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.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Tangled (Or: How I Spent My Christmas Vacation) Part II

Unbelievable as it is, I’m not quite through with Tangled. This second part of my saga is the alternate-title part of it, the part where I explain that (if you’ll recall) I saw the movie on borrowed time, and how both the movie and the time, along with some unexpected Christmas joy and a few strange and chaotic days of traveling gave a world of perspective to the addled state that was my mind in 2010.

To start, the luminarias: in New Mexico, we have a tradition (perhaps my favorite of all traditions) of setting out luminarias on Christmas Eve. They’re little paper lanterns, made simply with brown paper lunch bags filled with sand and lit from the inside with a candle. They are spectacular.

The whole city does it. Some houses, like ours, modestly line their lawns with a few dozen luminarias; other neighborhoods work together and go absolutely crazy with them, and the effect is breathtaking; an infinitely unfolding, softly glowing pathway of light as far as the eye can see.

My dad usually takes the lead on the luminaria set-up at our house, but he had a hip-replacement surgery close to the holidays this year and was thus unable to take on any holiday responsibilities other than sitting on the couch and/or shuffling about in his walker and enthusiastically delegating to me and my sisters. So, the luminaria duties (among others) fell to me this year.

Also to me: last minute Christmas Eve dinner shopping. So, on Christmas Eve morning I headed over to Smith’s to pick up the remaining items on our grocery list, stopping first at Walgreens on the way over for luminaria candles. But Walgreens, as it turns out, was out. No problem, I thought, they’ve probably got some at Smith’s anyway.

Nope. Not only was Smith’s out of candles, but the entire store was a crowded mess. And not a crowded New York City mess either, where even in the worst areas the congestion is equal parts tourist and pissed off New Yorkers trying to get to work. No, nobody in that entire store seemed to know how to walk or stay out of everyone else’s way. I called home, and asked my sisters to go out and get some candles at the hardware store down the street, since it looked like I’d be at the store for a good long while.

But when I got home, I found both my sisters plopped on the couch, in exactly the same place I’d left them.

“Didn’t you get the candles?” I demanded.

“No,” said Sarah languorously. “Luminarias aren’t really that important to me, so I didn’t want to go.”

“Well the are important to me!

I left the house again for the hardware store. They were out of luminaria candles there too. And out at the nearby dollar store. And out at the farther-out-of-the-way hardware store. Finally, in the sixth store that I tried, I found some.

We lit the candles before church and followed their glow across the driveway as we headed out toward the car.

I noticed how ours touched against our neighbors’ on both sides, so that you could hardly tell where ours ended and theirs began. Oh, this, I thought. THIS is why the luminarias are so important to me.

I can feel the whole community through these lovely, glowing lanterns. We’ve all done this together, lit these candles in the darkness. Together they make a bright path, lighting the way toward some kind of saving grace. They connect us in our hope to our neighbors, to the whole city, to the world.

There's a beautiful scene in Tangled, in which Rapunzel watch the thousands of lanterns that are released by the kindom on her birthday in the hopes that she, the lost princess, might return. It's easily the most enchanting moment of the movie. I mean, look at it.

It's only a short sequence, but before the lanterns are released, we see the King and Queen, her parents, look sadly at one another, still grieving after all these years, before launching their lanterns into the air, an act of reckless, unfounded hope. Their lanterns are joined by rest of the the kingdom's: a mass of tiny glowing testaments to their hope, a community united, their light persevering even in the darkness.

Of course they reminded me of the luminarias. Not just in look, but also in the spirit of the action, the coming together to light the darkness in a shared expression of faith.

I thought back to the pastor’s final words on Christmas Eve: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”

For a long time I’ve been preoccupied with the overwhelming weight and mass of darkness in the world. It leaves me icily numb, unable to see a divine order, as much as I look for it. If you took all the darkness, all the evil in the world, I often think, and put it on a great big scale against all the lightness and good, the light may well triumph. But if it did, I think it might only be for coincidence.

The awful unfairness of the world is a pretty obvious thing to be so hung up on, but there you have it. It is, and I am.

But, say what you will, whatever light and beauty that does shine in this world, it’s true – the darkness does not overcome it. And maybe that’s enough. Maybe it’s more than I realized. The darkness does not overcome it.

In entire the 72 hours after Christmas, nowhere I ended up was where I expected to be at any given point in time. I thought I would be detained several days due to the storm, but found myself booked the following day on a flight to Newark instead. When my Denver-to-Newark leg of the trip was cancelled, and I watched passengers frantically vie for seats on flights as far away as a week, I figured I was about to spend an unplanned week-long vacation with my Grandma in Colorado Springs. And when the customer service representative bizarrely, miraculous put me on a flight – the only flight – into LaGuardia that day, never did I expect to make it all the way back to New York only to get stranded in Queens. But I did.

It was truly an exercise in patience, but I tried to be calm and accepting of every evolving circumstance. I’ve had a lucky streak of eventless flights in the past year or two, and this kind of thing is bound to catch up with you eventually. And who are you going to be mad at here, anyway? Weather is weather.

But when I finally did end up stuck in deep Queens on Tuesday, LIRR-less and unable to get to work, I was disgruntled and overcome with guilt. I would have been okay with staying Colorado Springs with my grandmother for a week, in fact (much as I DID need the money this week) I was a little disappointed to NOT see her and all my aunts and uncles and cousins after all. And I took a seat on that miracle flight into LaGuardia from somebody who really needed it. And! After all that I couldn’t get to work the next day ANYWAY.

I’ll spare the details, because they’re unimportant, but as it turns out, I needed that unexpected snow day in Queens more than I ever could have guessed. I spent the day re-defining a relationship with someone from whom I had parted on sad, ambiguous terms and without that time together, I would have been lost.

I still think spending an extra week in Colorado would have been wonderful, but it occurs to me now that perhaps anything that might have happened would have been wonderful. It occurs to me now that I needed that entire travel fiasco more than I ever could have guessed. I needed the space to discover opportunities and possibilities in the midst of total chaos, uncertainty, and inconvenience.

On the 26th of December, the day of the blizzard and my original flight, I woke up early with a lump in my stomach as I gathered my suitcase, headed for the airport, and contemplated saying goodbye to my family.

Instead I enjoyed an extra day of rest, a fantastic movie with my sisters, and an unexpected feeling of peace.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tangled (Or: How I Spent My Christmas Vacation) Part I

*Warning: I talk about the movie Tangled in this post and give away a few minor spoilers. So if, like me, you care more than your age would suggest about Disney princess movies, maybe skip this one.*

On Sunday, December 26th I was supposed to be on a flight home to New York City, but I guess there was a little snowfall back here in the East? In any case, it was not my fate to be on that or any plane that day and I was granted a temporary reprieve. Instead, I found myself in a movie theater in Albuquerque, seeing Tangled with my sisters, all the while muttering incredulously, "I can't believe I'm here."

I loved it, of course. That maybe goes without saying. I mean, first, it was a new movie by the man who wrote the score to my childhood. And it started out strong, with a beautiful opening sequence, followed by a charming opening number introducing us to our main character. Very Beauty and the Beast. It seemed to promise to be a Disney musical that - finally - behaved like a musical, and not just a movie with some songs in it, like it's post-Tarzan brethren. Alas, its musical-steam fizzled out after about four songs, none of which were particularly memorable (and why is that a trend now anyway, these movie "musicals" with less songs than I can count on one hand?). But there was still something in its tone and structure more reminscent of the Disney movies that defined my youth than anything I've seen in years. Which made me unspeakably, glowingly happy.

Unrelatedly: I'm constantly comparing Tangled, which I liked, to The Princess and the Frog, which I didn't, because both initially triggered the same nostalgic EEEEE! OMG! reaction within me. So, why didn't the Princess and the Frog work? Especially since, technically, the Princess and the Frog was much more what I would consider a "real" musical; it had an appropriate amount of songs sung by more than two of the characters, all of which efficiently pushed the narrative along.

Here is what I've decided: The Princess and the Frog's failure comes down to a combination misfire in structure and in attitude.

When I attempt to analze the Princess and the Frog I'm almost always brought back to the song-wherein-the-villian-states-his-villainous-intentions, Friends on the Other Side. A good song and an evocative number, it does well by the SWTVSHVI format. So I've been somewhat perplexed as to why something in me points to that moment as the moment when the movie derails. But the problem is, while Tiana is a fun, interesting and dynamic character, her counterpart, the evil Dr. Facilier, is not. The creative team does not seem to recognize the fact that in a good story, it's not just the hero who must be engaging and multi-dimensional, it's everyone. Including the villian. And, if memory serves me, we learn very little about Dr. Facilier other than that he's mysteriously and magically evil. Eventually we do learn that his wicked deeds are in an attempt to avoid payment with his soul on a magic voodoo bet... or something? I don't know, I saw it a long time ago. But in any case, it comes too late. His song, Friends on Other Side, sets in motion the malicious plot that propels the entire story forward. So if we're not clear about who he is, what he wants and why he wants it by the end of this pivotal number, the entire movie is going to suffer.

The movie was also sadly overly pedantic in its attempt to duplicate the celebrated Disney movies of the past. And that is exactly what it felt like: a poor imitation. As in, "We'll give her talking animal friends! Just like in the other movies." The resulting animal sidekicks felt lifeless and recycled. Where Tangled was a clever mix of tried-and-true stylistic standards and the fast-paced, slightly edgier, hipper humor that has evolved during the Disney/Pixar collaboration, the Princess and the Frog stuck humorlessly to an old formula rather than using it to further new, creative, innovation.

But I digress. Back to Tangled. I was also bound to love Tangled because it featured a strong, sassy, blonde-haired heroine. Think about it: all the other blondes in Disney's canon, and widely in children's stories in general, are two-dimensional waifs. Only brunettes, apparently, are smart and cool. Listen, I know this cause, the plight of the blonde, might be an unpopular or even silly-sounding cause to support, since throughout the American and Western European storytelling tradition blondes are somewhat glorified. But they're glorified in the same way women in the chivalric middle ages were glorified: for their fairness - essentially, their weakness. Raised on a pedastal, but stripped of their power. It's underhanded sexism and it sucks.

So pleased am I, in fact, with this fair-haired addition to the Disney princess family, that I'm choosing to overlook the fact that the entire movie is essentially about Rapunzel's realization that she is not a waifish damsel in distress, and in the moment that she discovers that she too can be smart and cool... her hair turns brown.

That actually happens. It's like they're mocking me. But it does make sense as a creative choice so... okay.

I also loved Tangled for unexpected reasons. The journey Rapunzel makes and her realization of her own strength is complex; the movie's themes of courage and identity are uenpectedly profound.

The story, you see, is not about Rapunzel's transformation into a spunky, strong person, she is that from the very beginning (another reason I'll begrudgingly allow the hair change). That much is clear to the audience from the moment she decks her would-be prince with a skillet. But all she's ever been told is that she is too delicate, too weak, and she is too afraid to see the truth, as plain as it may be. Her secret royal birthright echoes this theme: she's already a princess, she just doesn't know it yet.

This is in suprisingly layered context to other, similar children's stories espousing the message, be brave, be yourself. Take Shrek, for example: at first Shrek and Fiona are ashamed of their ogreness, they fear it makes them unlovable. But then they realize that their differences are what make them unique, it's what's on the inside that counts, etc., and they should not be afraid to be who they are. Which is a wonderful message, don't get me wrong, but straightforward. Rapunzel, on the other hand, is awesome, and she is afraid. It reminds me of the oft-repeated Marianne Williamson quote, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."

Even the love story ties in metaphorically with the characters' journey to their true selves. The song in which Rapunzel and her love interest Flynn Ryder (struggling with parallel issues of identity) realize their feelings for one another is also the song in which they begin to take ownership of their identities. As they sing they declare that they finally know where they are supposed to be, and the lyrics take on a double meaning: they know they are supposed to be together, but also, they know who they are. In fact, one could go so far as to say they know they want to be together because they know who they are.

Ultimately, Rapunzel finds the courage and the wisdom to recognize the power within her. Because she knows who she is, she finds love, her family, and her place. A witty and wonderful new classic.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Lessons from Spiderman

Somebody - this somebody, actually - recently told me that you can think of Twitter as being invited to a giant cocktail party with just about everyone you can imagine. That is, you have the opportunity to say whatever you want to anyone. (Like Ellen Degeneres for example). And sure, they might not respond. But they might.

Now, loathe as I am to perpetuate the Spidey media/blogosphere feeding frenzy, I did happen across this article in the Times this evening stating that (big surprise) the opening is delayed yet again. Part of the reason for the delay, says the Times, is to re-write portions of the second act.

Reflecting the view of some audience members who have criticized the show on blogs, Twitter and Facebook, Ms. Taymor and the producers have concluded that Act II has storytelling problems that need to be fixed.

This sort of reminds me of the whole Steve Martin debacle at the 92nd St. Y a couple weeks ago. (Which I, by the way, thought was reprehensible and a total abuse of the very Twitter-power I'm now writing about.)

In both instances we have certain powers-that-be taking the temperature of their public and immediately adjusting their sails. In one instance (92nd St. Y) it was a colossal and embarrassing failure. In the other... well, I'm not sure.

On one hand, look: we all know Spiderman probably sucks. I really don't want to admit it; why SHOULD I automatically believe that the show, just because it's such an ambitious commercial endeavor, will be bad? "Ambitious" should be a good thing, right? But call it a feeling, it probably sucks.

So isn't it kind of cool that Taymor & Co. can look at our Twitter feeds and our blog posts and actually *find out* what it is about the show that's twisting our knickers? That they can actually hear (in a manner of speaking) all the bitching that would normally go on in our living rooms and the Starbucks across the street and respond to it?

It's like when my dad would watch football when I was growing up and he would constantly shout at the screen things like, "Oh, that's a TERRIBLE call!" Or, "Are you kidding me? Don't go with that play!" And I would say, "You know they can't hear you, right?"

So this is like if whichever coach or ref that was the subject of my dad's ire actually tilted his head toward the camera and said, "What's that, Steve? You know, you may be on to something. We'll go with that."

Who knows? Maybe pretty soon they'll all be checking their Twitter feeds on their Blackberries from the sidelines and doing just that.

But then the other side of the discussion is: who said the general public is so smart anyway? Public opinion is important, but do we really want the masses making ALL the decisions? Alexander Hamilton knew that when he helped establish the electoral college, an outdated but valid idea. And also, to put it simply, to many cooks spoil the broth. It's the same that question Mariah McCarthy raised in her recent 2amt blog post about the effectiveness of workshops and play development. Too many voices fused together into one giant homogenized tidal wave of opinion can rush over a play like a river over stone, leaving it very pretty but devoid of all sharp edges.

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, all these new social media sites give us the opportunity to voice our opinions like never before and maybe actually be heard. It's a staggering power. But - as Spiderman himself will tell you - with great power comes great responsibility.

Monday, December 13, 2010

My Last Play

So there's this new play, "My Last Play," that been getting a fair amount of publicity due to an intriguing article in the NY Times.

I'm completely sold on this piece; I cannot wait to see it.

As one who has spent, well, a lot of time recently pondering my place in the theater world and theater's place in mine, taking part this rumination on how a person could come to their last play is more than interesting to me - it seems necessary.

Of course, there's also the speculation that this might not actually be his last play, rather a gimmick or a complicated form of subversion. The NY Times article says that,

If this all sounds overly self-referential (and it should) and maybe a little self-pitying and overwrought — Mr. Schmidt confesses in the play that his sister-in-law, a therapist, is fearful that he’s suicidal — well, hold on. A sly boots of a playwright and a gifted dissembler, Mr. Schmidt has been known to subvert traditional theater forms.

Which says-without-saying that this miiiiiiight not be as truthful as it's purported by its author to be.

And then, later, his brother comes right out and says it:

“I don’t necessarily buy that this is his last play,” Steve Schmidt said. “I see it as of a piece with the direction his career has gone. He’s playing very creatively with what is fiction and what isn’t and with ways of manipulating the audience.”

There have also been some grumblings, some general cynycism about the veracity of the piece across my twitter-feed. Someone likened it to a Joaquin Phoenix mockumentary type hoax.

Me? I really don't care.

I don't think it matters whether or not he ever writes a play again. The point is, he was there. Somewhere, at some point, for some reason, he sat down and looked at himself in the mirror and said, I don't have it in me to do this anymore.

And at the risk of sounding a bit melodramatic, that rocks you. It changes who you thought you were and what you thought you were capable of. Everything you ever believed about humanity, love, faith, life, is twisted up somehow in that passion for the art and when it leaves you, well, that means all the other stuff leaves as well. And what do you do when you come to that point? What do you believe in, who are you at all when nothing you understood about the world seems relevant?

In the end it doesn't matter whether you come back from that edge, just standing over it leaves you a kind of bereft that doesn't heal over too quickly. I know, because I've been there. And, what's more, I'm pretty sure almost everyone else in theater who's been around long enough has too.

It reminds me a pair of short stories in Tim O'Brien's astounding meditation on Vietnam, The Things They Carried. In the first, he recalls a memory of a soldier he killed, of the guilt and fear and horror he felt staring into the young enemy's dead face - no more than a boy, really.

Later, he confesses that the story was made up. He never actually killed a man while serving in Vietnam. But he might have. He would have. And he is left with "faceless responsibility and faceless grief." To imagine the man, to evoke the story wherein he pulls the trigger, is only to give substance to a truth he already feels.

"'Daddy, tell the truth,' Kathleen can say. 'Did you ever kill anybody?' And I can say, honestly, 'Of course not,'" says O'Brien. "But I can also say, honestly, 'Yes.'"

I would imagine if anybody were to ask Ed Schmidt if he's really done his last play, he might very well be able to honestly answer, "No, of course not." But he can also honestly answer, "Yes." And so can I.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

I saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson weeks ago at this point and this review of sorts has been rolling around in my head and on scrap sheets of paper ever since. It's been hard for me to articulate exactly my thoughts on it, but here is my best attempt.

I liked it.

But - I didn't realize I liked it until, oh, about 2/3 of the way in. Before that moment, which happened shortly after Jackson's inaguration, my mind shuttled helplessly between appreciation and confusion, searching for some kind of handhold.

Bloody/Jackson is a show about the seventh president of the United States of America and therefore, by nature, a political show. As such, I went in expecting a political message of some kind. I'm acquainted with the Trail of Tears and Jackson's legacy; I suppose I expected some sort of indictment of the politics that enabled such a brutal chapter in United States history. Perhaps even some kind of parallel drawn between Jackson's actions and the political climate today.

And when that message did not immediately present itself, I was confused. (Although, I can say with moderate - if not total - certainty that the fault here was mine for the expectation in the first place, and not the play's.)

Yes, there were references to Jackson's "maverick politics," that smacked of the McCain/Palin campaign of 2008, but the play (and Jackson, its mouthpiece) also speaks of a yearning for change in the political status quo that was the tone of the nation that elected Barack Obama. And still at other times, Jacksons idiotic recklessness mirrors the antics of George W Bush.

All this, though, without judgement: Jackson's actions may be impulsive and ill-considered, but his intentions are always good. He acts always out of a desire to affect change, to move his beloved nation toward something better. That more often than not he does so brashily and angrily does not change the intention. If anything, the stodgy and comically farcical founding fathers who represent traditional American politics (or, as traditional as a 25 year old nation can claim to be) make Jackson's impassioned style noble by contrast. Whiny, temperamental and volatile, Jackson is no real hero, but he's certainly no anti-hero either.

Hmm. What to make of that, then?

The answer eluded and frustrated me for most of the play. But still, I appreciated it. In productions so broadly farcical, so heavily stylized as Bloody/Jackson, it's an easy error to allow stylistic elemnts to stray from one another, creating a sort of artistic mismatch. A melodramatic flare here, a drop in rhythm there is all it takes to give the impression that one is watching a sum of disparate parts, each belonging in a different play. It's a bit like matching denim on denim: the parts can be similar, almost identical, even, but unless they are cut from the exact same cloth, the effect is ruined.

Bloody/Jackson never strayed from the cloth from which it began. Truly no easy feat. It knew exactly what it wanted to be, and it was that, from begining to end.

And it was enjoyable.

There was a point when I thought the play was over (it wasn't, not hardly) when I thought to myself, "Well, I don't know if I liked that, but I definitely enjoyed it.

As the show went on, though, I did decide I liked it. It was smart, sharp and well-executed. What's not to like? I does lack a degree of emotional resonance that would compell me to love it: the best example of this is the love duet sung between Jackson and his future wife. "This blood is not a metaphor," they croon cutely as she literally bleeds him for medical treatment. Clever, but without emotional power. But while it somehow misses the depth of that ecstatic moment when one connects intellectually, emotionally, physically to the piece, I still find I have very little bad I can say of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

Oh, and I did eventually get the point. And it was a good point. As the hapless historian-narrator finally points out, "You can't shoot history in the neck." Jackson, for all his good intentions and fiery deeds is no savior; he cannot fix, as he so brashly believed, all that's broken in his country. He cannot even stop history from remembering him as "an American Hitler." Time and history marched on, and continues to march on, even today. The play's echoes of contemporary politics underscores that. And we do what we can to bend its path in a favorable direction. But to believe, as Jackson did, that you can control the tide, is merely hubris.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Rainy Day Funds and the Publishing Industry

Okay, so I was reading a blog that happened to outline The Way Things Work in the publishing industry. Essentially: publishing houses look for huge bestsellers in order to finance all of the other books they publish that are not bestsellers and are not actually going to make any money.

I actually knew this. I took a couple writing classes in college and in each there was inevitable Day In Which We Talk About Getting Published. (An aside:I never really got a Day In Which We Talk About Getting Produced in any of my directing/playwrighting/dramaturgy classes. Consequently, I know a lot more about the mechanics of pursuing a professional career as a novelist than I do as a director, which seems strange. Anyway).

I'm assuming - and maybe this erroneous - that not every one of these non-bestselling books published is ever meant to be a bestseller. Certainly there are a fair amount of books - most of the ones I read, aside from, yes, the occasional Dan Brown - that don't look like they've been presented or marketed to fit the bill.

So, if this is true, this seems like a fairly altruistic, yet necessary, business strategy. From a strictly business perpective, why publish anything other than the books you really think will make you money? Yet, if that WERE all the was published, we would be doomed. What kind of a literary culture would we have left?

I'm just wondering if any producer or producing group has tried this strategy with theater. Produce a Wicked in order to produce a Scottsboro Boys, which just announced it's closing after just a two month run?

Is there a reason why we can't? I ask this out of curiosity and complete ignorance. Has it something to do with investor relations? Does the commericial/not-for-profit model somehow preclude such an arrangement?

I mentioned the subversive Scottsboro Boys in particular because the blog Gratuitous Violins said the following in response to its closing:

Well gee whiz guys, if you felt you had to produce it couldn't you at least have given it a chance to build an audience? Doesn't a challenging, provocative work need time for the buzz to spread? Couldn't you plow some of the profits from Chicago into it to keep things going a little longer?

Which is essentially the same idea I just proposed. And, admittedly, a commenter on the blog countered that the current climate of high costs and low profits precludes "rainy day funds [to keep] things afloat longer. Today it's do or die from day 1 (or even earlier!)." So maybe that's my answer.

But I'm still curious to see if anybody else has something to add to the conversation. Just wondering.