Mr. Newton's inspiration, as well, owed a lot to creative stewing.) We have to feed the process, with reading, or going to galleries, or watching films, and thinking, and sleeping, and possibly striking up a chat with the morose person sitting next to us at Starbucks who is also waiting for his or her moment. If you and nature are on close personal terms, you can go take long walks, and even try sitting under a welcoming tree.

While you are doing all this, you must make the attempt not to torture and threaten your idea into existence, but to gently lure it out, with the promise that it will have your full attention and its moment in the sun. Be kind to your idea, and be kind to yourself. And when, finally, it manifests itself in full - or at least close enough to be getting on with - don't be afraid to jump in and move forward. Institute your creative ritual; protect your creative time; let it be as central to your life as it can be without completely disrupting the rest of your life. It's almost never too late to start, but when it's time, it's time, and it's a moment to savor before you begin some of the hardest work of your life.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Fondly Do We Hope...Fervently Do We Pray

I saw an incredible work last night—Bill T. Jones’s dance piece about Lincoln, FONDLY DO WE HOPE…FERVENTLY DO WE PRAY. It was presented as part of the Lincoln Center Festival at Rose Hall, one of the 3 new Lincoln center venues at the Time Warner Center three blocks away from the rest of Lincoln Center. It’s hard to categorize this work, because it includes heavy doses of song and spoken narrative in addition to dance (though I’ve been told he frequently does that). Is it a one-act musical? A piece of performance art? Moving sculpture? Obviously this doesn’t matter, but the old aesthetics professor in me loves to categorize things.

It begins (after a sung prelude) with a woman performing a solo dance on a separate oval stage projected out diagonally a few yards from the main stage. As she dances, a voice recites a list of body parts—down to the minutest details (eyebrows, eye lashes, irises…). This recitation occurs at least three times during the piece, including at the very end. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to make of it (or if that even matters), but it suggested three different things to me by the end of the evening. The first, coming as it did at the very beginning of the piece, was a variation on a yoga class, where we’re asked to release each body part in succession until the body is fully relaxed. This seemed appropriate for both the audience and the dancer, since we were transitioning into a different reality. The second, because this was a piece about Lincoln—and because there was a passing reference to his unique beard—was a coroner’s inventory of the body laid out before him. The third—especially given a slave market scene that occurs about halfway through the piece—was of a slave auctioneer enticing buyers with a list of all that they will acquire when they purchase one of his slaves.

The mystery of this one element of the piece is indicative of the entire work, which is filled with movements, devices, moments that lend themselves to multiple interpretations or defy interpretation altogether. Structurally, it begins with short biographies of random individuals, both living and long dead—all presumably directly or indirectly influenced by Lincoln, including Lincoln himself and his wife, Mary Todd. It then moves into some biography of Lincoln and Mary Todd, reenactments of historical events, including debates, the previously mentioned slave market scene, and the Civil War and a long choreographed section depicting “Another War.” (I wasn’t sure if this was meant to be one of the wars occurring long after the Civil War—WWI? WW2? Vietnam?—or one of our current wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or a future war not yet identified. Perhaps it was all of the above.) And then it ends with one last short biography of a 100-year-old woman looking back at history from the vantage point of 2109. Finally, as this same woman dances, we hear the now-familiar recital of body parts.

I’ve probably made the piece sound much more linear than it actually is. There are long stretches of movement where it’s not at all clear what’s happening and where we—joyfully—just study the movement. And that IS the most joyous part of the work—the incredible movement. Jones’s repertoire of movements is astounding. Very few are standard ballet movements. Many are surprising, sensual, athletic—and always fascinating. I was also struck by the individuality of each dancer. At the opposite extreme of choreography, the dancer’s individual body sometimes disappears into the universality of its movements (think of Swan Lake’s swans or La Bayadere’s shades). Here, however, each dancer appears as a profoundly unique presence. No one else could possibly stand in for any of these dancers—they could replace them with their own individual bodies, but they couldn’t stand in for them.

Having said all this, however, I still feel unprepared to say much about this glorious work. I almost need to go back and see it again, since I’m only beginning to get a sense of it—or only beginning to get to know it. I guess you could say we’ve only just had our first date. But as with all great works, I hope I’ll get to spend a lot more time with it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On Creativity Manuals

Lately I am designing and laying out a book about creativity. It is a paying job. And I make the rent as a graphic designer... It is a well meant book, full of examples and research. And I can understand why people want, and need, books that give them permission to express themselves through the arts. If I have any religion, it a feeling that the muse sometimes shows up, takes possession of me, and skews space and time while doing so.

But... so many books on creativity use too much paper validating their approaches in science. Or offer such detailed step-by-step recipes that I sometimes feel the message gets lost. Cheerleaders don't have footnotes. Muses don't fly on wings of statistics. My favorite books inspire me to create by example. Give me Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town, and Annie Dillard's The Writing Life. There are more. Brenda Ueland, Ray Bradbury... But what makes each of them effective is the author's ability to take me on the journey with them, and to be there when the muse strikes their prose into unexpected and exhilarating swoops.

And when the less inspiring manuals tell me to contact my inner child or accept that I'm so Special because I'm so Very Sensitive, I shrug. The truth is I write and draw because it feels good. I like wrestling with words. I like making lines and smudges. Something happens when I allow myself to play. It could happen to you.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Reading, chocolates, reading

I have my addictions, you have yours.

I start out in withdrawal. Irate, jumpy, focusing on negative probable futures fueled by negative actual bank balance... Then I take the object of compulsion--a book--and semi-recline on a pile of pillows. Water and some fruit or chocolates are in easy grazing distance, and after looking at the title page I begin to read. If I am lucky the first paragraph or poem is so good I stop thinking something like this:

"Hmmm, Garamond the usual choice, but here it is handled nicely with the subtle caps and small caps of titles, great white space, and that interesting dingbat next to the folio--is that one of the ornaments from Jenson?"

If I'm no longer thinking like a designer, I'm reading, and actively shaping the author's world in my mind.
An hour later, the plate of strawberries is gone, the water cup empty, and I resurface. I'm calm, relaxed, excited by the story or craft, and most importantly, not snarling.

I didn't have time to read today. Hear my roar. Snort.