About Me

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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Next to Normal, and the departure of my right arm.

I saw Next to Normal on Thursday night. I don't think I have enough to say about it to write enough about it to fill an entire entry on its own, so in it falls into this unclassifiable classification. It was... good. Not, you know, life-changing or anything. I didn't shed a tear at the end, or find that place, that oh-god place that you (or maybe just I?) get to when I'm seeing something really amazing, something that reminds my why I'm in this business in the first place (and, simultaneously, why I will never be as good as I want to be). The middle parts were quite compelling, and an interesting twist, structurally and stylistically, on a typical family-dysfunction story. But the other parts - the beginning and end, that is - did not fare so well: it took too long to start and too long to finish. The end was a pretty simple, cut-and-dry issue, suffering a tad from the Lord or the Rings syndrome, in that, it had, like, seven different places it could have ended and I would have been happy, and by the time the REAL ending finally came along, I had already checked out around ending number three.

As for the beginning, it was a stickier issue, as the same structural choice which I initially saw as a flaw, eventually became one of the things I liked most about the show. The show opened with a musical number which illustrated, with very little nuance or originality, that we were about to see a show about a seemingly normal family which was, in reality, rife with dysfunction and sadness. At the end of the song, though, in a bit of a twist, we discover that the mother is actually, well, crazy. We then learn more about the nature of her dysfunction (bi-polar with bouts of delusion) and then, slowly, learn the nature and cause of those delusions. and then - and we're practically into Act II by now - we start to see the devastating effect her illness has on her family, and herself, and the shape of her struggle against it becomes clear. It's as though we first see the story in macrocosm the typical story of a happy family becomes the slightly less typical unhappy family, and in turn the typical unhappy suburban family becomes the slightly less typical family dealing with mental illness. the typical story about mental illness becomes the more personal story of this woman's delusions.... and so on. Like Russian nesting dolls, springing from one another and deepening at each turn. It was fascinated and, in retrospect, deeply cathartic to watch this deepening of the story. It was one of my favorite things about the play. But, on the other hand, it almost made me hate it at first. Because the structure travels from the general to the personal, it took me way to long to develop any active interest in any of the characters. The opening number struck me as so deeply cliched, without even having given the HINT of a chance to create characters or a story that -pardon the cliche - earned that cliche turned me off immediately. Furthermore, because the play deepened as in progressed, rather than heightened, the story started on confusingly high, almost shrill note, which left me wondering, where is there for this thing to go?

My roommate, best friend, and oftentimes colleague, whom I saw the play with, argued about it to no end. Did the risk pay off? Did it alienate the audience too much? Did it WORK? I don't know; I'm conflicted.

I took my roommate, best friend, and oftentimes colleague to see the show as a farewell evening before she leaves for Tennessee to do a regional theater gig for two months. This is her first gig out of town, her first real job, and it's great that she's going. A HUGE deal. But christ, I'm going to miss her. Already, there have been several occasions where I've wanted to share something with her and had to check myself. As in: this play looks like JUST the type of thing Sarah would love! I'll have to tell her.... no, she'll still be gone. As in: I've got to get Sarah to come in and observe this show I'm directing, I could really use her opin.... no, she's gone. WHAT am I going to do without her?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Caligula Maximus

I saw another play this week, Caligula Maximus, at La Mama. Interesting, enjoyable, hardly life changing. I have very little to say about it, so maybe this entry will be brief for a change.

The play started as homage of sorts to this Caligula: kind of a cross between Rocky Horror's Dr. Frankenfurter and Cabaret's Emcee. As far as I can tell, the action took place in Caligula's kingdom, wherein he ruled as this god-king in a hyper-sexual, unrestrained, orgiastic empire. With lots of slaves. The play examined and (from Caligula's perspective) exalted this unbridled, id-like aspect of the human condition, and then eventually traced Caligula's fall from divinity and transformation into "ordinary person."

The outstanding thing about the show, though, was that it was performed as a carnival act, this super-raunchy 3-ring circus, replete with trapeze artists, belly-dancing, hula-hoops, and gymnastics. From a strictly aesthetic perspective, it was amazing. So detailed, so well-executed, and completely riveting from start to finish.

But beyond that? Meh.

I was at the show supporting someone with whom I had done a previous show, 8 Women, and I went with a group of 8 Women girls who had come as a group to see her. After the show we congregated for drinks and discussion across the street.

Me, I got more on board as the production moved along. In terms of message, theme, symbolism, that kind of thing, it was difficult not to have it pegged from the very beginning, and the play at least moved in a few directions I hadn't anticipated, and did so cleverly.

Jenna, though, was the opposite. She thought the piece started well, but the end, when it "got all meta," it failed. Too heavy-handed, too obvious. She was not a fan of the part when Caligula admitted he lived in Inwood because he couldn't afford to live downtown, which, I have to admit I kind of liked.

"Really?" I said. "You didn't see that ending coming a mile away? How ELSE could it have ended?" She admitted she didn't know, but that didn't mean it couldn't have been better.

Well, maybe that was my problem, I speculated. See, from the minute the curtain went up I found it heavy-handed and obvious, and I saw it heading down the road it did from minute one. I couldn't possibly see how it could end well, and when it ended as it did it actually wasn't as bad as I had been expecting.

"It was kind of like a college production," Jenna said. "Really well-done with great production values, but the kind of weird, abstract experimental crap you'd see in college."

"Yeah, but - " Sarah chimed in, "It WAS really well done, and it's not like it was so 'subtle-like-a-sledghammer' with its message that at any point I was offended, and it was amazing to watch and kept me engaged from start to finish." We had to agree, it WAS really well done. And really engaging. So... how can you fault it that much?

Maybe it wasn't the way the message was conveyed that failed for us, as much as the message itself. Jenna and I both agreed that we had little-to-no interest in the subject matter. All of us being young recent graduates of various college theater arts programs, the subject of sexual debauchery is maybe somewhat passe. So, what really interested all of us was the variety show aspect which, it cannot be stressed enough, was fantastic. I wish I could have AD'd that production, and just observed how so many diverse aesthetic aspects were brought together in such an infinitely detailed and exact way. It seems beyond my comprehension and abilities.

But, the really wonderful part of this evening was not the show but the company. It was fantastic to see these girls again. They are all amazing and talented girls, and I had missed them. And as we sat across the street deconstructing the piece we had just seen over tequila shots and beer, I thought, I love this place, I love this life. It just can't get any better than this.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


These entries take too long to complete. I feel like Dorothy Parker; they say it would take her hours to write a single postcard, after which she would have to retire to her room to nap out of sheer exhaustion from the effort, such was her excruciating labor over every single word.

This would be more of a comfort to me, if I thought anything I have read by Dorothy Parker was any good. Maybe her postcards were better.

Anyway, I was working on a play that went up in early March, just a little one-act by a friend, and these are my post-mortem thoughts. Nearly two and a half weeks after the fact.

A friend asked me, after one performance, if I was pleased with the result - or did he say proud? In any case my reaction was mixed.

"I'm happy..." I started tentatively, "... with the way it turned out. I think it's solid, and a good realization of the play Joe wrote. As for my satisfaction with my own role in the show? I'm still undecided."

Since I'm what my best friend (and colleague and roommate) calls a product-artist, rather than a process-artist - and I do believe the world is divided between the two - I'm happy. The result is good. Good.

BUT... that doesn't mean I can't consider the process, does it? It doesn't mean I can't and don't still evaluate.

On the first day of rehearsal, I opened with a series of exercises designed to, as I put it, "get the actors into their bodies." This was the same tactic I used with the last short piece I directed - because what else am I going to do with a month of rehearsal time for a 15 minute piece? Let's go wild, I figure. Let's to all kinds of crazy stuff and see where it leads.

Last time around, my experiments were met with enthusiasm. But this time? Extreme resistance. After a few minutes, 50% of my cast (that is, one of the actors) was firmly seated in his chair. Listening, but clearly with no intention of participating.

Part of me was baffled. When a director tells you to try something, you try. Don't you? You don't have to like it, you're welcome to say it's not working for you, but you at least try it. Don't you? But another part of me kept gnawing away at me, muttering something along the lines of: Call him difficult, unprofessional, whatever you like, but this exercise was bullshit. You know it, I know it, they know it. Everyone in this room knows it, and he was just the only one who had the stones to call you on it.

Which is, of course, true. The exercise wasn't working. It was unnecessary, unhelpful and a little juvenile. And this particular, outspoken actor was making it clear to me that he had no interest in exploration, exercises, experiments, or anything else that wasn't strictly tied to the text. So, I tried to be flexible and responsive to my actors' needs, and switched gears. The rest of the rehearsal process was more or less smooth, if not somewhat marked by this rocky start.

Okay, let's summarize: more or less smooth rehearsal process, solid end result. So what, exactly, are my panties in such a bunch about anyway?

I think I'm a little frustrated with the simple fact that my initial rehearsal plan failed so spectacularly, and somewhat troubled that the actual rehearsal process was so straightforward. We moved from the beginning of the script to the end; I told them where to stand, and along the way suggested interpretations of the text that were perhaps different then their initial instincts. Then we ran it several times, and at the end of each run I told them ways I thought their performance could have been better, and they wrote down my ideas in their notebooks, and tried their best to apply them in the next run.

Simple. Straightforward. And then end result was pleasing. The lesson here is probably obvious. I'm making things way too complicated. I don't really need to do much at all, so much as let others do, and observe and comment. Probably.

That's probably my problem: too much ego. I'm caught up in the idea that I need to create something - I need to feel personally responsible for the work onstage. But it's not about me, or my need for creative pride or validation. It's not about being able to put my name on something. It's about the work. So, what I need to do is step back, and for God's sake, let the actors do the work they came to do. Just be there to nudge them in the right direction.

The thing is, though, there's no room for inspiration or innovation in this equation, at least not in a collaborative sense. I'm perfectly capable of analyzing a play in the privacy of my own room, of hearing the rhythm and flow of it, and of coaching actors to perform it the way I see it in my head. But. I want more than that. It would be easy for me to come into a piece with a specific vision and ask the actors and creative team to realize that vision but I'd rather the vision somehow arise organically from the group. Maybe I'm being naively idealistic, but I have seen what happens when a director pushes blindly forward with a pre-determined idea of what the play should look like, without paying attention to what is actually going on in the room. It has happened at great cost, in my experience, to the piece.

In this light, then, I think all my experiments, even the failed ones, are important and worthwhile, if they move us to new, unexpected places. I think everyone - actors, designers, myself - we all come into the room with an idea of what we want to see or create and I want to push past that. I want to see how much louder, richer, deeper we can get. I want to push us to places wholly unforeseen and see if there's anything there we can use. I want to get wild, radical - and if there are a few missteps in the process , well - how could there not be?

But I'm probably just making things too complicated.

I have a new show now (a one-man, autobiographic piece, which is a form so foreign to me the thought alone sort of gives me heart palpitations) and I'm going to bring into it this lesson of simplification. Remove the ego. We'll see what happens.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Average-Sized Mermaid

On Friday of last week I trekked miserably through the melting, sooty, city remains of Wednesday's "snowpocalypse" to catch State of Play Theater Company's production of the new play, "The Average-Sized Mermaid." I muttered curses under my breath as I waited on the subway platform (and then another, and another), pulled my too-thin winter coat around me and sloshed over curbs in my cheap winter boots that are already starting to let water in through the heel. I grumbled all the way up to the box office as the cheerful State-of-Player found my reservation, and then grumbled a little more as I slunk down in my chair at the Gene Frankel theater and waited for the play to begin.

Needless to say, I was in a bad mood. See, I had already made the sojourn from my comfy Harlem home down to the village once this week, only to discover upon arrival that the play had been cancelled due to snow, and the two hours of time I was to have spent commuting could have been better utilized curled up on my sofa with a cup of hot chocolate. A smarter person, I suppose, would have called the box office and asked if the monstrous snow conditions were causing any trouble, but I am apparently not that wise.

Furthermore, it was the Friday before Valentine's Day, and, from what I was told, this was a ROMANTIC COMEDY. It was the last thing I wanted to see before Valentine's Day, especially a Valentine's Day like this, marked by a falling out with a particular romantic interest. Basically: I was having boy problems. And all I really wanted to was wrap myself in a blanket it my tiny, warm apartment, watch, say, a Will Ferrell movie, and forget that things like romance ever existed. Instead, I had dragged myself out into the cold and the snow for the second time this week in order to put myself directly in the line of fire and watch a happy, fictional, couple have the happy, fictional, ending that I didn't have.

I explain all this to give a little context. I was in a bad mood, I was grumpy, the very idea of the play made me unhappy. I want to put it right on the table that it's possible that my dour mood and general foreswearance of all things romantic colored my interpretation of the show. In fact, between my the state of my own romantic self (V-day, tears, etc.) on the night I happened to see the show and the actual content of the show, it was actually an almost weirdly personal show.

The show is about a particularly pissed-off schoolteacher, who, after a painful break-up with her fiancé, goes on a highly inappropriate rant on deeply chauvinistic symbolism and themes of repressed female sexuality the the story, "The Little Mermaid." She subsequently grows a mermaid tail, embarks on a backwards version of the fairy tale, finds love and self-actualization, et cetera.

Now, not only was I in a mood equally foul as our protagonist at rise, but I, like Miriam, also feel profoundly wronged by the oppressive lessons of The Little Mermaid. I grew up on the story - both the Disney version and the original - and I adored. Then, at some point in my early adulthood, I realized that my childhood obsession with the story had inadvertently shaped all of my expectations about love and romance. And not in a healthy way. And, I think I am not alone. I think there is a whole contingent of little girls who were, say, six years old when Disney's Little Mermaid was released, who feel the same way. I think the playwright is one of these girls.

Furthermore, Miriam, like me, is educated. She is modern. She is liberated. She's innately literary and understands the power of metaphor and symbolism. Just like me. In fact, much of the play is an explicit discussion of metaphor and symbolism, as she struggles to understand what's happened to her in terms of what the transformation represents, symbolically.


But what does she eventually conclude? In a play in which talk rests so heavily on symbolism, metaphor, and theme, there better be a damn good meaning to mine from the piece as a whole. But, to me, the ultimate message was frustratingly mixed. At one point, I thought that the show was to be a gentle prodding of folks like me, who struggle to find symbolic meaning in everything. Miriam is so convinced of the feminist idea her tail represents that she is shocked and horrified when, toward the end of the story, the "symbol" of her tail is interpreted entirely and radically differently.

But this interpretation doesn't entirely hold up when events do finally line up in a symbolically meaningful way to restore her legs at the end of the story. She thinks that not having legs (and thus, no vagina), and symbolically liberating herself from love and sex is a sign of strength. Ultimately, she learns that allowing herself to be vulnerable and conquering her fear of loving is her true strength. It is only when she admits her feelings for Lewis, her best friend, school's principal, and object of romantic tension for the duration of the play, that she regains her legs.

Actually, now that I think about it, it's when she allows herself to dance, and thus experiences the symbolic freedom the dance represents that she regains her legs. And then she gets with Lewis. Because she has symbolically embraced her vulnerability. Or something.

But... seriously? A story that purports to be a feminist deconstruction of an old story (and I do believe it purports to be such. From the very title to our heroine's very sympathetic quest to liberate herself from the shackles of love) ends with a happily ever after? In finding salvation in... love? Ew.

That's a little harsh. And, again, may have more to do with me than the play. I DO get where the story was going. I get that she thinks that the feminist, liberated thing to do is rid herself of romantic attachments. I get the message that we all - men, women, all - are designed to crave love, and that sometimes the strongest thing to do is embrace that, and face the fear of all the risks that accompany it. I get that, I do.

But at the same time, lines like "You put the prince in principal," had me gripped with the desire jump from my seat shouting, "Hey! This is just a fairy tale in sheep's clothing!" You just can't have story that so proudly touts itself as an anti-fairy tale end in such a fairy tale manner. You can't. You can't have a play that centers so heavily on woman's search for independence and self-actualization and then let her be saved by the prince(ipal. har.) That's my story, I'm sticking to it.

I think I would have liked it better if Miriam had really been in love with her erstwhile fiancé. Rather, the play is fraught with references that she wasn't really meant to be with him, that he wasn't really right for her. Indeed, he turns out to be quite the douche. He wasn't her True Love. And, as we've learned from all the Snow Whites and Cinderellas that have gone before, True Love will be her salvation. Thank god (or Hans Christian Anderson, or Disney) that she found Lewis. Lewis, on the other hand, has been coping with the death of his wife, a woman whom he seemed to really love, and is grappling with his ability to move on. The latter story is more interesting to me, and more relevant to the idea that true "liberation" comes in our ability to take risks and put our hearts on the line.

In the midst of my bitter ranting, I should stop to mention that the show was really, really cute. I laughed a lot, even in spite of my mood. The dialogue was funny, smooth, and very well written and the production - especially for the production values available to it - was strong and vibrant. The two lead actors were adorable, and had wonderful chemistry. This girl who played Miriam - where was she six months ago when I was casting for my own show, and desperately needed a beautiful, bubbly Latina actress with great comic timing and just a liiiiittle bit of an edge? Where?

On these strengths alone, it's possible that in a calmer state of mind I would have seen this show and thought nothing more than "AAWWWWW." But, it so happens that I saw it when I did, and interpreted it as I did: A cute, but misguided (possibly offensive?) attempt to bring new perspective to an old story. A swing and a miss.

Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Romeo and Juliet

Several weeks ago, I caught the Nature Theater of Oklahoma's interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. Wrote down my thoughts, and then promptly forgot about them until now. Here they are:

I discovered NToO's Romeo and Juliet, I believe, the old fashioned way: I read about it in the New York Times. It's not often I just read the premise of a play and think, "yes! I want to go to THAT," so I shouldn't be surprised that this play was exactly what I thought it would be and that I loved it.

The premise was this: the classic story of Romeo and Juliet recounted by a host of average, everyday people and then performed, verbatim, by members of the theater company.

The stories were endearing, hilarious and more often than not, entirely misinformed. I laughed probably from beginning to end. I'll admit, I felt the play derail a bit toward the end, as the actors launched into what was presumably a conversation they had had during the rehearsal process. At first one of the actor's talked about the experience of losing his virginity to his high school girlfriend with whom he was in love; his experience was starkly different from the story of Romeo and Juliet, but the way his own love story contrasted and, at turns, sweetly paralleled the classic was poignant and (more importantly) relevant. Then the conversation deteriorated into a meditation on neediness, vulnerability and acting, and I was lost. What did that have to do with anything? Also, there was a dancing chicken that I did not fully understand. But then the dialogue was rescued: the actors discussed the idea of being in competition with Shakespeare, and how can they write a love scene that will offer something the famous balcony scene does not. A good question, and the idea of how the balcony scene is somehow stuck fast deep inside all of us is at the heart of the Nature Theater's R&J.

But I think what really gets me about this concept is that this story is ingrained in us. Even when we don't know it ("And then Romeo decides to fake his death? Wait, and then does he tell Juliet to do the same thing? Yes! He tells Juliet to fake his death with him!") we know it. The story, the basic idea behind it, even the the most ludicrous retellings, was always right: two star-crossed lovers take their lives.

What was really compelling, to me at least, was to see how this story that we know so well in spite of ourselves, resonates with us; how it comes to settle in our subconscious and become a part of who we are.

"Two teenagers," the actors relate in one of the earlier accounts in the show, "who are really to young to do ANYTHING, fall in love."

It's a recurring theme: they were too young. Or they were too reckless, too stupid. "I think they weren't really in love," speculate some, while others exalt the purity of it.

One woman (or was it a man?) tried to understand why the play is read so often in high school: is it because teenagers can identify with it? Because every teenager, regardless or circumstances, has a love whom they would die to be with, and someone - or something - standing in their way. (It's a good theory - I know I did.)

This is what ultimately fascinates me about the show. The obvious and essential human need to share stories captivates me: how the hearing and the telling of them defines us, brings us closer to one another, and helps us understand better our own humanity, our own journeys. Romeo and Juliet examines a story that is told and retold so many times that we know it without knowing it, it ebbs and flows in our communal subconscious. We fill it with our own ideas, our own speculations and it becomes a part of who we are, an idea that I love.