Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Through the Scope

My dad passed away back in the 90s, and, then, about six years ago, my mom became too infirm to live by herself, and I bundled her up and moved her to Portland. She died five years ago, this evening.

Naturally, I miss her. Every day. In her prime, she was a force of nature. But last Friday night, for the first time ever, I felt relieved she was gone, because, above nearly all things, she loved children, and what happened back in Newtown, Connecticut, would have truly crushed her.

When I went through the frankly wrenching experience of packing up her stuff and selling the homestead, one of my chief concerns was securing my dad's guns. He'd been an armorer during World War II, and, though he hated war, he retained a fondness for firearms. Cleaning rods and polishing oil lived in his dresser drawer. Out in the country, it was no big deal to take a summer afternoon, line some tin cans up against a hill, and test your skill. Flat out, it was fun, and it was something dad and I did together, knocking off a lot of tin and brass, and having a wonderful time. First off, though, he drilled safety into my head, and made sure I knew the difference between a real gun and the stuff we see on television. Around our house, carrying a gun in a careless manner was a serious offense.

So, when I was cleaning up the house, I made sure I found all five firearms, secured them, and, at home, tucked them into the back of a closet, where I pretty much forgot about them, until my wife told me, honestly, about how uneasy having them made her feel. It took me a little time to wrap my head around it, but, when local gun shops expressed no interest in them--they were neither rare or valuable, I gave them up when the police had one of their regular gun turn-in events.

It was easy. A form to sign. The policeman and I chatted a bit about the pieces, their history and so on, they way guys talk about cars or sports or guitars, and we both took time to admire the old double-barrel shotgun with twin triggers. Then it was done, and we drove away. And it felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach.

Not that I give a damn about having guns: I'll be perfectly fine if I never shoot another one in my life. But the tie to my dad was so strong, that it felt like saying goodbye to him all over again. That's part of the mythos that surrounds firearms, particularly for men, and one reason why people become so attached to them. No matter how sane, pacifistic, and level-headed one is, that's a dark little hunk of history in your hand. And it's seductive.

But I when came to the end of last Friday, if there was anything positive I could salvage from, basically, one of the worst days in America, it was that those guns were gone, and they could never end up in the hands of someone with the circuitry slowly frying in his head. In short, they'd never hurt anybody. And, you know, they never did.

Sometimes, when the myths grow too dangerous and powerful, it's time to retire those myths. Time to choose a civil society over fear. Time to grow up.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

So...where's my virtual theatre?

It's weird...I've been thinking about this for years, but I've still yet to see it. Maybe the tech isn't there yet. But....

We have all these wonderful small theatres, scattered from Portland to Cairo, Mumbai to Osaka, doing scrappy, crazy new work, and fighting to pull in, say, 100 people a night. Virtual reality kind of raised its weird, pseudo-immersive head for awhile, got everyone excited, then...faded away. So...what?

So, wouldn't it be great if you could set up a multiple camera rig, shoot small plays completely live, and sell tickets for viewers through the Internet? Not for a tape of something (or a clip on youtube), but a piece that viewers can only see live, streaming, as it happens, and, in doing so, essentially widen edgy theatre's breadth?

I mean, they have deals where, you know, Royal Shakespeare or symphony performances are shown in movie houses. But I'm thinking the equivalent of Netflix streaming, except it has to happen live. It wouldn't be the same experience as sitting in a theatre, of course, with an actor practically sweating on you. But what an intriguing idea for taking, say, something completely experimental, and extending it's range far beyond some tiny theatre tucked into some industrial wasteland, where you have to beg all your friends to venture into the night. And then you get killed by an ice storm.

I suppose it's the equivalent of "where's my flying car"...but the idea still fascinates me. Out of all the people the Internet can reach, it seems like there must be a way to pull in more than...100 folks a night. And scale the ticket price down to a level where someone (or a couple thousand someones) might pony up a couple bucks simply out of curiosity. As it is, little theatres often gamble with sliding scale just to get bodies in the seats. You figure out the price point for renting the gear, achieving the bandwidth, and see if there's a point where, hell, a viewer pays $2 or $3 bucks to participate in something that will never happen again the same way...which is part of theatre's magic. I mean, just between Facebook and Twitter, how many potenital viewers could you reach?

Eh...whatever. I'm out of the producing biz these days anyway, focusing on writing plays, but that "virtual theatre" idea has haunted me for a decade or more. So...here I am, throwing it out for...whatever reason. I guess because it's been bugging me. It's probably stupid and impossible and all that...but working insanely hard for nothing to create an evening of...experience...of something that can only happen once...is that any less stupid or impossible?

It sure is fun, or else we wouldn't keep doing it.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Instant Karma

Brooding Works Wonders

So I write a piece about the ups and downs of the writing life--receiving rejections, specifically--so naturally, I received a clutch of mondo cool theatres (which shall remain nameless unless some great happens) asking to see my work. Never fails (except when it does).

Also in the Department of Great Things, I just got word that "The Centering," a one-man show I wrote with Portland actor extraordinaire Chris Harder, gets a two-week extension at CoHo Theatre after a three-week stand at Portland's Shoebox Theatre...and to top it off, The Oregonian gives it the kind of review that goes down like a hot buttered rum on a freezing day:

'The Centering' gets additional two-week run at CoHo Theater

Maybe I should whine more often.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Season of the Bitch

You got to crank up every pitch
You got to crank up every pitch
This is the Season of the Bitch

Ah, writing. At last count, I've been doing it seriously for...(pause for math)...36 years. (Not counting the short story I spontaneously wrote, unbiddened, at age six, and then demanded my mother type up. Which she did. That's a mom.) In general, the first four or five years of writing turned out crap. Then, for the next ten years, it turned out more ambitious, somewhat better-crafted crap.

After about 15 years, I started writing for the stage, found my form, and put my apprenticeship behind me. I'd achieved what I'd more or less decided to do when I was, uh...six. I became a writer. Which essentially meant I'd found my way out of one maze and entered another.

In the process, I've experienced some incredible highs, weathered some dark stretches (when I seriously wondered if it was worth it) and some bleak streaks (when I had no ideas or just didn't feel like picking up a pen), and received more rejections--I prefer the word "bounces"--than I can count. Seriously.

I used to decorate the walls of my office--whatever space I'd set aside for writing--with rejection slips. It seemed like a defiant gestures--something a Writer would do. After awhile, the decor lost its charm, took on the stench of self-pity, and felt slightly masochistic. Now, production posters and cast photos cover the office walls. And, you know, there are a bunch of them. They're a lot easier on the eyes and psyche because they say: you've done it before, you'll do it again. That comes in handy when one enters the Season of the Bitch.

Which is to say, over the last month or so, I've submitted a shitload (to use the writer's technical term) of work after a long stretch of basically non-stop writing (you have to grab the work when it's hot and coming in, else it'll spurn you, and you'll lose it), and the little letters and e-mails have started trickling in. One picks up an envelope armed with a letter opener (I prefer a antique Mexican switchblade, compadres) and a bag full of rationalizations: these are tough times; everybody's having a hard time getting produced; there are a ton of good playwrights out there and a limited number of slots; getting bounced means you're in the game; and, as the posters attest, getting produced is not impossible.

These help to push away the darker thoughts, which still have a way of sneaking in when you're tired, bummed, or overwhelmed. The game's rigged. Your work's too weird (non-commercial, non-linear, dark, unconventionally structured, and about 100 other choices you've deliberately made). You don't live in New York City. You're not paying off a more or less useless MFA in theatre. And the killer: You suck and you're kidding yourself.

If that last one kicks in, it can paralyze you as quick as a curare dart to the neck. Then you have to: distract yourself (in my case, do something creative just for pleasure, but there are plenty of other options available...some of which won't kill you); get back to work with a big, neon FUCK YOU sign flashing over your head; or crank up some fast, furious rock'n'roll and crawl back into the submission machine. If you can do all three without getting lost, the process can actually feel somewhat manageable.

Lightning eventually strikes, but, the longer between flashes, the more tempted one is to wise up and get the hell out of the rain. You can, or course. Sometimes you must to dry out. But, if you want to see the process through, inevitably you're going to have to bundle up and head back into the storm.

As for the don'ts....

Don't take it out on whoever responds to you. They're doing a job, may have limited clout, and are prey to circumstances you can only guess at. If they're taking time to read scripts, they love theatre and new work just as much as you do, and they may well be another writer dreading the mail/e-mail when they get home. And, brass tacks, they may not like the kind of plays you write...which means you don't want to be produced there anyway.

Don't take it out on other playwrights, sucessful or otherwise. They have worn the very same impossible shoes hurting your feet, and, though they might be having a hot year, they might be lacing up the torture shoes 12 months later.

Don't take it out on family or friends. They really can't understand how you feel, and, whatever they say, they probably think they're being helpful. That's called love, and should be accepted as such. Also don't avoid them because you think you'll bum them out. Honestly, they're just as eager to tell you all the stuff that's pissing them off; it's a symbiotic relationship.

Don't take it out on the job you have to work to pay the bills. They haven't a clue, could care less, and you're lucky to have a gig these days.

Society. Yeah, you can take it out on them. But it won't do a damned bit of good, they don't care what you say or do, and it can lead you back into "lost cause" wilderness.

And...don't blame yourself. At the moment, you have enough problems. Just try to write as well as you can, and keep going.

So. For writers beginning and otherwise (and, I suppose, any artist--and anyone looking for a job). Do you ever get used to those oh-so-polite kicks to the nuts? Nope. Are they avoidable? Not if you want to play. Should you take it personally? No. Will you? A little, even if you won't own up to it.

This is the Season of the Bitch.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


There are artists, and, let's face it, there are Artists.

What divides the two? Talent, mostly. But great artists seem to have an innate integrity. I wouldn't say dignity, because, some artists are, by nature, a little less than digified, and we wouldn't want it any other way. But there's a sense that they comfortably inhabit their own skin, and they're cool with who they are and what they can do. And they love their work. When they're not doing it, they might get a little...ornery. Comes with the territory. When they're doing what they live for, the passion shows through, and, just by watching them, you can taste a bit of what they're feeling.

Which brings us to Mr. Levon Helm, who passed today. Normally, I'd say "who died today," but I've noticed that in blues circles, the gents say "he passed." And Levon was all about the blues.

He was, of course, the drummer and one of the lead vocalists (along with Richard Manuel and Rick Danko) of The Band, and he was set for history had he never done another thing. But he did. After The Band hung it up in 1976, he formed the Levon Helm RKO All-Stars, and later reunited much of The Band, though Richard Manuel's heartbreaking suicide really put an end to all that. He also proved to be a fine actor, notably stealing the hell out of a pivotal scene in "The Right Stuff" when Sam Shepard, playing Chuck Yeager, asks him for a stick of Beeman's gum.

In 1998, Levon developed a lump in his throat, and it turned out to be the worst kind. Not entirely surprising, given he could rip through a pack a cigs in a flash and kept a good stock of sipping whiskey on hand. He could have had his larynx removed, but he opted on having just the tumor excised, followed by radiation treatments. Why? So he could keep his vocal cords. His voice was a little weak for a spell, but it eventually came back, and he kept on drumming and singing his ass off for another 14 years. And he never seemed happier than when he was on stage.

Brass tacks, this was the guy who sang "The Weight." He sang a lot of other songs too, most of them plain wonderful, and full of life and humor, freighted with a hard-won realism and livened with a Puckish wit. But if there was ever an indelible mark, it was his three-kick intro to "The Weight" followed by that wry, knowing, wily Southern voice, rich, worn, and weary, singing:

I pulled into Nazareth
Feelin' 'bout half-past dead

(The Nazareth in the song, by the way, was supposedly not the Nazareth where Jesus and his pals hung out, but, rather, Nazareth, Pennsylvania, home of Martin guitars. Which, if Christ returns like they say, wouldn't be a bad place to look for him.)

That and the song below, which, basically, is so full and powerful and goddamn tragic that it has become part of the canon. This the is last time all of the original Band played it, on Thanksgiving at San Francisco's Winterland, at the legendary Last Waltz, and if you want to hear the magic that comes with a great artist connecting with his audience, listen for the crowd response to the wind-up for the final chorus.

So, you know, it hurts when the artists we love pass on. But Levon Helm and The Band seemed to keep one foot in this world, and one the other side, digging down into what Greil Marcus calls the "old, weird America," and, though I'm sure he wasn't happy about taking a final curtain call, Levon probably found his way through it with a heart and soul as big and brassy and strong as the songs he lived.

So...thank you, Mr. Helm: for many blurry nights, a few rough mornings, and all the spaces in between. Nobody's ever going to forget you or your work. And I think that's about all an artist can ask for, whether they start their title uppercase or not.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Year of Living Tentatively

I think I took last year off.

I’m just coming to this realization. Mind you, it wasn’t intentional, nor was I entirely idle. I picked up a guitar nearly every day and practiced my ass off (because it was incredibly fun). Not that I improved all that much, but I still did it, damn it. I managed to make serious progress on the guitar book—wrote probably 120 pages, and roughed out a good portion of the book proposal (and I hate writing proposals). Cleaned up a bunch of plays, getting them in better shape. Did a load of theatre market research. In fact, I ended up doing a bunch of things I wanted to do. Writing or staging plays just wasn’t one of them.

The year started out so damned well. The staged reading of “Immaterial Matters” was probably one of the best of my career, and I was ready to roll big with that piece and a number of other, recent plays begging world premieres, scaling the theatrical battlements with cutlass and eyepatch.

And then...2011 happened. Not just to me, but to almost everybody I knew. It was like everyone took a long, elegant launch off the board...and then hit the water with a stunning belly flop, that immediately emptied the lungs and sent them sinking into the deep end.

In my case, I got sick. Some stomach virus or something that turned into three months of nausea and stomach pain, frightening weight loss, lots of tests, and too many doctors, all which amounted to...nothing. It just worked itself out. Then, just about the time I was starting to feel better physically, my dog died. Wham. The whole goddamn year was like that famous old sports footage of the football player who fumbles, and then keeps kicking the ball farther away each time he reaches for it. You'd wake up, stretch, reach for the door...and the doorknob would come off in your hand.

I have to admit: I generally do a lot of stuff, keep a lot of plates spinning. Always have; just the way I’m put together, I guess. I’ve often had people say: “I don’t know how you do it.” Which I kind of take a certain pride in, because I don’t really know how I do it either, other than: I just do it. Admittedly, there have been times when I’ve felt “I can’t keep doing this. Not at this pace.” But then I’d get another wind, another project, and I’d be off in another direction.

This was the year that didn’t happen. I couldn’t do it. And I didn’t.

Everybody seemed to be there. Pulling back. Retrenching. Fighting this or that thing, with a wobbly economy generally freaking the hell out of everyone. A very nervous year. All the surprises seemed to be bad. So the year became defined by things I didn’t do. I didn’t write new plays. I didn’t take new photographs. I didn’t have productions. I didn’t write much on the blog (which you may have noticed). I barely gardened, just letting the damned thing grow itself. The Northwest weather didn’t help. It wasn’t that it rained and was gray: it was that it rained and was gray more or less straight through to July. The weather seemed to imbue even hardcore, indestructible Oregonians with a besieged aura. What now? What next?

Finally, somewhere around the middle of September, I began to feel like I was getting a little mojo back. I wrote a few lyrics. I sent a few plays out. I took a few pictures. It was all kind of half-hearted, like I was forcing myself. Eventually, it started to feel more natural. I started to get ideas again. Jeff Beck came to town and inspired the hell out of me. (As Buddy Guy gave me a shot in the arm in early July--a memory I kept coming back to when I felt I was backsliding.) I figure I’ll be working on a new something theatrical fairly soon—the kind of piece that takes off, and then you’re running to keep up with it. I’m thinking about pictures again, looking back at old projects. I checked a gardening book out of the library. They're all baby steps, which still make me a little edgy, but there’s a big difference between butterflies and straight-up dread.

Time to dig out Muddy Waters’ “Hard Again” album, the great man’s ninth-inning comeback, to see if I hear it differently. Last time I listened to it, in early 2011, man, it was just the blues.