The Illustrated Hen: A Novel by Scott Charles

The Illustrated Hen” has just been published! So far the reviews are five stars on GoodReads. The launch party hosted a packed house. Copies of “The Illustrated Hen” are available at 3L Publishing.

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A Living Universe: notes and comments

Sometime back in the late 1980s, at the suggestion of a friend, I read a book called “The Dancing Wu Li Masters,” which got me started reading popular books on the science of physics. I followed that up by reading “The Tao of Physics.” Over the years I kept up the pace and continued to read books on quantum physics, most recently “Reality Is Not What It Seems” and “Anxiety and the Equation.” (Also Stephen Hawking, etc.)

One of the things that all those books have in common (or so it seemed to me) is that they don’t necessarily set out to dispel the mysteries of the universe — they attempt to set some boundaries around what the mystery is in the first place. All of those books held a bit of magic for me.

I approached them the same way I would approach a novel: with a sense of wonder, a hopeful heart and an open mind, anticipating a great adventure.  If that’s a bit too much romance for you, then let’s just say I had (and still have, I suppose) an interest in what might be called “new age mysticism.”

Anyway I can’t say I really understand the physics, and certainly not the math, but I do think I grasped some of the basic ideas. 

A few years back I read a book called “The Cosmic Serpent.”  Which isn’t about physics, it’s actually about DNA and anthropology, but it did raise an interesting point about the possibility that intelligence is actually an elemental feature of the cosmos.

Recently I discovered a publication called Nautilus Magazine, which provides quite a number of articles that carry on the tradition of blending science and philosophy.

Most recently, there was an article called Electrons May Very Well Be Conscious by Tam Hunt.  The article explores the idea that electrons do not simply decay or move from one quantum state to another by chance, but rather by choice. 

This idea can be reframed as a question of animate vs. inanimate.  That concept may seem cut and dried when one is just walking around trying to find an address on a busy street and not bump into light posts, but it’s not so easy when you actually ask “what is life” and it turns out there isn’t a strict answer — it’s the length of an amino acid. Fifty pairs or so and it’s alive, otherwise it’s just a virus, which is just some stuff floating around until it meets a host. And it becomes alive. Or at least I think it does. Well I’m not quite sure.

If the idea of an electron being “conscious” seems too much to contemplate, one might ask this instead: how much consciousness do individual neurons have? What makes a person a conscious entity? If one were to look at a cross-section of a human brain and see neurons out of context, would it be obvious that the thing in question (the brain) was conscious?

And now we’re back around to the question at hand: what if electrons are like neurons, and the universe is one big conscious entity?

Another question that one might consider is if the electron is conscious does that make it sentient? In other words is it just a little calculation machine, like a bit, and if you combine enough of them you get a byte, and you can perform useful work, but the thing it’s organized into isn’t sentient.  People are sentient, computers are not (at least not yet.)

How then do we get there — from a little particle that chooses a quantum state to a fully sentient being? Is it just a question of what level of organizational coherence is present — in other words on a small scale it’s just an abacus, on a large scale it’s self-aware? But then what laws govern that process? Is the process itself intelligent?

What if the universe is conscious? Does it sleep? Does it dream? Does it have desires of one sort or another?

And the really big, big question, the biggest one of all: does the universe have a sense of humor? 

I hope so. ūüôā

 

 

 

 

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Self Portrait In Black And White by Thomas Chatterton Williams: notes and comments

Thomas Chatterton Williams’ new memoir Self-Portrait In Black And White examines the complexity, the pain, and the contradictory dynamics of “race” thoughtfully and articulately. He presents several broad themes: race is a question of class, the African experience in America isn’t universal, and the psychological toll of racism is insidious and detrimental to everybody. He makes his arguments with vigor, his points are supported with a foundation of historical perspective, and his anecdotes about race ring true. Williams is not neutral, but neither is he raving. His writing is clear and his points are well made.

Of course none of this is new; Stanley Crouch made the same kind arguments in The All American Skin Game.

But William’s is telling his own story, and because it’s his story it represents primary evidence of a life that is full of astute observations and honest narration. In other words this isn’t second hand, it’s real and up close. His voice is clear, immediate, and without rancor. (Mostly without rancor; he saves a bit of vitriol for a cousin that he found recalcitrantly ignorant and tone deaf.)

The thing that makes Williams’ story unique, besides his talent as an essayist, is that his mother is white, and his father black. (See his previous work, Losing My Cool for reference.) As he says in Losing My Cool he had a choice to make: what side of the color line was he going to live in? In the new memoir he continues to examine the process of choosing an identity.

The idea of race isn’t just an intellectual pursuit to Williams, it’s a question of survival, and it goes beyond his own person. In Self Portrait In Black And White we find him married to a blond, blue-eyed French woman, and he has a daughter with blond curls and very blue eyes. Is his daughter white? Why does it matter? Williams examines those questions in detail.

The examination of the fluid dynamics of race is pressed again and again. Perhaps the most important question driving his debate about race is this: isn’t it self-defeating to identify with either “white” or “black”? Isn’t either choice an acceptance of victimhood?

Williams himself has fair skin and can be mistaken for someone of Middle Eastern descent; but in America, with it’s notion of racial purity (e.g. the “one drop” test) he ought rightfully to be considered black. But instead he takes a reasoned approach and rejects the idea of racial identity.

Williams weaves his own history into the discussion, allowing the reader to participate in the experience of intellectual and emotional discovery.¬† Throughout the book he acknowledges how lucky he was to be born into a particular family, which is most firmly (at least for me) established in a footnote: his mother was cheerful to the point where the emotional state of being happy was conflated with race — she was happy in a way that established her as distinctly “white” (page 50). I would suggest there is something subtle, and quite powerful, in that observation; it wasn’t so much his mother was cheerful, but rather she was confident enough in her life to be cheerful. (His parents possessed a strong and healthy sense of self worth, something Williams makes clear at various places in the book.) What this implies is that “cheerfulness” (i.e., a happy life) relates directly to the privileges that come with social status; the main advantage of which is the lack of persecution. His family might not have been perfect, but they did not lead quiet lives of desperation, and they were not ashamed of themselves.

One can distill Williams work down to a couple of simple core ideas: social status, and self-image. The distinctions of race come down to a cultural affectation that allowed a certain financial expediency to become the norm: inferior people (e.g. Africans) should do the bidding of superior people (e.g. Europeans) and therefore subservience (i.e., slavery) was their natural condition.

But while the essence of the problem can be stated simply, the solution tends to be a bit harder to get at.

Williams steps across the lines of “race” and “victimhood” and posits the idea that the truest human identity is one where anyone’s suffering is worthy of consideration, no matter what the DNA pie-chart says about one’s identity (pages 76, 79). He implies that the way out of the dilemma is really a question of how broad the notion of “family” can be.

He wants human beings to do something that tends to be difficult, which is to replace fear with empathy. Despite how well he supports his arguments with appeals to reason, optimism, and compassion, it’s difficult to see a society where people don’t revert back to tribalism and give in to the imperative of self-interest by seeking out that which seems familiar: family, custom, ritual, and self-defense.

History reveals a trend — the fiery language of demagoguery never seems to lose it’s appeal. The reason is simple: it’s easier to find safety in the rhetoric of anger. Demagogues always provide a focused target and a solution you can really get your head around: exclusion. Demagogues are popular because their penchant for violent rhetoric makes them seem confident, strong, and righteous. Within the confines of intense anger you can hone the expressions of self-interest; this grants individuals a feeling of guilt-free power. Once this anger scales up into a group dynamic it’s a powerful force.

William’s makes that point himself when he talks about “tribal identitarianism and Panglossian utopianism” (page 26). He also writes that “overcoming deep seated fears in never rational” (page 83). The point is: fear is a strong emotion, and in some cases strong enough to become an integral part of individual, and social, identity.

Which brings us around full circle to what is the central theme of his memoir: to identify as “black” brings with it a constant need to be redeemed from shame and the constant need to live within a social structure that defines “black” as a threat. This is because the social identity of “black” is warped and twisted towards inferiority and victimhood. And those are notions Williams strongly resists with the full force of a fine-tuned scholarly intellect. His solution is not to play that game. In practice what this means is to unite with others who also don’t want to play that game through one social contract or another: friendship, or marriage.

His argument to move towards a culture that rejects the cultural formalisms and affectations of tribalism, particularly “race”, is persuasive. But it seems to me something is missing, and it has to do with Williams’ observation about the difficulty of overcoming fear with rational thinking.

Identifying our nation’s dysfunctional tribalism comes up frequently enough to call it a theme and he makes the point clear enough. But there is one omission that also stands out, a point that Williams does not make — if “race” is really about exclusion and the status quo of privilege, and if you follow that idea of “us vs. them” around to “us vs. other”, sooner or later you arrive at something that looks a lot like patriotism. Because isn’t what patriotism is about? Isn’t the core idea of patriotism to protect us against some external force that threatens to redefine us in ways we don’t understand and find frightening?

And once at that point on the scale of reason, doesn’t it mean that racism is so popular because racism is patriotic? Is it not the case that racism is a form of patriotism that protects us against the frightening idea that our heritage is suspect, our customs based on lies, that we are mere thieves? And worst of all, that we should be ashamed of ourselves. Isn’t all of that a prelude to self-destruction? Williams doesn’t put it like that, but I wish he had. Because then the argument, and the solution, would have been easier to fathom.

Yes we need to respect each other’s differences and celebrate diversity — but patriotism is of a whole, isn’t it? Where does diversity fall into that model? How can we make it fit?

I would suggest the solution to racism is to make diversity a question of patriotism, and find a way to define patriotism to mean everybody participates, and everyone is honored for their participation and their contribution regardless of their appearance. We would have a new tribe, and a new level of comfort in our collective skin.

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The act of writing, lesson one; A basic course: notes and comments.

Collapsible Chapeau? It’s an Opera Hat! I know this because a few weeks back I was doing the NYT crossword and one of the clues was “collapsible chapeau?” and I didn’t know the answer (hadn’t a clue, you know?) Anyway I found out chapeau is the french word for “hat.” It still didn’t make much sense to me, but eventually I got the answer (via Rex Parker).

After a bit of research I found out that an opera hat is a hat that collapses into a round disk for easy storage, and finds it’s shape with a quick snap — a flick of the wrist. I recall seeing such hats in old movies.

Now coincidentally I had recently published a novel (The Illustrated Hen), and one thing I noticed when I was introducing the book to groups was how interested people are in how I wrote the novel. There seems to be a lot of interest in the writing process, so this blog post is an introduction to writing the way I do it.

I follow a process similar to what is described below. At the core of the process is an inspiration of some sort. In this case, the idea of an opera hat; specifically a woman taking an opera hat out of her purse.¬† There isn’t a particular reason for choosing that idea; I just happen to think it’s interesting.

The object of the exercise is to write a paragraph that describes a woman taking an opera hat out of her purse and opening it. What you notice is that this exercise is like 20 questions, or Mad Libs; it’s also like the “who what where when why” questions from journalism.

The basic writing course is below.  My advice is to go step by step, fill in the answers to the questions, then write the paragraph.

***

Write a paragraph describing a woman taking an opera hat out of her purse.

Step 1 — outline the process
Step 2 — add details
Step 3 — establish context
Step 4 — establish motivation
Step 5 — critical review

Step 1: the process

1. Open the purse
2. Take out the hat
3. Open the hat (ie snap it open with a flick of the wrist.)

Step 2: Details and descriptons

1) What does the woman look like? (her physical appearance: hair, eyes, body, and how she is dressed)
2) What is her name?
3) What are her mannerisms?
4) What does the purse look like?
5) What does the opera hat look like?
6) Is she sitting or standing or some other position?
7) What time of day is it?

Step 3: Context

1) What are the woman’s surroundings (ie where is she)
2) Is she alone?
3) Does she say anything?
4) what are her facial expressions when she is opening her purse and taking the hat out?

Step 4: Story development 1 — Motivation

1) Why does a woman carry an opera hat in her purse?
2) Why does she open the hat?
3) Can we infer any emotional response from her action or expression?

Step 5: Story development 2 — critical review

1) What establishes dramatic tension in the situation?
2) What establishes motivation?

End of Lesson One

***

I’m going to use a character mentioned in one of my short stories, a woman named “Mrs. Goldman.”¬† Below is my paragraph.

Mrs. Goldman sat upright on the park bench near the fountain. She casually looked around, starred off into the distance for a while, then casually looked around again. Without looking at her purse she opened it, and took out a round, black disk. With a flick of her wrist she snapped it into it’s natural form: an opera hat. She placed it gently on the empty space beside her, carefully stood up, paused, and walked away.

There is quite a bit of detail that could be added. For example I could have described Mrs. Goldman as late middle aged, with auburn colored hair that is neatly kept, I could have described her as being well dressed in a way that indicates careful preparation, and I could have mentioned she is sitting alone. But I kept the paragraph down to as few words as possible while still being able to get some dramatic tension.

The dramatic tension is established by: 1) she sits “upright” (2) she looks around “casually,”¬† a fact that is mentioned twice (3) she opens the purse without looking at it (4) she has a purse big enough for an opera hat (5) once she opens the hat she puts it down and leaves. All of those things indicate a purpose of some kind, and since we don’t know what that purpose is, we have a mystery.

And that sense of mystery brings us around to the question of “why?” which goes to motivation, and now we are at steps 4 and 5, which have to do with story development. I’m going to leave the answers to those questions up to you!

Walk through the steps, answer the questions, then write a paragraph, and see what kind of story you come up with. And there you have it!

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The Two Headed Dragon by Sean Hoag: notes and comments

I first head about “gay related immune deficiency” around 1980; I’m not sure of the exact year.¬† If I recall correctly there was some speculation¬† that “GRID” was somehow related to Legionnaires disease. The idea that it could be some sort of plague was hinted at.¬† It didn’t seem to be something I needed to worry about, but I didn’t dismiss it.¬†

By the mid-80’s the “GRID” acronym has been replaced by “AIDS” and was considered a major health concern.¬†¬† By 1990 it was a full blown scare, and had been politicized.¬† (By “politicized” I mean gay men were being blamed for the problem.)¬† By 1991 Earvin (“Magic”) Johnson announced he had AIDS, and it became something heterosexuals had to deal with directly.

By 1994 some friends of mine were HIV positive, and a couple of years later they died.  I moved on with my life, and AIDS became something to be dealt with rationally, and not as something that ushered in the apocalypse (of whatever sort), and not part of some dystopian fantasy, and not divine retribution.  

And the thing is we all moved on with our lives.  That makes sense.  But it also makes sense to revisit the idea of what AIDS represented.

A friend of mine gave me a copy of a book written during the mid 1990s, when AIDS was still a mystery and gay men were being bashed as the unclean perpetrators of a deadly disease. 

The book is “The Two Headed Dragon: Exploring the Gifts of AIDS” by Sean Hoag, a social worker who happened to by gay, and happened to be HIV positive.¬†

Hoag’s voice is clear, consistently objective, rational, and compassionate. The premise of the book is that AIDS is a fearsome beast, and (at that time) connoted a fearsome destiny — but it can be faced with dignity and good will.¬† Having AIDS doesn’t define a person as being without value, or unclean, or evil, and it doesn’t mean living in horror or shame or disgrace.¬† It’s an opportunity to face the universe at large and find a meaning that goes beyond fear and hatred.¬† And that is the gift of AIDS: the opportunity to transcend the pain, suffering, and death.

The book is written as a series of stories about AIDS patients, along with Hoag’s comments about therapy, dealing with terminal patients, and the philosophy of disease (Hoag was a licensed therapist).¬† The stories are presented in a matter-of-fact way, free of judgement.¬† Mostly about adults, but in some cases children.¬† The observations about choices and opportunities are well taken; the stories about children are heart-breaking.¬†

As it so happens when the book was presented to me I was in the middle of reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning,” which deals with similar themes — death and suffering. Hoag’s presentation of how AIDS offered two very different paths for destiny was very much like Frankl’s discussion about the death camps during WWII.¬† The upshot of which is that when we are confronted with the most dire kinds of outcomes, we have a choice about how to face it.¬† Or not face it.¬†

“The Two Headed Dragon” is a good read, clearly written, and honest.¬† All in all it’s a gentle reminder about how to deal with something ferocious: mortality.¬†

Sean Hoag died in 1995, age 42.

 

 

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B Street Theatre’s production of Basil Kreimendahl’s “We’re Gonna Be OK”: notes and comments

The thing about the cold war was that it was like that monster under the bed, except it was real.¬† You didn’t ever actually see it, but it was always there.¬† It was scary, and there wasn’t anything you could do about it. And if it were ever unleashed it would be the end of everything as we know it.

For me the cold war, as a mythic cycle, starts with “Panic In The Year Zero” and ends with “Red Dawn.” So from about 1962 to 1984.¬† And of course in between those years there were endless portrayals of nuclear apocalypses in novels, TV (Twilight Zone, Outer Limits etc.) and movies (“Dr. Strangelove” being the favorite I suppose. There was also the famous “Daisy” commercial, courtesy of LBJ.)

Dystopian fantasies abounded during the cold war.¬† And you didn’t even need a nuclear holocaust — ordinary things like birds could suffice (“The Birds“.)

It’s a wonder how anyone got any sleep.¬† But they did, and in the mid-1980s it seemed like things improved, and then the whole idea of WWIII¬† just seemed to evaporate.

Well, not so much.¬† It’s back. B Street Theater’s production of Basil Kreimendahl’s “We’re Gonna Be OK” revisits the era of nuclear war, bomb shelters, and the end of civilization as we know it.¬† Or knew it — because it seems so far away, and somehow what’s on the stage isn’t really us.¬† But it was.

The play stars Dana Brooke (“Mag”), Jason Kuykendall (“Sul”), Stephanie Altholz (“Deanna”), Elisabeth Nunziato (“Leena”), Dave Pierini (“Efran”), and Doug Harris (“Jake”).

The cast is superb, the stage design was huge fun, lighting and sound were spot on (no pun intended.)

The story concerns two families living side-by-side in townhouses. One family is a bit younger, the other a bit older. Both families have teenage children.  Efran (older) wants to build a bomb shelter for the two families, and he needs Sul (younger) to do the labor and build the thing.

Pierini plays Efran as a friendly, overly chatty, somewhat overbearing nice guy, and Kuykendall plays Sul as a somewhat subdued, thoughtful and resolute nice guy.

Brooke plays Mag as sincere, demure, sensible, while Nunziato plays Leena as intelligent, forthright, and capable. The teenagers Deanna (Altholz) and Jake (Harris) are portrayed as younger versions of the adults but with an adolescent sensibility that creates conflict and sexual tension.

These actors (with the exception of Harris) have all worked on the same stage for a long time, they are sensitive to each other, their timing is excellent, and nobody missed a beat.

To visualize what the playwright did here, just think of those 1950s family shows, like “Father Knows Best” or “Ozzie and Harriet“, add a portion of Edward Albee and a dash of Eugene O’Neill.¬† In other words, expose all the eccentricities, the neurosis, the self-absorption that comes with material success, and there you have it.

But these are nice people, right? Absolutely. Which is (I think) the very point the playwright is making. We’re all thin-skinned, and all is takes is a little prick here and there and we bleed.

Once the bomb shelter is built, driven by Efran’s constant fear and loathing of cavemen and cultural decay, they must enter it and explore the possibilities of survival.

Efran’s pathological fear of cavemen, played for laughs, drives all the other characters to react to his manic bullying, also played for laughs. In the meantime the teenagers do what teenagers do, which is explore procreation.

Now right about when you get to T minus 30 seconds (“T” being the end of the play) one might ask haven’t we seen all this before? And yes that’s true, but it is funny to see Ozzie and Harriet coming apart the the seams — but what’s next? Where can you go with this play?

Ambiguous ending, that’s where.

So here’s the thing: 1950 culture, and the people therein, seem so far away from “now” that it’s almost like watching Tartuffe. A 17th century farce, harmless, let’s laugh and go home. Of course there are some moral lessons (or maybe moral lesions) in there, but it doesn’t feel very dangerous. So yes 1950 might as well be 1660 to most people, it’s that far away.

Or not. Because the lesson of all plays seems to be that people are eternally people. Efran’s nearly tangible fear is that warm and fuzzy will only get you so far.¬† All that neighborliness is just for show. Once we rip the facade off Sul and Efran and Leena and Mag they are like snarling animals, fearful and territorial. And the teenagers aren’t, not quite, but they will be, once their parents stop feeding them.¬† Or at least in Efran’s mind. The play never gets quite that far.

Does that bother you? That we’re always that close to savagery? Not me, because I’ve seen “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and I’ve internalized it and I’m good to go.

So what, you ask? What’s the problem? Here’s what bothered me: I’m not the type of guy who will survive the apocalypse.¬† I think food comes from the grocery store, and if the store is closed, I’ll starve. I don’t like being reminded of that. (Virginia Woolf notwithstanding.)

But give me a second here and I’ll put on my big boy pants.

OK. I’m OK. Everything’s fine.

Anyway, by using an ambiguous ending the playwright forces the audience to confront the question of “what happened” and face our own fear of the caveperson.

And once that question is asked the play serves as a contemporary reflection of the angst that many people in today’s world suffer during a loss of culture. What happens when all the trust-signals, all the social artifacts that placate us and steer us away from destruction are no longer in place? Even the perception that there might be a loss of culture can drive people to extremes.

No humans or animals were harmed during production, and the theater is free of radiation. At least for now.

We‚Äôre Gonna Be Okay” by Basil Kreimendahl is onstage August 7, 2018 September 9, 2018

 

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B Street Theater’s production of “Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?”: notes and comments

B Street Theater’s production of Edward Albee’s¬† “Who’s Afraid Of Virgina¬† Woolf?” is an outstanding piece of work.¬† Three hours of very intense theater — and well worth the investment.

Everything about the work was well-orchestrated — the set, the music, the look and feel of the actors.¬† In other words, the perfect ambiance. One could say the execution of the thing was perfect, but that certainly would be an ironic use of the word. Because execution was exactly what was portrayed. The calculated destruction of any semblance of respect or good will — no safe space on that stage, that’s for sure.

Because it’s not just a great script — it is — the dialog was crisp, razor sharp, the characters were complicated, nuanced, the emotional range was across the board — hate, love, vulnerability, anger, tenderness, fear, loathing, disdain, disregard, then sympathy and then more hate. But it’s more then that — the words were delivered with a real-time-in-the-moment realism that doesn’t happen by accident.

The actors — Kurt Johnson as “George”, Elisabeth Nunziato as “Martha”, Dana Brooke as “Honey” and Jason Kuykendall as “Nick” — did not miss the slightest beat in their delivery of Albee’s intensely complicated dialog.¬†¬† Dialog like this requires exquisite timing, and it was on display. The inflections, the gestures, the emotions in the eyes and the expressions on the actors faces matched the dialog precisely. The acting was flawless.

Talk about not having a fourth wall — the B Street stage is intimate to begin with, but the way these actors did their jobs removed any barriers between stage and audience.¬† The expressions on the some of the audiences faces was worth the price of admission.

And it takes exactly that kind of effort to match Albee’s script.

Martha and George are sick drunks — violent and sadistic, living a lie, a thoroughly dysfunctional couple who rip each other to shreds.¬† Nick and Honey are younger versions, not quite as dysfunctional as the older couple but on that same path.

The trick for the characters of George and Martha is to for the characters to seem to enjoy their sadistic attacks and at the same time be repulsed by it, to be ashamed of what they have become. The audience needs to despise what the characters are doing but feel sympathy for their situation. Johnson and Nunziatio are spot on in their portrayal and they achieve exactly the right balance between revulsion and pity.

Nick and Honey present themselves as regular people, young and hopeful and a bit naive. But Nick isn’t naive, he’s calculating and ambitious and full of himself.¬† Honey isn’t simple, she’s an intelligent, sensitive person caught up in a larger game that forces her to be simple. She is expected to be accessible, a willing paramour and accomplice for Nick’s ambitions.

We get to see, more or less in real time, how Honey is being driven crazy by living in someone else’s subterfuge.¬† And Nick — well his problem is that for the time being he’s merely ambitious and calculating — but if he’s not careful he’s going to end up like George. Kuykendall’s portrayal of the conundrum that Nick faces as he sees up close what he is doing to Honey, those moments that give him pause — that’s great acting. Brooke’s portrayal of Honey as trying to behave as if she’s whole when she’s deeply wounded — a kind, sensitive person who is being ravaged — that’s great acting as well. Both actors show us the real story in their actions as well as their words.

And maybe that’s Albee’s point — that we’re really looking at one couple at different points of time in their relationship.¬† We only see Martha and George as bitter and vicious, with the rare glimpse of tenderness coming out in micro-seconds here and there. With Nick and Honey we get a bit more of a balance.¬† But we get to see how fragile that balance is, how quickly it succumbs to ambition and ego and the glorious expectations of success.¬† Nick and Honey aren’t really much different then Martha and George, just less practiced.

And through all this there are the subtexts — the missing son, George’s failed attempt at writing, his family past, Martha’s relationship with her father, her promiscuity.

The play is so emotionally violent it begs the question: what’s wrong with these people? —¬† What makes Martha and George so twisted? And the question is really a set up — we are meant to ask it as if as to imply that isn’t “us.” No, that’s not us, that’s somebody else. But is it really somebody else?

“Whose Afraid Of Virgina Woolf” runs September 16th through October 29th. Directed by Dave Pierini. The show runs approximately 3 hours with 2 intermissions.

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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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