In For a Penny: No One is Bulletproof

Charles Lewis III on backlash and sacred cows.

Luke Cage deflecting bullets

“As a matter of fact, we are none of us above criticism; so let us bear with each others’ faults.”
– L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of OZ

After my recent entry about August Wilson, I had a Twitter conversation with another Black theatre artist regarding Amiri Baraka, one of Wilson’s influences. I’ve always been open with my affinity for Baraka’s poetry, but found him lacking as a playwright. As clear as I was about this, the woman on Twitter kept asking “Why are you picking on Amiri?”

With “breaking the rules” being Theater Pub’s theme for September, here was someone implying I’d broken the unwritten rule of marginalized artists: “Never criticise your own! We get that enough from the Straight/White/Cis/Christian men who oppress us!” That was bullshit the first time I heard it and it’s bullshit now.

A common misconception about me is that I hate Joss Whedon. I never have. I’ve liked his comics, I love the first Avengers film, and I consider his episodes of Roseanne amongst the best of the entire series. Having said that, I am not a Whedon fanboy. I wasn’t wowed by Buffy (although I genuinely like the original movie… which Whedon and his fans hate). Having never seen Angel or Firefly, I have no opinions on them one way or the other.

No, I don’t hate Joss Whedon or his work. Rather I hold them to the same artistic scrutiny as I would any other writer. That includes his dialogue, his characters, and his recurring tropes. Naturally such scrutiny would be considered badgering when I’m sitting with people who consider him the greatest writer in pop culture from the last 20 years. To them, Whedon is off-limits.

But that, to me, is the real problem. Nothing in art should be “off-limits,” let alone anything in art criticism. I’ve said before in this very column that it’s okay to hate a classic; that something revered should be under more scrutiny, not less. That’s how it becomes a classic: its relevance grows as each subsequent generation examines it with new eyes. That’s true if the work is by William Shakespeare or Aaron Sorkin.

And if there’s anything I hate about Black art, it’s how there’s a tendency to blindly support work that achieves even a modicum of mainstream success; how holding our work to any sort of standard is simply “giving into that crab mentality”. If that’s true, then it means our work is worthless because it’ll collapse from the slightest chip at its veneer. “Bullshit,” I say. The authors of the Harlem Renaissance did nothing but harshly critique one another’s work. Their egos varied on how they took public criticism, but each knew that putting their work in public inevitably meant criticism. That’s why their work still stands.

I’m a sucker for stories of authors who hung out together: the Algonquin Round Table; Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein; The Inklings, led by JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis; hell, even the stories of various sketch comedy writers’ rooms. I like hearing these stories because of the way each person would react to another’s work. It reminds me that great writing – nay, great art – isn’t formed in a vacuum, it has to be refined and that means letting it be critiqued.

What really gets me about when I critique Baraka or Whedon is how long it takes before someone inevitably tells me my opinion “doesn’t matter”. In the long run, that’s true: Baraka’s work is studied in renowned universities and Whedon is a multimillionaire; both have countless admirers the world over – I doubt either one (were Baraka still alive) would lose sleep over what I’ve said about Dutchman or Cabin in the Woods. Shakespeare doesn’t literally or figuratively roll in his grave whenever some school kid says his plays are lame.

But all of the above mentioned authors are important, so their work deserves important examination. That’s what I tried to convey in the Twitter conversation: I wasn’t “picking on” Amiri Baraka, I was acknowledging the importance of his work by taking a serious look at it; what I found lacking, I identified as much. As someone who would one day like to think himself a great artist, I can only hope I’m held to the same standards.

Charles Lewis says that if you really want to hear him talk shit, buy him a drink and ask him what he thinks of his own writing.

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Theater Around The Bay: The Rise of Geek Theater

Sunil Patel returns in another guest blog.

Last year I produced a Theater Pub night of sci-fi/fantasy/horror theater called The Pub from Another World. In one night, we saw plays about superheroes, clones, unicorns, time travel, and monsters. Theater Pub was no stranger to genre theater, having put on Lovecraft adaptations, Love in the Time of Zombies, and a Pint-Sized Play about a genie, but I wanted to see more, being a fan of both SFF and theater. It seemed a rare beast to me, especially given that we owe the word “robot” to Karel Čapek’s 1920 play, R.U.R. I made it to my mission to bring more genre theater to the Bay Area…and then two days after The Pub from Another World, Shotgun Players premiered Lauren Gunderson’s cloning drama, By and By. Perhaps genre theater wasn’t as rare a beast as I thought.

As Hardison from Leverage frequently proclaims, it is the Age of the Geek, and geek culture and theater are intersecting more than ever before. In February David Dean Bottrell raised over $80,000 to produce the 1st Annual Sci-Fest, a science fiction one-act play festival in Los Angeles boasting actors from shows like The X-Files, Lost, and Supernatural. The festival alternated two evenings featuring works by sci-fi greats Ursula K. LeGuin and Ray Bradbury in addition to new works. I enthusiastically backed the project and was fortunate enough to attend one show in May, where I got to see Ando from Heroes give a hell of a nonverbal performance and Langly from The X-Files deliver philosophical monologues while floating in space. The festival received many positive reviews, and submissions are now being accepted for the 2nd Annual Sci-Fest!

The Sci-Fest Kickstarter declared that apart from Ray Bradbury, “few writers have ever experimented with presenting compelling science fiction stories on stage.” As if responding to that very statement, a couple months later Jen Gunnels and Erin Underwood launched a Kickstarter for Geek Theater, an anthology of science fiction and fantasy plays, and raised nearly $4,000. The anthology collects over a dozen plays of various lengths (and one monologue) from current playwrights, bringing more visibility to theater about zombies and robots. I’m only familiar with a couple of the authors, one from comics and one from short stories, so I’m excited to discover new SFF playwrights.

Jen Gunnels is no stranger to sci-fi theater, though, as in April she was the keynote speaker at Stage the Future: The First International Conference on Science Fiction Theatre, an academic conference focusing on topics ranging from Ancient Speculative Theatre to Performing the Non-Human and the Post-Human. “This conference is the first of its kind and hopes to raise awareness of the need for a new theatre that is already here; a theatre that has its roots in the past and its eyes on the future,” the description reads, echoing my own desires. And like the first Sci-Fest, the first Stage the Future found success and is now accepting proposals for its second year.

Like her co-editor, Erin Underwood’s passion for sci-fi theater also took her to England this year, as in August she spoke at the World Science Fiction Convention in London (also known as Loncon). Staging the Fantastic, a panel that also included Geek Theater contributor James Patrick Kelley, asked “Is this a golden age for genre theatre?” In fact, Loncon itself featured seven stage productions, including an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s The Anubis Gates by World Fantasy Award winner Tim Powers and a hilarious production of The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) with jokes about Babylon 5 and the Joss Whedon oeuvre.

While it’s clear that traditional geek theater is alive and well, recently I’ve noticed another form that truly marries a love of geekery with the power of theater: the live reading. This July at San Diego Comic-Con, voice actors from Adventure Time performed an original radio play written by current head writer, Kent Osborne. Although the Adventure Time panel in 2012 also featured a live reading, this event was both separate from the official panel and a ticketed event, speaking to the popularity and appeal of the performance. A few days later, Naughty Dog hosted The Last of Us: One Night Live, with live performances of the score and key cut scenes from the acclaimed survival horror game. While the idea was met with some skepticism, reviews of the event were positive—the music and voice acting were praised in the game itself, after all, and I’d buy tickets to The Walking Dead: One Night Live in a heartbeat—and attendees were treated to a special epilogue scene written and directed by Neil Druckmann (writer/director of the game).

No one has embraced the theatricality of the live reading quite like Welcome to Night Vale, however. The weird, surreal podcast about a radio show in the strangest town in America has developed a massive following, and last year they began doing live shows. These shows sell out in minutes, and I’ve been lucky enough to attend two, one at the Booksmith and one at the Victoria Theater. Creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor met via the New York Neo-Futurists, and lead actor Cecil Baldwin performs with the New York Neos (I also saw him perform with the inaugural San Francisco Neo-Futurists). The influence is evident in the live shows, which similarly pay no attention to the fourth wall and bring the audience into the show. For one night, the audience is in Night Vale and part of the story. At the Booksmith we collectively killed a man with our minds. In the Victoria Theater we feared for our lives as an escaped Librarian slithered in our midst. A live reading can simply be actors reading from a script or it can be a transformative, transportive experience.

Is it just me or is this an actual trend? Science fiction theater festivals! Science fiction theater academic conferences! Live performances of video game cut scenes! I can’t wait to see where the intersection of geek culture and theater takes us next.

Sunil Patel is a Bay Area writer and actor. See his work at http://ghostwritingcow.com or follow him on Twitter @ghostwritingcow.

Theatre Around The Bay: Our Story Was Epic

Our guest blogger series continues with a piece by Sunil Patel, a Bay Area writer and actor, who recounts a recent night of inspiration.

Veronica Mars changed my life. I don’t mean that as hyperbole: I can trace my recent commitment to becoming a published writer to Veronica Mars. While that decision was directly inspired by attending the World Science Fiction Convention, I only became aware of that convention because of a friend I met through Veronica Mars fandom. Everything awesome that has ever happened to me at Comic-Con can also be attributed to Veronica Mars, including the opportunity to tell Joss Whedon that Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed my life—which was partly because it was a precursor to Veronica Mars.

I love the show. I have written thousands of words about why I love the show. It’s a fantastic neo-noir teen drama with a compelling protagonist and supporting characters, a strong father-daughter relationship, and, yes, a smoldering romance. I love the story, but it wasn’t the story alone that changed my life. It was the community that formed around that story.

Television fandom is a curious but beautiful thing: thousands of people absorbed in a story, collectively experiencing joy and heartbreak from week to week. And this story leads them to generate their own stories, claiming characters and imagining new narratives for them. I helped orchestrate HelpMeVeronica.com, a mini-ARG, which taught me a lot about storytelling and managing audience expectations. As a writer, I had to balance what I wanted to create with what our audience needed. A subcommunity had formed around our story-within-a-story. But the larger community plays a role in the metanarrative of the show.

The tale of Veronica Mars is this: on May 22, 2007, the story ended. The community, however, remained. And on March 13, 2013, by the power of Kickstarter, that community enabled the creation of more story. We hungered for more, and we made it happen. Stories matter because they connect people and through the power of fictional narrative influence the real-world narrative. Stories have power, and we bestow it upon them.

At a recent Borderlands event, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson said that writing the book was only 80% of the job of creating the story. The reader supplied the final 20% by imagining it in their heads. He used this analogy as a way to distinguish books from television and movies, which show you the images and sounds, but the concept extends to all forms of storytelling. The audience is an essential part of the story, and 20% of the experience is how they respond to it. A hundred people can see a production of play and come away with a hundred different interpretations, a hundred different emotional responses. The story fractures into a hundred versions of itself and finds new life in the lives it touches. The audience carries their own personal version of it with them always.

Stories have always needed an audience to come alive, but now an audience’s need for stories matters a significant amount. We live in a world where a passionate audience can show their appreciation for the types of stories they want to see by willing them into existence. San Francisco Theater Pub’s The Odes of March ended with “Ode to the Audience,” acknowledging their importance, but I see untapped potential.

Everything I’ve described above regarding the passion for stories and sense of community that I experienced in television fandom applies to my experience in theater as well, but as a creator. The Bay Area theater community is incredibly supportive of new work, and many times I have seen people put up a play on sheer pluck and gumption alone. Several times, I’ve seen them turn to crowdfunding as well. Maybe it’s because I mainly associate with people in theater, but I have not personally encountered theater fandom to the same degree. Theater is as collaborative a medium as television or film, and I think it has the ability to foster a similar, vibrant community centered on stories. The audience is physically present, already together, when they see a play. The San Francisco Olympians Festival does a wonderful job bridging the gap between creators and audience members, encouraging the intermingling of the two and discussion of the works. Talking about stories is an essential part of the storytelling process. It’s that 20% that truly cements their place in the collective consciousness.

I look at the success of the Veronica Mars movie and realize that a story is far more than what’s contained within it. It’s a message, a force of nature, a reality-warping behemoth of narrative power. As a writer, you cannot forget that. You must understand that it’s bigger than you.

Because you never know when what you write will change someone’s life.

Sunil Patel is a Bay Area writer and actor. See his work at http://ghostwritingcow.com or follow him on Twitter @ghostwritingcow.