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No-stalgia

October 21, 2011

A few things happened that made me think about memory.

1. Tonight, I read an oddly disjointed piece about nostalgia by Chuck Klosterman.

2. Yesterday while I was teaching, the fire alarm went off in the Science Center.

3.  A few days ago, there was some article posted in Slate about how Facebook is changing peoples’ brains or something.

Let me start with Klosterman. His point, initially, is that the negative connotations of “nostalgia” are uncalled for.  He is primarily writing about rock music, how most critics argue that you can’t be truly objective about an album you listened to ten years ago, because it only brings back good feelings. His most salient point is that the goal of a musician is to produce an emotional response . If I listen to an old Coldplay album and get all goose-pimply, the album has done its job.

Pretty good point.  But then Klosterman starts talking about how mp3s have changed all that, and kids won’t listen to the same song over and over again– not in a grumpy old man kinda way, but just obviously clueless.  He then goes on to say some really shudder-inducing tripe, such as “Spotify is a game-changer” and “Connectivity will replace repetition”. Chuck! This Grantland thing must really be wearing you down.

The piece made me think about how I purposely avoid music I used to listen to.  When I hear Smashing Pumpkins on the radio, I shut it off. I just can’t go back there. Every now and then, I will find an old CD in some box and put it on, and it sounds really good but then back in the box it goes. I won’t let myself dwell. I can’t do it.

I used to be an extremely nostalgic guy. I would pine for days that happened just a few months before. I kid you not. I’m sure my old friends will attest to what a sappy mess I was, getting all wistful over an old t-shirt or an episode of Friends. But something switched in me, and I found that I just wanted to look forward. Listen to new music, stop taking photographs, and only talk about new things- never the past.

This is dumb. As I get older I imagine this will get harder to do. But it just is so sad, to think about all the time that’s gone and how everyone has changed, and worse, how those things you thought were important were not important at all. Really they were silly, but they meant so much to you. Sometimes I use this analysis to talk myself out of what I think is important right now. For example, if I’m getting nervous about a deadline, I tell myself, “Relax, it’s just a deadline you’ll think was stupid”. It can be kind of a problem.

to be continued…

10 years

September 9, 2011

Ten years ago, I moved back to Philly from New York, began my senior year in college, started getting over a break-up, and soon thereafter, wrote a play inspired by 9-11.

If I’m being honest, the play was really inspired by my break-up. Of course, anyone who knew me and saw the play, they said “oh yeah, that play was about his break-up”. But  9-11 happened two weeks before we went into tech, and I hadn’t written the second half yet, so it became about 9-11. This was not a good play. It was barely even a play, it was more a theatrical exercise. The characters didn’t even have names, I just called them ‘A’ and ‘Z’. But it had spunk I guess.

The funny thing is that I think “dealing with 9-11” is kind of bogus, for most Americans. If you knew someone who was hurt or killed, or lived in New York, or grew up in New York,  of course you would be impacted. But the way everyone in the country got psyched out by it– I didn’t get it. When I lived overseas, I got used to the idea that geopolitical shit is always going down, and your city or country just might next on the list. I guess most Americans had never felt that way. Of course, from a theatrical perspective, the image of the two towers was incredibly powerful — enough so to ring a completely new bell in America’s group-mind.

In terms of response, I’m of the Fareed Zakaria school: strategically, we did the exact opposite of what we should have done. Now, I’m not one to say, “we deserved it”. Mostly because that’s just the way it goes when you’re always getting into the world’s business. But I do think that the gov’t didn’t stop to think: “wait, what’s the best move here?” like they were playing a game of chess, which of course they were. Instead, they over-reacted and the decade has been a total fuck-up.

I have to confess that on the tenth anniversary, the thing that makes me most sad is that I feel like time hasn’t even really moved since that moment. Like the towers were some giant hands of time, and they were pushing us forward and -boom- they came down. The clock stopped. I keep getting older, I’m still writing. But nothing is getting BETTER. Nothing is getting DEEPER. It’s all grandmas taking off their shoes at the airport and weekend warriors building a wall along the Mexican border, and bullshit like that. America is so godammed Scared To Lose. Like instead of being the guy at school who gets hit in the back of the head and says, “Whatever”, we’re the guy who flips out and makes a scene and everybody thinks is annoying.

Of course, it’ s hard to separate the feelings about my personal life from feelings about ‘the world’. I’m sure if I had started Facebook instead of going to grad school, I would feel differently about ‘the world’ right now. But writing that play feels like the last real thing I did. The rest is all part of this artificial reality that sprang up that day. I guess what I’m saying is that in the next ten years I need to feel like the world is REAL again- that shit happens, not everything has to be perfect, that my kids won’t need to be in a million activities to feel like they’re doing enough to keep up with China, that I should just enjoy the little things. But of course, that’s a personal journey, not a political one.

“We’re on the other side of something”, I wrote in the playbill. I still miss the old side.

Call of Duty

June 10, 2011

Chuck Klosterman writes about the sourness of watching a DVRed sporting event in a compelling piece at the new Grantland site. I like his argument here: that sporting events are “the last scraps of mass society that are totally unfixed”; he is pulled to them for their unknowable-ness. Carrying the argument further, one could extend this to highly anticipated live events like the Royal Wedding or Michael Jackson’s funeral– even though these events were meticulously scripted, something crazy could happen and you would see it live.

In his third “Rational” point, “Recording gives me too much control”, Chuck touches on a larger issue: rather than subverting autonomy, modernization gives us TOO MUCH of it. When you’re sitting there watching  a recorded game, you feel like you’re wasting time. Big Papi’s at-bat in the 5th is not really that interesting, even if he hits a home-run and flips the bat. You can just fast-forward to the home-run! How much time do you have to just sit around waiting to watch something that already happened?

The act of submitting yourself to a live NBA Finals game is immensely pleasurable, because you’re finally off the hook. It’s  analogous to forgetting your cell phone at home: now I don’t have to call anyone. I don’t have to tell them where I am. I can just go where I was supposed to go, and hope the other person shows up. The problem is, a rational 21st century American would never conscientiously leave their phone at home. What if something happens?, you think. Someone might die if I don’t have it. I’d better bring it, and my charger too just in case.

Herein lies the major downer of modern communication technology. It’s not that it’s “inescapable”; it’s not. When I go on vacation, I’m amazed at how little I need or want an internet connection or cell phone– yes, I periodically check in, but once a day is more than enough. But when I come home, my over-inflated sense of duty takes over. Something might happen,  I think.  The world won’t be able to go without me for more than an hour. It’s stupid, and repeatedly checking a barren email account makes me feel empty. But I can’t let go. My computer gives me the option to check my email– I have to do it. The DVR gives me the option to fast-forward the boring parts- I have to do it. By not doing it, you’re admitting that your time and input are just not that important.

Of course, you’re not that important. Or rather, you’re only important to a handful of people. You need a cell phone when your wife goes into labor. You need a computer to check the flight status of an old friend. You need email to tell your boss that you’ve made some changes to the presentation. But that’s it. No one else really needs you. Even your loved ones can do without you for a while. Relax! Let go. No one’s going to miss you on Facebook, at least not for a while.

The One Show that Can Save America: Friday Night Lights (part 2)

April 15, 2011

Part Two in my out-of-order breakdown of Friday Night Lights.

MORALITY

Friday Night Lights is a morality play for modern America.

To the medieval gawker, the morality play demonstrated the struggle between good and evil by personifying the vices, who tempted the protagonist with pleasures of the flesh. The protagonist who faltered ended up in a literalized hell.

To the modern American television viewer, morality has been replaced by rationality. Good and Evil have lost their meaning- they’re too hokey and too subjective. Characters act badly for good reason: they want the inheritance, they want to corner the market, they want a new wife. Emotions are mere tag-alongs to more primeval neccessities: money, sex, power. If the character’s actions are unexplainable, that character is insane. Shows like The Sopranos, The Shield, and The Wire make no distinction between good and evil–everything is systemic. The world is deterministic. Characters are homo economicus.

Friday Night Lights turns this assumption on its head. In Dillon, Texas, there is in fact such a thing as “the right thing to do”. And characters do it simply because they should. The rewards are not monetary or divine. They are principally rooted in respect, and mostly self-respect.

FNL accomplishes what religion ostensibly should: teach you why and how to be a better person. Characters are tortured not so much by external influences but by their own guilty conscience and lack of emotional courage. Example: Julie lets Riggins take the fall for helping her get into bed after a night of drinking. When Julie finally comes clean, her dad is “not angry [but] hurt”. Because the worst thing one can do in FNL is dishonor a person who deserves honor– or do something completely selfish.

With but a few references to “Holy Father” in the odd pre-game football prayer, FNL conveys a Christian legacy without the heavier-than-molasses moralizing. And that’s why left-coast elites such as myself find it palatable– we’re not going to watch 7th Heaven except as a drinking game. And while The Wire compels us intellectually, it reinforces what we already fear: life is meaningless, God is dead, the world is a vampire. FNL grants us a glimpse of the good life and a way to get there, one episode at a time.

The One Show that Can Save America: Friday Night Lights (part 1)

April 5, 2011

Part One in my out-of-order breakdown of Friday Night Lights, what John Ashbery might call, “the One Show that Can Save America“.

UNITY

By unity, I mean that described by Aristotle:  unity of place and time. Dillon is a completely self-consistent microworld in which the characters operate almost exclusively.  The pilot episode spends most of its energy demonstrating just how small this town is and the resultant pressure it places on the new football coach, Eric Taylor. Instances in which characters leave Dillon signify great change, or a great gamble. The first instance is the team’s first trip to the state high school championship wherein Cowboy stadium is filmed to portray its totemic status: here is where their fate will be decided. When Coach Taylor takes a job at TMU, the viewer senses that his separation from his family and his team must be short lived; the world of the show is based in Dillon and such a schism is untenable. When Tim Riggins enrolls in San Antonio State, the land calls him back.  Of course, characters do leave Dillon to pursue their lives, as they must, but they effectively disappear. When they do reappear in town they are effectively unrecognizable as their former selves (a la Tyra).

It’s not that change is viewed as bad in the FNL ethos; if anything, the show promotes relocation as a route to self-discovery. But in order to raise the stakes as high as possible, the show draws the lens to a sharp focus. Every little moment carries significance. In the more cosmopolitan settings of most dramas, stakes need to be made artificially higher: characters are “the best in the world” at what they do, millions of dollars are changing hands, murders are frequent and increasingly gruesome. In the world of FNL, you don’t need to be the best quarterback in the country, you just need to be the best on the team… and it doesn’t hurt to have a jerk for a dad.

The coziness of the show is why the murder of Tyra’s stalker felt so out of place. The stakes involved with two high school students killing a man and disposing of his body were too high for the show, inadvertently reducing the other characters’ dilemmas to trivialities (the Swede-Jules-Saracen love triangle). The main point of FNL is the demonstrate how meaningful we can be to each other in the smallest of ways. Or as Kyle Chandler put it: “It’s about a small town and the people who live in it and the importance of their ordinariness.”

Why “Nine”?

February 12, 2011

Why would you put “Nine” in your season? I’m not trying to call out Speakeasy Stage Company, but this question was in my head during the production at the BCA last night. It’s just not a good show: the book is languid, the songs are unremarkable and the conceit is flawed.

“Nine” is based on Fellini’s classic and strange film, “8 1/2”.  That movie is a grand excercise of meta-filmaking: a film about making a film, or rather, not making a film. Guido, a once successful but now fading director, is a few days from production and has no idea what film he is making. His well has run dry. He has faltering relationships with his wife, his mistress, and his muse. He camps out at a spa in Venice and pretends to put the finishing touches on a script that doesn’t exist. His producer arrives and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t make a hit. On the eve of shooting he is inspired by his similarity to Casanova and so begins filming scenes for a period piece that mirrors his own life: wife, mistress and all. His wife witnesses a scene that reveals Casanova’s wandering heart and leaves Guido. His mistress leaves. His muse leaves. He has a vision of death; was it suicide or the producer? We’re unsure.

Well, that’s the play version. When I write it out like a coherent story, it doesn’t sound so bad. But the script is tiring as it darts back and forth in setting and time. In the first act, Guido appears in a nonlinear series of short scenes with the nine women of his life – including his mother, a nun, and a prostitute who corrupted him when he was nine. The whole first act feels like one never-ending song, as the chorus of women repeatedly come on and off singing “Guido” a lot. The music is vaguely operatic with jokey ethnic bits: Germans dancing in laderhosen, tribal music (!). There’s even a burlesque number by his producer which is, shall I say, lightly motivated. The second act is the culmination of Guido’s movie-making and relationship breakdown and is similarly disorienting.

A show can be nonlinear, kitcshy and fun, but not if it takes itself as seriously as Nine does [see “The Slutcracker“]. The whole time Guido is tormented by guilt and fear; perhaps this could have been leavened with some humor by a lighter production. Whatever chance Speakeasy had of salvaging Nine it loses by failure of execution. Jane Krakowski earned a Tony as the mistress for simply rocking a number wherein she strips seductively for Guido. The stripping by Mccaela Donovan? More awkward than seductive. The burlesque number didn’t feel like a real burlesque number.  The flashes to Guido’s ideas for a cowboy flick?  The girls run out in vaguely different costumes and ride invisible horses. None of the physical bits felt tight. Guido mugged a lot for the audience, firing off a lot of one-liners that resulted in silence. Guido is miscast- Timothy John Smith is no casanova- but had a nice voice and at least kept the accent under control. Mostly excellent Aimee Doherty, in the wife role, had a terrible time with her-a accent-e, wavering between straight up Americano and something vaguely Russian.

As I was asking, Why “Nine”?,  I was also thinking about what I would do differently. I would clear up the stage and develop a sense of place for the longer scenes. Let the actors go sit down instead of hovering in the arches. Let Guido lighten up here and there, instead of straining and flailing the whole show. Either get the accents right or kill them. Commit to the physical bits instead of just waving at them. The company built a working fountain in the middle of the set, which bubbled for one short scene and filled up with about an inch of water for Guido to wade in at the end of act one. After the scene, out comes a tech with the wetvac, which in itself is a kind of comedy. Overall, I would demonstrate Guido’s vivid imagination with concrete details and abrupt transitions. Speakeasy’s Guido exists in more of a dreamlike state with no real definition or boundaries, hence the all-black costumes and gauzy in-and-out of scenes. Guido should see things in his head as if they were real; he is a gifted filmmaker after all.

But again, Why “Nine”?

Shout-outs and murmurs: a self-interview

November 11, 2010

I sat down with myself to learn what I was thinking. I wanted to understand what was driving the plan for “Counterfeit Variety”, “Go Big or Go Home” and other theatrical projects.

Thanks for meeting with me to answer some questions.

Thank you. Shoot.

You’re planning a lot of projects in the theatre: what’s the big idea?

Good question. My vision of theatre is centered around vitality, theatre that answers “yes” to the question: Is this important to people?

That’s a pretty vague question.

Indeed. Let me put it this way, I got very tired of making theatre for theatre-people. In the mind of the public, theatre only exists as Broadway. People in the midwest make pilgrimages to New York to see “Wicked”, but they won’t go see a show in their home town.

Why is that?

Because theatre is very boring most of the time. The great majority of productions fit into one of three categories: avant-garde, schmaltz, or “classic” theatre. These are of no use to normal people. Anyone who is serious about making money and who can tell stories goes into film or tv. Wouldn’t you? You might actually make a check making “Friday Night Lights”, which is excellent.

Why don’t you?

I don’t like screens. I dislike mediated photons. I don’t mean I don’t watch TV: I do, and a lot of it. But once you put a camera between the audience and the actor, the entire premise of theatre is lost. It’s something else, a different form of storytelling. I completely respect filmmakers, and tv-makers, but they work in a different medium. I get tired of Broadway and the Tony awards trying to merge the two.

What makes theatre so special?

Theatre is an exercise in humanity. Taking your physical body, putting it in a room with other physical bodies, and exposing yourself as an audience member: that’s the main difference between screen and live.

But do Americans want to do that? Expose themselves?

They do, actually, but only to a certain degree. There’s a few camps of thought about this. One side would argue: people go to football games, right? They go to big concerts. Why not theatre? To that I would respond that there is a key difference: these experiences are only part of the larger experience. If I am an Iowa Hawkeyes fan, and I go to one game a year, that game is the highlight of an entire season of watching games on TV and reading articles online. If I am a huge Paul McCartney fan, the concert is the culmination of years of listening to Beatles, Wings, solo albums, looking at pictures, reading New Yorker articles, etc. In live theatre, on the other hand, the play is the beginning and end. You’re going to see “The Drowsy Chaperone”? Great. What the hell is “The Drowsy Chaperone”? Yeah you could watch clips on-line. But why would you unless you were already thinking about going? That’s why “Wicked” is so successful: it’s reaffirmed by other cultural products, namely the book, the legacy of the Wizard of Oz, etc. It’s not a bad musical, but it’s not as good as some other newish broadway musicals. Audience members are so leery of being exposed to something new, that even Hollywood has to produce sequels to make money most of the time.

And you want to reform the audience.

No! No, I want to be clear about this. My motivations in theatre are completely selfish. You could ask: do I believe that theatre is better for people than TV? I make no such claim. I just enjoy it more. It’s a lot of fun to put on, it makes almost everyone involved brim with life, and the audience can experience that transcendence. But I’m not about to make some grand claims about the capacity of theatre to reform American audiences. I just happen to enjoy it a lot and would like to make a saleable product out of it without resorting to gross debasement.

So what are you planning?

I’m starting withCounterfeit Variety”.

A variety show? Like vaudeville?

Not really. There is a movement towards vaudevillian acts, burlesque acts, variety shows. I’m more interested in a live game show/comedy show with musical acts. I can’t figure out what else to call it, so I’m calling it “variety”.

Good luck with that.

Yeah, I’m not expecting to retire off it. But I need a launching point. I need to try to get normal people in the door. I love freaks and wierdos, and God knows there are plenty in Cambridge and Somerville. And I love theatre people, people who actually make theatre, who are always the most willing audience members. But I want to see if I can get normal people through the door and enjoy themselves.

What’s your inspiration?

There was a show out of the House Theatre of Chicago called “The Game Show Show and Stuff” which executed perfectly this idea. It’s a side project of the theatre, appearing only intermittently, but it was a hot ticket. I was astonished by crowd when I went. Young Lincoln Park yuppie types! Amazing. I would kill for that crowd. They loved the show and it was just so much more fun than sitting at home and watching SNL.

But this isn’t their main gig, it’s a side project.

True. The House theatre is pretty fun and cool, but they definitely aspire to acceptable theatre practices: they want to get people in a room and blow their socks off with stories, like the rest of us. I wonder how much audience they’ve brought in from TGSSAS. I would bet some, but it’s hard to alter behavior patterns at large.

What’s your ultimate goal?

It would be a playhouse.. a place where people came to drink, see improv, see a musical, see Shakespeare, to gossip. On the artist side, I’d really like to drive the creation of new projects with this kind of venue in mind.

Is that feasible?

I have no idea.