Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Monsterism -- Dogma du Jour

From David Eldridge of The Guardian, courtesy of Gregg Henry at
The Kennedy Center:


It all started with a lamentable production of an old,
piss-poor European play by a new director on a large
stage with a huge cast. The playwrights Richard Bean,
Colin Teevan, Sarah Woods and Ryan Craig had seen it
and were enraged that such resources aren't lavished
on many living playwrights. If they were, they
speculated, perhaps there wouldn't be such a lack of
variety in the new plays being written.

And it's not just the poverty of resources that's
having an effect on playwrights. According to Teevan:
"There's been a predominance of television realism and
of a section of the critical culture that demands a
moral message from new writing. This is in danger of
making theatre about as interesting as muesli."

"Why would anyone write stage plays now?" asks Craig.
"If you can write dialogue and you can hit a deadline
you can write TV. You can write about your south London
council estate or your middle class swingers and you can
make more money and reach more people and therefore have
more impact." Apart from anything else, the denial of the
larger stages to living playwrights has made it harder and
harder for them to earn a living from writing, as they see
their income from royalties dwindle to insultingly low
levels.

"Theatre has moved out of the Webberised 1990s and the
In-Yer-Face millennium," says Woods. We have moved on from
the bleak post-Thatcher landscape and the end of the cold
war. The big, messy complex world we find ourselves in, says
Woods, "is not going to be best expressed by a two- or four-
handed play in a studio theatre. It must also be allowed a
cast of 12 or even 20 on a main stage."

But this was more than just moaning. Woods started writing
down everything that the four playwrights said. Then they
invited others associated with the National Theatre Studio
to join them and form a writers' group. As we began to
contribute our own experiences and ideas it became obvious
that the original quartet didn't represent a narrow clique:
they were speaking for the vast majority of new and aspiring
playwrights. And Monsterism was born.

Moira Buffini sums up the thinking behind the campaign when
she says: "It's our job to take people where they don't
expect to go. It's our job to provoke, move, unsettle and
inspire. It goes without saying that plays that manage to
do this are big. It is possible to write them for a cast of
two and perform them in a box barely bigger than a lounge
but I've got to the point where I want to kick down the
walls of these boxes. I'm sick of writing epics for six."

Initially our efforts were modest. We ceremonially gambled
the tiny expenses allowance the National Studio gave us for
our monthly meeting in the hope of backing a winner and
raising some meagre funds for our campaign. Next we plotted
kidnapping prominent theatre critics we particularly
disliked and holding them captive for a pathetic ransom
like 50p. Fortunately we quickly evolved out of our
anarchist phase and began to apply for jobs running
theatres instead. (Of course, playwrights always miss the
deadline ...)

Then, having distilled our ideas on paper in the form of
a manifesto, we set out to meet as many theatre managers
as possible. The artistic director of the National
Theatre, Nick Hytner, pledged to encourage big new plays.
Another artistic director was none too happy at the small
number of us who were available to meet with him (no
reflection, mate, we're all busy too!). But, piqued or
passionate, they all got the same treatment: we grilled
them about their theatres and their visions for the
future and we put our case.

When they have met us as a collective, directors, theatre
managements and institutions have never been anything
other than supportive, but often when they meet us
privately or individually they lay the blame at our door.
If you only wrote a big play, they say, we'd love to put
it on. But dramatists, the most pragmatic of writers, only
have to look at the plays that have been done in the past
20 years to see which way the wind has been blowing in
often cash-strapped theatres. We want the managements to
take some responsibility, be proactive and help to turn
things around but we're not simply passing the buck. "We've
become masters at crafting our stories into reductive,
exclusive black-box experiences," Jonathan Lewis points out.
"We fell in love with and are exhausting this intimate
version of events."

"The moment someone decides to write for the stage," says
Roy Williams, "they should be encouraged to believe the
limits to what they can achieve are only the limits of
their imagination." But this doesn't always happen. Like
Bean, I increasingly miss the opportunity to write a
whole world, with its opportunities for great parts for
leading actors and small, gem-like one-scene roles. Newer
playwrights have been formed in a democratic culture that
encourages equality for all the characters in a narrative
and instills the notion that if you employ a performer you
ought to give them a good amount to do. Nothing wrong with
that but sometimes we want to write a different kind of
play.

This dominant mode is reinforced by the critical culture.
Script development people and reviewers always seem to note
that any small part is "underwritten" - even if, as Bean
tartly points out, that is a deliberate choice on the part
of the playwright. Many argue that the minor characters
should be cut - but imagine Macbeth without the Porter. No
wonder so many playwrights are frustrated. Buffini warns:
"If living writers are not given access to the stages that
our dead forebears still dominate, then our skills cannot
develop and our talent will go elsewhere." And there are
other exciting places for talented writers to go if the
theatre does not want us on at least some of our new
terms. Writers like Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy and Monica
Ali are showing how exciting the novel can be, inspiring
and enthralling readers with an epic sweep and the
accuracy with which they explore the human condition. And
for the dyed-in- the-wool dramatists, Paul Abbott, Abi
Morgan and Russell T Davies are living proof that if you
write well and pursue a passionate, ambitious, inventive
vision then TV can still be a place where you can tell the
tales you want.

The Monsterists, though, are dedicated to theatre - and
now we're shifting our private efforts into a public
campaign. This Friday we are holding a Monster Day Out at
Hampstead Theatre in London to discuss our ideas with
critics, directors and other playwrights. Already things
are looking up. Hytner is richly fulfilling his promise to
produce big new plays, by playwrights new and established.
The Royal Shakespeare Company is telling any writer who
will listen that it wants new plays to be at heart of the
company's work and is commissioning large cast pieces from
the writers it believes in. Despite having smaller
resources than the larger companies the Royal Court is
doing its absolute best to stage large scale, ambitious
work by its writers. But there is a long way to go. The
Monsterists, with the support of the Arts Council,
commissioned a survey of the 2004 autumn season in British
theatre. Of the 276 plays produced by our surveyed
theatres, 35% were new - but our feedback suggests that
substantially less than 35% of the participating
companies' resources were actually spent on the new plays,
while money as ever has been thrown at Shakespeare, Wilde
and the rest.

What to do? Well, apart from dreaming of a year-long
moratorium on Shakespeare, we would like the theatre
industry to consider introducing a "dead writers'levy".
Quite simply, every time a play is put on by a dead
writer, to whom a royalty does not have to be paid, the
producer contributes an equivalent sum towards a fund
that supports the production of new work. The beauty of
such a scheme is that it would, in one go, provide a
substantial additional source of funding for theatres
committed to putting on ambitious new work and remove
the unfair financial incentive theatres have for
producing old plays by dead writers.

Monsterism may have started out as a moan but it is a
positive, forward-looking campaign by writers to ask
British theatre to raise its game. Buffini speaks for
all of us when she says: "Deluded though I may be, I
am an optimist. If we playwrights work together we may
effect a change. If we are allowed to give our
imaginations free reign, if we have use of the same
resources, the spaces, budgets, casts and directors
that are usually reserved for the deceased, we may
write the kind of plays that will attract a new
audience. We all moan about tired old productions and
dead theatre. We can only try to bring it back to life."

Monsterism's Manifesto

Monsterism is a theatre writers' campaign to promote
new writing in the British theatre. It is a positive,
forward looking movement that aims to create
opportunities for British theatre writers to create
large scale plays, for large stages.

The key aesthetic tenets of a monsterist work are:
  • Large scale, large concept and, possibly, large cast
  • The primacy of the dramatic (story showing) over storytelling
  • Meaning implied by action (not by lecture)
  • Characters caught in a drama (not there to facilitate a polemic)
  • The exposure of the human condition (not sociology)
  • Inspirational and dangerous (not sensationalist)
On a practical level the implications of the manifesto are:
  • The elevation of new theatre writing from the ghetto of the studio "black box" to the main stage
  • Equal access to financial resources for plays being produced by a living
  • writer (ie equal with dead writers)
  • Use of the very best directors for new plays
  • Use of the very best actors for new plays

DCameron? DCalogue? DCidedly Overdone?

You can spot my avoidance by how much time I've spent working on the motif. Any ideas? Please, no more titles with a clever "DC" in them -- I think the boys already have that one covered.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Eternal Sunshine

Just returned from fourteen consecutive hours of plane travel. Flew from Valdez to Anchorage to Chicago to DC with about three connection mistakes at each stop. Had the distinct feeling we were going to land sometime in October 1947 -- I stopped counting the hours-gained/hours-lost. After hitting Seattle, and the above two Alaskan outposts, and doing the show thrice in three days at three different remote venues ... I think my metabolism has vanished into some frequent flyer wormhole along with my emotional baggage, which usually arrives two weeks late anyway.

Absorbed most of David Foster Wallace's book of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and I think I've found my new favorite American writer under 40. One choice sampling:

So then how have irony, irreverence, and rebellion come to be not liberating but enfeebling in the culture today's avant-garde tries to write about? One clue's to be found in the fact that irony is still around, bigger than ever after 30 long years as the dominant mode of hip expression. It's not a rhetorical mode that wears well. As Hyde (whom I pretty obviously like) puts it, "Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage." This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It's critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony's singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocricies it debunks.

That, from his essay "E Unibus Pluram," puts it better than any Neil Postman parable I've read. Postman's good, but I gotta thank Wallace for pointing out, once and for all, that "poststructuralist is what you call a deconstructionist who doesn't want to be called a deconstructionist." Anyway, these well-wrought vivisections of po-mo stupidity go down well as you careen across the continent in an airplane, trying to suppress comparisons to the airplane sequence in Fight Club -- the last hurrah of pre-9/11 American sophistry (which, to the relief of conservatives everywhere, has been faithfully resurrected as a sign that we're winning the War on Reality).

So I was standing at the Designated Smoker Area at Anchorage International Airport, watching the midnight sun before I had to hop on my Chicago flight, chatting with trusted side-kick Jimmy Flannagan, when two stoned frat-boys from Miami walked up to bum a light from us. I'm gonna try to capture the experience here because, as usual, I couldn't resist lying to them. Incidentally, I don't know why anyone tells the truth to anyone at airports. After being stripped down to my body hair by security and given the shiatsu pat-down for the umpteenth time to verify my identity, I really don't feel like being honest with anyone else in airports. Besides, the two Miami frat boys -- which, for the sake of avoiding libel, I will call "Crawford" and "Fuckwit" -- didn't really deserve it.

(Jimmy and Karl stand watching the midnight sun in all its glory when Fuckwit and Crawford approach. Fuckwit has a plastic visor on his head that says "cockwear.com")

FUCKWIT: Dude, you got a light?

ME: Sure man.

FUCKWIT: You local?

JIMMY: Naw, we're from DC.

FUCKWIT: Where?

ME: Washington.

FUCKWIT: Seattle?

ME: DC?

FUCKWIT: Huh?

ME: Washington, DC.

FUCKWIT: Oh.

ME: Makes sense when you put them together, I guess.

FUCKWIT: Huh?

ME: Spring Break!!

FUCKWIT: What you doing here?

ME: We're working on a bill.

FUCKWIT: What?

ME: ANWAR. The pipeline thing?

(Pause.)

FUCKWIT: Oh. Yeah, that. You're working on it?

ME: Well, if you count chaining yourself to endangered trees so the bulldozers can't get through "working," then yeah. We are.

FUCKWIT: Shit.

CRAWFORD: You know where the women are?

ME: There are two of them, as near as I can tell. They're both downtown. And taken.

FUCKWIT: (genuine terror) Shit.

ME: I know. We're heading out right now.

CRAWFORD: Anything to do here?

ME: Well, there's the midnight sun going on right now. That's pretty cool, huh?

FUCKWIT: What, that?

(Fuckwit points to the sun.)

ME: Yeah. The sun. It's midnight. Isn't that cool?

FUCKWIT: (checking his watch) Yeah. You're right. It is about night-time back in Miami right now! Look at the sun!

ME: Well, now, technically that doesn't count, see. It's night many places right now. Including here.

CRAWFORD: You know where the Sheraton Hotel is?

JIMMY: Um, downtown?

FUCKWIT: There it is!

(Fuckwit points to a building about twenty miles off in the distance. Needless to say, there's nothing about the silhouette of Sheraton Hotels that is at all distinctive enough to prove him right.)

CRAWFORD: Where?

FUCKWIT: There!

CRAWFORD: Naw, I think that's something else.

FUCKWIT: I'll bet you fifty bucks that's the Sheraton!

CRAWFORD: I'm not betting you nothing.

FUCKWIT: Let's go find out, bitch.

ME: You know, any cab driver could probably --

CRAWFORD: (to Fuckwit) Dude. Why don't you let me do the thinking okay? I'll do enough for both of us.

FUCKWIT: Okay.

CRAWFORD: Check out this fly-fishing pole I stole from that guy on the plane!

FUCKWIT: Dude!

(Fuckwit and Crawford vanish into the concourse. Jimmy safely bursts out laughing.)

Valdez was wonderful. On about three different levels. More soon.

Friday, June 10, 2005

"Doub" -- purposely mispelled to out-abbreviate John Patrick Shanley

I'm really asking for it here. But I just read Doubt by John Patrick Shanley.

And can we please ...
Grow.
The fuck.
Up.

There. I just wrote a play. Don't believe me? Maybe if I subtitle it "A Parable" it'll fly with the boys at MTC. Mr. Shanley needs a few titles by Descartes added to his Amazon.com wishlist -- then maybe he can find a compelling angle on the subject of doubt without burdening the rest of us with his playwriting.

I don't often read the prefaces to plays. Or if I do, it's only after I've actually read the actual play a couple times and find myself toggling between elation and exasperation -- wanting more, in short. After reading Shanley's eleven featherweight scenes, I was too angry to rip the damn thing apart (it was a borrowed copy). So I read the preface in which Mr. Shanley asks the following deep questions:

1. What is doubt?
2. Is certainty a good thing?
3. What's underneath a play?
4. What's underneath me?
5. Like, right now?
6. Feel that, bitch?
7. Mmmm. You want more?

And so on and so on. Writers can impeach themselves in many ways. The first is to confess that plays are better read than seen -- witness the "closet drama" of centuries past, the apotheosis of Hamlet and Falstaff by Harold Bloom, and most recently, Mamet's flat-out admission of just that in True and False. I would say the second way to impeach yourself as a writer is to start your story from a title. Go ahead. Pick any word. Or words. Start with that and then make sure every other element is transparently extrapolated from this narrow starting point. Done? Great, here's your Pulitzer.

Shanley confesses this. He saw the word doubt somewhere ... guess he never had before or he hadn't smoked enough weed while staring at it before ... and knew he had a title for a play! About what? Dunno. Oh, wait! DOUBT! That's what it's about! Featuring whom? DOUBT! Starring whom? Doubty McDoubterson as Father Fallacy! Talking about what? DOUBT! Affirming the primacy of what thematic concept? Gimmie a one ... gimmie a two ... gimmie a fucking break.

Okay. That was my emotional recation. There will be a well-wrought, annotated, intertextual analysis in my next post. In the meantime, if you haven't read the play, go steal a copy right now. Run, don't walk, to Borders in your quest to deprive Shanley of his royalty money. Of course, since it's won the f'ing Pulitzer, it's pretty much guaranteed to hog stagespace at every regional theatre in the country next season. But if you can't wait until then, Borders will do just fine. In other words, please don't comment just yet. I'm speaking to you, Trillum! You wily poster of posts! Give an angry guy a minute to get his critical gear on ... then we can all spar on this one.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Pretty Pixels

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The waterfall next to the Mendenhall Glacier.

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Me outside the theatre. The building extends back and to the left, but ... let's face it: the background is more attractive. My chick-blond hair was unusually puffy and bright that day. The character seeps out of my bloodstream as my roots finally grow back in.

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The interactive global warming tourist destination! Cruise ships were charging people $40 to DRIVE from the ship to the glacier. Funny thing is, it's a good twenty minute hike from the car to the ice. Sixty years ago, the ice you see would have been right near the camera lens. No lie.

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The home of Jim and Katherine Heumann. Their daughter, Lindsey, was prepping for prom a week before this photo was taken. I don't know how that's relevant, but ... nice place, huh? Note the elderly dog in the bottom corner. I have footage of this dog doing yoga in the morning. Forthcoming.

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A closer view of the frog prince. That's velcro under his ass. I was worried that light reflecting off his orb would blind someone, but ... the rest is the stuff of local legend.

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My mom and me at the top of Mt. Roberts. A kindly Austrailian tourist took this picture of us.

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Halfway up the tram, a view of Juneau and the Gastineau Channel which crosses to Douglas Island. The city actually wraps around the mountains and extends a good distance north.

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A half-blind bald eagle named "Justice." I couldn't get a shot of the deformed right eye, but ... I'm sure the parable writes itself.

And I've got lots more as soon as I get my memory stick drive working again. In the meantime, stay tuned for a behind-the-scenes documentary of "Spring Break: Sitka" -- where I have 84 takes of PJ Paparelli in rehearsal saying, "Turn off that fucking camera, Karl! GOD! Why do you kill everything that's beautiful?"

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Flipside

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Testing image hosting here. This is the aforementioned Ford Festiva. Note the bungee cord holding the hatchback shut. Also note the "OLE!" tags on the rear. The letters and the garden ornament velcro-ed to the roof were modifications made by me to enhance the re-sale value of this little bug. Shortly after this photo was taken, the brakes failed and we never met again.

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As you can see, the car did wonders for my self-esteem. And the orb-clutching statuette did wonders for the car's self-esteem. Together, we were unstoppable. A cop pulled me over for speeding one night and I happened to have a pizza box in the passenger's seat. So I said, "I'm sorry, officer. But I'm with Frog Prince Pizza Delivery and I've got to get this pie to north Douglas by 10pm or I don't get a kiss." No. No that never happened. But two tourists did get their photo taken with the car. I saw them from a distance. That was true. The frog prince is now in the possession of a lovely drama student from Arkansas who is living on her brother's boat in Juneau. I can only hope that his presence on the bow-sprint is as majestic as his presence on the roof of my loaner car here.

I left my camcorder's digital output cradle behind -- otherwise, I'd have a few hundred other images to post right now. These two are courtesy of my mom who came out to visit mid-run. More forthcoming. In the meantime, I'm trying to think of an elegant segue to more bloggage but can't think of a title, subject, or angle that might keep your interest. Were I to commit to a scrupulous and well-chiseled batch of prose nuggets chronicling my day-to-day life in DC, I think two very bad things might happen.

1. I'll fall into that category of blogger who tries to find new and innovative ways to describe the minutae of office life -- thus joining the ranks of Dilbert clones who don't realize that despite their perfected sarcasm and dead-on transcriptions of middle management assholes, they too have become soul-less cogs of the machine they supposedly hate.

2. I'll fall into that category of blogger that merely hyper-links all the other gossipy DC blogs in a whirlwind of in-bred self-referential wonkoid dishing.

3. I'll do option #1 or option #2 so well that I'll stop traveling and finding interesting things to write about.

I'm not saying I have an answer. But the blogging phenomenon is worth preserving and I guess I want to find my own angle to offer you. In the meantime, look for more Alaska photos and format changes. I'm sure we all have many interesting things to say.