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.
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.