The other day, I heard myself ask another theatre practitioner, "So how many dimmer packs do you guys have?" And it kind of struck me what an utterly obscure question that is to the majority of people. "Uh, you mean a dimmer switch?" Kind of. I'm not even a lighting guy. I've hung a few lamps, moved some barn doors around, but the whole of black cables and gel combinations remains some weird alchemy to me.
But I do love the lights. When I go to someone else's show, after I've finished checking out the program, I sometimes find myself looking at the grid and counting instruments, trying to figure what's focused where. And I think that's because I'm hooked on the fade. It's just so damn beautiful when it's done right. The way the color drains and carries your emotion from one place to another. And a perfect crossfade? It'll sometimes take me right out of a play because I'll be thinking: my God. Go back and do that again.
It's curious because it relates to where you are when you write a play. Are you inside the characters, looking out, or are you among the audience, looking in? That shifts around for me. But when I write fade in the stage directions, I am most definitely in the audience, and I can feel those lights moving me.
A number of years ago, I saw a one-man show that had, at the end, the longest, most achingly beautiful fade I had ever seen. I mean, staging a fade that long was sheer nerve, somewhere between utter arrogance and genius. Here's why: the piece was about a character with all these different opposing facets to his personality, and, as the light so slowly drained, the effect tired the viewer's eye so it seemed that the actor's face itself was shifting, rearranging itself, over and over. Forever changing without resolution, which was the point of the piece. What else so reflects the human condition but unstoppable change? Yet the act itself, essentially just slowly turning off a light, was so simple.
That image is still in my mind's eye. It's still changing. And so am I.
"Let's meet tomorrow if you choose beneath the bridge that they are building on some endless river." --Leonard Cohen--I grew up in the Northwest. Mostly. I spent part of my childhood in California, a perfect time to be a sun-bleached child during the Sixties in a world of surfboards and motorcycles. But, really, I'm a product of tall evergreens and deep forests. We moved back to the Northwest--Southern Oregon--when I was eleven, and I came of age amid great rains and summers of stunning beauty. Oregon in the summer may well be the most perfect place on earth. In winter, it tests your soul with darkness, a constant dampness, and a war with nature that nature always wins.
The old saying goes: if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? It does. Forget your human conceits: the question is entirely metaphoric. I have heard a 200-year old cedar fall, split by storms, and it cares little whether humans are present to hear its freight-train death. The trees predate the whites, predate the Native Americans. They were here long before naked apes clambered among their branches and saw the rock-strewn coast, and they'll be here when we're dust and our cities are tangles of huckleberry and Doug Fir.
A friend of mine grew up in the desert. He has a sharp and clearly defined personality. But it seems that living here, one takes on a sense that everything is imbued with a deep sense of mystery and continuous change. That the world can't be entirely understood, and that we're but guests. I once went for a solo hike in the woods and realized I'd lost my way, the trail somehow obscured by madrone and bracken ferns. For a moment, I felt the most perfect panic, knowing that the gorgeous scenery held no solace and was entirely indifferent to my plight, and that if I didn't find my way to the trail before nightfall, I would be but another animal swallowed by immense darkness. I sat and cried when I rediscovered the trailhead and never forgot how vulnerable I'd been.
In the Northwest, one realizes that nature is completely immune to your suffering. You are just one facet of its splendor and, ultimately, fodder for its ongoing survival.
Note: The photography above is mine. It shows the Illinois River in Southern Oregon, on the gateway to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.
Davenports and kettle drums And swallow tail coats Table cloths and patent leather shoes Bathing suits and bowling balls And clarinets and rings And all this radio really Needs is a fuse A tinker, a tailor A soldier's things His rifle, his boots full of rocks And this one is for bravery And this one is for me And everything's a dollar In this box
Cuff links and hub caps Trophies and paperbacks It's good transportation But the brakes aren't so hot Neck tie and boxing gloves This jackknife is rusted You can pound that dent out On the hood A tinker, a tailor A soldier's things His rifle, his boots full of rocks Oh and this one is for bravery And this one is for me And everything's a dollar In this box
I learned that early in my Manhattan tenure. On my very first solo walk around the city, I came around a midtown corner to face the Algonquin Hotel.
It's hard to explain the simultaneous resonance and disconnect of this. I had spent the last five years steeped in American writers of the 1920s, and here was one of their nerve centers. (Scribners would prove a greater let down.) I pushed through the doors into blended fantasy and reality.
In truth, it was just a hotel, though gracious, and, after a brief stroll through dining room where the Round Table once held sway, I found myself in the beautiful Blue Bar to the right of the lobby. On the walls hung framed napkins decorated with James Thurber doodles. I sat at the bar itself, alongside an elegant couple, and feeling very much the West Coast pseudo-hippy, in long hair and beard, Frye boots, beat-to-shit blue jeans, pre-Cobain flannel shirt, and black leather motocycle jacket. The barman asked me what I wanted. At the time, my drink of choice was a margarita (Cuervo on the rocks, never blended, with salt). But, without hesitation, I said: martini.
Wet or dry, sir?
I ordered dry as it sounded a tad more sophisticated, but in truth I had no idea of the difference. (I later came to prefer wet, and always with gin. I see absolutely no value in a vodka martini, other than the olive's tasty. I've also since had martinis both shaken and stirred, and I see no difference there either--sorry Ian. The gin seems no worse for the supposed bruising.) The drink was perfect. I chatted with the beautiful couple, who were rather charming once you punched through their haughtiness, and ordered another round.
The real magic came when I left the bar. I'd been there a couple hours. The sun had gone down, and New York's lights swirled, slightly gauzy in a light fog, amid honking horns seemingly playing the intro to Rhapsody in Blue, and pedestians all hustling, gruff or laughing, and graffiti, and madmen trying to sell you watches strapped up and down their arms. And it was all...perfect. Utter insanity, with it's own kind of logic--a beauty I'd never seen before. A line broke in me: I dropped my guard and let the city in. I became a New Yorker.
For several years, every payday post-work, I would saunter to the Algonquin, find a seat at the Blue Bar, order two martinis, and have the most stunningly fascinating conversations with strangers. Once I was there reading D.H. Lawrence's "Sons and Lovers" and a pair of out-of-towners pointed to Lawrence's picture on the back of the book and asked if that was me. Unfortunately, I fought off the impulse to say yes, yes, and autograph the copy for them. ("Look, Alice. We met Mr. D.H. Lawrence in New York, and he gave us one of his books! He said we should check out this 'Lady Chatterly' book of his. It's about gardening.")
In perfect New York manner, I regularly rediscovered my sanity at the Algonquin by temporarily puttting it aside for an evening.
Once upon a time, back in the 1970s when I was going to college and it was fashionable to either shove a safety pin through your ear or wear bell bottoms, many of us pretty much looked upon Bluto Blutarski as a role model and began and ended the day drunk and/or stoned. After a good number of years and a bazillion dollars spent on "straighten up and fly right" advertisements, it could be that we're breeding a better, cleaner, smarter collegiate.
But I doubt it. And new research bears out my suspicions. Which is to say, chaps in white coats have found monkeys add up numbers just about as well as college students. And note the last line of the story.
Researchers: Monkeys Can Do Mental Math From Associated Press December 18, 2007 6:34 PM EST
DURHAM, N.C. - Researchers at Duke University have demonstrated that monkeys have the ability to perform mental addition, and that they performed about as well as college students given the same test.
Current evidence has shown that both humans and animals have the ability to mentally represent and compare numbers. For instance, animals, infants and adults can discriminate between four objects and eight objects.
However, until now it was unclear whether animals could perform mental arithmetic.
Elizabeth Brannon and Jessica Cantlon of the Duke Center for Cognitive Neuroscience said the findings shed light on the shared evolutionary origins of arithmetic ability in humans and non-human animals.
That monkeys and humans share the ability to add suggests that basic arithmetic may be part of a shared evolutionary past.
Earlier this month, Japanese researchers pitted young chimps against human adults in tests of short-term memory, and overall, the chimps won.
O philosopher-king, what do you say of time in an age where there is none? Where a certain darkness clings to every surface like an undefinable scent? Every day a cigarette, burning towards the filter.
Want to keep smoking this one. Just this one.
Never been too light on my feet. Some seem to float through their days, but it's always been a struggle for me, each morning another lifting into the light. It's hard to let go of the dark; you see such interesting things there. The road forks, one way up the hill into bright sun, the other curving into a shaded grove, I know which way my feet will take me. Because somehow from a very early age, I guess I've always known this ends in the dark. Starts there, ends there. So maybe I've thought there were answers there. Maybe it's just a proclivity. Sometimes it seems like the night is more honest, the days so loaded with bullshit.
When the lights go down in a theatre, it marks a beginning. A demarcation from the ordinary. It's the everyday that cuts, whittles away. Could it be you don't age in the dark? Or maybe it just doesn't show quite so clearly.
Here we are in the dark season, get up in the dark, get home in the dark. The sun maybe rises, or rather maybe you see it, depending on the Northwest monsoons.
I was recently looking through some photographs and ran across one I might have taken at, say, 19 to 21. A summer day in Southern Oregon, the Siskiyou foothills, with light falling through madrone onto a curving country two-lane, and just enough haze in the air to cut the light into beams. Suddenly, I was there, standing on the road's shoulder, massive old Canon SLR in hand. Or maybe it was that wonderful Yashica Lynx rangefinder I had. My God, what a crisp, sharp lens that had on it (though the built-in light meter was for shit). I remembered that light. That quiet. How you could stand in the road to take a picture and have no fear that a car would come along because you'd hear it long before you'd see it. I couldn't remember exactly when it was taken, but I could remember taking it, the memory potent, overhwelming.
So I figured I'd look around, scan it as an illustration for the blog. Can't find it. It's vanished. I held it in my hands just a few days ago; now it's like it never existed. Just as that time has passed, that place has changed. I don't want to go back. But I do want to stand in that quiet light, and feel the world again as a photograph waiting to be taken.
So I get these e-mails...come on, did your dad really look like Sean Connery? Huh? Reeeaaally? Come on.
But when you're a kid...yeah. Kind of. And it's pretty cool to somehow think, yeah, sure dad's going off to work at the newspaper, but what he's really doing is undercover work, just pretending to work at the newspaper, and....
Anyway, here's my dad in his prime, the photo taken in Beaugency, France, in the Fall of 1944. And, what the hell, he's kind of dashing. And he does carry a gun.
And though I'm sure there's no chance of it, if there's anyone out there who might have known him or have a friend or relative who might have known him back in the day (in the army, he worked as an armorer in Northern Ireland, England, and France, went to the University of Montana in the late Forties, and worked for AP in San Francisco in the Fifties), I would love to chat with them.
Doing a bit of research on a project that will likely not bear fruit (olives, in this case), and learned that Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, died at age 56 after reportedly drinking a fifth of gin and smoking 75 cigarettes a day (triple-band Morley's, of course).
Thinking of Vietnam. Vietnam. It clings to me, a shadow. Like a shadow, it disappears when you turn to look at it.
See, it's like this: once upon a time, when Bill Clinton stalked the planet and we were all making buckets of money, I wrote a play called "Waiting on Sean Flynn," which was about American reporters perched upon the rooftop bar of Saigon's Caravelle Hotel in 1975, the central dilemma being: Saigon's about to fall to the North Vietnamese, should the characters split with the rest of the Americans or stay on to witness history. The forward motion of the play is illuminated by flashbacks to the main character's (Lee) experiences in the company of Sean Flynn, Errol Flynn's son who became a respected that photojournalist and disappeared in Cambodia in 1970, his fate never firmly determined. The flashbacks increasingly recede back in time until the last one, just before the play's climax as Saigon begins its fall, goes all the way back to Lee's first experience in the field (a pretty neat plot structure, I thought, but hard to explain).
Besides talking and corresponding with a bunch of wonderful, generous people who either covered the war or served there, I read stacks of books on the subject and saw pretty much every film, good or bad, about Vietnam, including documentaries. I immersed myself in the subject, which is what writers do, especially when their imagination has been shanghaied. Sometimes the depth of art is merely a reflection of the quality of obsession. I know more about Vietnam than anyone need know, and, let me tell you, unless you have drenched yourself in that deep water, you don't know and don't want to know; and yet I know nothing about it compared to the people who were there. It's all writerly imaginings. And the wounds, the mental pictures, some of which are rather too stomach churning to share, dear readers, are entirely self-inflicted.
When Iraq was gearing up and it was clear war was inevitable, I went to lunch with a colleague who was firmly convinced the cause was just, weapons of mass destruction, transform the Middle East, all the other utter bullshit she'd swallowed, setting the hook deep, and I just looked at her with calm, hazel eyes while inside churned the most nauseating contempt, summed up as: you don't know what you're talking about, you don't know the cost, your self-righteousness is beneath contempt, and yet you're innocent...you motherfucking civilian.
But that's past, and now only a dark, charred rind of memory remains, which amounts to nothing, just as my words at the time, which were measured, were ineffectual, gnats to be batted away from clouded eyes.
And now...how many years and deaths later...we ease toward a resolution, and though Baghdad is not Saigon, and history follows similar but never perfect patterns, I find myself back on the rooftop of the Caravelle. In the distance, small arms fire. And flames shimmering in the night. And I know that the days to come hold dry throats and tears. Dry throats and tears.
So I've dragged out my metaphoric flak jacket, oiled up the dried, stiff boots, and jacked a round in the chamber, the reassuring clack, and I'm shopping "Waiting on Sean Flynn" around to theatres again, one more time into the cyclone. There seems renewed interest--a number of theatres are considering it, I've even had a few seek me out, and Neanderthal Acting Company (can't beat that name) in Detroit will produce the play in March. That pleases me, but it's not a pleasure without pain.
In the desert wind, Yeats' voice whispers, too faint to be clearly understood. Just enough to shiver the spine.
A flat, round eraser on a wheel, with at one end a brush. I found this when cleaning out my mother's house before selling it. In the desk drawer where it had been all my life.
I knew what it was: a typewriter eraser, thin so it could remove a single character, the brush to sweep away eraser dust. Worked best on erasable bond or onionskin paper. I use the past tense because no one uses these things anymore, much less typewriters. But my parents did. My parents, more or less, were professional typists, and paid for house, heat, and food with circular erasers. They corrected memos, news stories, letters to relatives and friends long gone, in half-sized, folded envelopes that may still be locked away in trunks somewhere. Letters I'll never see.
But I kept the typewriter eraser. Tossed it into a box with other things of absolutely no use that I couldn't let go of. And now, thinking of that eraser, I can see my father's hands carefully erasing, and that sort of bemused concentration he had while working. He'd catch you watching and flash a smile--not a full smile with teeth, and definitely not a smirk. Just a twitch of the mouth to acknowledge you.
My father was a handsome man, with a passing resemblance to Sean Connery, and he'd take me to James Bond films. I have a romantic notion of him looking like Connery and drinking in North Beach tiki bars when he worked as rewrite for Associated Press in San Francisco during the 1950s. He had no idea the kid looking at him would ever become a writer and would ever be writing this, but years later, when I'd become a newscaster, I learned that he tuned in every afternoon to hear my broadcasts. I wonder what his face looked like then.
How many times did I see that smile? When he was working hard, he'd set his mouth, and his lips would nearly disappear. When he was sawing or drilling wood. I don't remember seeing him do that when typing. Maybe because you couldn't take off a finger with a typewriter. You could certainly wound yourself. Wound yourself and others. In the right hands, a typewriter could be a weapon of mass destruction. But my father didn't have those kinds of hands.
First, let me note that posting a picture of Scarlett Johansson to your blog drives up traffic. No idea why that is.
Second, this whole issue of Cheney's irregular (alleged) heartbeat is actually kind of interesting. The first time Cheney dropped over clutching his chest, he was only 36 years old. He's 66 now, had quadruple bypass, pacemaker, probably has an implanted alien heart saved on ice from Roswell. Anyway, there are a number of heart experts weighing in that, for a patient with a cardiac problems like Cheney, an irregular heartbeat can be a sign of a worsening heart condition. Further raising eyebrows is that he went in for a cough said to be related to a cold, but a persistent cough can also be a sign of congestive heart failure. Plus the post-procedure blood thinners they're giving him can result in blood clots breaking loose, traveling to the brain, and causing strokes.
Now he may just chew through this the way he usually does, with a martini, snarl, and shotgun blast, but it could actually mean that Cheney could conceivably step down for health reasons, probably sometime next year.
Which brings up some pretty interesting political ju-jitsu in that Bush would probably appoint a VP (as Nixon did when Agnew stepped down). Else, following the line of succession, I believe it would go to the Speaker of the House (if I'm remembering my history right), and there's no way they'd let Nancy Pelosi be VP. The natural instinct would be appoint one of the Republican candidates, most likely Rudy "Let me tell you about 911" Guiliani. But would a candidate want to be associated with a president who, yes, actually has lower approval numbers than Nixon when that Dick resigned?
Magic bullet: Condi Rice. Screw you, Hillary and Barack.
I never thought I'd say this, but: Live, Dick! Live!
This just in...Vice President Dick Cheney has been hospitalized with something they're calling an irregular heart condition. Which makes about as much sense as Scarlett Johansson being hospitalized for testicular torsion. Obviously, the Darth blew a capacitor or something. I'm sure they'll have him up and shooting friends in the face in no time.
This weekend, I saw "I'm Not There," Todd Haynes' film about Bob Dylan. Portland has a couple notable filmmakers. Haynes is one of them. He's made a beautiful film, the kind you walk out of thinking: I wish I'd made that. If you're out there, Mr. Haynes, thank you.
Growing up, I never paid much attention to Dylan. Knew who he was. Knew "Like a Rolling Stone," of course. Everybody knew that, along with a handful of the protest songs, maybe "Mr. Tambourine Man." He just never quite clicked. The Stones fit so much better with all the testosterone I was dealing with.
It was when I got to college and ran into "Subterranean Homesick Blues" for an intro to poetry class that I went: hmm. This is interesting. A friend's girlfriend (who I was secretly in love with) loaned me "Bringing It All Back Home," and, wham! I had to hear everything he'd done. Right now.
And I pretty much have. Dylan's work is hard to like. You have to be flexible. Work on faith. I don't think he even delights in confounding us--he just keeps moving, following his instincts, and we come along or not. I think he's had to, so many people trying to fit him in a frame, hang him on a wall. "Poet" is a pretty hard brand to market. Almost as tough as selling poetry.
Other musicians, I like their sound or lyrics or the mood or time they take me to. I like some songs from almost every genre. A few bands--the Stones, the Airplane, the Doors, the Clash, REM, Nirvana, U2--are inextricably woven into places and events of my life. But I think only Dylan's work has gone as deep, reached down and become one with my personal history.
"Blind Willie McTell" says pretty much everything I feel about America: bountiful, damned, mysterious. Haunted.
A lone tree in an empty field erupts in flame. Burns. Silently falls to the group. Smoke rises through dusk. Then all is dark, save a red moon rising.
We're having a pre-production meeting for "Dead of Winter" today, which is great--it'll be wonderful to get the ship up and running, and all the pieces are coming together nicely. It also means that'll no longer be able to pretend that I'm not going to be a producer again.
Don't get me wrong: I love producing. It's like hammering together a ship out of balsa wood and seeing if you can get it through the rapids. When it works, it's immensely satisfying. When it doesn't...well, it doesn't. This is more a feeling of inevitability, like knowing you're really going to see the surgeon or walking into the final exam room. Because the switch flips, and, suddenly, it's not your life anymore. You belong to the play. When I think of holding down a job, all the plays I have in progress and to market, and just the obligations of paying bills and going to the grocery store, I hear this tremendous sucking sound at the back of my brain, and my eyes pull back in their sockets, and all my energy ebbs from a hole at the bottom of my spine.
Or something like that.
On the other hand, I can look forward to the stuff that makes it worthwhile. One would think those are opening nights, getting good reviews, and counting the final box office, but, really, the small moments remain with you. The ones hanging around outside with the smoking brigade and telling theatre war stories. They're finding these unexpected moments during rehearsal when everyone rocks back at once and goes "yes!" And they're even that nth hour during tech week when you're so goddamned tired that you're beyond tired (and there's no fatigue like theatre fatigue, baby, unless maybe it's having a loved one in the hospital), and, man, you just can't hack it, and suddenly something funny--or maybe just borderline funny--hits you, and you completely go to pieces with hysterical laughter. The kind where you can't breathe and you're begging it to stop and your cast and crew are looking at you like, uh, he's the guy in charge...we are so screwed.
And then there's the bar. The post-show bar is a strange and beautiful thing, where people tell each other the damndest, personal, stuff. When I think back on a dozen of my favorite productions, I see my comrades in that vaguely sallow bar light, with cigarettes burning and empty beer glasses flecked with foam. Their arms are around each other. They're laughing or bitching or some combination of the two. And that's when I think, Patterson, you're a very lucky guy.
Warren Zevon, rocker beloved of writers (Hunter Thompson, Paul Muldoon, many others), had that writer's eye and ear for telling details. So you listen to a Zevon song, and you're in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel,* drinking up all the salty margaritas in Los Angeles and listening to the air conditioner hum while you think about the girl you met at the Rainbow Bar; she took you back to the Hyatt House and...well, you don't really want to talk about it.
Don't look for the Pioneer Chicken Stand down on Alvarado Street, it's apparently gone, and the man with the goods has certainly moved on to another locale, but, if you happen to be walking through SoHo (London version) in the rain, apparently you can drop by Le Ho Fooks, get a big dish of beef chow mein, then wash it down with a pina colada at Trader Vic's. An intrepid blogger has logged the evidence:
Here we are, coming down to the end of the year, and where the hell am I?
Well...busy. Upcoming production of "Dead of Winter" in Portland, come February. "Waiting on Sean Flynn" goes up in Detroit in March, and a short piece is scheduled to be part of a "Seven Deadly Sins" show in L.A. in May (my sin is greed, which I know practically nothing about). Reading 10-minute plays based on/insprired by Pere Ubu, an amazing stack of stuff with more coming in every day, for a reading and possible production next year. Plus a TBA production for June. Working on some other super secret for your eyes only projects that, ahem, of course I can't reveal at the moment.
After a long bout of writer's block--very uncharacteristic for me, been writing like a bastard. Since summer, first drafts of a surreal one hour, one-act called "Farmhouse"; a shorter one-act about politics tentatively called "Night Flight from Houston"; a serious two-act called "Next of Kin"; and a rather unhinged two-act called (wait for it)..."Rimbaud's Daughter in Louisiana (or the Drunken Pirogue." Christ. What the hell's wrong with me?
A bunch of stuff out with theatres that I'm waiting to hear on (a feeling akin to being stuck on the tarmac sans AC in August), but it's time to get back on the marketing bandwagon, so I figure I'll take some of the Christmas holidays to get some queries stuffed in envelopes. When I look at the backlog, I must have at least four or five full-lengths that have been done and that I'm comfortable shopping around, and it's time to hunt premieres for "Lost Wavelengths" and "Turquoise and Obsidian." Of course, still searching for that elusive New York production. And, when I take a deep breath, I sometimes think about the joys of pursuing an agent, but then this kind of gray and purple, Jackson Pollock mist slithers into my brain and my eyes glaze over and my head lists slightly to the side and drool begins to drip from my open mouth....
Jesus, Patterson, we don't have the slightest idea what the hell you're talking about! You writers are so goddamned self-involved! Get back to...dissing politicians or something.
Okay. Scott McClellan, Bush's former press secretary, is coming out with a new book in which he says, yeah, yeah, we all knew who outed Valerie Plame and it was the president and vice-president, and I stood in front of everybody and lied my ass off, but it was my job, all right, and, by the way, the president is a filthy liar. Liar, liar, liar.
Okay. So here's one that separates the true political junkies from the dabblers. Robert Novak (aka "The Prince of Darkness") drops a teasing little line in his column that the Clinton campaign has sordid dirt on Obama but won't use it. Obama comes out swinging, saying he won't be "swift boated" and the Clinton campaign says it's a load of bullshit, they have no such info, and what a sap Obama is for falling for a Republican dirty trick. Who wins? You have 30 seconds.
Bob Novak, of course, who will say and do anything and has no professional scruples whatsoever and outed Valerie Plame but never went to goddamn jail for it. He kind of waves the trinket, ooh, bright and shiny, and the next thing you know, the kittens are fighting over it. How does this help Republicans (which is really Novak's game)? It makes voters so disgusted with politics that they stay home.
As Louis Armstrong sang, "It's a wonderful world."
The flip side of this is former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean has endorsed John McCain, which is pretty damn funny because Kean sat on the 911 commission, was the governor of the state adjacent to New York, yet doesn't endorse Rudy "911" Guiliani. Which is just about as big a kick in the nads as you can get in Republican politics, especially since Rudy stepped off the 911 commission so he could make a buncha bucks giving speeches about how brave and selfless he was during 911. (Inside dope: Rudy was peeing his pants.)
Why anybody in the right mind pays any attention to Novak is beyond me, much less why anyone would continue to hire/publish this steaming turd molded into semi-human shape, but I think it's fair to say that he'll be thrashing around like a cornered animal for the next twelve months, trying to set as many fires are he can, because, come December 2008, the game'll be up and it'll be time for Mr. Novak to move into assisted living. I don't think he'll retire to "spend more time with his family" because, seriously, who'd want to hang with Mr. Lizard?
First, in February I’m producing “Dead of Winter: Three Ghost Stories for the Stage”—we have auditions for the men’s roles this weekend—and I’m currently rereading “Oregon Ghosts” (seems we have a lot of them), so ghosts have been much on my mind of late.
Second, I love dreams. Here you put in a tough day doing…whatever it is you do, lay down your head, welcome oblivion…and suddenly it’s psychedelic cabaret, the nightly David Lynch film. (Because, let’s be honest, David Lynch films are movies about dreams being movies.)
Third, last night I’m dreaming that my house has a little ghost problem. I’m talking about it to a sympathetic friend, and, while we’re talking, doors and cupboards are opening and closing by themselves. Only they’re doing so in just a way that, well, it could be the wind. My friend is trying to get me to take this seriously, while I’m like, well, the wind thing. Denial lives strong in dreams. The door to the room eases shut in that subtle wind way, and my friend points. The antique glass doorknob is slowly turning back and forth. I open the door. No one there.
Meanwhile, much else is going on in the dream: we just got two puppies…and a horse. And all my friends are saying, man, that spider on your porch. Have you seen that thing? You should use that in one of your plays. (My real friends seldom say things like that.) But have you see that spider on the—?
All right! I go out on the porch to check out this spider, and instead there are two little old ladies out there. Sitting side by side. Each has a tiny puppy on their lap, and they’re petting them in synchronous motion. Maltese puppies. And these two ladies have these Maltesesque bowl haircuts of silver and small, round, gnomelike faces. They’re smiling at me, and the puppies are staring at me, cocking their heads, and the two ladies seem to be enwrapped in a gold, summery light, utterly gorgeous until I notice that the ladies are also faintly criss-crossed with spider webs. And I slowly look up to see, above them, a common gold and black garden spider, your typical two-inch Argiope …but this one’s about the size of a dinner plate.
And then, gentle reader, the alarm clock wakes me.
As a preface, back around 2000, I wrote a play called "Altered States of America," which was both a comic and serious look at America's love/hate relationship with drugs, and, I suppose, with my own inclination for getting out this crowded, cluttered head once in awhile (a passion in my younger years that caused me a little trouble and provided a ton of pleassure).
I dedicated the play to Hunter S. Thompson, Warren Zevon, and Ken Kesey, and, within two years of its 2003 production, they were all dead. I sent a copy to Warren when he was literally on his deathbed. I sent copies to Thompson and to Kesey's widow. I never expected replies, never sought them. I just did what I thought was right, to pay a debt for inspiration and for bad advice that often turned out well. It was a damned good show, great cast, some moments of beauty, others of (I think) sharp satire--at least some laughs. The production got decent reviews, but it was scheduled at the wrong time of year, the ticket prices were too high, and audiences were low. I'd go home each night after every show, sit on the back porch, and play "Wild Horses" over and over until I could go to sleep.
There's been a lot of talk about Hunter lately. A couple books have come out, and factions are lining up between them, literary battles breaking out. In other words: he's still riling people up. But I had these unsettled, deeply personal, and unresolved feelings regarding the guy; so, as I think a kind of exorcism, I made a movie.
It's very simple, just some photos of Hunter off the net that warp and change in time to Pearl Jam's "Man of the Hour." It ends with "In Memoriam" then fades to black. It's clunky and crudely done. I can't do anything with it: I don't own any of the rights to the photographs or the music. I wouldn't want to do anything with it. It's something for me. I made it, and I watched it, and I let loose a little bit of what had been floating in my head.
It was, in short, a personal endeavor, and this is as public as it will ever be.
It must be winter: I’m listening to Leonard Cohen again.
Who was it who wrote something like: “…we are all boats beating forward, ceaselessly borne into the past?” James Joyce? No, Fitzgerald, from "Gatsby." I can’t remember the quote exactly, but I can see that flotilla of rowboats on a flat green river, and I can feel my own boat wobble in the current.
Our entire economy is built upon buying things. In some way, that’s what provides and fills the larder, yet when the current finally carries you away, those things become inert boxes and odd objects, stripped of memory and resonance, in drawers someone will one day have to empty.
The common bromide says live for the moment, even though we can live nowhere else. But memory (or nostalgia) and hope (or worry) distance us from the present.
Perhaps architects are happy. They do their work, and their imaginations become part of our mindscape. Doctors, for all the good they do, ultimately lose. Lawyers, soldiers, and police we frankly need only when things go awry. Teachers transmit ideas, which do last, then release them, like caged birds, to go where they will. And the clergy, whose whole business is predicated on the eternal, operate solely on faith, which is all any of us really have.
Sometimes I think the restaurateurs, distillers, and tobacconists give the most to our present, even as their wares draw it away.
And the artists? We have the promise of the architects, but the odds are long. In that way, we’re closer to the clergy. Our job is just to shape and color what we ought to already know. Amusing (I think) to remember the many times people have said to me, in one form or another: how I wish I could do what you do.
In addition to being a playwright and theatrical producer, I'm also a photographer. Reasonably serious--had a couple shows and some stuff published. Have my own darkroom and just recently made the shift to digital. (After a certain point, resistance really is futile.) Going digital has been very convenient as a theatre occasionally asks me to shoot PR photos for them or someone wants a portrait, and it's a lot easier and cheaper to do a little sharpening and color correction, burn a CD, and be done with it.
Awhile back, I ran across an L.A. gallery's call for submissions on the theme "Angels or Demons?" I didn't have anything suitable for submission, but I thought: hell, what a fascinating theme. And a project took shape.
I'd been working on a lighting set up for portraits and thought I'd found the right combination to give me the look I wanted. What would happen if, knowing many actors, actresses, and other photophilic people, if I invited them to collaborate on the theme, shooting the pictures with a consistent lighting and backdrop scheme, with the variable being the look--costume, make-up, and attitude--the subjects brought to the project?
So far, I've shot five sessions, and the results have been simply wonderful. The images have all been remarkably individualistic, unique, and reflective of the subjects' creativity. And the lighting is gorgeous. I have more shoots in the works, but we're working on the ever-challenging matter of scheduling. With the holidays coming up and "Dead of Winter" going into production/rehearsals for next February, I figure I'll be shooting well into next year. The ultimate goal will be a show, I suppose, ideally in a gallery, but right now it's just fascinating to see what one can do with a simple backdrop, a couple of hot lights, and some creatively crazy collaborators.
Before sessions, I often sit on the porch and look through photographs to sort of "tune up" my eyes, the photographic equivalent of stretching before playing sports, but I find my attention wandering to: good Lord, what will my next subject bring to me and can I make a good photograph of it?
Happily, so far, the answers have been, respectively, "nothing I can predict" and "yes." Making art dosn't get much better than that.
(Note: if you live in Portland, have some Monday or Wednesday evenings free, and feel like getting in touch with your inner angel or demon, drop me a note. It addition to participating in a project that subjects seem to enjoy, sitters will receive a couple e-mail sized images, plus a CD and a couple finished prints.)
As a committed (re: otherwise unemployable) theatre artist, I can say with confidence the money's in TV and film. People ask me why I don't work in those mediums, and my standard line is that, yeah, you make the money, but you spend it all on shrink bills. Actually, in theatre, you have more control of your words, working live is fun and vibrant, there's more latitude for weirdness, and your colleagues treat you with respect (sometimes embarrassingly so) rather than as the janitor.
Mostly though, Hollywood scares the shit out of me.
So I'm neither a member of the Writers Guild of America nor on strike. I'm a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, which is kind of like being a Democrat--not being a member of an organized group.*
I have friends in the film industry, and I'm worried about them: this strike looks to be a tough, protracted one. And I know shows like "Law and Order," "CSI," and "Gray's Anatomy" keep a lot of playwrights afloat.
But I can't help wondering what the strike means for theatre, particularly if it lasts into next year. People will certainly spend the winter catching up on DVDs they've meant to watch, but, at a certain point, could their hungry minds be turned to...the stage?
It won't affect the programming of full-season theatres, which plan a year or two ahead, but it might affect rough-and-tumble indie theatres, whose ticket prices are closer to first-run movies. Could this be a golden opportunity for new, adventurous theatre companies doing new, adventurous plays, building a whole new audience from dedicated moviegoers who never realized theatre could be so dynamic and well done? Could it, in short, mark the beginning of a bold new age, a theatrical renaissance for new works and writers? A time we will all look back upon with gleaming eyes and churning hearts? Could it? Just maybe?
*A cheap and easy joke, stolen from Will Rogers; I’m actually very fond of the Guild; they’ve been very good to me and do wonderful things. Still applies to the Democrats, however.
Early eyelid movies. A red canna, glowing against green foilage. Blue skies with contrails. Red speckled apples rotting amid red leaves. Brown and gold carpet. Painting of Jesus in a gilded frame. Funeral procession on black & white TV, over and over and over. And over. Like the whole world has died. Held by the hand, down to see dad at the Spokane Chronicle ("the Chron"), running the crazy linotype machine nonstop, edition after edition, and the smell of hot lead, indescribable but unforgettable. Out the windows, flashing lights of movie houses.
Then the Beatles, Ed Sullivan looking perplexed. Parents looking perplexed. "Downtown" playing everywhere, and everywhere city lights, Christmas lights, tiki lounge with torches burning out front. Rainy Olympia, Washington, in a rented VW bug, the windows continually fogging. Steady procession of foggy neon bar signs. Staying in mildewed motel rooms with black dial telephones, tracer bulbs outside the windows, light show on the curtains and darkened walls. Good-bye Ru-by Tues-day. And the rain, the rain. My uncle, big, red-faced and laughing, hole in his shoe, water squishing in his sock as he crossed the room to open another beer. Who could hang a name on you?
A duplex on the Olympic Peninsula, could see the snowy Olympic peaks from the back porch, peeking over a fence, and in the field beyond, ringneck pheasants strutting, suddenly flushed, a bird explosion. One night a violent thunderstorm, violet skies ripped, and tall, bearded man, a neighbor, trembling in our living room; he'd been struck by lightning and had the thumb-thick scar down his chest to prove it. Rough workman's hands shaking. Then in Port Angeles, stairs, an endless flight of stairs up a hillside, until, out of breath, you reach the top, and below the dark roofs, the wharf with commercial fishing boats, the Stait of Juan de Fuca beyond, dull blue, white ferries leaving wakes on their way to Canada, and the wind blows, hair blowing around, the wind blows, and on the wind you can hear "...and everyone knows it's windy."
Falling into the category beyond prima facie absurd, right-wingers have drawn themselves all the way up on two legs and have pronounced the new Eagles album "Long Road Out of Eden" as an attack on America:
Which should have anyone who loves rock'n'roll flat on their backs, laughing hysterically--no, no, let me catch my breath--going, "Well, yeah, they're The Eagles!" They hate you so much they put out a double-album! And from most reviews, they still sound like The Eagles, which means they'll likely be carpet-bombing an FM "classic rock" station near you very shortly.
But no, these folks are objecting to The Eagles writing melodic, moody, country-tinged tunes about global warming as some kind of a Clockwork Orange rape of American sensibilities. So much for peaceful, easy feelings. Don Henley doesn't dig you, America. He hates your SUVs, your way of life. He's against freedom, and he thinks all the troops are baby-killing psychopaths. He wants you, take a deep breath, to feel guilty.
Yeah, dude. Uh-huh. When all indications are that The Eagles are still idling on the corner of Winslow, Arizona, watching the tequila sunrise, and trying to finally check the hell out of the Hotel California. Ah well...one of these nights. I knew Glenn Frey has a little bit of that weird jihad flame in his eyes....
But...Joe Walsh? Plays a mean slide, but, as we all know, he can't find the door and they took away his license so now he can't drive and he spends his day bowling and picking up dog doo (hope that it's hard, woof-woof).
Joe Walsh can't buckle his pants, much less affix a suicide bomber's belt.
So--and really, I never thought I would ever, ever say this--but, fellow desperados, go buy the new Eagles album. You don't have to play it. Just buy the bastard. Besides, the cover art's pretty. Make it a movement. And while you're at it, let's bring back Quaaludes, Panama Red, and decent blow that hasn't been stepped on with baby laxative. Talking about loving our true way of life.
But please. No flare pants.
My God. What if the Bay City Rollers have become Muslim extremists? Now I know I won't be able to sleep tonight.
So the reading of "Turquoise and Obsidian" went well last night. The turnout was pretty good for a Sunday when all the clocks had been scrambled, and the audience was very responsive. Cast was superb, and I'll send them a thank-you when I can pull together a conscious thought.
Where the play stands at this point? Pretty well, I think. I expect I'll get some decent notes, probably have to tweak a few things, but, when it comes to be big global changes, well, I doubt it. There's a certain point where you have to go: that's as good as it's going to get. Move the hell on!
Writers are kind of like sharks: if we don't keep moving, we die. Or at least we do a decent impression of a dead person who still drinks and smokes and burns holes in ratty recliners.
Though he was kind of reprehensible in the way he treated others, especially women, I've always admired Picasso in that he was never afraid to try to new things. So many artists achieve a certain success and freeze, terrified to slip outside of their hits. But, firmly established post-World War II, Picasso, arguably the most famous painter in the world, pulled up his roots and moved his whole family to the south of France so he could study pottery with noted artisans in this one town. So he did pottery, and it was brilliant and still distinctively Picasso. When he got old, he amused himself by repainting famous paintings by other, older masters, seeing them through his style and poking fun at both the canon and himself.
I don't know if he died with a brush in hand, but there are worse ways to cash out.
You know you've had enough tequila when, during the Day of the Dead, whilst staggering down a narrow, cobbled Cuernavaca lane at night, you stop to look at an ofrenda in a shop window, and head of a skeletal mannequin turns to stare back at you.
The next thing, you're back in bed at the Hotel Bajo el Volcan, once the apartment complex where Malcolm Lowry wrote "Under the Volcano," and the bed begins turning like a rudderless skiff. No point in sleeping, standing being much less vertiginous; so you go out on the balcony and light a pipe, reflecting that Malcolm Lowry smoked a pipe and probably stood smoking away the spins on this very balcony that overlooks the barranca, the canyon that surrounds Cuernavaca and into which the Consul, the protagonist of "Under the Volcano," falls at the novel's climax. And it strikes you that as much as you love "Under the Volcano" and admire Lowry's writing, you vowed never to be like him. Yet here you are, smoking a pipe, struggling for balance, and leaning over the barranca.
That was me about nine years ago today, and on Sunday, my play "Turquoise and Obsidian"--the project that put me on that balcony--will have a free reading at Miracle Theatre/Milagro Teatro in Portland.
I'm very much looking forward to it, very much anticipating the play's arrival in a form where I can begin shopping it around to theatres. And yet....
It's cold in Portland today, really feels like the beginning of winter. But in my heart, it's 82 degrees. Among the broad trees shading Cuernavaca's zocalo, black butterflies with a five-inch wingspan silently drift, their wings splashed with irridescent green. I can't get over the butterflies. I used to collect them as a kid, and occasionally, I'd send off for foreign species from a mail-order catalog. They're dead, of course, and you have to treat them so their wings lie flat. I had one of these black and green ones in the collection, probably even knew the Latin name for it once (some kind of swallowtail, I think). Here it is now, nameless and alive. Drifting through warm, clear air, with a volcano in the distance.
And the tequila is very memorable as well, also clear, with the liquor's characteristic smoke and burn, but also wtih a silkiness akin to cognac. The Mexicans keep the good stuff for themselves.
No matter what happens with "Turquoise and Obsidian," whether or not it goes on to full production, and despite all the years I've worked on it, it's already given me more than I can ever give it.
In 1991, at the start of the first Gulf war and in a terrible fury, I sat down and began work on "Bombardment." I wanted to write something that would examine the divide-and-conquer "cultural war" politics going on at the time, where the powerful and wealthy played upon the predjudices of the poor to frighten them into acting against their own interests, as well as the real war in the Middle East, which I could barely beleive was truly happening. At the same time, I also wanted to capture the feeling of history rolling irresistably over all of us, no matter what our status was.
On the other hand, I didn't want to write some beat-them-over-the-head message play; I was much more interested in how these things made me feel and, in turn, made the characters feel. So I ended up placing these half-archetypical/half-realistic, wounded, suffering people in this sort of dreamscape, where a battle ensued between masters and servants, played out both in terms of power through status and sexual domination.
In terms of action, the play goes like this....
Corno, a sort of wounded king/strongman, has been cast from his home by Arethea, his queen/wife, because he has been caught being sexually indiscreet with Arethea's maidservant, Carmelita. As Corno plots to recover his position, Althea seduces Placid, Corno's hit man/fixer, to plan to murder Corno. By the end of the first act, one learns that Carmelita and Placid have planned a double-cross all along and murder Corno and Althea, assuming their power.
In the second Act, Carmelita's personality begins to disintigrate as power begins to paralyze her, and when she tries to break Placid from the cycle of power, betrayal, and fall, Placid's paranoia takes over, and in fear, he implores the ghosts of Corno and Althea to return to resume their power and protect him. The play ends with Corno, Arethea, Carmelita, and Placid physically entangled in a web in which none of them can break free.
As The Clash wrote: anger can be power. Bombardment went on to be nominated as a Finalist for the Oregon Book Award.
So why does the play haunt me now? Are we back to where we were? Do we have to set the Middle East aflame every time a Bush gets in office? Santayana famously said those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, but it seems all of us, in thrall to those who cannot remember the past or refuse to heed its lessons, are doomed to see these savage kabuki dramas endlessly repeated.
At the time, I wondered if the ending of Bombardment was too pessimistic. Now I'm afraid I got it exactly right.
Paul Tibbets died today. He was 92. He was the commander of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It was reported he had no regrets and slept well at night.
Playwright Willam S. Gregory came up with this rather off-center but inspired idea to have the Portland Center Stage playwrights group write short pieces about food and horror, tie it all up in a bouquet garni, and present it around Halloween under the title "Frenching the Bones." That's a culinary term regarding a technique for artfully removing meat from ribs, and you can fill in your own joke because those in the group have pretty much exhausted them all.
Anyway, the meal was served last night at Portland's CoHo Theatre, and it was quite well received. Had a pretty near full house, and you could feel the audience was riding right along with the plays, laughing, groaning, or gasping at exactly the right times. Kudos to the splendid playwrights involved, but special notes to Chef Gregory, Matt Zrebski who directed, and some very fine actors who gamely took on 28 roles in one evening. The meal was delectable, the presentation impeccable. The diners completely satiated.
In short, as the late William S. Burroughs would have said in a rasping, nasty voice dripping with sardonic menace: it was unspeakably toothsome.
Traditionally—and who knows if tradition applies to weather anymore—the Northwest rainy season begins on Halloween night and ends April 15th. Oregon children trick-or-treat in Gore-Tex. That doesn’t mean it rains every single day, but...well, yes, it does.
And though it’s said true Oregonians don’t squint in the rain, the rainy season is really not all that much fun, and consecutive gray skies lend themselves to a certain introspection. Maybe that’s why so many Oregonians write. I knew a handsome old gent in Oregon logging country who said it was too risky to go to town because “there’s a widder behind every stump.” Much the same can be said of Northwest writers.
So it’s not surprising that we’re home to Powell’s Books, possibly the best independently owned bookstore in the U.S. (unlike The Strand, you can find things) or that winners of the Oregon Book Awards consistently produce work of such quality. But it may be surprising to know Portland is increasingly known as a home for new stage works. There are some very fine playwrights here—many of them are friends of mine—and artistic directors around the country are looking to Portland Center Stage’s JAW Playwrights Festival as a source for hot new plays and playwrights, with JAW plays and authors being picked up by the regional theatre circuit. My suspicion is that trend will not only continue but grow.
Another notable Portland characteristic, which I think fuels new work development, is that there’s a very strong DIY spirit here. Toss any three people together at a Portland coffeehouse—and we are rotten with coffeehouses—and you’ll end up with either a band, a restaurant, or, possibly, a theatre company. You can produce a play here for a fraction of what it costs elsewhere, and, if the local critics slaughter you, you don’t have to throw yourself in front of the MAX train—you just mope for awhile, listen to too much Elliott Smith, then begin writing again.
Oregon’s mountains, particularly the Coast Range, are unbelievably verdant, overflowing with life and pocketed with thickets rich with mood and mystery. If there’s a relationship between environment and psychology, perhaps it’s no surprise that Northwesterners inhabit equally complex inner worlds that sprout ideas the way fall rains breed mushrooms: overnight, whole landscapes change.
Thinking much of the Glimmer Twins of late, back when they were young and, as Gore Vidal said, so ugly they were pretty. Recently finished the first draft of a new two-act drama called "Next of Kin," which has do with a family reunited for a medical crisis. Sounds pretty pedestrian for me, given my onstage history with characters spontaneously exploding, turning into insects, and having telepathically induced orgasms (and that's all in one play), but the family patriarch in the new play is a totally whacked Vietnam Veteran, hardcore helicopter pilot, and rabid Rolling Stones fan who named his kids after the band members; so I've been listening to the Stones more than usual.
I guess anyone who gives a damn about rock'n'roll (or whatever myriad forms popular music has mutated into) hooks into a certain band, and that music comes to punctuate moments of their lives. It's not necessarily transferable: I start talking about the Stones, and I can see my wife's attention...drift...elsewhere. As well it probably should.
But there is one Stones memory that haunts me. It was back in the early 80s, wintertime, and I was driving by night to Southern Oregon. In a space of about 50 miles, there are four mountain passes and valleys one has to negotiate, and the driving can get a bit tricky. It had to be past midnight. I'd stopped in a little town called Canyonville, loaded up on coffee at a truck stop (and, perhaps, I might have had another, substantially more powerful stimulant in my system as well). Anyway, put on "Sticky Fingers," took a deep breath, and began climbing the first of the passes.
It was going pretty well, but, as I started climbing Mt. Sexton, the final pass, it began to snow. Millions upon millions of thick, drifting flakes, immediately beginning to stick. I could feel my tires not quite connecting--this was in an old, heavy Ford with rear-wheel drive--and I knew I not only had the pass to cross but a long, steep grade down the mountain, probably into a blizzard. White-knuckle driving if there ever was one, and then the Stones' "Moonlight Mile" came on, it's drifting, dreamy mood and rhythm seeming in concert with the snowflakes sweeping before my headlights, and it was like everything went...click. A perfect moment. Genuinely dangerous, stunningly beautiful. One you never forget. Forever, in the mind's eye, the snow falling, the guitars keening, and Jagger whispering in your ear:
When the wind blows and the rain feels cold With a head full of snow With a head full of snow In the window there's a face you know Don't the nights pass slow Don't the nights pass slow
It’s a continued sequence of moments to come. You’re always working, always thinking; nothing comes without the effort. But so much is predicated on that which you cannot know.
A good part is spent waiting for theatres to get back to you, and, even for the hottest playwrights, the answer is usually…no. Politely, but…no. A good day is…no, but send more. That particular dialogue can go on for years, but it’s better than plain…no. Getting a script back without a note means…hell no. (Luckily, it’s been awhile since that’s happened to me.)
A lot of times, especially in these days of electronic submissions, you’ll never hear back at all. Your script simply vanishes. Maybe it’s being done under an assumed name in Montevideo, but most likely it’s forgotten on a dead hard drive. Or you’ll hear back so long after sending it that you have to go back to your notes to figure when you sent it. At the moment, I’m attuned to this phase because I have a lot of stuff out right now.
Then there’s waiting for ideas, which do not come unless you look for them, but which never appear while you’re looking for them. They come in the space between, when your attention is elsewhere. If, however, you do not look, they will not appear unbidden. And they wonder why writers drink too much or smell of various varieties of smoke or totally melt down when they can’t find their lucky pen.
When the script is done, you wait to hear back from your first, trusted readers. Then you wait to have a workshop reading accepted. Wait for the reading date. Wait to see if it goes on to a public reading. Wait for that date. Wait for actors to show up for meetings, rehearsals, performances. Wait for the audience reaction. Wait for all your emotions to settle before rewriting. Wait for another reading. Repeat endlessly.
If your play is actually accepted for production, suddenly the opening date glows red on your calendar, and every day is a step closer to that point. Which takes forever. When you finally get there, you wait for the time to leave for the theatre. You wait on every streetlight, which will turn red as you approach the intersection. You wait for parking. Once in the theatre, you read and reread the program, waiting for the lights to go down. (And you crush the hand of your significant other in those last few seconds before total darkness.)
Then, if you’re lucky, for ten minutes or an hour or two hours, you are waitless.
Finally, after the damn thing opens, you wait on the reviews, which is like waiting to get your biopsy back.
This is why every playwright should own a copy of Tom Petty’s song “The Waiting.” It's built off a cliché, but it’s a good one:
I awoke this morning to the radio announcer saying the Santa Ana winds were dying down and kind of took a deep breath: much misery to come in California, but maybe containment can begin.
Meanwhile, right in the apparent indie art vortex of the universe (I guess they're talking about Portland in New York or something), here's some info regarding "Frenching the Bones," a fun, one-night show I'm involved with, written up on Mead Hunter's witty Pu Pu Platter blog:
Tuesday, October 30th...mark your calendars. It's free and it's going to fill up quickly. And the plays are, uh, well, absolutely wrong...in the best possible way.
So a good part of San Diego County burns down and the media annoints Portland as the Next Big Thing; I predict property values will go up.*
[Note: Not to be interpreted as flip. I can't tell you how much California's disaster pains me. San Diego County is one of the most beautiful places in the United States, rich in history and talented folks. Here's wishing them safety and recovery.]
When I was a small boy, about six, we moved to San Diego and, after a couple more years, to Escondido, then a small town in North San Diego County. Now, it’s all pretty much one city, from Spring Valley, where I started grade school, to ‘Dido where I finished it, and, if current Santa Ana conditions continue as predicted, much of it’s about to burn.
I lived there during the high Sixties, in a Navy town where soldiers shipped out to Vietnam and the Miramar Marines flew their shark-throated Corsair jets over the freeway. Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” was big on the radio, and I remember it booming out of my cousin’s convertible as we cruised the warm Southern California night, with the bowl of San Diego lights glittering below. The other popular song at the time was “Light My Fire.” Tonight, those roads are likely closed except for emergency vehicles.
I was never a big Beach Boys fan, but I knew whereof they sang. A true SoCal kid, I developed an impressive talent for falling off of surfboards, skateboards, roller skates, and bicycles with sissy bars and banana seats. When I wasn't falling off of moving objects, I was riding in them. I watched, fascinated, as Hell’s Angels lined up at the drive-through of the local A&W Root Beer Stand. I lay sleepily in the backseat after swim class and peered out the rear window as the Buick made long, lazy turns, for a glimpse of the white cross atop Mt. Helix. I clung to the seatbelt, stuck in the middle of a giant traffic jam, while baton-swinging cops chased Vietnam War protestors between the car bumpers.
And, on a dark, terrible night, I watched my father weep at the TV as Bobby Kennedy bled to death on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel, four hours north in L.A.
Those idyllic Sixties, man.
Then there were fires. The weather would turn strange and unsettling, like something had gone seriously wrong with reality, and the wind would begin blowing. Hot. Dead dry. Spinning empty cups across parking lots. And that night, the TV news would take a break from Mekong Delta firefights and be simply about fires. Real ones. Right then, in Southern California.
One year, I think it was ’68 when everything seemed to be aflame, the Santa Anas blew on and on, and in the middle of the night we stood on our sleepy Escondido street with all our neighbors and watched an orange bracelet shimmer atop a hill. I can remember the adults saying, if it comes over that ridge. If it makes it over that ridge. Our ridge.
To an eight-year-old kid, this was impossibly exciting, and a part of me was rooting for the fire: you can do it. Come on, baby. But another part understood that breaching that ridge would be the worst thing imaginable, the end of everything, and that fear reached down and prayed to whatever indefinable, non-denominational God I had. That ridge was our Mekong Delta, our Ambassador Hotel.
The firefighters stopped the fire on that hill, were heroes--real heroes, not props for a photo op, and, when the wind died down, we went back to barbecuing hamburgers in the back yard and planning fishing trips to alpine ponds.
Tonight, some eight-year-old will stand in his or her front yard and watch another orange bracelet on a hilltop. It will seem like a movie, like television. It won’t be. It will be equally thrilling and terrifying.
"Draw bamboos for ten years, become a bamboo, then forget all about bamboos when you're drawing." --Georges Duthuit--
There's a perfect light just before the sun goes. When colors deepen and saturate. As with most moments of grace, it's fleeting. But it's worth waiting for. Once a day. Twice if you, you know, get up to see the sun rise too. Though that's less relaxing because you need to be awake and everything. Else you're just as likely to suddenly jolt awake, you've missed the perfect moment, and there's drool on your chin. Sunrise, coffee...forget it. Not the same.
Did I mention that perfect light thing?
*Dull thud as head hits the desk*
"See your future. Be...your future. Make...make it! Make your future. I'm a veg, Danny." --Ty Webb--
If you're a producer, you see the audience from several vantages: as they're lining up at the box office, as they're being seated, one-on-one when they present problems (lost, late, drunk, wanting to use the can 30 seconds before curtain), and, if you choose, from the seats next to them.
If you're a playwright, you tend to experience them anonymously as another audience member (or you hide and peek at them through curtains or the tech booth window). Playwrights seldom take bows. Once in awhile, usually when you've written something that really sings, the cast may acknowledge you during their curtain call, which feels somewhere between being honored and having your cover blown. Some playwrights react to this by glowing or preening, while others seem to retract into their clothes, becoming ever-so-tiny; I tend to nod, smile, and wave while wearing a thousand-yard stare.
But the producer and playwright share a common thought: who are all you people?
Which is not to say we're not grateful you're there. Believe me: we are, whether there's 300 of you or four. It just seems like some kind of magical trick, conjuring up strangers with this goofy thing you've essentially made up, and it's impossible to separate the experience from what has gone before, all the things the audience will never know about: the weird discomfort of fund raising, the intricate dance of casting, the late nights stuffing press releases in envelopes and remembering to put on the postage, and the inevitable moment during rehearsals where everyone's exhausted and someone says just the right thing at the right time and everyone collapses into hysterical laughter and you have to call a break. (Sometimes those will stay with you longer than any other memory from a show.)
And, of course, there's the 2:00 AM panic attacks, waking into hyperventilation--did I remember and what about and did I call and what time did we schedule?--followed by a hand-trembling, solitary cup of herbal tea rattling a teacup and saucer in a darkened room, headphones cranked until your ears ring. (I keep a copy of "Wild Horses" cued up--I think it's that bit: "no sweeping exits or off-stage lines/could make me feel bitter/and treat you unkind." I'm sure every producer/playwright has their own 2:00 AM music, and that it runs a gamut from "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" ["...everything's going my way..."] to "Psycho Killer." ["...I hate people when they're not polite..."].)
Eventually, the fatigue will overtake you, a ferocious riptide, and it's a fatigue that I can only liken to dealing with a life-threatening crisis. Only it's self-inflicted, and we do it for fun. You finally fall asleep to a shifting, blurring montage of expectant faces, rustling programs, and extinguishing cell phones.
God bless you, but who are all you people?
Then the lights go down, and it doesn't matter: we're all in it together.
trying to start the fire, more and more newspaper, burning, curling faces of politicians, until the kindling finally catches. still wearing your coat until the cabin begins to warm. light a pipe with a heavy, cherry-flavored tobacco. pour a glass of brandy. put on some slow, sad Brahms, shut off the light. watching chill rain, waiting on snow. the feeling coming back to your hands and feet. wet boots steaming before the fireplace. alone. relieved you're alone, but also wishing someone was there. the fit never quite right. here on top of a mountain, thinking of the city, and, if in the city, dreaming of the mountain. never able to be just where you are. waiting for something to possess you, an outside event or idea. ever hanging. forever standing on your toes. and then suddenly, through the fogged window: snow in circles, rush of silence. weight of the brandy, pulling down into cushions. smell or burning pine. skillets on the walls. books. fishing tackle. phone, unplugged. desk with writing tablets, pens. no computers.
rising heavily, feeling the brandy vertigo come and pass, and opening the door to the soft hiss of snow, already filling in your footprints. no need to lock the door, closing it softly, and feeling the forest move around you. a slow-turning vortex of dark green memory. turning, turning, with all the faces past, the lost moments, ghost memories or piercing lost opportunties.
No one asks me to teach playwriting. That’s probably because my academic credentials qualify me to shout rude questions at weary press secretaries, not misguide young minds. It’s just as well since my answer to inquiries such as “How do I get a play produced?” is “Write a good one.” That’ll be _________ dollars.
But if some misguided administrator actually asked me to teach a seminar or something, I guess I’d title it “Listening to Voices” simply because I know a play has a chance if I can hear the voices of distinctive characters.
That’s all a playwright has, really. You can develop any number of scenarios, but how those play out depend on what kind of people your characters are, and the only way you can tell them apart is by the way they speak. Suppose your character stows away aboard a spacecraft. You’re in for one kind of play if, when discovered, your character says:
Please, man, please. All I ever wanted to be was an astronaut. But everybody said I was, you know, stupid. I won’t touch anything. Honest.
As opposed to a character who says:
Well, hell, you found me. Guess we’re stuck with each other. Might well rock’n’roll. Have a snort. But be careful. I get stingy with my supplies when I get past the Van Allen belt.
Not that I’d recommend writing either play; we have too many spacecraft stowaway dramas as it is, right? It’s just that in a dialogue-driven medium such as theatre, voice is destiny. Once it was customary to refer to playwrights as the “gods of theatre” (and a lot of us are irritated about being demoted to “necessary evil” in some quarters), but the truth is we’ve always pretty much been stenographers to the unconscious.
Which is to say, at least for me, I don’t have the slightest idea where the voices come from. I can tell, however, when they aren’t cooperating because everyone ends up sounding the same. It’s one of the most common problems I see as a producer reading scripts; not only do the characters not have distinct personalities, but they’re not speaking to each other. Reading those plays is rather like getting cornered at a party by a monomaniac. Pretty soon, you can feel your smile muscles cramp as you glance at the clock or oh-so-casually look around from someone to rescue your ass.
I wanted to point out two interesting links on my page's "The Honor Roll" (a phrase I blatantly stole from Hunter Thompson's book dedications). One is "Gunner Palace," which is a documentary about Iraq well worth seeing. It doesn't have a particular political axe to grind; it simply shows what life is like for one company of grunts operating around Baghdad.
The other is "Fight to Survive" which is a blog compiled by guys serving in Iraq and, as a kind of companion piece to "Gunner Palace," tells of their average days, from the mundane to the absolutely ghastly. It's been quiet of late, but it's worth going back to read past posts. Soldiers' voices are always worth listening to and ring much truer than the noxious rhetoric that flows unendingly from politicians and talking heads.
I’m writing to invite you to a rather special theatrical event. For 15 years, I’ve been working on a three-act drama Turquoise and Obsidian, which has been through countless drafts and private workshop readings, and had a public reading in 2003. Miracle Theatre Company has been kind enough to host Pavement Productions, my production company, in a concert reading of the finished script (if theatrical scripts are ever truly finished). The reading, on Sunday, November 4th, at 7:00, is free and has a wonderful cast slated, and it would be an honor to share the fruits of a long, fascinating process. Details follow below.
Thanks very much,
Steve Patterson Pavement Productions
PAVEMENT PRODUCTIONS, HOSTED BY MIRACLE THEATRE COMPANY, PRESENTS TURQUOISE AND OBSIDIAN
Pavement Productions presents a free reading of Portland playwright Steve Patterson’s original play Turquoise and Obsidian on Sunday, November 4th at 7:00 PM at Miracle Theatre Company, 525 SE Stark Street, Portland, Oregon. No reservations required. Scheduled cast includes Keith Scales, Mindy Logan, Rebecca Martinez, Noah Jordan, Roberto Astorga, and David Loftus.
ABOUT THE PLAY Fifteen years in the making, Turquoise and Obsidian is a three-act drama about Zachary, a literature professor who becomes obsessed with the idea that he will die on the Day of the Dead in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The author of a celebrated critical analysis of Malcolm Lowry’s classic novel Under the Volcano (the protagonist of which dies on the Day of the Dead in Cuernavaca), Zachary feels trapped in a web of correspondences between the novel and his life. When he disappears into Mexico, his wife follows after him, setting off a story within a story involving Mexican politics, hidden Aztec culture, and a love story that, literally, encompasses the beginning and end of time.
Directed by Lisa L. Abbott, who has seen the play through many private readings and workshops with a veritable who’s who in Portland theatre, and a 2003 public reading featuring Keith Scales, Lorraine Bahr, and David Meyers, Turquoise and Obsidian involves six cultures (Irish, American, Mexican, Spanish, Native American, and Aztec), three languages (English, Spanish, and Nahuatl), and 500 years of history. Steeped in magical realism and a respect for native traditions, the creation of Turquoise and Obsidian was made possible by the Portland Civic Theatre Guild awarding Patterson its inaugural Theatre Fellowship, which allowed him to travel to Cuernavaca, experience the Day of the Dead first hand, and visit the original settings of Under the Volcano (including a stay in the apartment where Lowry wrote much of the novel—the building now being a hotel).
In 1984, Under the Volcano, considered one of the 20th Century’s greatest novels, was made into a film directed by John Huston and starring Albert Finney.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Since 1990, Steve Patterson has written more than 30 plays. Known for its rich word play, surreal imagery, and willingness to explore the unknown, his work has been performed in Portland, Chicago, Tampa, Austin, Los Angeles, Boulder, and other American cities as well as in Canada and New Zealand. His plays Bombardment and Altered States of America have been finalists for the Oregon Book Award, and, in 1998, Stark Raving Theatre won a $10,000 grant from the Flint Ridge Foundation for production of his play Liberation. In 2003, Rude Guerrilla Theatre Company's production of Liberation was cited by Theatre Y2K.com for an Honorable Mention as one of that year's best productions in Los Angeles. In 2006, his play Lost Wavelengths had a mainstage reading at Portland Center Stage's JAW/West festival. Mr. Patterson's other plays include: The Continuing Adventures of Mr. Grandamnus, Controlled Burn, Delusion of Darkness, Deuces, Malaria, Shelter, Temptation, Curl of Smoke, and Waiting on Sean Flynn. Both Delusion of Darkness and Waiting on Sean Flynn have been performed in the Tampa Performing Arts Center, the largest performing arts facility in the Southeastern United States. With Chris Harder, he co-authored The Centering, for which Harder won a 2007 Drammy for Best Actor. He is a member of Portland Center Stage’s PlayGroup Playwrights Workshop, the Dramatists Guild, and a former board member of the Northwest Playwrights Guild. He also the Co-Founder, Co-Artistic Director, and Resident Playwright of Pavement Productions.
ABOUT THE DIRECTOR Lisa L. Abbott, Co-Artistic Director of Pavement Productions, has directed Pavement's shows since 1997, including Life and Death on the American Road, Between the Sheets, and Curl of Smoke. Her work is known for its insightful character development, fine ensemble playing, creative use of theater space, and skillful integration of lighting and sound effects. Ms Abbott's work as a director has focused on the development of new scripts, including Lost Wavelengths at Portland Center Stage's JAW/West Festival and What Mad Pursuit at Classic Greek Theatre of Oregon. Her Portland directing credits include: The Centering for Chris Harder, A Grimm Late Night for Spectre Productions; and Liberation and Waiting on Sean Flynn for Stark Raving Theatre. Ms. Abbott has also directed in Chicago and Denver, where her credits include: Wolfbane; In Stiches; Interview, Audience; Slow Dance on the Killing Ground; and The Indian Wants the Bronx. Ms. Abbott has a MFA from the University of Portland, and has been an AEA Stage Manager and a guest director for the Chicago Dramatists' Workshop.
ABOUT THE THEATRE COMPANIES
Miracle Theatre, sometimes known by the Spanish translation of its name Teatro Milagro, is the only Hispanic theater production company in the Pacific Northwest. Its home is in Portland, Oregon, though it often tours regionally and nationally. It was founded in 1985. The theater operates through three arms: the Miracle Mainstage, with English language productions at the company's theater in South East Portland;, Teatro Milagro, the international touring company, with bilingual English/Spanish productions; and Bellas Artes, a multidisciplinary company that stages community-based events, such as annual Dia de Los Muertos, Posada festivals, and educational programs. The Miracle Theater generally produces about a half dozen productions of original and revival plays annually, along with related programs.
Pavement Productions is a small, independent Portland production company that specializes in developing and producing new plays. It has been especially successful in producing "anthology" shows composed of short plays written by a number of playwrights around specific themes. These have included Behind the Eyes, Between the Sheets, and the very popular Life and Death on the American Road. In association with The Bluestockings, Pavement plans to co-produce Dead of Winter, a trio of ghost stories for the stage, in February 2008.
For more information, contact Steve Patterson at 503-312-6665 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Patterson has written over 50 plays, with works staged in Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Austin, Tampa, and other U.S. cities as well as in Canada and New Zealand. His works include: Waiting on Sean Flynn, Next of Kin, Farmhouse, Malaria, Shelter, Altered States of America, The Continuing Adventures of Mr. Grandamnus, Bluer Than Midnight, Bombardment, Dead of Winter, and Delusion of Darkness. In 2006, his bittersweet Lost Wavelengths was a mainstage selection at Portland Center Stage's JAW/West festival, and, in 2008, won the Oregon Book Award (he also was an OBA finalist in 1992 and 2002). In 1997, he won the inaugural Portland Civic Theatre Guild Fellowship for his play Turquoise and Obsidian.