Monday, October 09, 2006

All Subtext (c) 2006

I have a folder on my desktop filled with "blog-worthy" items. They include a handful of September anecdotes, a couple sprawling Hamlet essays, and a more thorough-going post on the question of NYC-centrism. For reasons obvious to any regular reader, I've had occasion to think about that last question a lot. And even though it's fallen out of vogue in the slippery news-cycle of theatre blogs, I will be posting it sometime this week. In the meantime, I have a couple hefty deadlines over my head: a big audition tomorrow and an even bigger play draft due soon.

I trust that neither Hamlet nor NYC will be exhuasted by the time I get back to the blog, so this post is moreover a chance to let certain of my friends know that I'm alive and well and settling into a splendid working rhythm up here. By way of some clever fiscal acrobatics*, I've carved out this Thoreauesque survival budget that lets me mortgage 16.5 hours of my time in exchange for complete freedom the rest of the week. I love it. But now that said rhythm is in place, I don't have any excuses to avoid audition prep, writing deadlines, etc.

Given this, I should have something to offer Matthew Freeman's open thread on compulsory inspiration. But I don't. I might offer a complementary thread for cataloging avoidance mechanisms -- but that could go on forever.** And if I'm being perfectly honest, blogging itself remains one of my favorite forms of avoidance.

It's been invigorating to watch George and Matt throw open their blogs for direct feedback on the work-at-hand: as playwrights, they can bring their work (the text, at least) straight to the discussion. I hope they continue to do so. I'm sure someday soon actors will be posting clips of their latest audition sides for open commentary -- but that innovation will depend less on technological capability and more on whether actors can overcome their natural territoriality. Speaking of: can I copywrite my subtext?***

What follows here may or may not qualify as avoidance, but it's been sitting in the blog-worthy folder for too long. If anyone out there caught the documentary version of Manufacturing Consent, you might recognize this 1969 debate between Noam Chomsky and William F. Buckley. There are many great reasons to watch it now.

Buckley's TV show Firing Line looks like a low-rez version of the entire Fox News apparatus, doesn't it? The way he deploys a crowning bon mot in synch with the commercial break, for example. You'll see that sassy tactic exposed in the second half here. You'll also see the discussion run off the rails as Buckley keeps changing the center of the debate just when Chomsky starts to anchor it in historical fact.

So as stage-managed as that was, at least two worthy antagonists had a whole twenty minutes to talk about something. The discussion is subverted from the beginning, of course, because Buckley was both antagonist and moderator at the same time.

Balance restored below. Also fairness.

Viva la blog.


*equal parts unemployment insurance, temping for two days, and no smoking.

**CD burning, people watching, blogging, finger-drumming, bookshelf re-categorization projects, tile grouting, Frank Rich columns, YouTube, the perfect omelette, porn, nail-clipping, googling, Photoshop, solitaire, graphomaniacal repetition of the first five pages, anagrams, porn, designing the poster, office supply shopping, porn, strategic napping ...

***Why not? I'd like to quote from a CBS Memorandum Agreement I had to sign last month when I was testing for a pilot in LA. According to section 6, clause g, part i:
Performer shall perform all services reasonably required, and Studio shall have the right to use, and to authorize others to use in any and all media now known or hereafter devised, throughout the universe in perpetuity ... [emphasis mine]
I'm glad the lawyers clairified that as a Performer, I shall perform. "Services reasonably required" -- the subject of many back-alley casting calls, I'm sure. But damn: the universe? Why not add "in this life and the next" while we're at it. Or is that covered "in perpetuity"? If these are the terms we're playing with, why can't I copywrite my subtext? The whole O'Neill fiasco has people asking whether development houses, directors, and festivals deserve a cut from the playwright's comparatively paultry paycheck. Any way us theatre actors can get in on this?

Friday, August 18, 2006

Where was I?

Okay. I've stared at the title bar for the post far too long. This blog, like my life of late, has become choked into stasis. So instead of digging up a few linkworthy things or whipping out some quotable screed, I'm just going to spill.

I've been wondering what the hell I'm doing here ever since I took a blurry cab-ride from Penn Station to NYTW back in late April. I imagine everyone has some requisite "centering" amenity that they can't live without: cigarettes, perhaps, but Jesus seems to work for some people, too. I don't know. I'm at an age where the sexy calculus of the artist's life is starting to break down. Not to despair, necessarily, but maybe some despair would help unhinge my m.o. and force me to make bigger/better choices.

Because I'd like to think that my career-to-date has been the result of some self-driven master plan, but it hasn't. Even and especially this latest chapter in NYC: I am a creature of circumstance. I didn't even get the comforting finality of rejection -- that moment every actor learns to repress or burn off or re-contextualize into an acceptable, educating Event. I did that. And then I was de-rejected. Or something. So my "achievement" wasn't this show, it was my ability to adapt to the caprice of other professionals ... the ones who control who gets work and when and why.

But I don't feel like I've adapted, either. I've lived in some flavor of vagrancy for the better part of two years ... letting my finances play catch-up to the demands of my career which, ironically, doesn't even begin to yield basic solvency (never mind vacation, travel, wealth, organic groceries, dental checkups, etc.). And because I'm in this scrambled holding position now, I don't have the patience, focus or peace of mind to do anything apart from compulsive list-making. I tease out trends and chapters while I wait for the rudiments of a healthy life to take hold. Yes, it is the very portrait of a flustered ego clinging to whatever metric it can find to make sense of things.

To that end, here are some autobiographical fun-facts for 2001-2006:
  • 8.5 . The number of addresses I have had in the DC metro region. I was hours away from signing a lease for the 9.5th when I got the call to come north. I say "8.5" because one of those addresses (4618 15th st. NW) was really just a basement closet of a room that I hastily switched to so I could sublet my adorable Wisc. Ave. studio and thereby afford to vanish to Juneau last summer. To say I lived there would be an embellishment. I remember occasionally crashing there for one or two REM cycles. But I never bought groceries there or nailed anything to the wall.
  • 6. The number of addresses I have had in the NYC metro region since arriving here on April 25th. Needless to say, I haven't bought groceries or nailed anything to the wall at any of those places, either. I find my savings drained by the repeated purchase of commonplace items like nail clippers, umbrellas, coffee, laundry detergent, etc. All the things you'd normally have on hand at home.
  • 126. The number of times I have performed columbinus. This includes the 2003 Kennedy Center workshop, the 2004 Littleton workshop, the Round House production, the Perseverance production, the Seattle, Anchorage, and Valdez performances, the NYTW backer's presentation last fall, and the most recent run this past spring. Please forgive me, but that tally led me to wonder ...
  • $9,000. Total compensation for the above. Before taxes and union dues. And just to put that in perspective ...
  • $12,775. The amount of money I spent on cigarettes between 1999 and 2006. I need this number to help quell the pangs of self-righteousness that usually perk up after excessive contemplation of the preceding number.
I know this is a silly exercise but the stat-hunting isn't totally depressing. It's not especially illuminating, either. It's like playing anagrams while serving jury duty. I think. Any rational person would look at that list and say, "Quit smoking." Or maybe, "Quite smoking before you bitch about your salary." And they would be right. But I like this because it gives me an "act-able" choice: Is theatre harder to quit than smoking? Hmmm. They both bleed you dry. They both take years off your life. And two open wounds are worse than one.

And, yes, I take that as a legitimate dilemma. Because the past five years have also been marked by the occasional announcement that someone I know and love and admired has quit the business. Usually for reasons more compelling than: "It really gets in the way of my smoking." But still.

The other day I was walking up 6th Ave. on my way to an audition when a 4ft long cast-iron rod thundered to the ground two feet in front of me. The crowd parted to look up. I was on the phone getting more precise directions from my manager Laurie at the time. Our coversation ...

KM: Okay, so ... the address you gave me seems to be a light fixture store.
LM: No, I know it looks like that but there should be an office entrance nearby with the same address.
KM: Um, I ... oh. Okay, I think I see it.
LM: You see it?
KM: Yeah. Sorry about that.
LM: No problem.
KM: Okay, yes. Definitely. I'm walking there now.
LM: Great, so you're ...


LM: ... almost there?
LM: Whoa. Are you alright?
LM: You're okay?
LM: What happened?
LM: Window washers?
LM: Construction crew?
LM: Are you going to be alright?
LM: Okay, take care of yourself.
LM: What?

Now, it's hard to be fatalistic about these things because ... well ... in my experience, Fate ran out of lessons a long time ago. I've had near-death experiences before. I'm an extremely clumsy person as it is -- toasting bread is a near-death experience. So I feel no need to gussy up the whole episode as some sort of maybe-it-was-a-sign moment. Fate has been syndicated. I don't worry about fate. I have plenty of things to worry about. Gravity, for example. I guess I'll get to the rest of New York later.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Small World Story: Part One - Kit Marlowe

For the past three weeks, I've been house-sitting for David Grimm. Sound familiar? The DC reading audience should remember his name from a curious little spat at Studio Theatre in November 2001 when Mr. Grimm hopped down the coast to catch Second Stage's production of his play, Kit Marlowe.

A brief history. Kit Marlowe was my very first professional job. After a long audition process that involved no less than four rounds of callbacks, director Mike Chamberlain gave me the part of Henry Percy -- a small, two-scene role with perhaps four lines. John Cohn was Kit, Carlos Bustamante was Thomas Walsingham. I also met Tim Getman, Dan Via and Hugh Owen through this production. We often speak of this show with the kind of boyish pride normally reserved for bar-fight scars.

Kit Marlowe remains memorable for other reasons. There was the night the set caught on fire, for example. Looking back, most of the cast-mates agree: the production would have met a more dignified end had it simply burnt to the ground that night. No one would have been hurt, and the building would have been instantly razed for the $3million condos that have been built over Studio's Church Street space since then.

But instead, we were shut down by lawyers and publicists. Mr. Grimm left at intermission (before my scene!) and somewhere around Thanksgiving, I got a call from Studio asking if I was available to hop back in to a Grimm-approved version of the show.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, for anyone unfamiliar with the play, Kit Marlowe chronicles the rise and fall of the playwright Kit Marlowe -- using a style and structure that could be described best as ... yes ... Marlovian. Our director made several modifications to the script -- modifications that probably would be celebrated or at least encouraged if the playwright were dead. I think Grimm's scrupulous formalism triggered the "re-imagining" lobe in Mr. Chamberlain's brain. So we had characters that were split into separate parts. We had a collision of modern and Elizabethan dress. We had one character speaking Spanish (even though he was an Englishman in France). We had excessive fight choreography that spilled on top of dialogue. We had a wonderful mess: critical failure and commercial success.

When Grimm had the production shut down, most of the actors were relieved. As a novice, I just assumed that this was the way things worked in professional theatre. You know ... actors getting respiratory infection from dank, dusty performance spaces ... playwrights issuing cease and desist orders ... spontaneous set fires ... all that. I had a great time.

Fast forward to 2006. I meet David through cast-mate Nicole Lowrance. I needed a place to stay rent-free and David needed someone to feed his cats while he was off at Sundance developing Steve & Idi. So before he took off for Utah, we got to sit down and patch together the Kit-tastrophe.

I guess I mention all this because it's a handy historical marker for me. Absent a permanent home or job in NYC, I cling to anything that gives me a sense of when/where I am. So reminiscing about Kit Marlowe (my intro to DC theatre) with the playwright (shortly after my intro to NYC theatre) gave me some much-needed perspective on where I am and what I've done with my life these past five years. A neat, little chapterizing bow, I guess.

I have another story about Small World playwright encounters, which I'll share tomorrow. It's less rueful and more embarrassing than this one.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Hatchery Festival 2006

I posted about this before, but now those crazy kids at the Hatchery Festival have their own snazzy website:

I tried to bring their logo over here, but Ben Hill's impregnable CSS design forbids it. Please do check this out. The combined talent on this venture happens to include most of my favorite DC writers, directors, actors, and designers. So, if nothing else, click over the Hatchery 2006 to see who I'm talking about. Their first offering, Sarah Sander's Snow Falling Fast, opens this coming Wednesday.

I repeat: this three-play rep production is perfect for anyone who finds Fringe too mainstream. Good stuff, cheap tickets, couched in that quiet DC neighborhood we call Adams Morgan.

Friday, May 12, 2006

39 Things I've Been Meaning to Say

  1. This blog started a little over a year ago when I was out in Juneau doing columbinus at Perseverance Theatre – a wonderful venue and a long overdue knock-me-on-my-ass adventure. That’s where “tundratastic” and “arcticactor” came from. At the time, the blog was just a way to keep friends and family posted on the whole trip. Somewhere in there, I stopped posting about nature and started posting about Theatre In General. I‘ve met a ton of brilliant colleagues and reconnected with a handful of old friends and enemies through this blog.
  2. No, that’s not meant as a flattering preamble for resignation.
  3. I’m trying to build a new one from the ground up – sifting through existing templates and trying to learn CSS and Flash at the same time. Ideally, it’ll be connected to a larger site that consolidates/organizes all my work.
  4. I’m in NYC for the time being. I don’t know for how long. As far as I’m concerned, I haven’t changed residence until my books are with me. It would take some pretty solid footing to commit to hauling my crap up the coast. So I don’t know right now.
  5. Columbinus has been a completely different enterprise up here and because of the circumstances of my employment, I was doubly-unprepared for it. After being dropped at the last minute – and after I had made peace with the whole mess (psychologically, financially, etc.), PJ called and asked if I was free to re-join the project at NYTW about two days before tech was to begin. Yes, crazy. I swear to god, every time I think this play is Done, it comes back to life. The state theatre of Turkey wants to produce it. Yes, Turkey.
  6. If a New York Actor got a Turkish production credit, would he-she put it under the “Regional” section of their resume? I have received conflicting answers for that one.
  7. New York City. Ever been? I hear it’s great! Just great. I haven’t been able to stray very far from the East Village since I got here. I’m staying with an old college chum who lives a few blocks from NYTW. But again: because I had to come here so quickly, I had to bring work with me. So between a rather intense preview period (3 weeks, with re-writes and re-blocking and re-teching every day until we opened), the bucket-load of work I brought with me, and the basic rigors of doing this calorie-burner of a play eight times a week, I haven’t been able to stop and simply check out the city.
  8. That said, here’s a warning: the next few entries will probably be peppered with all sorts of virginal observations about NY-squared. I doubt my first impressions will be exotic for anyone who’s ever been (or currently lives) there. Just so ya know.
  9. Keith Nobbs was going to play Eric here at NYTW. Yes, the man has a Name, but it’s one that he’s earned over and over again. His rep as one of NYC’s best and brightest is rivaled only by his rep as an all-around quality guy. I’ve actually had the privilege of hanging out with him a couple times and after patching together each other’s side of the story, it was clear: neither of us were put in a position to do our best work. And both of us got screwed somewhere along the line.
  10. Please watch Keith’s forthcoming show, The Black Donnellys this fall on NBC.
  11. Here’s a picture of human consciousness from the 17th century.
    Free Image Hosting at
  12. Is anyone out there developing some advanced blogging annotation software? I’ve been trying to develop some in my spare time. Seriously. I think we just need a new way to track-back and organize comments. Something with logical-rhetorical rules built into it. Get to work kids!
  13. Conversation So far, NYC conversation involves the accumulation and re-appropriation of select Banter. It’s like blogging in real time with a live person – I can see the Friendster profile, the adorable coinages, the bedrock of snark, the hit-counter. No subject is ever exhausted to satisfaction; pesky verbal hyperlinking sends a discussion about Darfur into an exegesis of the latest Vince Vaughn movie. And back again.
  14. Example. I listened to two young women on two different occasions tell me their life story. I remember trying earnestly to interject with an autobiographical detail or two. I think I made it clear that I was born in Detroit, for one. Beyond that, I didn’t get another full sentence into the mix for a good forty minutes. It was “Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom.” I was surprised to discover that one of these women told a mutual friend that she thinks we have a lot in common. Maybe we do. I don’t think she was born in Detroit, though, so I really don’t know where she made this connection.
  15. Most people I’ve met don’t want to live here. Rather, they don’t want to “end up” here. They’re here because this is where all the work is. But most of them don’t work. Still figuring that one out.
  16. I have done the following requisite NYC things:
    1. I have stepped on a live rat.
    2. I have given directions to a stranger.
    3. I have given correct directions to a stranger.
    4. I have seen every form of fresh human excretion on the street.
    5. I have attended a Party on the Upper West Side.
    6. I have had meetings.
  17. Everything is suborned to real estate: industry, status, ambition, diet, romance, exercise, opportunity, spiritual well-being, fate. Coffee consumption! My god. I swear I could make a ball-park wager as to the real estate value of the 14” X 14” square I’m using to write this. When I buy coffee, I don’t think about the coffee – I think about how much of that $1.79 goes to pay the property tax on the two-square foot nook I will occupy when I drink it.
  18. Since I’m basically homeless, I have yet to find a place that offers the following amenities for work:
    1. Comfortable chair.
    2. Ample workspace (books, papers, laptop, beverage).
    3. Light.
    4. Outlets.
    5. No techno music in the background.
    6. Decent coffee.
    7. Wi-fi access.
    8. Open 24 hours.
  19. Now, I’m sure such places exist, but I can’t find one. At least, not one that I don’t have to subscribe to or perch on some poncey waiting list. At this point, I’d settle for a place with a real chair and table. Everything else is up for negotiation.
  20. NYC has a panhandler to match each of John Hogeman’s 700 Names. They’re more enterprising and courteous than DC panhandlers, I must say.
  21. Strange though: there are no change machines here. Now, I used to work in Potomac, MD – one of the absurdly wealthy neighborhoods in the DC metro region. The local banks and supermarkets had change machines. I don’t get it. NYC has a vast underground penny-nickel-dime economy – one that I was forced to participate in last week. So what’s the story here? If you’re only remaining assets include a hefty bag of change, three rare Balinese stamps, and two theatre paychecks that have yet to clear … why are the banks so persnickety about converting money for you, their trusted client? Does change conversion only encourage pan-handling (or, in my case, freewheeling survival accounting tactics)? Is it another stupid NYC pride transaction? Rather than embarrass yourself once, you must embarrass yourself a dozen times at different corner bodegas, paying for a juice and an orange with nickels, while the hair-trigger cashier drums on the counter waiting for you to finish? Why do Potomac housewives have easy access to a service they never use, but Sparkmonkey, the genial and ambitious 2nd Ave bum slash freelance philosopher can’t cash in his earnings every night?
  22. NYC has a lot of blind people. More than I’ve ever seen in a big city.
  23. NYC has a lot of deaf people. Not quite as many as DC, but the figure’s up there.
  24. NYC has virtually NO mute people. Like, none. It’d reeeeeeally balance out the population.
  25. After being here for two months, I now believe that child-rearing is a selfish enterprise. If you live with nine million people, why must you create more? It’s not the kids that bug me; it’s the parents. See: Bill Hicks. I’ve been staying with two Brooklyn school teachers – two extremely generous and smart women who honestly believe that most of their students would have been better off unborn. This troubles me because I just discovered my latent paternal instincts! Damn!
  26. And, no, it’s not a class thing. Rich people need to stop having kids, too. Super-rich people need to stop pretending that effective parentage comes from having more money (Spielberg, Brangalina, et al.). Please give all the money you want to underprivileged kids, just don’t insult them by calling them your child.
  27. Ever been to Little Lichtenstein? I can’t find it on the metro map …
  28. I’ve been chewing on Walter Davis’s Manifesto for a Progressive Theatre. Please read it and comment. He categorizes emotions based on their locus to the Self – primary emotions are feelings inseparable from identity (embarrassment, envy, cruelty) while secondary emotions are feelings generated by the ego to displace anxiety and render unpleasant experience as something external (fear) or random (pity).
  29. I guess he places “guilt” as a variant of embarrassment and I have no idea what he imagines the Subject does when It isn’t resolving perpetual psychic conflict. In WED’s map, Anxiety is the irreduceable state of things, conflict is primary and harmony/resolution/integration … these are temporary departures from reality, not Reality at its most real. Interestingly enough, for a taxonomy that casts the ego and logos as twin demons, the ultimate purpose of the subject (and presumably progressive theatre) is to "reverse the control that others have over one’s psyche.”
  30. Try to avoid using the word "watchable" to describe an actor. It's not a complement. It's like saying Hopscotch was "legible." It's not insulting, either, it's just confusing.
  31. Speaking of sideways complements, I keep hearing that DC has a “credible” theatre scene. This is another weird complement that appraises nothing in particular. To be credible means … that you’ve been granted certain credentials, I guess. I’ve read and heard this adjective several times since I’ve been in NYC and I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean. Calling an artist or community of artists “credible” is like calling your lover ... I don’t know … “sentient.” Yeah. “Baby, you are the most sentient lover I’ve ever had.”
  32. Some dude at a Williamsburg café is using that line right now.
  33. I don’t know what to tell you.
  34. I just spent a week in Poughkeepsie, doing a play workshop at Vassar.
  35. Vassar has over 400 species of tree on its campus.
  36. Vassar has two coffee shops.
  37. My new computer has an iSight camera built into screen. Sometimes one of the pin-hole lights on either side of the camera will blink randomly. This creeps me out.
  38. I can take pictures of myself and do video-conferencing with this camera, which is cool. The Photo Booth program that came with the OS lets you do funhouse distortions as you take the pictures. Here’s one.

  39. Free Image Hosting at
  40. Here’s another. I almost want to set up an online dating profile just to use it.

  41. Free Image Hosting at

Thursday, April 13, 2006


I'm going to post on Hamlet soon. But here's another story I've been trying to figure out ...

Tuesday before last, I was meeting up with long lost best friend Dan Stroeh and his dad for dinner. Dan was back in town briefly to see Hamlet and go through some routine NIH checkups. For anyone tracking Dan’s story: he’s doing better and better. He’s also feeling restless and eager to return to NYC as soon as he can. As we ambled around looking for a restaurant, the storm clouds started barreling in. Flocks of well-starched Bethsda-ites (wtf do you call them?) were scurrying inside to dodge the rain. We had a lovely Thai meal and then went our separate ways.

I was going to meet up with Ben Hill (of Revolutions Workshop fame – also producer of this summer’s fringe-within-a-fringe festival at DCAC) since he was back in town from Iowa City. So I walked across the street to Barnes&Noble to kill time. I got my coffee and went outside to try and catch him on the phone. The rain was still pouring down hard, so I couched myself underneath the B&N overhang next to that fountain they have in front. And then I saw the following:

In the rain, a homeless guy, black, stepped knee-deep into the fountain to scoop up the coins.

My thoughts and feelings in the order I remember them:

One: Holy fuck.

Two: That breaks my heart.

Three: What sent Nietzsche into the sanitarium?

Four: Holy fuck.

Five: There has to be a book/painting/play/poem/film that has used this image. I’m standing in front of a massive bookstore, for god’s sake. Tell me there’s a story inside the store to help me understand the story outside the store.

Six: What do Bethesdanians wish for anyway? I’d really like to know what would make their concrete-and-mirrored-glass playground better.

Seven: I’ve lived in South African townships and I’ve never seen anything this sad.

Eight: Holy fuck.

A couple minutes later, three 20-something guys tumbled out of the B&N. I don’t know if they were military or not, but a) they had matching haircuts and b) they were exactly two inches shorter than me. Anyway, here’s the conversation:

DUDE#1: Hey. Ya see the guy stealin’ wishes?


ME: Uwuzzawuzza? What? Is that what you call it?

DUDE#1: Why? What do you call it? “Borrowing wishes”?

ME: No. I look at that and I think of the fool that would throw money into water, expecting to buy a wish for a quarter … and how the same fool would probably begrudge this guy that same quarter when that’s all he’s wishing for in the first place.

Dude#1 blinked. Then he and his buddies walked over to the homeless guy. One of them (Dudes#2 or 3, I can’t be sure) pulled out a fistful of change, looked the homeless guy right in the eye, and then threw the money into the fountain. They walked away, chuckling. And the homeless guy muttered after: “Bless you, thank you, bless you.”

I. Shit. You. Not.

Okay, kids. Someone in the blogworld has to have seen this before. Somewhere. Maybe that night. Maybe in art. Maybe at another fountain. I'm horribly under-read, so it'll probably be a scene from some embarrassingly obvious source like ... erm ... Finnegans Wake. The precedent won't provide comfort, but I have to know. Cause if I don't get that, I'm gonna need the names and addresses of the three musketeers.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Good Morning

Sunlight. Amazing.

How's it going? I've been keeping track of the My Name Is Rachel Corrie controversy up at New York Theatre Workshop as best I can through George and Garret's vigilant blogging. The whole circus seems to have run its course for the moment -- which has only given way to a double-bitter undertow: "Why aren't people in the streets protesting the Machine!" I don't know. My copy of the play was supposed to arrive sometime last week, but alas. I'd like to think this debate could happen without a serious examination of the play in question (there's plenty to chew on pure principle) but in the meantime, people are citing the play's accumulated praise and its plot/content summary to make their case. And I think we're missing something.

On the surface, it would seem the play's absence has done more to stoke community-wide discussion than its presence ever could. That's an unfair conclusion, of course, since we'll never know what its regularly-scheduled NYC debut would have accomplished -- and I don't think MNIRC's criticism-to-date gives us any clue to how NYC audiences will react. I've seen too many plays rock the world only to be panned out of spite in NYC. Sorry, it's true. And now ... people are prepared to be edified out of spite! If you haven't read Walter Davis's essay, please do. And then try to add another layer of meta-rage, if you can. I can't.

But something else bothers me about the whole catastrophe, something quite apart from the blunt injustice of NYTW's original decision. I'm terrified that we (as artists, as activists, as Americans) can only process injustice through a first amendment filter. Rather than expand the definition of censorship to include the present disaster, I'm going to let censorship and free speech remain issues of the State. For the moment. Here are the other questions I have:
  1. Are free speech battles the only ones we're confident we can win?
    1. Because both the American Left and Right have a common stake in its sustenance -- meaning there's a good chance we'll win?
  2. Do we believe the first amendment provides the axis for every other human right we can imagine? (would like to explore this at length, regardless)
  3. Are we over-eager for free speech battles because they lend themselves to instantaneous courtroom dramas in our heads?
  4. Is it possible that Nicola's crime is something categorically different from censorship? Something, possibly, much worse?
  5. If I wrote something nasty on this blog and then someone retaliated by impaling my dog with a rusty lawn dart, would that be an assault on my freedom of speech? Is it possible that this would-be dog-killer was actually responding very specifically to the content of my blog, not my right to write it?
I'm reminded of a story my mom used to tell me. One of her seminary professors pointed out that the special stigma attached to Lust was absent for the other Deadly Sins. Turns out, we have St. Augustine to thank for that. But he put it to my mom's class like this:

"If Augustine had obsessed over Greed the way he obsessed over Lust, you'd have to buy your Wall Street Journal in a brown paper bag. And Hustler would be available on every street corner."

I think about that and I wonder if the artistic temperament is prone to a similar fixation -- not w/r/t Lust of course, but a tendency to conflate all sins with some form of censorship.


Just before the MNiRC scandal started to bloom, I got an e-mail from PJ asking if I'd like to resume my part as Eric Harris in columbinus. At NYTW. I was ecstatic at first, but too bogged down in Elsinore to notice. Rehearsals were to start today -- April 11. 36 hours after closing Hamlet. Not much time to orchestrate a move from DC to NYC, but I went to work. I had to back out of The Monument at Theatre Alliance. So I called Jeremy (about six weeks before rehearsals were to start at H Street) and told him the story.

In the intervening weeks, he and I tried to get a more definitive confirmation from NYTW's casting folk and from PJ. And as late as two weeks ago, the offer still stood. Before offering my part in The Monument to another actor, Jeremy and I made one last round of calls to PJ & Co. to confirm that a) the project was still going ahead and b) I was still involved. After one final assurance from PJ that this was the case ... Jeremy offered my part to someone else. And then a couple days later PJ offered my part to someone else. Somewhere in the middle, I opened Hamlet. And now that it's over, I can finally come up for air and look at everything that's happened.

Since I suddenly have a lot of free time.

To PJ's credit, he did "own" the choice. Sure, he cited pressure from the NYTW staff to find a Name for the lead. After all, NYTW has a lot riding on their next show. But PJ made it clear that this was his choice at the end of the day. So if anyone wonders why I'm not appearing in either The Monument or columbinus as previously announced, that's why. I've had to explain this whole story to a lot of people in the past couple weeks; better to tell the rest of you now.

Here's what I'm stuck with: I gave up a show for nothing. Two shows, actually, since I had to bow out of The Violet Hour last fall just to come to NYTW and re-audition for my part in a backer's presentation. So that's two lead parts and four months of work -- half of which I gave up willingly and the other half ... well, what do you call that? It's not censorship.

My point. From the outside, the last-minute MNiRC cancellation looks like a clear-cut censorship issue. And I can certainly understand why Viner and Rickman (as writers) feel that way. But as an actor dealing with my own last-minute cancellation, I'm too overwhelmed with trying to re-arrange my life for the next three months. So it's not my freedom of expression that's been violated. It's my trust. I can make art in a police state. We've been doing that since 9/11, right? Or trying to. Or failing that, we have a gazillion stories to inform the battle against censorship. But I can't make art with artists I don't trust. And there's no court for this particular crime.

For anyone who's interested, columbinus is not an attempt to Romanize that tragedy. I've spent the better part of three years developing the play and, frankly, scrupulous contextualization was a huge part of that. In the end, I believe we made something more challenging (and honest) than Bowling for Columbine ... and something more daring (and honest) than, say, Elephant or Bingo Boys. I wish I could be there to share it. But since everyone's eager to pounce on NYTW's next move -- almost completely certain that it'll be a bad one -- I didn't want to say anything without having the time to actually join the discussion. Now that my show's over, I can.

More later ...

Friday, February 10, 2006

Critical Mass

There's a wonderful discussion brewing about the role of the critic in the art world. Sure, we come back to this subject again and again, but now we've got some immediate examples to anchor the theorizing. First stop: Chicago.
  1. An Angry White Guy in Chicago, Don Hall writes a post "Critique the Critique" where he criticizes Chicago Sun-Times theatre critic Hedy Weiss's review of A Child's History of Bombing. With me so far? I know that was a mangled string of refernces, but hyperlinks are replacing prepositions one-by-one these days and I'm not sure I ever learned how to use either of them. In short: Don takes issue with Hedy's emphasis on the subject of the play and maintains that her role as a critic is to appraise the sundry craftworks on display, not to contend with the ideas/themes/statements therein. As it happens, this play is about War, The Atomic Bomb, WWII, and Vietnam. Hedy thinks the Neo-Futurists have chosen the wrong war to advance an anti-war premise and Don thinks that makes her an Op-Ed columnist, not a theatre critic. Warp to North Carolina, where ...
  2. Theatre Ideas blogger Scott Walters has been trying to articulate his frustration with In-Yer-Face-Theatre and the legions of glib devil-children it seems to spawn. So his reaction to Don's reaction to Hedy's reaction to A Child's History of Bombing is something along the lines of: "Well, what did you expect?" He states:
    "Artists can hand out the assaults, but scream like babies when they are assaulted themselves."
    I appreciate Scott's willingness to deflate Don's indignation, even if he's generalizing a bit in the larger analysis. Cue Allison Croggon of Melbourne, Australia ...
  3. Theatre Notes and Critic Watch -- two blogs maintained by Allison. They don't feature any posts about the current deabte, but they're wonderful to read in their own right. Allison comments regularly on both Scott Walter's and George Hunka's blog and she brings the expertise of a professional critic. She adds this dimension:
    If you think an audience is part of the theatre, then a theatre critic - as a member of the audience, albeit a privileged one - is also part of the theatre. I have never had much time for the idea of the "objective" critic who hands out elephant stamps or black crosses and a mark out of ten - this is a fiction usually translated by media outlets into a consumer guide and by critics into an excuse for ignorance. And I know, first hand, how ignorant journalists can be. Personally, I'm all for theatre artists arguing back, even to me; most don't in fact because they fear being seen as whining complainers.

    A true sense of commitment to theatre in an abstract sense sharpens the critical faculties. Of course critique should always be honest, or it's worthless: and it should also be informed. I don't always agree with things I consider fine criticism; that isn't the point. The point is the quality of response and expression, its ability to spark further thinking. It's probably worth remembering that the best critics, without exception, from Kenneth Tynan to Jann Kott, have always been advocates.
  4. Now, I wish to hone in on Allison's deeper point about general advocacy as a way to introduce what I consider to be a shameful little episode here in DC. Trey Graham of the Washington City Paper maintains the blog Theaterboy, which features the story of a fourth-string critic for The Washington Post: Tricia Oszlewski. Tricia writes for both publications; movie reviews for City Paper and theatre reviews for the Post. To judge by a recent mini-bio she wrote on her own personal blog MovieBabe, she would rather be writing for movies than theatre. She calls the DC theatre scene "pretentious" and makes a plea for deliverance from her blog audience so she can go back to reviewing just film. Trey judiciously outlines the whole story here -- followed by a growing list of comments from every corner of the DC theatre scene.
Some people have written that Tricia's personal blog shouldn't be used as evidence against her professional writing. Others have taken this episode to vindicate/validate the critical treatment they've received from her. Still others have launched into the larger argument about a critic's role in the art world -- which brings us back to our colleagues in Chicago, NYC, North Carolina, and Melbourne.

To me, it sounds like everyone's getting their bitter little wish -- but no one's wiser or happier for it. It's just sad that it came down to a throwaway joke on a personal blog when the real problem was the lack of "a true sense of commitment to theatre in the abstract." It doesn't take an accidental slip on a personal blog to discover this, nor should we go on our own hunches. Tricia's been with the Post for three years and apparently no one ever asked her if she enjoyed the work she was doing, nor did she have the time, resources, or inclination to expand her understanding of the craft or the circuit.

So now Tricia doesn't have to review pretentious theatre anymore and hopefully she'll continue to watch the companies she enjoyed. Smaller companies won't have to endure her reviews anymore, if that's really what upsets them. And until the Post introduces someone to fill her place, we'll get to chew on the mechanics of big-paper distribution and criticism ... all the while ignoring one scrumptious irony: the blog world, which provided evidence for Tricia's dismissal, also lets us parse our indignation while rendering that indignation moot.

More on this later -- I just wanted to offer everyone a chance to compare notes with different examples. If the T.O. story has DC bloggers reaching for some deeper articulation of the critic's place in the community -- check out Allison's blogs and her comments on Scott's recent post. If Scott, Allison, and Don are looking for another case-study in the critic-artist relationship, I'd invite you to weigh in on our most recent tiff.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Long Ago

I'm sure you've noticed that peculiar mid-life slump in most blogs -- someone puts out enough interesting stuff to keep you casually hooked out of a) fraternal loyalty b) the promise of an occasional flame war c) genuine intrigue d) they have the most comprehensive buffet of hyperlinks you've found, which is handy because in this day and age I need someone else to do my mindless web-surfing e) they're pitching wholesale Snark by the "creative" "insertion" "of" "mocking" "quotation" ... "marks." Whatever. But suddenly ... it goes dark for a day. Then a week. Then a fiscal quarter. The life-support hyperlinks from virile blogs next door begin to vanish one by one. And finally, you see some hastily-assembled epitaph by the author -- always crafted with a flavor that's one part gratitude ("for my 'humble' readership of 18 pageloads a month") and ever twenty parts righteous abdication: "I'd love to continue feeding you digital tripe, but I now have far more important things to do."

Well, I'm not writing one of those right now. No, I have a lovely list of half-assed excuses which, combined, will yield perhaps 1.5 asses -- more than enough to explain the absence for anyone who cares. Everyone else may skip down a couple paragraphs for something resembling original content.
  1. Shortly after my vistit to NYC last November, my laptop started acting up on me. It would stay up late playing Woody Allen DVDs, ostensibly for its own amusement. It would catcall the sleek iBooks resting prone on the lap of some lovely coffeehouse misanthrope down the table from me at Tryst. It would audibly sneer at whatever I wrote and lacquer my words with protective air-quotes.* All without my permission! I can only blame those ten days in the Village. Adrift in the ample and infected wi-fi traffic of Manhatten, I fear, my poor laptop whored its country-mouse hard drive. I was told that my $300 protection policy didn't apply to software corruption. Luckily, a computer store was willing to charge me $300 to fix what was really wrong with my machine! How perfect is that? I sprung her from the ICU three weeks ago, only to experience the same meltdown. So after exchanging some angry words with the enterprising, cyber-snake-oil salesman who misdiagnosed it the first time, I passively surrendered my laptop to another repair shop for who-knows-how-long.
  2. I'm up to my third-eye in Hamlet homework. I would love to tell you all about it, but I think that would only discourage you from seeing it and prevent me from doing a decent job when it goes up. My girlfriend will ask me what I did today. I've said the same thing for the past two months:
    Darling. I could tell you about this pesky semicolon that seems to betray the entire axis of the story and then whip out arguments from Johnson, Kitteridge, Bloom, and Wilson to explain why this wayward typo took 6 hours to resolve ... or I could just say "I worked on Hamlet some more."
    My pre-rehearsal work on this play involves two equally-unbloggable adventures: text/punctuation analysis and some very basic (nay: remedial) body/voice reprogramming. I cherish my liberal arts education and I enjoy picking up vast swaths of expurgated literature piecemeal -- through five invigorating years' work "in the field" rather than three expensive years' work in grad school. But this is different. I'm less concerned with thematic or conceptual flourish (the sort of material that makes for dashing, incendiary blog entries) this time round. I'm more concerned with basic proficiency. Today, I fear the conceptual for its seductive Sith-like shortcuts; more often, these proprietary filters (He's Gay! He's God! He's Oedipus! He's a Locquacious Brat!) destroy more than they amplify. So it upsets me when the first question out of most people's mouth is: "Will you be wearing a codpiece? Or is it, like, you know, postmodern?" Yeah. I guess those are the only options.
  3. Pure Intimidation. I found this lively cohort of theatre bloggers -- all of which can be accessed on the well-pruned blogroll at Superfluities. I've started about three different posts in an attempt to join their debates at one point or another. They're all in the draft drawer now because the minute I come close to finishing a satisfactory post/comment/rebuttal, they're off to another topic. At this stage in my life, I'm too susceptible to idealism of any stripe -- whether it's George Hunka's passionately ascetic thanatophilia or Scott Walters's beauty = truth = beauty manifesto. I'm trying to be less trigger-happy in my posting and that means less posting, period. In-Yer-Face Theatre is the subject of the most recent discussion. If George, Allison, Scott, and Matthew Freeman are still on this topic by Wednesday, I might be able to interject before I vanish into rehearsals next week.
*Air-quotes. I've complained about incessant quotey-quote usage before. Here's a prediction. Remember when Microsoft Word had, at best, a shitty spell-check tool? Now the program purports to fix our grammer at the click of a button, right? Well, if the grammar check tool instantly elevates your prose to the veneer of Buckley-Chomsky ... don't you think there'll soon be a button labeled simply "Irony" or "pomo"**? Guess what THAT one would do!

**For the record, I use this term as an abbreviation first, not as some catchall invective for "postmodernism." I understand the term also refers to the native people of Northern California, so my apologies if there was some misunderstanding. Yes, I find the postmodern school to be insufferably self-absorbed and therefore it pains me to shed extra calories at the keyboard by typing the whole damn redundant, useless, inflated, hollow phrase again and again.