Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Program Note - The Neurology of the Soul

When neuroscience started using brain scans from fMRI’s (the f stands for functional) to analyze human brains, the possibilities seemed endless.  Literal mind reading, the ability to see thoughts, seemed not only possible, but on the foreseeable horizon.  And truly, the things these scans have found have been exciting and furthered our understanding of human behavior.  But one day, just to test the system, some scientists put a dead salmon in an fMRI.  The salmon was shown photos of people in social situations, and the scanned data was analyzed, just as with the human studies. According to the data, the dead salmon was having strong feelings about the social interactions it saw.

Since that study, the data analysis has been refined.  And the quest, for better or worse, to see inside our brains continues.  It is tempting to believe that someday all things will be knowable, though it’s harder to know whether we would want them to be knowable.  The privacy inside our minds may be the last privacy left. 

The Neurology of the Soul is about the desire to understand each other, to understand ourselves, to understand love.  Perhaps we will arrive at that understanding.  But remember that dead salmon.  Buyer beware. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Program Note: The Resistible Rise of JR Brinkley

Trav SD as JR Brinkley and Jenny Lee Mitchell as his wife Minnie
After the 2016 presidential election, I started having gatherings in my apartment, inviting friends and colleagues over for what I called “Resistance Readings.” These were informal gatherings in which we read aloud from theater created in countries from around the world in response to political crises.  We started with Václav Havel, then continued to Brecht, to Ionesco, to Beckett, to Mrozek.  I began to realize that much of my favorite work was written at those times, and it formed the canon of what Martin Esslin termed absurdist theater. I loved those plays because they integrated the elements of political ideas, farce, and tragedy, just the sort of work I try to do with Untitled Theater Company No. 61.
I was searching for a way to respond to modern America, of course. My answer eventually came not only from those playwrights, but from history. Listening to a podcast, I heard some brief information about John R. Brinkley, the subject of this play. He has obvious parallels to Trump, but I was also fascinated by the world he was part of. What I found particularly intriguing is that most of the seeds of what we think of today as right-wing identity already existed in Brinkley’s time.  In fact, he helped define many of those elements, from its connection to country music to conservative talk radio. 
I was also interested in him as a con man, and in the place we put con men within American myths. In some ways we scoff at them, but in others they are an embodiment of the American Dream, fighting their way to fame and riches no matter what it takes. And there is no question Brinkley was admired as much as he was hated.
Why have we more or less forgotten him? I could posit a number of reasons, but one guess is: he lost.  He was discredited and bankrupted, in the end.  But in his day, he was an important media star and politician, not just a notorious quack. And if things had worked out just right…well, who knows what he could have become. Or where he could have taken America.
The Resistible Rise of JR Brinkley is playing at the New York Fringe Festival October 12 - 28, 2018

Monday, May 1, 2017

Writer/Director's Note - The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

The program note for my upcoming play, The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

“What is the answer? Then, what is the question?”

Image by Clinton Corbett
Gertrude Stein’s supposed final words are for me a touchstone of my work in theater. My plays are not about answers, and even the questions can be elusive sometimes. It would be easy to say that this play is about gay marriage, or love, or genius, or art. It is partly about all those things, and I must admit that I was first motivated by the real world consequences of a marriage not yet recognized by law.

But above all it is a play simply inspired by the remarkable lives of two women. As it happens, they are two very important women, to the history of art and writing and theater. They are also just themselves. Their relationship was both radical and extremely conventional, falling into the patterns of heterosexual marriage to such an extent it was almost a parody of male and female roles. Yet simultaneously it was such an iconic lesbian relationship that when Gertrude described them in a poem as “regularly gay,” she inadvertently coined a new popular term for homosexuality. It was a partnership so close that sometimes their identities seemed to merge. Gertrude wrote a book in Alice’s voice, and Alice identified herself as being a mere conduit for Gertrude’s genius.

Much has been written about what makes Gertrude Stein extraordinary. And she was. But just as fascinating to me is Alice, who was content to be ordinary among extraordinary people. Content to be in the other room, entertaining the women, while the geniuses declaimed. Content to be Gertrude’s wife, even in a world where such a status was only implicitly recognized.

I have made a decision to base the portrayals in the show more on the accounts of Stein and Toklas than any other source (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Everybody’s Autobiography, Wars I Have Seen, and What is Remembered). Toklas, for example, is often described as prickly by others, but in their accounts I also saw the softer, more loving side to her. What I am most interested in is who they are in their relationship to each other. I wanted to explore the way that the secret bond between two people can be quite different than the face they show to the general public.

The play is impressionistic, living out of time, in a world defined by words. Structurally, it is inspired not only by Stein, but by Beckett and Ionesco. It is the story of their life, but it is also the story of how I see their life. I wrote it in the wake of my own marriage, as I was first discovering what it means to be married. It is a story about them, it is a story about me, it is not really a story at all, just a whirlwind of moments and ideas. It gave me great pleasure to write play and stage the play, especially with such a talented collection of fellow artists. I hope it gives you pleasure to watch it.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Adaptor's Note - The Iron Heel

The adaptor's note for my production of The Iron Heel, opening July 28:

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” as Mark Twain supposedly said. More accurately that quote belongs to our collective unconscious. It’s an idea that sounded so true it had to be put in the mouth of one our most important satirists. The Iron Heel, which many consider the first modern dystopia, is also a satire of sorts—like many dystopias, it is an exaggerated portrayal of our society, of Jack London’s America. It was written in 1908, and it was science fiction when it was written, although certain incidents have the ring of historical fact. It predicts World War One, Pearl Harbor, the stock market crash, even the term “the 99 percent” (though, awkwardly, here, it would be the 99.1%, with London preferring mathematical accuracy to pithiness). In many ways, it predicts the dictatorships that will arise throughout the 20th Century. One of the novel’s fans, Leon Trotsky, who rightfully called it “prophetic” (when reviewing it in the journal Art & Revolution) might have been wise to heed its warnings. But more importantly, it presented a distorted mirror to reality, distorted quite deliberately by socialist propaganda. London was a Marxist, and he openly stated that propaganda was his purpose. Thus, though there is a clear connection between his prose and that of Hemingway and Orwell after him, I prefer to make the connection to Brecht’s political satires, theatrical parables calculated to outrage the audience about the consequences of unvarnished capitalism. Like Brecht, my adaptation is consciously theatrical, though it reduces the theatricality to costumed actors, words, and music—folk songs written mostly after London died, but during the time in which his story is set. It is a show built to travel and reach multiple communities, rather than to dwell in a single theater. It is a show whose naked purpose is to examine political issues, couching them in a story. London’s novel is a fascinating historical text, but of course my deeper interest in it is the way in which the American society of a century ago rhymes so closely with so many of the issues we face in this most fraught political season. It is about an election between a socialist and an oligarch, shaped by terrorism. It would be too simplistic to say the oligarch is Trump and the socialist is Sanders…or that the Democrat is Clinton. The world isn’t repeating, not quite, our world has changed since London died, exactly one hundred years ago. But the rhymes…they are everywhere.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

City of Glass (Paul Auster) Director/Adaptor's note

Program note for City of Glass:

Robert Honeywell as Daniel Quinn
The first time I read City of Glass, I had the strong sense that I had written it. Somewhere in a half forgotten dream, I had deposited all my thoughts about language and identity and mixed it with styles borrowed from detective fiction and theatrical absurdism. It even started with one of my favorite devices—mistaken identity, via a misplaced phone call.

What I did know for sure is that it seemed the perfect text for me to adapt for the stage. Its central staging problems seemed like opportunities. Fortunately, I was able to talk briefly with Paul Auster about my thoughts, and he kindly gave me the go ahead to try it out. You are about to see the results.

Most of all, for me, this is a play about brokenness. Daniel Quinn is a broken version of the author, haunted by the ghosts of his wife and son. Peter Stillman Jr is an example of a man who is deliberately broken by another. Do we have the language to express that brokenness?

With every adaptation I create, I ultimately reconceive the context and make it about myself and my art. Who am I, and how does it relate to the play? Who are you, the audience?

All I can say is this: listen to me. My name is Paul Auster. That is not my real name.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Why I'm back on kickstarter (Paul Auster's City of Glass)

So, here I am, back on kickstarter for a fourth time

In many ways, I hate being here. I hate being here because, by necessity, any stint on kickstarter involves the mild harassment of friends and colleagues, most of whom themselves have limited resources, asking them to devote some small part of those resources to your campaign so you can devote resources to their campaign so that they can...and round and round it goes.

I also hate being here because of the time and energy it takes, time and energy that I really should be putting into the massive job of directing and writing and producing, not to mention the side efforts of grant writing, publicity, etc.

But, nonetheless, I am back. Here’s why:

1. We need money. We always need money, it’s true, but this year our NYSCA grant got held or (or cancelled) because one field on it did not, apparently, save, when it was submitted. There is an appeal in progress, but it will take a year.

2. This is an expensive show. One reason: It involves video, and unlike previous shows at 3LD where the video resources are massive, The New Ohio (wonderful in many other ways) does not have a huge video inventory.

3. Kickstarter attracts the attention of people who would never know about our show otherwise. At least a third of our donors to our previous campaigns were strangers who learned about our project via the kickstarter. A Paul Auster adaptation seems a likely candidate to draw similar interest.

4. Most of the contributions to the kickstarter campaign are NOT ACTUALLY DONATIONS, BUT A WAY TO BUY TICKETS AT A DISCOUNT. A very important point to me, that tempers my guilt when asking for contributions. Because honestly, I’m going to be harassing everyone to buy tickets eventually, the process is just starting a bit early. The discount isn’t big, it just takes away about $5 in fees, but it’s cheaper than buy via our ticket service and helps us by getting us money early, and also fills the theater during the oh so important first two weeks of the show.

5. It helps spread the word about the show early. Half the trick to filling theater is creating buzz…we have a few cool videos, and this helps us let people know about the show. Which will be very, very cool, and very, very worth the money.

Which is all to say: Here’s our kickstarter. Contribute to it and get a discount ticket to the show. For all that I hate the promotion, I’m pretty proud and excited about what we’re creating. I am acutely aware that no project we have ever done could have been achieved without the donors and ticket buyers who made it possible. My last project, Money Lab, was created with the premise that art has a value, something our supporters have proven they believe many times over. Let’s prove it again.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Paying for it: Bitter Lemons, Kirkus, and the purchased review

Let me start with a thought experiment. Suppose that The New York Times instituted a new policy. Suppose they charged theaters $1000 per review—but guaranteed a review in return, that would be printed online. Furthermore, if it was an Editor’s Choice, it would also appear in print.

Obviously, the first reaction to the policy would be outrage, on the part of theaters, on the part of critics. But what would the practical implications of such a policy be? I can only speculate, but I suspect far more theater would be covered. Much of it would be bad, or boring. There would be more reviewers employed. And, here is the thing—a few shows, maybe more than a few, that would never see the light of day in our current system, would receive some attention. Maybe some writers or directors or actors or designers would find themselves employed, who would not be employed. Artists that might be otherwise invisible might be seen.

True, there would be a financial barrier to those who want a review, but to be honest, there is already a financial barrier. Most theaters that get reviewed in The New York Times pay for a publicist, and they pay much more than $1000. And most shows that are reviewed tend to have larger budgets. Not all of them, not mine certainly, but most.

It would be hard for me. I do my own publicity, usually, because I can’t afford a publicist. And the very fact that I am often reviewed in the The New York Times is something I am proud of. It would make my position less special. And there might be a lingering doubt, even with a good review—was this show well reviewed because of merit, or because money was involved.

Of course, nobody at the The New York Times is about to adopt this policy. Their financial situation may be precarious, but it is not so dire that they are about to throw away years of tradition. But a crisis exists in reviewing, partly because of the financial crises that most print publications are experiencing. There has always been a glut of product compared to the number of established reviewers available. That imbalance has only grown exponentially, becoming a systematic problem with no easy solutions.

This is not a crisis just for artists, but for art. Because the worst thing that can happen to an artist is not to receive a bad review. The worst thing is receiving no review at all. The worst is having one’s work be invisible. And yet more and more work is invisible. And the more work that is invisible, the less we are able to find artists whose work does not fit the existing conventions or expectations. The more the status quo simply perpetuates itself.

Bitter Lemons, a Los Angeles website, has introduced a new policy, similar in some ways to my thought experiment. You can purchase a review from them for $150. It will be, they assert, an unbiased review, written by professionals, with no guarantee of an endorsement.

This is not a new idea, in the world of book reviews. Kirkus provides a similar service, for books. For $425, they will review your book, with the same professional reviewers they use for major releases. However, as anyone who had had a book published by a small press knows (or self-published), Kirkus overlooks the great majority of books.

I know the significance of those reviews first hand. I have had two books published by Hungry Tiger Press, a small press. The first was reviewed by School Library Journal and Booklist. Both were nice write ups, and as a result the book (Paradox in Oz) is now on its fourth printing, with copies in libraries across the country and across the world.

By the time the second came out (The Living House of Oz), the world had changed. Self-publishing was more common, and as a result, I believe, a small presses like Hungry Tiger were overlooked. No one chose to review the book. Copies barely appeared in libraries, and the Hungry Tiger never sold out the first printing. Why? No one official had endorsed it. The same writer (me), the same illustrator (Eric Shanower), and the same quality of book. I actually prefer it, though Paradox has definitely become a favorite among Oz fans. However, it was at least equally worthy of review. But the timing, the other books in the queue, etc, prevented it from seeing the light of day.

Is purchasing a Kirkus review a cure for that? Unfortunately not. If it were, I might be endorsing Bitter Lemon’s decision full-throatedly, quite frankly. I will admit something. When I published The Golem, Methuselah, and Shylock, via Theater 61 Press (the publishing branch of the theater company), I knew no library journal would review it. Books of plays are almost never reviewed, and such a small press as our own was not going to break through. And yet I knew the value of ending up on a library shelf. So I paid ($350 at the time). The result was a mixed review. Not a rave, but if it has appeared among the normal Kirkus reviews, it would have resulted in a number of library sales. But—more importantly, the review was labeled clearly, to distinguish it from their other reviews. So almost no one read it.

Was it an unbiased review? I believe so. I understand the arguments about the slippery slope of getting paid by the people receiving the review. But frankly, no one would be served by purchasing a biased review. And yes, Kirkus gives an option: if you don’t like their review, they won’t print it. So one is unlikely to see an out and out pan among what they call their “Indie” reviews.

But the practice also feels exploitative. Not because they are excepting money for reviews, but because they separate those reviews from the reviews the write without being paid to do so. They say they are maintaining their journalistic standards by separating out their purchased reviews from those books they voluntarily choose to review. Perhaps. But in so doing they are also taking money from desperate artists, caught in the system. And not giving much in return.

This brings me to Bitter Lemons. Unlike Kirkus, they don’t have paid/unpaid wall. On the other hand, they don’t need one: all the reviews will be paid for. And though they have a certain following in Los Angeles, they do not have cache of the major print publications. Paying for a review in The New York Times—or The Los Angeles Times—is one thing. But from a well respected blog? That gets into much more iffy territory.

And of course it comes with a stigma: you paid for it. You are not worthy of a regular review. If you were worthy, reviewers would be reviewing you for free. They would rush to see your show and put words in print, because they would sense the importance of the work. They would have heard from…someone.

This is of course bullshit. Plenty of worthy work goes unseen. But still, it is a mantra fervently believed, especially among many critics. There is a true blindness that many critics have to their own blindness that I find disturbing.

But my own critique about Bitter Lemons new policy is not that it is inherently immoral, or a breach of journalistic ethics. To call it biased is to ignore the accepted biases in reviewers, pre-existing slants mostly based on reputation, or a taste for one type of art over another, or one set of ideas over another, or perhaps one gender over another. If anything, I suspect the Bitter Lemons reviewer will have that same doubt most hold lingering in the back of his or her mind: why did this artist have to pay for it?

Does self-interest pay a part in their decision? I cannot know what lies in their heart, but I suspect it plays a part, as it does in us all. But I don’t particularly care. What I do care about is whether this is a model that can break through the barrier for those whose work is rendered invisible. This I doubt. Ironically, if it were, their business model would be an ineffective one. Because in order for it to be effective it would have to adopted by every large publication as well. And then: $150 for a single blog review when I can get a reviewer down from the LA Times for just $800? Who wants to shell out on the little stuff?

But if the Bitter Lemons policy inspires people to reexamine the reviewing model we have, just a little bit, I welcome it. Sadly, all I have seen are angry denouncements. Which is an easy way to avoid the real problems in the system as it stands.

Funny thing, after all this time, one of my picture books, Fractions in Disguise, was recently reviewed by Kirkus. It was published by a mid size publisher, Charlesbridge, which is now associated with a very large publisher, Random House. It was a starred review, a rare honor. If I had paid for that review, nobody would have seen it, even starred. But because I was associated with a larger publisher, everybody saw it.

You can find it now at a library near you.