10 February 2013

Pumpkin Grower IV

At long last, the fourth and final installment on The Pumpkin Grower.

For this play, I won a State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship.  Needless to say, having a panelists of four experts in the field, totaling more than 100 years of experience as professional theater artist, giving you the highest score in the whole theater competition is a nice balance to the reviews the play's writing received.  Of course, neither the praise nor the bewilderment is the point, and so I'll leave it at that.  The monies I will receive for the fellowship will allow me to be free of teaching this summer so that I can complete Because Beauty Must Be Broken Daily.

This week, Fool for Love opens at the FGCU Theatre Lab, and it's been a treat to work with Barry Cavin and Armano Rivera again, and it's a pleasure to be working with new actors in Becca Goldberg and Mark Hancock.  It's going to be a very fun run, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what we can do.

The pleasure of doing Fool for Love is in doing a play that is so well written, something built on its own necessary terms and fulfilling that obligation on those terms.  Too many contemporary plays simply sell out to the audience.  I get that impulse to please the audience, especially for anything that appears Off-Broadway, let alone on Broadway, where people are paying $100-500 dollars per seat, and you sure as heck don't want to produce something that's not going to break even.  And while I love going to the Florida Rep and other local theater productions, we rarely get to see really good contemporary plays.  I'm not talking about the obvious weaknesses in comedies--actually, those productions are among the best the Florida Rep does.  I'm talking about the "serious fare," the Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists of dramas that are so profoundly bad.

A current production of the "Tony-nominated" Time Stands Still at the Florida Rep perfectly exemplifies my disappointment.  The acting is superb, the direction is spot on, the technical work deeply admirable--I enjoyed the performance immensely.  But while nearly all the local reviewers praised the play for its bold, relevant, and moving writing, I found the play to be banal, retrograde, predictable, and normative.  It was one of those plays, daring to be realistic and relevant, that eventually was all about rewarding the audience's passivity, where they could feel comfort in having marriage, sexual order, male privilege, and simpering feminine emotionalism being all confirmed as values above art, above responsibility, and above witnessing (the difficult moral witnessing, of paying attention for its own sake--not for the sake of an end, which the play just got wrong).  Despite the play bringing us to the ugly realities of war, it served to make the audience feel superior to NPR liberals.  Wow.  Big accomplishment.

The problem with theater is the expense involved with the productions.  You have to have an audience, and that's an especially difficult challenge.  I admire Florida Rep for bringing first rate talent and first rate productions to our community.  And they have had some very good plays produced (Little Foxes, to name one from this season).   It's why I subscribe to their series and donate a modest amount annually to their good and valiant endeavors.  My beef really isn't with those theaters at all. 

To have really tremendous theater, you have to have those small houses, and hopefully, a sufficiently large enough audience to be able to support those small ventures, an audience willing to participate with nerve, love, and intelligence.  It's an intelligence that requires the imagination, that can be secure enough to be receptive, and that can deal with other modes of revelation that exist beyond the tyranny of lineal narrative and confirmation. 

03 November 2012

Two Forthcoming Roles

In February, I'll be playing the Old Man in Sam Shepard's Fool for Love, for the FGCU Theatre Lab under the direction of Barry Cavin.  Come April, I'll be playing Nagg in Samuel Beckett's Endgame, for Ghostbird Theatre Company under the direction of Brittney Brady.  Back to being old dudes, sedentary dinosaurs who've stirred a little trouble, just about to fossilize and disappear.

As Nell says in Endgame, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness."

25 October 2012

Beauty Must Be Broken Daily

That's going to be the title of my next play, but I'm not sure if I should even call it a play.  Anyway, the title is lifted from Virginia Woolf, and the full quote is "But beauty must be broken daily to remain beautiful," and it's from her novel, The Waves.

Borrowing from Woolf, not just the quote, I want to make something deeply recursive (not repetitive), and I already have something of a triggering image to assemble and disassemble.  It's at the stage now that the ideas are just beginning to percolate, small pops to the surface, and I'm just wanting to dive in, to explore, but then there's the papers and narratives to grade, the silly committee meeting I'm having to attend tomorrow, two plays I'll be seeing this weekend. 

Ah, the poetry thing, when I just needed a two-hour slip of time over the weekend to build something, no matter how poorly designed, that could be attended later on, in equally limited snippets and pockets of time.  But actually, the play is no more complicated, just longer, and I'll be getting to it, soon.

19 October 2012

Pumpkin Grower III (there will be only one more, honest)

A point I've been meaning to make about theatre, and it was very much at work with my play, is the deeply integrative nature of the art.  To be sure, during any one scene, one element may dominate, may come to the fore:  an actor, a piece of the script, a light cue, a piece of music, a stage set, a prop, a second of choreography, a gesture, or a few seconds of silence and stillness.  But typically, the elements are at play, in play, with one another.

In other collaborative enterprises, some of which I've participated or I've been an audience member,  the contributions might as well have been separate as they were "blended," although the exchange itself might have created new dynamics.  I've seen this separation in my experiences with ArtPoems, where sometimes what the poet and the artist create are discrete works of art (the real joy of ArtPoems is its celebration of creativity).

Last year, when I read a poem for a dance number, one poet complained that I read the poem too fast, that it served the dance and didn't stand on its own as a poem in the performance.  I took pride in that criticism, because that was what I was after with my work with the dancers, that the poem didn't exist as a poem, and neither did the dance exist solely as a piece of choreography.  I was a physical part of the dance, another body in the dance space, and I read as an accompanist, where the poetry served and lifted the dancers, and the dancers, with their bodies, annihilated the poetry itself.

Let me offer another example, not my own.  The Canadian poet Anne Carson is one of my favorites--I performed in her translation of Agamemnon as well, and her multi-genre, multilingual Nox is one of the best books of poetry this century.  In any event, I came across this video of collaboration she undertook with the outstanding choreographer Jonah Bokaer at last year's wonderful O, Miami Poetry Festival, a work called "Stacks."


While there's much to commend to the performance, the echo-y reading, the crisp and deeply intentional dance, the elements remained fundamentally discrete, which isn't surprising because the poem was produced separately from the poem--Bokaer choreographed the dance on the poem.  Nowhere is the choice made for the poem to serve the dance.  The text, Anne Carson's unwaving voice, stands firm, essentially unchanged by the dance itself; at worst, the dance becomes illustrative, and at best, the pauses and deliberate voice serve as measures for the dance phrases.  At some point, I want to see the voice, the poetry, sacrificed for the dance; I think these individual parts must die, a little, in order for the integration to occur.  

What they have in this work is awfully good, and I envy the audience for having such a treat, but to me, it felt like a poetry reading and a dance performance.  It's not what I'm after.

16 October 2012

Pumpkin Grower II: The Reviews

Oh, and then the reviews.

First, I have to say that the local papers and theatre writers were wonderful in providing inches and inches of space to promote Ghostbird Theatre Company and its premiere of my play.  The articles rightly focused on Brittney Brady and her vision.  Chris Silk and Charles Runnells also gave serious attention to the performance itself in their reviews, which were mixed.  I think both wanted to like the play, especially with something that was conceptual, a little edgy as far as Fort Myers is concerned (although we're talking about aesthetics a good 50 years old), but both had difficulties with the seeming lack of narrative, leaving the play abstract, or muddy, or not making "a lick of sense."  In brief, the shortcoming to the play was in the writing.  Fair enough. 

I really don't have anything to say about their assessments.  No, wait, I do have something to say. 

The narrative of the play essentially paralleled that in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and I intentionally wanted to be true to the slightness of narrative in Ovid's own account (which one of the reviewers doesn't quite get right--I think his use of Wikipedia is showing).  My problem with narrative, especially as it's been trapped in realistic drama, is the very thing that these reviewers clearly value.  One of the reviewers condescended to enlighten me that even a performance artist who dresses in a rabbit suit and speaks Swahili knows that he must provide some kind of a narrative entryway for his audience, to let the audience know exactly what is at stake.  I get the point.  But obviously, this was a play with a different kind of aim.  There's a significant difference between this kind of caricature of performance art and conceptual art, something that aims to weave the familiar with the destabilizing.  I note that both reviewers seem frustrated in divining some kind of symbolism from the play--there's very little of it, actually, very little.  No wonder it seemed "abstract" (when in fact, there was no abstraction at all).

The problem is that the script in conceptual work (and this one had some very clear, conventional, realistic scenes--both of which Brittney and I would cut in a reworking of the play) should serve no more than what the music, or the lighting, or the set design should supply.   The language in the play is mostly poetic and not metaphoric (this is what neither reviewer seemed to consider), and not everything is meant to be transparent, swallowable, familiar.  But that doesn't mean the work is pointless or indecipherable, but something ineffable, contingent, incomplete.  Rather than story, we wanted ritual.  Rather than story, we wanted movement.  Rather than story, we wanted soundscape and shadow.  Both reviewers were complimentary of the visuals (and I'm glad Charles especially noted Phil Heubeck's aural contributions), but they both wanted to saddle the script with the task of making the meaning clear.

So, the play is really only about a sister falling in love with her brother, who's wife has just left him.  She writes of her passion in a letter.  He rejects her.  She wanders off, guilt-stricken, grief-stricken.  Some nymphs try, haplessly, to comfort her.  She turns into a fountain.  That's all that happens.  What does it mean?  Ovid never says.  It's just a sad, sad, sad, beautiful song, and that's what we were after.

Of course, what's odd is that in the script, there are those awful moments of extended exposition (by the way, I sent both reviewers the script before the play premiered).  Here's what the character Byblis says in the play, after she learns of Caunus leaving, and you don't have to know anything about Ovid to understand what is going on:

My eyes are wide open. I knew what I was doing. I
know the laws, the rules, the customs. What law didn’t
I violate in wanting to sleep with my brother?

Euphemisms, Byb! You wanted to fuck your brother!

Okay, fuck and sleep with him. The whole soul and sex
thing. I know you get that part of the equation as
much as I do. And yes, I know how screwed up it is,
but it doesn’t change anything for me.

And you ruined him.

I know.

That’s what so messed about this.

I’m aware of that, too. He’s left. He’s back with
Jen. They’ll probably have a baby this time next year.
He’s abandoning his lousy job. He’s lost a
sister. He’s alone. That’s what so messed up about

You didn’t have to act.

You’re right.

You didn’t have to put it down in writing.


You could have stayed here. Flirted with him to your
heart’s desire. Held him, kissed him, comforted him,
grown old with him. Just like you have been doing, had
been doing, your whole life. You could have been what
you are, the good, loving sister.

Precisely so. Impossibly so.

I think this passage lays out exactly what had been at stake for the characters--hello?  My own sense of it is what I sometimes deal with students who may be reading Dean Young's poetry, who miss the absolute hilarity and its caustic bite because Young evidently doesn't know how to develop a rational argument, build an intelligible framework, and so it must be nonsense.  Ah, but dear student, there's no better nonsense than this, and what's inside, well, there's more than a little point to it.

I don't mean to say that I don't think my script didn't fail.  And the play failed--as they inevitably do-- in ways far harsher, more harrowing than what any reviewer will express.  But that's for another posting.

15 October 2012

Pumpkin Grower I

First, some images (these aren't the official photo shoot images, but ones taken by Phil Heubeck during the photo shoot) and videos.

Dana Lynn Frantz and Dayanira Lopez as the Legelian Nymphs
Hairstyle done by Katelyn Gravel

Jake Scott-Hodes as Caunus
He's reading his letter to Byblis in the pumpkin patch

Dayanira Lopez as Ellie, Me as Venus, Dana Lynn Frantz as Rachel
Venus is schooling the nymphs on how to shake the bees
The dress, yes, the dress, a wonderful midnight velor and satin opera length gloves.

Rachel Bennett as Byblis
Byblis is composing her letter beneath the sad melaleuca tree

Jonathan Lawrence as the Violinist
J-Law playing the violin

And some behind the scenes video I captured.

And the official trailer for the play. 
The background music/soundscape was created by Phil Heubeck for the play.

12 October 2012

Reality Check: Doesn't Showbiz Have More Pitfalls than the Po-Biz?

A friend who's followed my evolution from poet to performance writer/playwright has rightly questioned about my move being a case of "out of the fire into the frying pan."

Obviously, theatre is deeply encumbered with commercial pressures--far more than poetry and its production.  And publishing plays is every bit as onerous and belittling as publishing poetry--and I would argue even moreso, with agents being thrown into the picture, and with far fewer venues available for producing your work.  On top of that, I have to admit that I think the state of American theatre and American playwriting is far worse than it is for poetry.  I'm not talking musicals, but "serious" plays like the platitudinous Red (just a castration of Rothko so that it all becomes a Tuesdays with Morrie with really good paintings) or the unspeakably banal God of Carnage (ooooh, let's poke fun at sanctimonious liberals, how daring!) or the reductive melodrama of Doubt.

I still find some hope in Suzan Lori Parks, and I marvel at some of the latest works by old guards Sam Shepard and Caryl Churchill and Tom Stoppard, but mostly it's derivation, or just really bad pissing as indulgence (Neil LaBrute, anyone?).   Too many playwrights have that eye on Los Angeles, or the false notion that off-Broadway can be restored with some reincarnation of Miller or Williams, just calibrating it to the right social issue of the day, just teasing out the right psychological dimension.  I'm really not interested in that work, and I find it more appalling than even the worst of academic poetry.

Where I have landed with my performance writing, though, is a very lucky spot.  My ideal is to write for a small theatre company (it's quaint, I know, really quaint, not unlike the dream some poets have of starting their own co-op, hand-letter presses), where I also act and collaborate, where I may also write press releases, clean up after shows, post on Facebook, etc.  And I have it.  With Ghostbird Theatre Company, a venture that started last spring (although we didn't name it anything then), and that came into its own this summer.  I'll be writing more of this little troupe in later posts.

The model here isn't theatre, really, but performance.  And above all, I don't mean performance art (which is justly ridiculed in all its caricatures).  Traditional theatre is caught under the tyranny of message, of slogan, of assuring the audience, who've laid out $50-$500 for a seat.  I'm good with theatre that is meant for entertainment, and much of it is genuinely artful.  But if theatre is to grow, and to offer something more than spectacle (at best) or reiteration (at worst), then I think it has to do something with what those live bodies, their dimensionality and immediacy, signify and project and absorb.  And scripts (not plays) must serve those bodies and their voices that engage in ritual, in retrieval, in reverence, in violence, in reconciliation, in abandonment.  The script for me is neither more nor less than the choreography, the lighting, the set design, the blocking, the acting, the soundscape, the music, the props, and the audience.

Just as in poetry there is a danger to make a monument out of the publication, there is a danger in theatre to make the play the thing, that there's something inviolable and sacrosanct about the text, that some plays are meant to be museum pieces.  If that were all to playwriting, I would be better off remaining a poet.  My attraction to theatre, as I practice it with my collaborators at Ghostbird Theatre Company, is that it's all about the performance itself, which is always more than just words.