Inappropriate sharing, incomprehensible ramblings, uncalled-for hostility: yup, it's a blog.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

That time I did that thing that I did

Someone just recently reminded me of the time I did cues for a read-through of a Sonja Henie musical.

Uhm. Stick with me. I'm trying to think of the best way to describe the whole thing.

A friend of a friend called me one day to ask me to do a favor for his friend. So that's three friends removed--the friend of a friend of a friend. Right. So I asked what the favor was because if he wanted me to help move a couch or something, I wasn't interested. The friend of a friend (we'll call him FOF) explained: "I have a friend who has written a musical about Sonja Henie, and he's giving a reading of it for potential investors. He needs someone to operate a DVD player."

"Why does he need someone to operate a DVD player if he's having people read a script?"

"He has some clips from Sonja's movies that he thinks might offer a good visual to let the investors--potential investors--understand the show he envisions."

"And he needs someone to press the play button on the remote?"

"Yes."

"Okay."

So. Yeah. Sonja Henie, for those of you not born 70 years ago, was a figure skating dynamo, and competed in three winter Olympics ('28, '32, 36). Very famous. The Kerrigan/Harding of her time. Did a lot of movies, and was at some point the most well-paid actress in Hollywood, which isn't saying too terribly much since actresses made shit until Julia Roberts played a whore.

What a great idea for a musical, right? Funny Girl on Ice. A Star is Born to Skate. My Fair Ice Woman. Great. I told FOF I'd be happy to sit in a room with actors and potential investors and push the pause/play button on a DVD remote. Why not.

So.

The night of the read-thru was also the night 'De-Lovely' premiered. And I know this because I wandered into the middle of the premiere while going to the apartment for the read-thru. Seriously. I was walking along, listening to the music coming out of my ear buds, not expecting anything, and suddenly found myself on a red carpet, surrounded by photographers. Flash bulbs were exploding in my face. There was a limo to my right, and a small line of gawkers to my left. I froze, and took a moment to appreciate the only time I'd ever be on the fabled red carpet, then moved off and out of the way because from the limo Ashley Judd was emerging, and I didn't want to ruin her photo op.

Now. So. I arrived at the apartment building, was ushered in by the doorman, directed to the elevators, and shot up 14 or 15 floors. I emerged from the elevator less gracefully than Ms. Judd emerged from the limo, and stumbled down the hallway to the apartment door (I stumbled because one of my shoestrings got stuck in the gap between the elevator and the floor).

Nice apartment. Amazing view. Lots of windows appreciating the view. Large livingroom, with a couch, a tv, a DVD player, and some folding chairs off to the side for the actors. Snacks in the kitchen. A balcony. Several people more interested in the snacks than in anything else. Pleasantries exchanged, the author beaming, FOF introducing everyone to everyone else. Actors sitting down, scripts in hand, and me with a DVD remote at the ready.

The actors read from their scripts, and I followed along, and paused/unpaused when appropriate.

There was an intermission. I fled to the balcony for a smoke, and a guy about my age followed me. We stood on the balcony, in the balmy summer air, and smoked, and talked.

The Actor was working on a script of his own. "Don't tell anyone," he told me, which is New-Yorkeese for 'Tell anyone.'

"Okay."

"I'm adapting 'The Hungry Caterpillar' into a film. We're talking to Jack Nicholson's people."

I stared at The Actor. Then I looked out at the view, which was of Manhattan, still going, with lights in other apartments in buildings across a chasm, and an Empire State Building burning the sky.

"I'm working on a script too," I lied.

"Oh. Really? What's it about?"

"It's based on the works of Garry Larson."

"Awesome." The Actor then flicked his cigarette off the balcony. Really. He was standing on a balcony 14-15 stories above Broadway--a crowded street, with a lot of people walking below--and he flicked a burning cigarette out into the air as if the people passing below needed one more thing to deal with on their way thru life. A clump of chewing gum, a homeless guy, a taxi running a red light, and oh look a falling cigarette, how nice.

"Is Garry Larson dead?" The Actor asked.

"Not sure." He isn't.

"Find out. If he's dead, it's easier to adapt his stuff."

In the kitchen, after my smoke on the balcony, I loaded up on olives and cheese. Paper plates were provided, but the snacks were the kind that didn't require plates. And FOF came up to me, thanked me for my ability to work a DVD remote, and told me that things weren't going well for the author of the Sonja Henie musical.

"It's only intermission," FOF said, "and everyone wants to leave."

"It's not like Sonja Henie is Eva Peron," I replied.

FOF stared at an olive that had fallen onto the floor. "She could have been," he said.

My part in the read-thru was to hit cues. The actors, off to the side in their folding chairs, scripts in hand, would read their parts, and then BOOM I'd hit the 'play' button to show how Sonja Henie skated on her tip-toes, or BOOM I'd hit the 'play' button to show how Sonja Henie hung out with Hitler. Whatever. A newsreel from the 1920s. A clip of a film. During the second half of the read-thru, I got bored, and thought about the red carpet of 'De-Lovely', and missed a cue. I forgot to unpause.

The Author yelled at me. FOF yelled at me, then apologized for yelling at me, then yelled at me again. And I wanted to yell at the olive still on the floor of the kitchen. The actors, by the way, did the professional thing. They kept reading their scripts.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Their town

There's a spoiler in here about the (now ancient) production of Our Town currently running at the Barrow Street Theatre. If you're likely to see this production, don't read my babbling post because I assure you the spoiler is worth saving up for the experience. The fact that Our Town requires a spoiler alert should give you pause.

Warned?

Good.

Our Town is one of those plays. It's done so often, and so inexpertly, that it is easy to overlook just how good a play it is, how well-constructed. Most people think of it as a folksy homily, a celebration of small-town life, which it sort of is, but only on its surface. Our Town's heart is as bitter as a teabagger on tax day, only more sensible and a lot more understanding of the human condition.

I read Our Town in junior high, and didn't 'get' it. No set. No scenery. That's the first stage direction delivered by the play's author, Thornton Wilder, and I remember thinking, Ok fine. Then I saw a road production of Phantom of the Opera and understood: No set, no scenery is a pretty ballsy thing to write down. No set. No scenery. No artifice, no pretense, no oooooh, no aaaaaaah. No set. No scenery. No theatrics. Just theatre.

You know what else is a pretty ballsy thing to write? I'll tell you: Our Town is one of my favorite plays. When done well, the show can be devastating. Emily's farewell to clocks tickin' and sleepin' and wakin' up is pretty much the most moving passage in theatre for me (and yes, I'm looking at you, Mr. Eyes Look Your Last, and you too, Ms. Kindness of Strangers).

Some years ago, I admitted as much to a self-styled dramaturg who spent most of his time drama-ing and precious little time turg-ing. His reaction was odd. Rather than tell me why Our Town sucks, Dramaturd decided to tell me why I sucked. Refreshing approach to theatre criticism, really--I had no idea my love of Our Town was offensive to Antonin Artaud. I didn't even know Antonin Artaud was capable of offense.

When I wrote a piece about Our Town for a local paper--where-in I waxed philosophical about the time my father took me to the Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery to see a production--the Dramaturd thought I was making a direct attack against his very being, and accused me of writing the piece specifically to make fun of him. And all I could think was, "No set. No scenery. He needs something to chew on, so I guess it's gonna be me."

The Dramaturd isn't, by the way, the only person to sniff at me when I admit my love for Our Town. Lots of more polite people have rolled their eyes at me when I talk about it, and usually say, "Oh god, if I never see that show again I'll die happy."

Anyway. Our Town, at the Barrow Street Theatre.

Greg was gaming--an all-day thing, a marathon of geeky dice-rolling and role-playing--so I'd decided to go see a show, rather than hang out at home (or, apparently, have dinner with a friend and his new boyfriend). After the first act, I ducked outside, into the bitter horrible no-good cold, to call Greg.

"I'm already crying," I told him, "and it's just the first act."

"So you're already crying. In the first act. Of Our Town." It was obvious from his tone that he was repeating this information for the benefit of other people in the room with him. It was made even more obvious from the sound of giggles and snorts I could hear in the background.

"Yes. Tell them to stop laughing. It's traumatic."

"I can't really talk right now, babe. I've just lost my sight and am wandering around blind in some cave."

"Welcome to my world."

But yes, the first act made me cry. The second act made me cry harder. And I hate crying in a theatre when I'm alone because it's pathetic enough to be in a theatre alone, let alone crying. And it's not as if I don't know Our Town like the back of my hand--it's not as if I don't know what's gonna happen. Mrs. Gibbs and her chickens, Mrs. Webb and her peas. Howie Newsome bringing the milk, George flirting with Emily. Not much going on, right, but so much to cry about.

What can I say. I'm sentimental.

So. Third act. The act that makes me adore the play, the act that makes the play transcend Music Man schmaltz and move into the realm of genuine art. Meditations on dying, on death, on grief. Emily tells the stage manager--who in the third act becomes something other than a stage manager--she wishes to return, wishes to relive a single, unimportant day from her life even tho all the other corpses in the graveyard warn her not to do it.

I know she'll do it. Emily always does it. Emily always returns to her 12th birthday, in order to reenact the "unimportant" day. There may be no set, no scenery, but there is always a morning of Emily's 12th birthday. The stage manager always grants her that wish, and I always go fetal when Emily realizes just how wonderful life truly is.

So Emily asks the stage manager to return, as usual. And the corpses warn her to not go back. And the stage manager tells her to choose an unimportant day. And Emily picks her 12th birthday. And at this point, since the first production of the show, Emily and her parents typically reenact that unimportant day, without set or scenery. And I cry.

This production, however.... well, when Emily tells the stage manager to take her back, the stage manager pushes back a thick curtain to reveal a hyper-real set. The very real kitchen of Emily Webb's childhood.

Her mother is there, cooking bacon (real bacon--the theatre filled with the smell of bacon and of coffee). The light through the frosted panes of the kitchen windows is real dawn sunlight (not really--it is theatre, after all). The water coming from the pump by the sink is real water.

Suddenly, when Emily delivers her tired, oft-quoted goodbye to living, she is saying it to real things. Not to the imaginary things all Emilys before this actress have said goodbye to, but tangible things. Suddenly, I didn't cry.

Also, I didn't exhale. I inhaled, though. I inhaled the entire short time the realistic set was being used, because I couldn't get enough of the smell of bacon frying and coffee percolating.

And I'd write more, but Greg and Waffles are demanding my attention. Small things, you know?

Friday, February 5, 2010

I, Claudius, Approximately


Picked up my copy of I, Claudius, by Robert Graves, a few weeks back and have been winding my way thru it while riding the train. The copy is old--I used to put my name and the date of purchase in all my books, and this book is dated 8/17/91.

I'd bought the book because of a rebroadcast, also in '91, of the 1976 BBC adaptation of Robert Graves's two 'Claudius' novels--the aforementioned I, Claudius and its sequel Claudius the God (the BBC threw both books together under the miniseries title I, Claudius). In the BBC adaptation, the most notable change to the story is the integration of Herod Agrippa to the immediate plot (no, not that Herod, but close), since the novel I, Claudius omits Herod altogether.

Quick note about the plot of the 'Claudius' novels: The books are supposed to have been written by "I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-That-and-the-other", the fourth Roman emperor. They chronicle the corruption and gallantry of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (the family of the first five emperors of ancient Rome: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula/Gaius, Claudius, and noted fiddler Nero). Claudius writes the work not for his contemporaries but for posterity--he conceals the manuscript with the hope that it will be discovered 1900 years later (which it ostensibly is, by Robert Graves, who "translated" it and published it in 1934, with the sequel coming out two or so years later). The second book, Claudius the God, is a sort of revision of the first book, by Claudius, in that he introduces a new person, a close friend from his childhood who grew into a king and oh boy it's exhausting to summarize, and you've probably lost interest already anyway, so I'll move on.

I haven't read the book since I bought it in '91, and when I was reading it way back then I was mostly replaying the miniseries's scenes in my head--I scarcely noticed the text. "Oh," I'd say while reading, "here's the part where Livia gives that look at Julia," or "Oh yeah, here's where Caligula emerges from the room with blood dripping from his beard." The text was beside the point--I might as well have been reading the shooting script of the BBC production.

Two things (of many!) I've noticed during this reading: the BBC production omits a few very vital details on the motivation of certain characters, and the entire text is a sort of essay on historical documentation.

Of the former, I'll just say this: Julia, Augustus' daughter, was portrayed in the TV adaptation as a sex-fiend who contributed to her own ruin. In the novel, though, it's mentioned in passing that scheming Livia, Julia's step-mother and wife of Caesar Augustus, regularly slipped Julia a mixture "of the crushed bodies of certain little green flies, from Spain." Hm. Seems to me a small point which should've carried over from the novel to the screen to explain why suddenly Julia wanted to fuck every man, woman or beast in Rome.

Of the latter--the essay on historical documentation--I'll say this: History is generally interesting when it is presently occurring, but grows stale quickly. Graves knew this, of course. Writing about history is a dichotomy: to do it well, one must ignore popular audiences and assume only other historians will find your work interesting, or readable, or comprehensible. To do it popularly, one must fudge a bit, employing imaginary dialogue, bending facts a bit, creating plausible (but undocumented) motivations for "characters," even creating "characters" rather than "people" for popular audiences to root for or despise.

In other words, and there are always other words, a(n) historian who wishes to be accurate cannot hope to be widely read; a(n) historian who wishes to be widely read cannot really be accurate.

And, btw, Graves was kinda-sorta writing about contemporary British Empire when he did the 'Claudius' novels. He was writing about the Windsor dynasty, not the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Graves indulges himself on the historian/posterity point about a third of the way thru the first 'Claudius' book. It's a delightful scene: young Claudius, thought by his family to be an idiot, is in a library with his tutor, Sulpicius. Two men approach Sulpicius. Old friends.

Keep in mind that Claudius, writing his own story, has stated over and over again that he wishes to be remembered as a great historian, and is writing this text for posterity because he knows his contemporaries will not believe it to be truthful. "..it [the book] will be found some nineteen hundred years hence. And then, when all other authors of to-day whose works survive will seem to shuffle and stammer, since they have written only for t0-day, and guardedly, my story will speak out clearly and boldly," Claudius explains in the opening chapter. The word 'guardedly' is the key to the Claudian novels, by the way. Graves is telling us, in no uncertain terms, that all contemporary history, whether in the first century or in the twentieth century, is guardedly written, self-censored, and largely useless. The only way to accurately write about historical events is to wait centuries, long after the vital issues of the day have been made moot by time and decay.

Anyway, back to the library, with Sulpicius, Claudius, and the two men.

The two men are friends of Sulpicius. The two men are Pollio and Livy. Pollio and Livy are historians. Perhaps you've heard of one or both--if not, google is your friend.

Livy and Pollio notice that young Claudius is reading a scroll, and the two historians place bets on the subject of the scroll. Pollio wagers that Claudius is reading crap--"The Art of Love" or some such drivel. Livy wagers that Claudius is reading a manuscript of substance. Claudius tells Pollio he loses the bet: "It's your own history of the Civil Wars and, if I may venture to praise it, a very fine book indeed."

What follows is a long, clever discussion on the nature of the writing of history, with Livy coming out very poorly in the end--Pollio relied more on facts, Livy spiced things up with a bit of poetical declarations and flowery speeches. Pollio's works were stale and matter-of-fact, and researched. Livy's works were more reliant on the gossip of the time, and on dramatic tension.

Pollio: Merchant Ivory. Livy: Michael Bay.

The passage concludes with Livy leaving the library in an alliterative huff of humiliation, and with Pollio encouraging young Claudius to "play the idiot" for as long as he can.

Which of course Claudius does.

What is indulgent about this passage--and charmingly meta--is that Robert Graves, not Claudius, is the author of it. Inside the passage, within the confines of the text, Claudius is the one relating the story to us, right? He's merely relating a precious anecdote from his teenage years, the time he encountered two men who impressed him greatly, two men who were historians, which is what he wanted to grow up to become. But outside the text, the reader is meant to be aware it is not Claudius who wrote the passage, but Robert Graves, and Robert Graves is pulling a 'Livy' on us, infusing history with a bit of poetical declarations and flowery speeches.

And of course there's the matter of Herod, previously mentioned; as much as Claudius passes himself off as a Pollio historian--a bit dry, a bit too accurate--he remains firmly in the 'Livy' style of historical documentation, since for the entirety of the first volume of his 'autobiography' he neglected to tell us of Herod Agrippa II's presence.

Claudius, for all his well-meaning intent on getting down the truth for posterity's sake, is an unreliable narrator of his own autobiography. And it's not even an actual autobiography, but an historical fiction novel pretending to be an autobiography.

So the point is, wow, 8/17/91 was a goddamn long time ago.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Because it's bitter, and it is my art

I wrote this last April, during the First Great Teabagger Rebellion. I still think it's true: it's a terrifying movement that lacks cohesion, in that each member of the Teabag Party has an agenda which conflicts with the agenda of his fellow Teabagger. It's more influential than I thought it was, but not nearly as influential as the corporate interests bankrolling the whole thing thought it'd be.


Most of the 'Teabag parties' took place in the daylight, in mid-morning and afternoon. I guess in liberal, unReal America NYC, the organizers could only get a permit for the tail-end of the evening, just as the light was failing.

So Greg and I took the train downtown, and wandered over to where the rally was taking place. Some cops milling about. The square. Some serious-looking crowd-control fencing. It was windy-cold downtown, and the sun was dropping behind the buildings. We passed an elderly man with koala hair, a suit and a trench-coat, who was screaming at a worn-looking middle-aged guy in a puffy coat and brandishing a hand-written sign: "Socialism Is Not An American Value!!!" The old man with koala hair was yelling at the well-worn middle-aged guy, "We're not ON the gold standard, you idiot! What are you talking about?" The middle-aged guy shouted back, "That's not the point! We're headed to Socialism!"

Greg and I both decided this was gonna be an unpleasant experience.

The signage was everywhere. I mean, I've been to a few protests in my day, but I've never seen so many signs. Everyone had a slogan, and none of those slogans seemed to mesh very well with the other slogans, and I quickly realized what the teabag protests of '09 were about: anger. Healthy, democratic, American anger. People who'd been silent for 8 years (or more!) were suddenly feeling frisky, and were no longer afraid to trip up the lock-step of their Republican Party (because, let's face it, there weren't many Democrats in this crowd). With Bush gone and nothing left to lose, a lot of people were unbottling themselves like a flask, were feeling free to finally voice their own (healthy--I must keep reminding myself that this was 'healthy') doubts about the direction of the country. Where these people were when we began running up the national debt and deregulating banks left and right and starting two wars is beyond me, but here they were now, armed with signs. Just like those Liberals they've seen on the TV!

There were a few signs proclaiming Ron Paul the true leader of the American Dream. A few more insisting that Obama is a Socialist. A 9 year old kid was sandwiched between two signs almost as large as he, reading, on the front, "I'm Nine Years Old," and on the back, "And I Already Owe 36,000 Dollars to the Tax Man." A few signs attacked Chuck Schumer, a few signs demanded Obama produce his birth certificate, and one optimistic 80 year old woman in a bunting hat and red, white and blue clothing insisting, "We'll Never Be Iceland."

[If only. Iceland now has a lesbian prime minister--and she's hot, in a Helen Mirren kinda way.]

No one listened to the speakers on the stage. Instead, everyone tried to start their own chants. One very loud guy started chanting, "Down with Chuck" every five or ten minutes, drowning out whatever the person on stage was saying.

Another guy behind me, who didn't chant but lectured, said, at one point, that the government was already trying to paint the veterans returning home from Iraq (why do they never mention Afghanistan? Always Iraq) as "Right wing terrorists." Then he suggested that some hippies might appear at any moment to "beat us all with sticks."

[As if true hippies are known for their violent intent.]

When a speaker said that "The Empire State" was no longer as powerful as it once was, there was some sadness in his voice. The crowd, however, cheered. These were people standing in the Empire State. When that same speaker talked about how wonderful the city had been, how strong its citizens once were, he cited the construction of a vast water system, a train system, parks and recreation and... the audience booed. Someone shouted "Public works! Boo!" and it was as if they didn't understand what the speaker was saying. They weren't listening. They didn't want to hear. Works done for the public benefit: Bad.

Another speaker tore into the media. The speaker suggested everyone continue watching FOX News, btw. As if the weakness of the right is getting their news from more than one source.

The speaker who inspired Greg and me to leave, btw, was a black talk show host. He told a story about how he'd been filling in for [insert right wing talk show host here], and got a call from some guy in Georgia. The caller from Georgia called the black talk show host a "racist redneck Obama-hater." The black talk show host continued, "Now obviously that guy didn't know me. So I let him talk. And when he was done, I said, 'Sir, I'm an AMERICAN racist redneck!' And that's all of us! We're all American racist rednecks! Say it with me, New York!" And the crowd, kind of confused, chanted "I'm an American racist redneck!" a few times.

Behind me, I heard a guy say, "... But I'm not a racist...." and the chant died down.

Truthfully, I agree with some of what was said, with some of the signs. There was something for everyone at the rally, because it was so unfocused and so confused. The bailouts sucked. The bailouts were a Bush thing, tho. And, to be honest, some of it was necessary. And "The FED Needs To Be Audited." Okay, that sounds good. But people were also screaming about how their civil rights were being violated, and I just wanted to ask them where they stood on gay rights. It'd be nice to know, even though I already could guess.

After Greg and I snaked our way out of the crowd, long before star speaker Newt Gingrich made his appearance (and his speech was probably the only where attention was paid, because he is the Right's Willy Loman), we made our way to the train station. Greg, who takes things even more personally than I do (if that's possible), said, "I feel sad. That was a giant clusterfuck of ideas."

I'd already disengaged from the rally, so I was reluctant to discuss the whole thing. Still, I asked him what he meant.

"I've been worried about all this. Really. Worried. I've been afraid they're gonna work their way back into power or something. But they're just angry, and they don't have a cohesive anything. They're all over the place, and they don't know what they're talking about because they don't want to talk about the one thing they all have in common."

I waited. Finally: "And what do they have in common?"

"They all hate what's happened over the past eight years just as much as we do, but they can't bring themselves to admit it."

"Blame Bush?" I asked.

"No. Blame themselves. And they're being manipulated. They don't want to see it. It's not about taxes. It's about power and accountability, and they have neither."

Then Greg said this: "I'm not afraid anymore. It's all one big joke. Only it's on them, not because of them."

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