It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: When Is a Play Not a Play?

In which Dave Sikula wonders what the hell is up with David Mamet?

In our last meeting, I discussed the shows I had seen on my recent trip to New York – save one, David Mamet’s China Doll.

Little did I calculate then how timely this chapter would be now, since the show has officially opened and the reviews are pretty much what I expected; in short, “What the hell were they thinking?”

There’s an old story (it might be apocryphal, since a quick Google search turned up nothing) that, sometime in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart did one of the their collaborations, but reviews were not felicitous and one read “Kaufman and Hart didn’t have an idea for a play this year, but wrote one anyway.”
My reaction to China Doll was that David Mamet didn’t have an idea for a play, so he didn’t bother to write one.

Pam MacKinnon on her way out of town.

Pam MacKinnon on her way out of town.

One could say that Mr. Mamet is controversial. When he burst in on the scene in the ‘70s, he was exhilarating. Between the swearing and the poetry of his language, he was really like no one we’d ever seen before. From 1973 to 1985, there really wasn’t anyone quite as interesting (Sam Shepard was too sloppy and the really big names like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams had shot their wads.)

In 1985, Glengarry Glen Ross came along, won the Pulitzer – and it was over. His next three plays, Boston Marriage, Bobby Gould in Hell, and Oleanna, were obscure at best, and it’s been downhill from there. (Though I suppose November and Race may have their defenders … )

Mr. Mamet’s books on acting are not without interest, but one of the stupider things he’s said (and I admit that takes in a lot of territory) is that there are no characters in a script. There are words on a page; if the actor just says those words, he’ll guarantee the results. And while, strictly speaking, he’s right, there’s more alchemy involved than that.

In The New York Times recently, there was a feature on how designer Vinny Sainato created the production’s poster. It was an interesting precis in the creative process and how a piece of art like that needs to evolve based on given circumstances. It’s a shame Mr. Mamet didn’t do the same with his own drafts.

Mamet may be the only American playwright who nowadays who can get a straight play produced on Broadway right out of the box – no regional productions, no workshopping, no previous incarnations. (Mr. Shepard might be another, but he seems not to have pursued that avenue – and seems to have, more or less, abandoned writing plays.)

Go on; criticize me. I dare you.

Go on; criticize me. I dare you.

I’ll admit that, in spite of my antipathy to Mr. Mamet’s recent work, I was excited by the prospect of seeing the show – and of seeing Al Pacino in what promised to be a meaty role.

We bought our tickets well in advance – and then the early reports started drifting in: The play was incoherent. Mr. Pacino was having line trouble. Mr. Mamet had skipped town. Audience members were leaving in droves at intermission.

We regretted buying the tickets, but what could we do?

When we arrived at the theatre, one of the first things I saw was director Pam MacKinnon. That she was directing at all was a surprise to me. Mr. Mamet is, if nothing else, a wee bit phallocentric, so the idea of a woman directing one of his shows – and a new script at that – was interesting. As I saw her, though, the look on her face said it all: it was a combination of confusion, frustration, and resignation.

I honestly didn’t know what her job with the production was. The prevailing rumor – which persists even now that the show has opened – was that Mr. Pacino was having line trouble. It’s understandable. He’s 75, and I’d say that 85% of the script is him having cryptic telephone conversations – of which we hear only one side. He talks and talks and talks and talks and talks – all sound and fury signifying nothing. In my experience, anyway, there’s little one can do with an actor who is still struggling to get off-book (like I’m one to talk) in terms of characterization (and if Mr. Mamet is to be believed, he hasn’t written a character, anyway), and as far as staging goes, the blocking seemed to consist of Mr. Pacino walking or sitting anywhere he pleased at any time he wanted. He has enough training that the movement was appropriate, but an audience can watch an actor yammering away on a Bluetooth for only so long.

That Bluetooth is one of the more notorious things about the production. Because of it, the rumor mill was sure that he was being fed his lines through the earpiece. Given the choppy nature of the text and his delivery, though, who the hell knows? (As well as the earpiece, there are two Macs set prominently on the stage, the screens of which are both facing upstage, no doubt so that the scrolling script can’t be seen by the audience.)

But, after all this, what’s the play about? I have no idea. As I said, Mr. Pacino spends the vast majority of the evening (to quote Ben Brantley’s review in The Times) “talking to, variously, [his] lovely young fiancée; a Swedish plane manufacturer; a lawyer, and someone he calls Ruby, a former crony who is close to the Governor of the state, whose father (a former Governor) was [his character’s] mentor.” It has something to do with a plane he bought and will or will not pay taxes on, officials he may or may not have bribed, and arrests that may or may not be made. That’s it. There’s an old (again probably apocryphal) quip about the plot of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “Nothing happens. Twice.” China Doll’s plot is that nothing happens. At all.
Mr. Brantley’s review begins – begins, mind you – like this:

No matter what his salary is, it seems safe to say that Christopher Denham is the most underpaid actor on Broadway. Mr. Denham – a young man with, I sincerely hope, a very resilient nervous system – is one of a cast of two in China Doll, the saggy new play by David Mamet that was finally opened to critics on Wednesday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, and he is onstage for almost the entire show.

So is – pause for ominous silence – Al Pacino. Now please cue sound effects of chalk scratching on countless blackboards and the ping, ping, ping of an endlessly dripping faucet, and you have some idea of what Mr. Denham must be going through night after night after night.

My wife’s takeaway was that it was almost as though Mr. Mamet were giving one of his famous “fuck yous” to the idea of conventional dramaturgy and deliberately set out to write a script that violated every “rule.” Nothing happens. Most of the play is a man spouting one-sided exposition that never really amounts to anything. There is no character development (though if there are no characters, how can they develop?). There is no real acting to speak of. It all amounts to Mr. Pacino putting himself on display as though he were in a zoo, speaking meaningless lines slowly and haltingly in a desperate attempt to make them mean something.

As we were leaving the theatre, I saw Ms MacKinnon again, a notepad in her hand. I wanted to go up to her and say, “I know what you’re feeling. We’ve all been there.” But no matter how challenged any of us have been with our own productions, I can only imagine the pressures of dealing with a Pulitzer Prize-winner writer and an Oscar-winning actor in a multimillion-dollar production of a play that’s not working. Whatever she was paid wasn’t enough.

The director in happier days.

The director in happier days.

I’ve seen theatrical disasters before (remind me to tell you about the legendary first preview of Bring Back Birdie), but this wasn’t even a trainwreck; it was more in the “Well, there’s two hours of my life I won’t get back” category.

Derek McLane’s set is nice, though.

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: What’s Playing at the Roxy?*

Dave Sikula, in which the author begins to dissect his recent trip to New York.

As I start writing this, I’m sitting in my hotel room in New York, fully aware of three things:

1) I really should be in bed, since I have to pack up tomorrow morning.
2) I am going to have one hell of a time packing everything.
3) I really should be working on the work assignment I have that I hope to deal with on the plane tomorrow.

While I’m fully aware that I have what has been described as a negative approach to things, I prefer to think of it as both contrarian and snobbish (see here for my previous post on that issue). Yet, despite that rep (which could be easily proven incorrect by doing one of those stupid “here are the words I use most on Facebook” word clouds – something that just reeks to me of intrusive marketing), I found myself having a great time at eight of the ten shows (or ten of twelve, if one counts seeing Colbert and a cabaret show), and even the two misfires weren’t that bad – well, China Doll was, but that’s something to be dealt with later.

While I’m going to deal with this trip on a broader level later in the year (something I know you’ll all be waiting for … ), I wanted to do a post-mortem on what I saw.
When I plan a trip to New York, I’m lucky enough that I can usually schedule it for a long enough period that I can see pretty much everything I want to. In this case, that meant arriving on a Tuesday and leaving on the Thursday of the next week, giving me the opportunity to take advantage of three matinee/two-for-one days.

The festivities began with Stephan Karam’s The Humans. I’d seen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet a few years ago, so I was interested in seeing this follow-up. It’s a very good production of a very interesting script; that is as much about the Thanksgiving dinner that is its center as the previous play was about being Lebanese-American. The family dynamics are incisive and sharply observed, and it’ll probably get produced all over the country once designers work out how to re-invent its two-story set.

Because set designers need challenges, don't they?

Because set designers need challenges, don’t they?

Wednesday matinee: Robert Askins’s Hand to God. Another one that deserves a long shelf-life, but good luck to the actors who’ll be cast in the central role that combines puppetry with playing off one’s self with possible demonic possession and a bunch of swearing and simulated sex. Of particular interest was Bob Saget, new to the cast as a straight-laced pastor, but really quite good, but who paled – as most actors would – in comparison to Stephen Boyer’s work as the lead.

The next show was David Mamet’s China Doll, which I was starting to write about, but quickly realized that it’s going to take a whole post in itself to deal with – and that’s for next time. Suffice it to say that, when we heard about this one, we jumped at the chance to go. Granted, Mamet hasn’t written a good play since the ‘80s and Pacino isn’t what he once was, but still, the possibilities were there – especially since the notoriously phallocentric Mamet was actually allowing a woman – Pam MacKinnon – to direct. It’s a perfect example, though, of how Broadway in the 21st century isn’t what it was even 20 years ago.

This is not a still photo. This is a live feed of the action.

This is not a still photo. This is a live feed of the action.

Friday: Hamilton. We planned the trip around when we could get tickets. Now, unlike many folks, I wanted to go in cold. I had heard a little of the score (it’s next to impossible to avoid), and knew the basics of the conceit and approach. Now, while I kinda wish I’d exposed myself to the cast album (please note: not a soundtrack … ), I was floored. It was that rare occasion where, going in, my expectations were high, and the product not only met them, they left them in the dust. It’s an utterly phenomenal show and I can’t say enough good things about it. Everything you’ve heard? All true.

I was a little iffy about the next three shows; two because of my growing Anglothropism (that is to say, not buying into the idea that, just because a show has a London pedigree, it’s going to be good), and the third because it’s a dumb musical comedy. All three were brilliant though, starting with Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, directed by Ivo Van Hove (whose production of Hedda Gabler – a play I really dislike – was staggeringly good). This is an amazing production, played as the Greek tragedy Miller alluded to, muscular, tough, and no-holds-barred. The production offers on-stage seating, and I was no more than a couple of feet from the actors, so it was even more intense.

Yeah. It's that kind of a show

Yeah. It’s that kind of a show

The second of the three was by John O’Farrell, Karey Kirkpatrick, and Wayne Kirkpatrick’s musical Something Rotten!, which is that rarest of creatures – an original musical that opened directly on Broadway. I was leery, but had been told (by my wife, no less) that it was hysterically funny – and it is. It’s everything “a Broadway musical comedy” should be: smart, funny, and lively; full of allusions to other musicals and cast with actors who really know how to land the material.

The last of this troika was Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, a “future history” play set during the early days of the reign of the next British monarch, written (mostly) in iambic pentameter and blank verse and doing all it can to take on Shakespeare at his own game. It’s a risk, but pays off mightily, with a towering central performance by Tim Pigott-Smith, but the rest of the cast comes close to matching him. A riveting afternoon.

Next was a pair of disappointments, lacking for similar reasons. The first was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, which I was looking forward to. The director, Bartlett Sher, showed an astonishing ability to wring every ounce of drama out of South Pacific, turning a war horse into a thoroughbred, and I had hopes he’d be able to repeat that magic here. While the production itself is everything one might hope – fine performances, beautiful sets and staging – the show itself just can’t match the production. I don’t expect there could be a better version of the show, but – for better or worse – its dramaturgy is locked into the early ‘50s, and musicals just aren’t written that way anymore. (Where I want numbers that delve into psychology, I got “hit tunes,” and characters who have – justifiably – been speaking in pigeon English all evening suddenly become fluently poetic when singing).

The second was Simon Stephens’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which, despite its many admirable qualities and intentions, just didn’t work for me. It’s an outstanding production, but that was the problem. It’s so overwhelming and facile that it covers up that there’s not much of a play underneath. I can’t imagine how another production of it – that doesn’t have a mammoth budget – will be able to tell the story.

Finally, I like to end my trips with something that will leave me with a glow of some sort; usually – but not necessarily – something uplifting, so I decided on Craig Lucas’s adaptation of An American in Paris, with a score by George and Ira Gershwin. From almost the opening moments, the show packed a particular punch. Given the still-fresh attacks on Paris, its start – detailing the German occupation of France and its aftermath (something the show was criticized for when it opened) – set things in a context that give it an immediacy and power that was shocking. The show itself is, well, lovely. One expects a dancy musical full of tap and “Broadway” dancing, and one gets an evening of breathtaking ballet (okay; there is one tap number … ). It’s moving and human in all the best ways – and couldn’t have been a better finale to my trip.

Boy, howdy.

Boy, howdy.

Next time: the dullness that was China Doll.

(*Nothing, actually. The Roxy was a movie theatre, anyway, and was torn down in 1960.)

Working Title: Unlikely Pairings

This week Will Leschber gets unlikely…

As you know dear audience, I’m always looking for the perfect intersection between theater and film, and often the most interesting answers come from unlikely pairings. I’m not talking about something that’s merely unexpected, like an unlikely animal friendships that melts your heart and all corners of the internet at the same time!

Dog Ferret

I’m talking about shows or projects that just don’t work in other mediums. Or shouldn’t work. My brain immediately goes to spectacle projects that appear made for the screen or the confines of a good book where budget and realities of physics or physical limitation shouldn’t wouldn’t work on stage. Blockbusters, Epics! Lord of the Rings, King Kong, Spider-Man, Lion King! These kinds of stories would never work on stage; they are too big, too grand, too large for live theater! …Oh wait, these all have successful, spectacle theatrical runs. Who knew it was possible?

Creating stunning photography for stage, studio and on location.

Creating stunning photography for stage, studio and on location.

On the flip side of that coin, the unlikely film success that forsake the inherent advantages of cinematic scope, can be equally riveting. I’m thinking of a film like 2010’s Buried which takes place entirely in a buried coffin as a man (Ryan Reynolds) attempts to escape from his impending seeming death sentence. A movie…set in a coffin…that’s it?! WHAT! It’s excellent.

Buried

Or small casts in limited spaces that seem made for the stage yet rivet on film. David Mamet’s 1992 film version of Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s just stellar. Or how about 1981’s My Dinner With Andre. It’s two guys sitting around a table having a conversation for 110 minutes. Sounds like a stage play not something I wanna go see on a huge CinemaScope screen! The film remains a primary example of how small scale when executed to perfection can work on any scale.

Recently, I was speaking to friend and local Bay Area actor, and all around awesome guy, Dan Kurtz about unlikely pairings in regards to his new play. Dan had this to say about his new show Eat the Runt at Altarena Playhouse.

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I asked him about an ideal pairing of his show and a film offering, of course. Since there are no easy answers in this post, his response is properly multi-faceted. His response was longer than my normal offerings, and since it was so good, I had to include it all. Here’s what he had to say:

The most talked-about aspect of Eat The Runt is the bit where the audience casts the show at the start of each performance. That’s a device you won’t see in movies at all until technology gets really weird. Like maybe when I see the 12th Ghostbusters reboot in a theater, it’ll let me cast Gregory Hines, Madeline Kahn, Rowan Atkinson, and Will Leschber as the ‘Busters. Until then, the best analog is probably the Rocky Horror Picture Show — same movie, different casts. Some Rocky casts diverge wildly from the genders, races and body types of the movie actors, which gets them even closer to the Eat The Runt experience.

The script itself is about fluid identity, and the relationship between the stories we tell about ourselves and the other stories in our culture. It makes me think of Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, which contains so much interplay between our reality, the movie’s reality, and the movie-within-the-movie that I’m still not sure I’ve got it all sorted out.

Finally, the action of the play takes place during a job interview at an art museum, and includes lots of jargon from the world of non-profits, grant writing and modern art. I’ve never seen a movie that captures that culture, actually. If the play took place in a giant corporation, Office Space would be the best way to get a feel for its inner workings, but non-profit life has a very different feel to it. I don’t actually know if there’s a movie that’s iconic for non-profits the same way that Office Space resonates with office drones, but I’d love to hear suggestions.”

I love great suggestions for unlikely pairings: food, animal friendship, theater or film or otherwise. Jam it together! Make it juxtapose! Idea smash! It’s more fun than a banana, peanut butter, jelly, mayonnaise sandwich. Try it! (idea smashing…not the mayo jelly…bleck)

If you are looking for an unlikely theater event check out Eat the Runt at Altarena Playhouse. It opens August 14th and runs until September 13th.

In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – The Script you Love to Hate

Charles Lewis III is revisiting old demons.

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“We teach people how to remember, we never teach them how to grow.”
– Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist

About a week or so back, our esteemed Executive Director Stuart Bousel mentioned on Facebook that he’d recently come across an old script he’d written. From the way he described it, he’d put the script aside after a particularly disastrous reading and hadn’t thought much of it since. However, after stumbling upon it again and looking it over, he was relieved to find that the problem wasn’t with the script, but with the way it was read. It was one of those pleasant scenarios that artists hope for happens only upon reflection: to find out that your work wasn’t nearly as bad as you’d thought and that problem was how it was presented.

I’ve been thinking of that a lot the past few months, the idea of revisiting old work of mine that I’d initially brushed off as terrible. I’ve been particularly thinking of it as it relates to my 2012 Olympians play, Do a Good Turn Daily. Earlier this year I’d been offered an opportunity (which I can’t publicly speak of in specifics just yet) to revisit the script and give it an extended life, so to speak. As wonderful an opportunity as this was, it also meant that I would have to swallow my pride and look back at this particular script. And in the time since reading of this particular script, I’d kinda learned to hate it. A lot.

It’s not that surprising for Olympians scripts to have a life beyond the festival. In fact, that’s kinda the whole point of the festival: it’s developmental. It’s still the embryonic stage of the script’s life cycle. Hell, those of us with long-time Olympians experience instantly roll our eyes at the thought of past participants who have treated what-is-clearly-defined-as-a-staged-reading-festival as if it were opening night on Broadway – full of bells and whistles, pomp and circumstance. But every writer selected hopefully imagines that their script will be one of the illustrious alumni that go on to fully-staged productions for which people gladly pay admission. (Look up Stuart’s Juno en Victoria, Marissa Skudlarek’s Pleiades, and Megan Cohen’s Totally Epic Odyssey for just a few examples.)
I had no such illusions regarding my 2012 entry about Atlas. Of all the proposals I’d submitted the year prior, the one for Atlas was the one for which I may have been the least enthusiastic. I wanted to get picked for one of my more exciting proposals; the ones that you’d read and instantly imagine having a poster drawn by Drew Struzan. Instead I got picked to develop a script that I’d refer to as “my Jim Jarmusch play”: it’s set in the mid-‘90s and it’s just three people sitting and talking, accentuated by an eclectic collection of music both old and new.

Then again, I’ve always liked Jim Jarmusch’s work. Plus, what this proposal lacked in (perceived) marketability, it made up for in its personal nature. One of the characters, the 14-year-old Herc, is loosely based on myself in 1995. So while the other proposals, if chosen, would have seen my Id run wild, this one would require me to open a vein. Atlas it was.

I actually did have a director attached at one point, but as enthusiastic as she was, I saw that I was just adding to her already-busy schedule and took her advice to direct it myself. I wrote most of it longhand during an Olympian writers get-together at the Café La Boheme in The Mission. I did a drastic full rewrite the Saturday before our first rehearsal, causing me to miss one that day’s Iapetus vs. Hermes “matinee”. I was still cutting massive chunks of it backstage before the reading, and as I stood in the back of the theatre, I felt I should have cut more. Even as a one-act that clocked in at 53 min., it still felt too goddamn long. I was actually relieved to lose to Claire’s play, because I couldn’t imagine any method of torture as bad as reading (what I imagined to be) the worst play ever written.

Sure, people complimented me afterward, but I freely admit that I’m the worst when it comes to compliments. I’m not as bad as I used to be, so I’m improving. Still, I have a habit of treating every compliment, no matter how sincere, as I would my grandmother telling me I’m handsome: I politely nod, say “Okay” (never “Thank you”), and try put it out of my mind immediately. I’m that hypothetical actor Mamet talks about in True and False, the one who treats every compliment as a slap to the face, so they respond by slapping back with “It wasn’t as good as it could have been.” Criticisms I’ll repeat to myself ad nauseum, but compliments? Those are the greatest insult.

In fact, it was that very self-improvement that finally allowed me to take the Atlas compliments at face value. I’ve actually gotten quite a few of them in the intervening years. The pessimist in me would chalk it up to the fact that I’m more known for acting than writing, so maybe it was the only written thing of mine they could remember (hell, most thought it was the first thing I’d ever written in my life, when I’ve been writing and directing since high school). But they did remember. It was nearly one year ago exactly when one of my co-stars in The Crucible told me how much she’d enjoyed it and wondered why I hadn’t done anything more with it.

So I bit the bullet and finally decided to take a look at it again. It didn’t go well at first. I’ve kept personal journals of some kind since my teens, and on the occasions I dared to look through them, I usually cringe at the obnoxious son-of-a-bitch I used to be. So too did I cringe looking back over my Atlas script, as I nitpicked the bits of bad dialogue and lamented that I wasn’t more creative with my staging.

But as I kept reading through it, a funny thing happened: I didn’t hate it. At all. I could still see where the rough edges were, but that’s because I had the benefit of analytical hindsight with a script I’d written and rewritten in several passionate creative bursts. I have a bit of an obsession with the Freudian model of the psyche – it’s the reason the play has three characters – and this play was definitely fueled by my Id. And once my Super-Ego was done poring every line, word, and punctuation, my Ego was finally able to decide “This was nearly the piece of shit I told myself it was.”

When the aforementioned opportunity to revisit the play presented itself earlier this year, the first question I asked was how much leeway I’d have with rewriting it. I was told that the play could be “touched up”, but couldn’t be drastically different (eg. fewer or additional characters, new scenes, radical restructuring, etc.) than the draft that was that read at the festival. After pondering that for a little while, I agreed. I’ve come to think of this script like an abandoned family heirloom: I no longer want to throw it in the fire, but I think it could use a good polish.

As I sit here putting the finishing touches on this entry, I glanced at my bookshelf and saw Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, given to me by a fellow ‘Pub writer and Olympians alumnus. A few years back I was in a bookstore and read his “new” version of Noises Off. It really isn’t all that different from the original version he wrote in ’82, but what really stuck with me was the intro at the start of the book. I can’t quote it word-for-word, but it was Frayn speaking to the necessity of a writer to revisit old work to look at it out of its original context. That doesn’t necessarily mean rewriting everything, but to not just outright dismiss the person (and artist) you were, because it’s what led you to become the one you are.

I’m not an impulsive person. Hell, just this past Saturday night I did something uncharacteristically impulsive (and stupid) and have been beating myself up for it every day since. But I am reflective. I like looking at all of my scars because they remind me of exactly how not to get cut next time. The play Do a Good Turn Daily wasn’t explicitly autobiographical, nor would I really call it a “roman à clef” per se, but it was definitely me reflecting on a time that I recall as one of great transition – for the world, for the times, and yes, for me. I like to think of as akin to Jean-Luc Picard at the end of the Next Generation episode “Tapestry”; I just didn’t need a six-inch serrated blade shoved through my chest.

I never approve of an artist outright destroying or radically changing older work once it’s been established in their canon. If they feel an older work is truly deserving of some alteration, then I hope they’d at least keep the original available in some accessible for the very purpose of comparing them (I’m lookin’ at you, George Lucas). At the risk of sounding overly sentimental and really damn pretentious, I think destroying old art is destroying part of the artist and that’s akin purposely throwing away puzzle pieces.

Whereas film and television are media – specifically photographs – captured forever, we theatre folk have the privilege of working in an art form that has the tendency to change every single night, whether we notice it or not. Acknowledge the change, embrace the change, learn from the change. Hell, it was yet another ‘Pub writer/Olympians alumnus who used to paraphrase Paul Valery and say: “Good plays are never finished, only abandoned.” And look what happened with her play.

Charles Lewis III can only imagine how he’ll beat himself up next year, following his Poseidon entry for this year’s festival. As always, if you want to know more about the SF Olympians Festival, visit the official site at http://www.sfolympians.com

Working Title: Take the Shotz and Release Your Creative Devilry

This week Will Leschber talks to Colin Johnson about creating art that is about creating art.

I don’t know about you, but I love movies about movies. And theater about theater. Maybe it’s because all us creative types are a bit self involved. We like seeing things we can relate to. Who doesn’t?! More so whenever we are privy to a story “from the inside” of something, I normally extend an extra credit of believability to the project. I think, yeah, they lived that, so they must know what they are talking about. Social workers writing about at-risk kids, teachers writing a coming of age story, screenwriters writing about the trials of adaptation. Once you get past the navel gazing, the number one thing they tell you is: write what you know.

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This week I ask, writer/director Colin Johnson about his work with ShotzSF! highlights a streamlined creative process as it beckons six groups to each write, rehearse and stage a new short play every month. That’s a feat! It’s easy to mingle the end product with the process when a creative gauntlet is thrown. Both are to be marveled at (when all comes out well). Challenge accepted.

Is this fresh-off-the-page-play going to be any good?! Is this enough time to mount a good show? Will this all come together? Therein lies the draw. Which would make sense why Colin Johnson links his play in this week’s “ShotzSF!: The Chekhov Variations” to other film chronicling creative endeavors.

He had this to say, “In Shotz this month, I’m playing with the idea that Chekhov wrote his plays to be comedies only to see them turned into tragedies. The struggles of the playwright are ripe filmic fodder.” Johnson mentioned, and I agree, the perfect filmic pairing for this idea would be The Coen Brothers ’91 treasure Barton Fink where John Turturo’s playwright moves from a successful theater run in New York to slave away over a film script in Hollywood as he descends into the hellish depths of the Hotel Earl, a stand-in for creative devilry.

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OR David Mamet’s 2000 effort, State and Main, where a Hollywood film crew invades a small Vermont town. A high praise cast and Hollywood Hijinks ensue. Both State and Main & Barton Fink navigate the serio-comic aspects of balancing personal ideals and creative pursuits.

Johnson went on to say, “Also movies that deal with the toil of producing a show only to fall victim to disaster around every corner make for a ready comparison to this Wednesday night’s Chekhov Variations.” He made mention that Noises Off (the 1992 film or any production at a summer stock near you!) or the absurdly sublime, Steve Coogan vehicle, Hamlet 2, would make for particular good viewing in this vein as well.

ShotzSF! is here and gone Wednesday night only (5/13) at Piano Fight. So bulk up on your meta narrative act of creation films and then go witness a jolt of compressed creation.

Theater Around The Bay: Thirteen Questions (And One In-Joke) About Terror-Rama

Today’s guest interviewer is local actor Tony Cirimele, who interviews Anthony Miller, one of our regular columnists (“The Five”) and the mastermind behind this year’s Halloween spectacular, “Terror-Rama.”

TC: “Terror-Rama” is a rare breed of theater; billed as a “Horror Theatre Double Feature”, it is comprised of two one-acts whose sole purpose is to scare. Think “Grindhouse” with a bit of “Friday the 13th” and “M” thrown in for fun. “Terror-Rama” is comprised of two parts; “Camp Evil” by Anthony Miller is a darkly comic look at slasher flicks, while “Creep” by Nick Pappas is a deeply disturbing crime thriller. When Anthony Miller was approached about being interviewed for SF Theater Pub, he requested that his “celebrity” interviewer be yours truly. Besides bonding over having more or less the same name, Anthony and I worked together on several projects during our time at SF State, and one magical summer we were neighbors/drinking buddies. I recently sat down with Anthony (via email) to discuss “Terror-Rama”.

As anyone who saw “Zombie! The Musical!” will know, this isn’t your first theatrical horror piece. What is it about the horror genre that you feel makes it work for theater?

AM: Making it work is half the fun. Horror is very reactive and elicits a reaction from its audience, that lends itself very well to a live performance. But taking concepts from films and turning them into a theatrical concept, to make it theatre, is the exciting part. When it’s done well, it can be fun to watch, exhilarating even.

TC: Your piece, “Camp Evil”, is about a summer camp that may or may not be haunted. What was your camp experience (if any) like in your energetic youth?

AM: I was a Boy Scout so I did a lot of camping trips as a kid. My parents sent me to summer camp for years. I have good and bad experiences, but the bad ones were important because I was very much the weird kid who everyone teased mercilessly. Some of my bad experiences tie in (albeit in more comical ways) to what happens to the characters in “Camp Evil.” I also always loved movies and TV shows about summer camps. I was particularly fond of Salute Your Shorts, and of course, Sleepaway Camp.

TC: What scares you the most? And does that work its way into your writing (horror-genre or otherwise)?

AM: Death, I’m in general terrified of death. I had to deal with it early in my life so it was always something I’ve had to process, more so now because I’m in my mid-thirties and people my age are starting to die. So in every play I’ve written, someone dies and a big part of the plot is how people react to death. More specifically I’m afraid to die suddenly. Being given a time table and die in bed with my loved ones around me doesn’t worry me as much, it’s not seeing it coming or it happening in an impersonal way that scares me. Everything I write tends to deal with that.

TC: Let’s say I’m a total wuss who doesn’t like a lot of blood and guts in his talking pictures, but is willing to give it a go. What horror films do you recommend?

AM: There are lots of great Horror movies that aren’t big on blood and guts, they’re usually called thrillers. Movies like Dementia 13 or Psycho are good. Nightmare on Elm Street is so ridiculous; the violence is more comical than scary. Friday the 13th is pretty tame by today’s standards. Night of the Living Dead is another good one.

TC: Do you have a favorite obscure horror movie that you wish more people knew about? Or a famous horror movie you find inexplicably popular?

AM: Long Island Cannibal Massacre is an unknown masterpiece in my opinion. I also have a deep fondness for Troma Studios; they made the Toxic Avenger films, Basket Case, Monster in the Closet, De-Campetated, and Rockabilly Vampire. There’s a campy, punk rock, DIY feel to those movies that I try to carry over into my work. Lloyd Kauffman (Head of Troma Srudios) is a hero of mine. What I don’t get is torture porn type movies. I think Eli Roth is more talented than the films he makes. He’s got such a great talent for storytelling and his visual style is fantastic. But it seems like these movies are more like gross-out movies or just barrages of horrific imagery for the sake of having barrages of horrific imagery. The Saw films are also a good example, the first one is practically an art film, the dozen sequels don’t even come close. I will always consider the 70’s as a golden age for Horror. I think Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Dawn of The Dead are all brilliant films.

TC: Did you and fellow “Terror-Rama” playwright Nick Pappas collaborate and/or read each other’s pieces during the process? Or is one half of this show completely new to you?

AM: I commissioned him, gave him some parameters and we put both plays through a development process. There were several drafts, two readings and lots of dramaturgical work. So we often gave our opinions back and forth. Part of my job as producer was to shepherd along both plays. So I’m pretty excited to see how far the pieces have come. A neat thing about it is that both plays were commissioned, written, and developed for this show. So this has been a play incubator as well,

TC: What writers/non-writers have had the most influence on your writing style? And conversely, which writer has had the least influence?

AM: Playwrights like Charles Busch, Neil Simon, Arthur Laurents and Christopher Durang are all really influential. They are very much the folks I started off trying to emulate and after a while, find my own voice from. Also, I’ve always liked how David Mamet writes how people talk on the phone, I steal that pretty often. From Film; Quentin Tarantino, John Waters, Robert Rodriguez and Wes Craven are big influences as well. On the other end of that, I’d say my two favorite playwrights are also the ones that have had no real influence on my work. That’s Eugene O’Neil and George Bernard Shaw; I am deeply intimidated by their work. Candida and Long Day’s Journey Into Night are without a doubt my two favorite plays, but I don’t think my work resembles them or those plays at all.

TC: Describe your ideal writing setup. Laptop or longhand? Music or silence? Coffee or “Faulkner’s Little Helper”?

AM: I’m lucky enough to have my own little man-cave at home. So I still use a desktop computer (laptops and I have a strenuous relationship). I don’t do anything long hand, my handwriting is atrocious. I like being able to edit as I go and I don’t really have the romantic obsession with typewriters others do. I listen to a lot of music when writing; sometimes I’ll put together a playlist of songs that kinda resemble the tone I’m going for. “Camp Evil” was written to a lot of Styx, Peter Frampton, Bad Company and various 70’s stoner music. When I edit, it’s usually a quiet, concentrated time. Podcasts or silence is really good for editing. Writing and drinking has never really worked out for me. Coffee, if I’m writing at the beginning of my day.

TC: You have quite an eclectic cast assembled, including a very talented actress I once made out with in a zombie-related show. What kind of actors are you drawn to as a writer/director?

AM: Most of the time, I cast people because I see aspects of that character in the actor. But sometimes you have a person that can play anything. Sometimes, I use people who aren’t primarily actors, but who would do that specific role well. In truth, the kind of people I want/need to work with need to be kind of up for anything. The cast (and crew) we have for Terror-Rama is the best group I’ve ever worked with. Like, ever.

TC: You are serving only as playwright for “Camp Evil”, letting director Colin Johnson take the helm. Are you still active in the rehearsal process? You’re not one of those “back-seat directors”, are you?

AM: As Executive Producer, I was very hands-on at the beginning, I had some specific ideas that I wanted to be the foundation of the show. Like Sindie Chopper, the Horror host, she was a big element I pushed for. But now we’re in rehearsal and I’ve taken a big step back. There’s a quote by Tina Fey that I really like; “Hire brilliant people and get out of their way”. So to me, if I just meddled and micromanaged every aspect of the show, that would be a disservice to the people I hired. Some people can have one grand vision and execute every aspect of it, I’m not one of those people. I have learned that I like it much more when someone else directs my play. I can’t write and direct a play. In the best cases, the director sees something I didn’t and it’s better. I’m too reverent to my characters and writing. Colin has been perfect in this role; from day one he has always “got” the show. I was at the first read-through and then I didn’t go to rehearsals for two weeks. Now that we’re about to go into tech and we’re into run-throughs I’m around a bit more. But by this point, it’s very much their show, and I think this approach has worked out perfect. Don’t get me wrong, I find times to give my opinion. But I feel like Colin was given the space to make it his, and I love what he’s done with the whole show.

TC: You used to house manage at SF Playhouse. Have you ever based a character off of an annoying patron you’ve had to deal with?

AM: Patrons not so much, the most annoying ones aren’t that interesting. It was the people I worked with that were fascinating. Nick Pappas and I always talk about writing a pilot for an American version of Slings and Arrows based on the Playhouse. It is our dream to see Kevin Kline play Bill English.

TC: After reading the Terror-Rama Diaries at AwesomeTheatre’s website, this show seems to have had some difficulty getting off the ground. What motivates you to put on theater?

AM: Masochism mostly. But seriously, I get very frustrated when I hear people declaring theatre dead or dying because I find that to be patently false. Theatre as we know it now is destined to change, but that’s more natural evolution as dictated by what people want and react to. You have to keep it fresh. But the thing I think that will keep theatre around forever is that unlike every other form of entertainment, it requires more than one person to enjoy it. You can listen to music alone, you can look at a painting alone, you can watch TV, sporting events, and movies alone. You never have to interact with the people actually creating it. In theatre, there’s no way around it. Even if you’re the only person in the audience, you’re still in a room with actors and a couple of stage hands. You can’t have a theatrical experience all by yourself; theatre is unique in that sense. I mean, you can watch a play or musical that’s been recorded, but you’re really just watching a movie. I think that’s why I never got into film or TV, there’s an uncontrollable element to live theatre that I find appealing. If you want perfect, make a movie and it’ll be the same every time you watch it. But theatre has the ability to be different every time. Now in the case of Terror-Rama, I did initially pitch it to another group, and the talks went pretty far down the road but ultimately they didn’t really get it. That rings true for a lot of my projects, people don’t get it initially. Then they see it and they say, “oh now I get it”. So a big motivator for me is to take my crazy ideas that people don’t think will work and then prove them wrong. I’m really into converts, so I want to make theatre that attracts people who regularly wouldn’t go to theatre. If we can get those people in, then they can realize they do like theatre, provided they’re being told stories they want to hear. I’m less interested in what Theatre IS and more interested in what Theatre can be. It’s when we make hard definitions of the art form that people start to bemoan the death of theatre. I don’t think it will die, it just evolves. Being part of that evolution is what motivates me. And it’s the only thing I’m good at, so there’s that.

TC: And finally, what pearls of wisdom do you have for anyone trying to get a start as a playwright?

AM: It’s cheesy but, I think it’s important to spend a lot of time finding your voice. Knowing what you want to write and how you write it. So it’s not just writing a lot, it’s also finding out what inspires you and gets you excited about writing. Study the nuts and bolts of what it is that you like about them and what they do. Know what you like and know a lot about what you like. Also, sometimes only you will believe in your idea at first. Own your crazy idea and do it.

TC: My one In-Joke: Remember “Schuster Boys on Schuster Island”?

AM: Of course! Those damn Schuster boys; there was Jethro Scuhster, Mad Dog Schuster and their sister Lulabelle. Ah, wonderful times living in the Sunset.

Performances of “Terror-Rama” run October 17th-November 1st at the Exit Studio Theater in San Francisco. Tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Just Because You Can Do Something Doesn’t Mean You Have To

Dave Sikula continues his discussion of Directors Gone Wild…

So, you may recall that I was reminded of this whole thing by a question from the “Farnsworth” audience about whether we could have just written a prologue or an epilogue contextualizing Sorkin’s play. And while I suppose we could have, it would have been pushing the boundaries of our contractual obligation.

 "Now that our curtain call is over, may we tell you the true history?"

“Now that our curtain call is over, may we tell you the true history?”

Not that that sort of thing stops other directors – and we’ll open that particular can of worms once I give this context. (I’m apparently all about “context” right now.)

Earlier on the Sunday on which the question above was asked, I’d read a story online about the Alchemist theatre in the Milwaukee are getting a cease-and-desist order that shut down their production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna.”

I'd have shut them down just for having lousy publicity photos.

I’d have shut them down just for having lousy publicity photos.

“Oleanna” is a play that had a relevance for about five minutes in the late 90s. The plot concerns a male college professor who’s accused of sexually harassing – if not downright abusing – a female student. I acted in the play back in the late 90s, so I know it pretty well. My experience with the play was not a happy one; the director was the kind of guy who would give notes like “I didn’t want you to stand there; I wanted you to stand here,” while pointing at a spot about a quarter-inch away. Plus, his daughter was playing the woman. (She was good, but still …). My understanding of the play – and I hate to ascribe motives, but Mamet is famously closed-mouthed about the meaning of his work (to the point where he even refuses to reveal what the play’s title means) – is that he thinks he’s written a Shavian dialogue that examines power relationships, with both sides getting fair treatment. In reality, the professor is pedantic and clueless (my long-suffering wife was of the opinion that it was a role that was tailor-made for me. I offer no comment on that opinion …) and the woman is written as something of a simpleton who’s acting at the behest of her “group” (a sinister cabal of feminists).

The Alchemist Theatre decided to cast to cast two men in the play, not only muddying the issues and the gender politics, but incurring the wrath of Mamet. In Mamet’s early days, he wrote some brilliant plays, but in recent years, he’s become something of a crank. Politics aside, he hasn’t written a very good play for a couple of decades. (Let me say here that I don’t mind his turn to conservatism. I’ve often said that I wish conservatives had more of a presence in the theatre, if only to force me to defend my own positions.)

He’s stated his conviction that there are no characters in plays; there are only words on a page, and it behooves actors in his plays to merely recent the words; not to give meaning to them. Anyone who’s suffered through the films he’s directed will know exactly how that comes across. The “performances” given by (in particular) his wives have been wooden enough to restore the Brazilian rainforest to their full splendor. Regardless, he’s notorious for watching over who does his plays and in demanding that his plays be done only in the way he intended. (I recall about a decade ago, someone I was working with wanted to do something of his, and they were turned down flat, for no apparent reason.) In short, if you screw around with Mamet’s plays, you’re just asking for trouble.

Given his litigiousness, I'd never dare say that  Mr. Mamet looks like a self-important tool here.

Given his litigiousness, I’d never dare say that
Mr. Mamet looks like a self-important tool here.

The good people at Alchemist must have known this, in that (according to reports) they kept the all-male casting a secret until the show began previews. From the local reports, it sounds like they knew they were going to get into trouble, but decided it was better to ask forgiveness than to seek permission.

In a statement issued Friday evening, Erica Case and Aaron Kopec, owners of Alchemist Theatre, said: “We excitedly brought this story to the stage because even though it was written years ago, the unfortunate story that it tells is still relevant today. We auditioned for this show looking for the best talent, not looking for a gender. When Ben Parman auditioned we saw the reality that this relationship, which is more about power, is not gender-specific but gender-neutral.”

This strikes me as disingenuous at best. As a director, if I know I’m casting a play that is written for one man and one woman, I’m not going to go into auditions seeking to do gender-blind casting – and I can’t believe that, in the greater Milwaukee area, there weren’t actresses who were capable of performing the role.

“We stayed true to each of David Mamet’s powerful words and did not change the character of Carol but allowed the reality of gender and relationship fluidity to add to the impact of the story. We are so very proud of the result, of both Ben and David Sapiro’s talent, and Erin Eggers’ direction.”

Again, I’m calling “bullshit” on this. The dynamics and relationships between a man and a woman – which is what the show is about, one way or another – are vastly different from those between two men or two women, and altering that relationship alters the writer’s intentions.

Dramatists Play Service, which represents Mamet and which gave Alchemist the rights to produce the play, didn’t see it that way. The firm sent the cease-and-desist letter Friday, the day that reviews of the show appeared online and revealed the company’s casting decision – a decision that the company went to unusual lengths to keep hidden before opening curtain.

And that, for me, is the final nail in the coffin. They knew they were doing something they felt they needed to hide from the licensors, the writer – and the public. I know if I were involved with a production that had the potential to radically alter the audience’s perceptions of a play they thought they knew, I’d be shouting it from the rooftops.

I’d go on, but once again have reached what I assume are the limits of your patience, so another theatre’s attempt to make the late Arthur Miller turn over in his grave will have to wait until our next thrilling chapter.

"You can't kill me again, no matter how hard you try."

“You can’t kill me again, no matter how hard you try.”