Playwriting: a few notes and comments

A few years back I wrote a play called “Dinners With Augie,” which I have produced three times. Most recently in Tucson Arizona.  The notes below are a distillation of what I’ve learned from writing and producing that play, as well as other plays I’ve written that have not been produced (one is allowed to learn from failure.)

The most important thing I can say about writing plays is pay attention to the actors. I began writing plays a few years ago, and how I read, and how I view dramatic performances (movies or stage) has changed.  Once I began to actually see and hear how actors were reacting to what I was writing changed the way I listen and how I see the events on the stage, screen, or page. I became more sensitive not only to the processes of defining and creating scripts, but I developed different ways of appreciating dramatic arts.

These days the particular thing I look for in a dramatic performance is what kind of emotional range the actor is demonstrating.  I think the hardest thing for an actor to get right isn’t anger, or strength or courage or eccentricity, it’s vulnerability.  There’s a tipping point, a very fine line, between being openly fragile, and just being weak.  Sometimes vulnerability is the point, and sometimes being weak is  the point, but the two shouldn’t be confused.

I would offer as examples Burt Lancaster and Shirley Booth in “Come Back Little Sheba” or Clark Gable’s character in “The Misfits” (particularly near the end of the movie) or for a more recent example Nicole Kidman in “Dogville” (an outstanding piece of work, note the scene near the end with the glass figurines.)

Now when I read a novel or script or short story, I’m not very tolerant of what I consider lazy writing. Too many authors take the easy way out.  Usually the endings are the problem, which tells me the author really didn’t have anything to say, or the problem is that the characters are cardboard cutouts, not just too familiar, but phony.  Familiarity isn’t the problem, because sometimes that’s the point, that we’ve seen these characters in our day-to-day lives, the problem is that the writer isn’t really infusing the character with a life of their own.

Put another way, I recommend avoiding self-indulgence. Think of it this way: you’ve been invited to a holiday dinner with your favorite Aunts and Uncles, try to be on your best behavior and don’t make the whole dinner about you.  It isn’t. It’s about the interactions with the other guests.  You get to talk, but you have to listen.  The best place to start listening is when the actors are rehearsing.

And every chance you get, ask yourself, “who cares?” as in who cares about what’s going on on the stage? And if you can’t answer that question, those lines are probably not worth keeping. Get rid of them and move on. Because if you’re going to “share a story” the least you can do is respect the audience’s time and effort and share a story they actually care about.

The second most important thing I can say about writing plays is that the script has be strong enough to support the actors on the days (or nights) when their energy is low.  Actors have up nights, and down nights.  Look for those low energy performances, and if your impression is that the show is dragging, that you’re losing the audience, it’s probably the script. My experience is that audiences will forgive a dropped line here and there, or a few obvious improvisations, but they don’t forgive being bored.

I think a strong script has two essential qualities: it makes a point that the audience can identify (typically through story telling) and the actors can actually portray the character in the play.  It’s more then just the actors reading the lines, memorizing them, and saying them. There has to be a rhythm in the language that they can get their minds around.  Most of all, there has to be a reason those lines are being said — from the character’s perspective.

The third most important thing I can say is that readings will only take you so far.  About 10% of the way.  Actually seeing the play staged before a live, paying audience will provide the best opportunity for understanding the strengths and weakness of the play.

The construct of the play is a action and dialog. What you are doing as a playwright is to provide context for those elements.  “Context” could be story, but not always.  I think of context as the framework that the audience experiences during the performance.

Putting this all together another way, and putting aside all discussions about the technical details of how to create drama and construct dialog, I think the best way to start out to write a play isn’t to ask “how” but rather “why.”

For details on “Dinners With Augie” visit www.dinnerswithaugie.com.

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Sara Porter: Story Telling Through Dramatic Movement

SaraWithEukalaleSara Porter’s “Sara Does A Solo”  (San Francisco International Arts Festival May 20th and 22nd) might have been titled “Sara Tells A Story.”

The essence of her performance is story telling through dramatic movement.  She incorporates dynamic rhythm, punctuated with moments of stillness and silence, to create a sense of heightened awareness.  And she talks about what she is doing, and why. And the why is an integral part of the event.

She opened the show with a time-warping revelation about her identity as a dancer.  Using a simple phrase — “I am/was/will be a dancer” she opens the whole stage, and the audience, to being in the moment, and nowhere else.

Sara Porter’s dancing is graceful, athletic, acrobatic — she’s lithe and strong. We get to see quite a bit of her body. She changes costumes several times on stage, and is free of just about all clothing once or twice.

Her language is focused, unrelentingly direct and to the point.  I wouldn’t call it angular, but it is lean.  It is free of silliness, self-absorption, and is not  coy.  She captures quite a bit of the sublime nature of identity – how non-linear we are and yet linear -inside the motion of the event. It’s outrageously funny in some parts, and brutally vulnerable in other parts.

SaraPorter1The ethereal quality of this experience is grounded by her intensity, the full-on expression of her femininity and womanhood.  Porter is not giving us adolescent expressions of puberty — this is a mature woman who isn’t afraid to be just that.

She can polymorph into her father, her mother, siblings, her children, her dog, she can take on the characteristics of an entire generation, culture, sub-culture.  She is the only person I’ve even seen who can play the Ukulele with a heavy-metal ferocity.

Excellent work.

The SFIAF show was produced by Laura Lundy-Paine of Blue Panther Productions. Featuring music from Mary Margaret O’Hara.  Photo Credits: Seated photo of Sara is by Cathy Bidini. Photo of Sara playing the Ukelale is by Tamara Romanchuk.

Sara has shows coming to Toronto, NY and Ontario.

 

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Nick Gandiello’s “The Wedge Horse”: notes and comments

I’m going to recommend you see a play that I haven’t seen — in fact I’m going to strongly recommend you see it. And I’m not going to tell you what it’s about.  I know what it’s about because I’ve read it.  But I won’t tell you.

The play is “The Wedge Horse” and it’s at the Fault Line Theater in NYC. And you should go see it.

I will tell you that I’m familiar with Nick’s work.  A couple of years back I attended a reading of Nick’s “Black Fly Spring” — a powerful piece of work about love and grief and self-deception. The play (at that time) needed development. Some of the characters were not as transparent as they could be, and the work deserves to be completely clear. Because above all Nick wants to audience to get the play, to go with the characters where they are going, to see the world from their eyes.

I will tell you “The Wedge Horse” is a powerful, beautiful piece of work.  The characters are so human — stubborn, willful, strong, needy.  They are fragile, and they suffer.  And they struggle to find their balance. They are full of compassion. And deception and heroism. They will break your heart — and give you tremendous hope.

And that’s the reason to go: because Nick is writes about people in a way that makes them seem so real — all the trivial mundane silliness mixed up with all the glorious marvelous aspirations to heaven and passion and oneness.  And he’s barely out of high school.

He delivers compassion and insight — and he’s not fully grown.  He’s perhaps 30, looks younger.  He’s a child — a kid.  And he’s writing with the kind of insights that strong mature adults possess.  This young man — this KID — is the real deal.  He works hard at his craft.  He teaches others.  He celebrates the accomplishments of others. He suffers for his sanity. You can tell this by the way he writes. No one as young as he is should be able to write the way he writes. But he does. He aspires to greatness.  And he wants you to go with him.

You should go see “The Wedge Horse” because you will get in on the ground floor of a talent that has the strength to get there –the there all writers want to get to — not just to be successful, but relevant.  He’s going to go to the the place where compassion and wisdom exist — and he wants you to go there with him.

A playwright’s playwright, who writes in a way that is accessible to everyone.  I’ve never met him.  No go see his play.

 

 

 

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Making Light Comedy Fest: notes and comments

Comedy seems to me to be an amazing cultural phenomena.   In what other segment of the natural world do we see “comedy” other then in human beings?  Not just that, how far along in cultural development does a culture have to be so that it can support a whole class of specialists whose job it is is to be “funny”?  And what is that, exactly — “funny”?

 

Making Light Comedy Poster

So I think the closest endeavour to “comedian” is probably “shaman.”  Any culture advanced enough to support shamans can probably support comedians.

But what about being “funny” — what is that?  What was it about the comedians who performed at the “Making Light Comedy Fest” that made them funny? I think it’s perspective.

Now my perspective was that I was in the second row and the stage was right in front of me so what I saw when I kept my head neutral was Alicia Dattner’s knees.  So that’s my view of Alicia Dattner, she has great knees.  Some of the the other performers were taller, so I got familiar with their shins.  Of course when I tilted my head a bit I could see a more complete person.  That’s kind of funny, isn’t it?

Anyway, perspective: when Swami Beyondananda says that “In the future time will be a thing of the past” the juxtaposition of the rational words and the irrational context is funny.  When DJ Blissballs strings together every possible new age cliché ever known into one long Wagnerian prayer cycle — it’s funny.  Kate Willet’s discussion of the cultural and biological issues of sex at Burning Man — a microcosm of gender relations without the inertia and confines of day-to-day life — is funny.  Ann Randolph’s allusions to the business cycle of fellatio as seen by a crack addict, as well as personal hygiene issues that go along with addiction, is funny.   When Scott Grace invokes Dr. Suess’s whimsical style as a wisdom-rap-anthology of our angst ridden culture, it’s funny.  Just to name a few.

The juxtaposition of the familiar rational with the unexpected irrational — the mixing and juggling of contexts — is funny.  Along with the insights, the metaphors and innuendos.  We recognize the connections of things that are not usually connected.  And it’s funny.

Every one of these people were funny. But not just “funny”, but so out of the ordinary that we need a word that describes a larger magnitude of “funny” — let’s say hilarious.

And when something is “funny,” we laugh.  We are lost in the moment, tensions are released, and we feel better.  And even after the laughter is over, we can enjoy a sense that we know something more about who we are. We change our perspective, just a little, here and there, and we can see the world differently.

Thanks to all the comedians who performed. It was a great evening.

 

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Nicholas Thurkettle’s “Stages of Sleep”: notes and comments

Nicholas Thurkettle’s writing is finely tuned. Immediate, lyrical, and lean.  His work has elements of various American short-story masters — Damon Runyon comes to mind.  So does O. Henry. And particularly Ray Bradbury.

In “Stages Of Sleep” Thurkettle offers up 15 stories, some of them are absolutely brilliant and some of them are whimsical and some of them are farcical and far-fetched.  All of them are disciplined and well conceived.  All of them have a sense of immediacy, and involvement.

He manages to get a tremendous amount of force and emotion in the work without being cloying or reaching too far.  And he manages to convey the idea that he really, really, really loves writing. And he manages all this and still avoids the trap of self-indulgence.

Nicholas Thurkettle’s “Stages Of Sleep” is a triumph for self-publishing. Available on Amazon. You can see more of Nicholas Thurkettle on his Twitter page and Facebook page.

Please note that I received a review copy directly from the Author.

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Celebration Arts production of Mark St. Germain’s “Best of Enemies”: notes and comments

Celebration Arts production of Mark St. Germain’s “Best of Enemies” is full of vigor and energy — the word that comes to mind is explosive.  Two characters — a white racist named “C.P. Ellis” (Chris Lamb) and a black civil rights activist named “Ann Atwater” (Voress Franklin) are murderously hateful.  They are barely kept in check by “Bill Riddick” (Maszaba Carter), a professional facilitator and community organizer.  Occasionally C.P. is kept in check by his wife, “Mary Ellis” (Amy Williams), but not very often; at least not until the end of the play.

The story is based on real characters, circa 1971 in Durham, North Carolina (based on the book “Best of Enemies” by Osha Gray Davidson.)  Even if were completely fictional, the story has the ring of truth — a composite of all the moments of grief and anger and fear that human beings are capable of.  I saw it first hand growing up outside of Detroit in the 70s.

The setting is minimal — threadbare really.  When one considers how much big-ness is packed onto that tiny stage, with only a folding table, a couple of chairs, some old phones — that’s when it really stands out how really good the theater is at what it does.

Without giving away too much, what the plays reveals is how two people who would, if they could, would have ripped each other limb from limb, come to grips with their anger, and establish a working relationship, and eventually a mutual respect.

One could say the play is “about” racism, which is not untrue.  But for me the play was about identity.   There is a moment in the play when C.P. Ellis relates that, prior to meeting Ann Atwater, the defining moment of his life was been initiated into the KKK, and subsequently becoming a Grand Cyclops. For Ann Atwater, the “moment” was the revelation of how decades of emotional torment and heartbreak lead to the development of a fiery rage against the political forces of oppression.

What helps to  redefine the identity of both characters is the acceptance that each of them has a distinct history, a perspective, and something to contribute.  The catalysts are a patient, ambitious community organizer, and a wife who sees the good in a man that is really twisted around a flawed set of prejudices and fears.

Watching this happen on stage is good theater.

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Elisabeth Nunziato’s production of Maurice Robie’s “Stolen Moments”: notes and comments

Elisabeth Nunziato’s production of Maurice Robie’s  “Stolen Moments” has something every movie wants to achieve, but often doesn’t: authenticity and a natural in-the-moment feel.

There is something about this film I can’t quite express in words, except to say it has an “aura” — the city-scapes are mundane and beautiful at the same time.  The characters are common but extraordinary.  The story is familiar but really draws one in. And I think that’s the key to a great movie: the mundane is rendered into the sublime.

The acting is so natural and real that it’s fun to watch. No nonsense, in character, on time and in the moment.

I wish I had seen it on a bigger screen.  (ah well — 42 inch plasma just isn’t good enough anymore!)

So I’m a bit biased in my comments here, because I live in the vicinity where this movie was made.  And it was fun seeing people I know playing characters in the movie.  But I’ll take my chances.

The story is about a young man (Anthony D’Juan as “Eric”) with something of a dead end life; he has a job he doesn’t like, works for a man (“Clayton” played by Dave Pierini)  he knows isn’t trustworthy, he’s taking people’s money under false pretenses — people who really don’t have any money to spare.  His coworkers are harmless enough, but the emotional impact of their idiosyncrasies and self-absorbed clumsiness is making him crazy.  In other words he’s leading a petty existence, nickel and diming his way through his day, surrounded by mediocrity, and damning himself in the process.  Pathetic. But he has a light inside that starts to shine when he lands a job in an adult-education school.

The light gets brighter when he meets a really daring, outgoing free spirit named “Elisabeth” (Brittni Barger.)  He has a love affair with her, but the wind changes direction and the fire goes out, he meets “Erin” (Danielle Moné Truitt) and finds some compassion, and some honesty, but less fire. But the wind changes direction and the fire is back. And he makes a choice.

The style of movie-making is what one might call a collection of moments, viewpoints, and interactions, bound together by the common characters and their actions.  That can work, or fail.  I think for this film it works.

Stolen Moments” is now available on Amazon.

 

 

 

 

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Virago Theater Company’s Production of Catherine Trieschmann’s Crooked: notes and comments

Virago Theater Company’s production of Catherine Trieschmann’s “Crooked”  at The Flight Deck in Oakland was outstanding.   The acting was spot on, vigorous, and relentless — made more so because one of the actors — Isadora Cass (as “Maribel”) is thirteen years old.  Her transformation into Maribel was astounding. Her counterpart, “Laney” was played by Jamella Cross, a young actor who captures all the nuances of prodigy, self-conscious pain, and exibits the kind of willpower one would expect from a more mature actor. Angela Dant plays Laney’s mother, “Elise.”  Dant’s portrayal of is vivid and natural: Elise is competent, hard working, rational, aware of social distinctions, and suffering from the emotional distress of having to deal with a marriage broken by her former’ husband’s deterioration.  Her desire to be nurturing is offset by her fatigue.

“Crooked” is a play about madness.  Not exactly raving madness, but the more quiet kind — the common madness that occurs in ordinary people who are mostly honest.  But for the characters in “Crooked”, their grip on sanity — which is to say their confidence in the sanctity of the world around them — is shattered by a combination of forces: puberty, Satan, mental illness, and finally, Jesus and salvation.

That last force being particularly brutal. Because the problem with salvation is this: it requires honesty.  Jesus loves you, and he dies for your sins, not just once but every time we harm each other.  But dishonesty not only prevents  salvation, it prevents even the very vision of the thing.

The title “Crooked” refers to Laney’s twisted spine, a medical condition caused by, as she puts it, “muscles working against each other.”  She has a sharp wit, a bruised ego, and a vivid imagination.  She has a gift for writing, which is her last defense against the world around her. Her mother, Elise, is a kind-hearted person exhausted by her ex-husband’s mental illness and her daughter’s pension for dramatic expression.  In turn Laney resents her Mother’s abandonment of her father.  Maribel, portrayed as a backwards simpleton with a childish religious fanaticism, falls headfirst into Laney’s world.

Once the two girls discover their mutual resentment at being outcasts, they enter into a mismatched friendship.  Maribel’s simplicity is offset by Laney’s brilliance.  Laney’s manipulative bullying is offset by Maribel’s desire to offer up salvation.  Maribel is obsessed with stigmata, Laney is obsessed with lyrical expression. Maribel’s concept of the healing powers of Jesus — actually quite beautiful in it’s honesty — is offset by Laney’s muscular cynicism.  And with all that emotional overhead they both struggle with the chaos of sexuality.

Watching these two girls reminded me of the doomed friendship of George and Lenny in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Maribel’s abject sadness when Laney’s conversion and acceptance of Christ doesn’t seem to work is a marvel — she takes Laney’s sin on her shoulders.  And in a moment of remarkable insight, played almost as an aside to the audience, she sagely points out that Satan is a metaphor for the evil people do to each other, and from that arises all sin.

Through all this Elise struggles to maintain the will to think everything will turn out all right. That Laney’s power of observation and emotional cataloging can be controlled.  She does what every mother tries to do: forgive her teenage daughter’s rebellion.  She has a glass of wine, tries to be witty, wants to be her daughter’s friend.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

“Crooked” was expertly staged, marvelously directed by Robert Lundy-Paine, the acting was brilliant.  The show is currently closed, but rumor has it may get another run soon.

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Virago Theater’s production of William Bivins’ “Ransom, Texas” at the Tides Theater: notes and comments

William Bivins’ “Ransom, Texas” reminds me of Oedipus Rex turned inside out– a Greek tragedy with a distinctly Western accent.  There are no women in the play, except as references, and it shows: not a hint of femininity anywhere.  The world condensed down to two men, fighting, as John Steinbeck once said, like terriers. In a very, very small, dingy room full of old papers, photos, and a very heavy, ponderous desk.Ransom_1_K45C7729_scale1

Like all power struggles, this one rests on the delusion that if you have control of some external thing, you have power.  Delusion begets delusion — the two men are drowning in deceit and treachery. It’s never quite clear who is actually lying, or about what, until the end, and then it doesn’t really matter, because the subterfuge is just another posture that hides the truth: a young man wants what an old man has, and the old man, steeped in pain, tries to warn him off.  And at the same time draws him in. And the young man goes willingly.  Is that fate? Or simply the nature of the beast?

Dixon Phillips plays the father, Vern  — by turns a wise man, a hateful  braggart, a liar, a man of deep truth, violent, tender.  A generation ago he had the same struggle with his father.  He knows the past and the future. He has a love-hate relationship with himself, and he sees himself in his son.

Damien Seperi plays Bruce, a deceptively gentile young man, Vern’s son.  He is by turns mild, cajoling, pleading, whining, violent, perceptive, a loving husband and father, treacherous and every bit as ambitious as Vern.  Full of desire. He knows little of the past, and his vision of the future is dimly lit.  His journey into himself is only beginning.  He loves his father, but wants to displace him. He naively believes himself to be different from his father.Ransom_2_K45C7803_scale1

And they do appear at first to be very different — Damien’s accent (which I took to be Castilian), soft demeanor, refined modernity.  Opposed to Vern’s roughness, his crude speech, his old world manners and combative nature.

No two men could appear to be less alike and yet be the same — possessed of a destructive need to rule. To be supreme.  The only difference is that one man knows the cost and the other doesn’t.

It’s that discovery of the cost that makes this play work.  At 70 minutes it feels like 15.  Tense, terse and unremitting.  The acting is brilliant, the staging perfect.

Produced by Virago Theater, directed by Jon Tracy.  “Ransom, Texas” will be  playing at the Theatre Asylum in Los Angeles, Jan 9-25, 2015.

Photos of  Damien Seperi and Dixon Phillips by by Luis A. Solorzano courtesy of Virago Theater. 

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Living in a post CrossFit world

I think CrossFit has been discussed so much, and with such vigor, that we can finally say (or ought to be able to say) we’re done now let’s move on.  Which is not to say CrossFit is over, or passe, or it won’t continue.

But by now most people have heard of it, and seen “A” list publications talk about it.  It has become a fad, and now it’s time for that to stop.  Because there isn’t any real need (anymore) to create a fad for fitness.  We have, collectively I think, gotten the point.

Which is to say, we know we want “fitness.”  The larger problem is that “fitness” seems to be defined in different ways.  I’ve come to believe that “fitness” is metabolic conditioning plus mobility.  Metabolic conditioning is a glamorous way of saying one can do burpees without too much trouble.  Mobility means full range of motion in all four limbs and being able to squat.  Beyond that, I don’t think it matters.  How many burpees or how many squats depends on the individual.

So CrossFit is dangerous.  So is farm labor — which is really what CrossFit is: an abstract form of farm labor for people who have desk jobs.  It’s “functional fitness” — all that running, stepping, rowing, sledge hammer swinging, and lifting of heavy objects.  Well yes, it is functional, which doesn’t confer anything special.  But one does notice that moving about and lifting heavy stuff does seem to have a reward.  It’s merely a question of what one is after.

And perhaps because of that particular style of  functionality — which tends to fly in the face of “exercise”, which seems to have a specific purpose but nothing to do with “function” — CrossFit is said to be dangerous. And (furthermore) it has been said — over and over — that CrossFit cannot be made safe because the activities are inherently dangerous, or the idea of adding the dimension of time creates danger, or the idea of “constantly varied” is wrong, and there are safer ways to get “fit.”

Well I would agree with one thing for sure:  saying the CrossFit Games defines the “fittest” people on Earth is misleading.  I think what it defines is some really talented athletes.  I suspect that the fittest people on Earth are the acrobats in Cirque du Soleil.  But that’s just my opinion.

But I wouldn’t say CrossFit cannot be made safe.  Because CrossFit is a list of physical attributes:  accuracy, agility, balance, coordination, cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, flexibility, power, strength, speed and stamina.  What is “unsafe” is how those goals are being met. But CrossFit isn’t dogmatic on that point.  A person is free to construct their own workout methods to meet those goals.

Which brings us around to my version of “CrossFit.” Most of the work I’ve been doing for the last year or so has been more like physical therapy then anything anybody would call “CrossFit.” A combination of back problems, shoulder problems, and weak core required me to step away from weights, and some body- weight, exercises. So I had to figure out what works for me. It took a a while.

These days I do some really simple workouts:  ski-erg, a stationary bike, some heavy ropes, light kettle-bell, slam balls, wall balls and some rowing.  In other words I focus on whole-body exercises.  I could use any number of variations of these basic exercises to achieve the intensity I’m looking for.

I found that a series of  3-2-1 of: flipping heavy ropes 15 times, 10lb wall ball 10 times, then 500m on the ski-erg and a half-mile on the stationary bike, (then back to ropes and wall-balls) is quite a work out. It took me 37 minutes.  Not that I was in a hurry.

I also do a variation of “Cindy”: 3 pullups, 6 pushups, and 9 squats (with a 8kg kettlebell), then some  variation of heavy rope flipping or ski-erg, or slam balls or rowing.  Anything that gets me 20 to 40 minutes.

None of these activities requires any particular skill, and as long as I apply basic ideas on keeping my core tight I won’t get hurt.  Risk is absolutely minimal. And yes it’s CrossFit. And even if it’s not, I don’t care.

I’m moving, using my body to it’s fullest extent, and I’m improving my overall conditioning. That ought to be enough for anybody whose ambition is get strong and stay injury free.

CrossFit has raised awareness to the possibilities, got people off their couches and into a dynamic physical space. and generally opened up useful discussions.  I think that’s a good thing.  What comes next is up to the CrossFit community.

 

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