Archive for the ‘ playwrighting ’ Category

Epic Dreams With the Dos Equis Guy

I had a “big themed” dream the other night. Something about these four layers of reality (thank you “Inception”) wherein the bottommost layer things were stuck together in a kind of futuristic consumerist nightmare. I could barely move because my feet were sticking to the ground and everything I touched became like a spiderweb. There was a huge, mountainous pile of “stuff”–music, television images, electronic do-dads, movie scenes, etc.–that I had to climb to make it through a mail slot in the sky that led to the next level.

By the way “I” wasn’t me per se, he was the protagonist in some kind of artistic endeavor directed by an older guy (think Dos Equis commercial) who was trying to make a statement about how we were not really living to our potential because we were being reduced to stasis by the overwhelming urge to have, collect or experience things we had no part in creating. I actually looked like a grown-up Christopher Robin and had the distinct impression I was an English university student. I has some help climbing the mountain—I believe there was a band of us trying to fight back the forces opposing us by keeping each other from getting sucked into losing concentration.

Somehow I/Christopher made it through the mail slot and when we did we were at an after-party for the movie we were just shooting. Everybody was in tuxedos and we all crowded around a long balcony that looked down into the room below where there was a space for a band to set up. I was sure Springsteen was coming to play this 20×20 room. People were hugging each other with self-congratulation, looking completely different from what they looked like in their roles in the movie. Somewhere on the balcony was the Dos Equis guy, basking in his brilliance. There was a circular staircase to the floor below. I felt myself/the character being passed down the steps as if from an unfurling rug, the camera swirling around and around from face to face. In the midst of it I remember thinking how cool the camera angle was. All the faces were saying, “You are you, you are you, you are you, you are you,” over and over. When I got to the bottom of the stairs I could see myself, as Christopher Robin, wake up in a bed a hallway in an English boarding school. I had on red-striped pajamas and propped myself up on my arms. I wasn’t me.

I woke up for real then, convinced that my subconscious mind had hatched full-born the most brilliant, meaningful, epic story of our times ever told. All I had to do was remember the details. It was 5am. I lay in that bed, close to sleep but not quite there, straining my mind for specifics. Did someone throw something at some point? What was the whole Christopher Robin thing? I had a girlfriend once who liked to read the Pooh stories out loud, but that had nothing to do with consumerism, does it? Was I projecting my rational mind onto the dream, therefore ruining the pure brilliance of the images? Over the course of an hour I racked my brain. All I came up with was the drivel you see above.

So of course this got me to thinking about where our great ideas and thoughts, whether artistic or otherwise, originally come from. I’m sure we’ve all had an experience where the answer to a particular question we have been struggling with suddenly appeared as if from nowhere when we awoke in the morning. Where did the answer come from? Was our subconscious working on it while we slept? Do we have a muse? Are we just lucky, our minds lurching forward and back between ignorance and knowledge without a road map?

I’m a playwright, so I ponder this idea regularly. I often know where my big ideas come from, for my play about German boxer Max Schmeling (reading his obit in Time), or a send-up of Titanic-like musicals I wrote about the Hindenburg disaster (seeing a clip of a dance number from Titanic that took place on the sinking boat, along with a suggestion by Mary El). But when my characters begin speaking to each other, often I am secondary to the process. They are saying what they would say. I may have a rough goal for where I want a scene to end up, but I don’t bring my characters from point A to B, their own dialogue does. And sometimes (if fact often) they add the details of their past and their reasons for acting as they do on their own.

Sounds mystical, and I guess it is in a way. I don’t know from whence the dialogue springs. I understand the characters, I think, but they do tend to surprise me from time to time. It’s easy to see where writers would ascribe their ideas to some force other than themselves, a muse or inspirational spirit. Maybe, I guess. I don’t know. I think our brains keep working even when we’re not aware of it, making connections and creating symbolic depth we can only dream about. So we do. The surface life we live every day needs to be absorbed and dealt with some way, and our subconscious doesn’t need to take time off to do silly stuff like sleep. I came to these conclusions through rigorous scientific research, including multiple double-blind tests with written protocol and peer review. Nah, I made it up, or stole it. But it sounds kind of true, at least to me.

So maybe, just maybe, you’ll see a trailer one day for an epic movie featuring Christopher Robin, the Dos Equis guy and a mountain of sticky consumer products. I think it’s going to take a LOT of sleep to make sense of this.

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Family Demons and Theater Ghosts

My Uncle Jerry– “Junior” to his parents and siblings—was one the true tragic figures in my family. He’s been on my mind a lot lately because I’m playing a character based on him in my play “Banshee” to be produced in August at FringeNYC. I guess there’s nothing like walking a mile in someone’s moccasins to stir up memories and ghosts of the past.

I first knew my Uncle when I was about 9. In 1978 he took me to my first game at Yankee Stadium. He was a tremendous, rabid Yankee fan. I remember being way back in the stands, deep in foul territory on the right-field side. When Jim Spencer hit a home run, I could see the ball pass high by the foul pole before disappearing into the outstretched hands of the the crowd. It was his attempt at conversion. He bought me a pennant and a Yankee photo book, with pictures of Willie Randolph, Greg Nettles, Lou Piniella and Chris Chambliss staring out at me from pat poses, seeming as awkward in front of a camera as I would have certainly been facing a 97mph fastball.

To his eternal consternation I became a Met fan anyway. The dignity and mundane excellence of the Yankees could not sway the bleeding heart of a boy who would find himself rooting for underdogs the rest of his sorry life. The Mets were losers, but they were MY losers. He referred to them, not kindly, as the “Mutts”.

Uncle Jerry had been a city beat reported, I was told, and on rare days when we were sleeping over the Chelsea apartment he and my Grandparents shared–and nobody was looking– I explored his bottom dresser drawer that contained cut-out articles about robberies and murders with his by-line. There was a Journalism award and a few Yankee yearbooks and yellowing newspaper pictures of the team. I had never seen anyone in my family who had their name in the paper. By the time I knew him he wasn’t a reporter anymore. He wore a long coat with gloves and a police-type hat, and my Grandma complained bitterly about the conditions he had to deal with out on the West Side docks on his behalf. He wore a sad, drawn, silent face as she explained the bitter wind, the shameful, cussing, hard-boiled truck drivers who cursed him for slowing them down, how the skin on his face would freeze in the winter and burn in the summer. At the time I hadn’t a clue why he would choose to do such a thing when he could be out covering crimes and getting press passes to whatever game he wanted to attend.

As I grew older I realized something wasn’t right. Sometimes my Uncle would talk incessantly, arguing with an edge in his voice about any topic, arrogant, too animated, manic. He would get so wrapped up in the Yankee game he would yell out at the screen, admonishing players that would never hear his voice. Other times he was silent, moody, unapproachable. He would sleep and we would all need to be quiet in the apartment, or our house in Rockland when he was visiting. He avoided eye-contact and appeared to be haunted by something only he could see or hear. He would mumble to himself and recite whispered curses at the TV while repeating movements with his fingers over and over in an attempt to hex the opposing team. If the Yankees won he would relax and slowly return to himself. If they lost he was too.

Slowly I was able to piece the past together through overheard conversations and innocent questions. When my Uncle was a young boy, three or four, my Grandpa came over from Ireland to New York to settle himself before bringing his family over. World War II began to brew and it wasn’t until some eight years later before my Grandma and my two Uncles were reunited with their husband and father. It was like meeting a stranger. My mother was the result of my grandparent’s reconvening.

By this time my Uncle Jerry and his mother had developed a kind of interdependence that is all too common between eldest Irish sons and their mothers. Grandma was his caretaker, his defender, his shield against a cruel world, and after eight years of absence my grandfather didn’t have a chance of breaking that impenetrable bond. Hearsay says that when my Grandpa tried to get my Uncle to move out of the apartment and live on his own my Grandma vehemently interceded on Junior’s behalf and threatened to go with him. The subject was never brought up again and my Uncle lived with my Grandparents in that four room apartment for the rest of their lives, and then his.

There were also deeper, overheard snippets of a story about my Uncle’s suicide attempt, his times in institutions, how his life got away from him and how he lost the little he cherished like his reporting job. I went with my mother when I was about 19 or so to see my Uncle in St. Vincent’s psych ward. He sat in a chair not moving a muscle, with a thousand-mile stare as my Grandma pleaded with him to stop this nonsense and just get up and come home. He moved his eyes imperceptibly toward her and tried to form words that his mouth could not execute. She would never understand the idea of mental illness, and he would never be able to explain it to her. That mute, misunderstanding non-communication is how I always remember their relationship. I was there with my mother again (just after my parents divorced) after my Grandmother died of pneumonia on the couch in the front room. We waited and waited for the morgue to come get her as my Uncle kneeled by her in vigil, heaving and sobbing. We’d practically drag him into the kitchen to try to interrupt his relentless grief, only to have him return again and again to her lifeless body. It went on for hours.

I had been living across the hall from their fourth floor apartment at my Aunt Kitty’s place. She was in an old-age home but the apartment was still in her name and rent-controlled, so I squatted there four days a week so that I could get to my college down on 5th Avenue. After my Grandma died and the owner of the building caught on to what I was doing, it was agreed that I would stay with my Uncle from Monday to Thursday during my Junior year. I was apprehensive. We always got along well despite my preference for those New York Mutts, but I didn’t know what state he would be in after losing his mother.

The state he was in was sedation and slight catatonia. He still smoked his Camel unfiltered, still had his meal in front of the television, but it was as if he were working on autopilot. He told me over and over how glad he was to have me there, how lonely he was when I went home for the weekend. His defenses were not just down, they were completely destroyed. I had to work out my schoolwork so that I could visit with him a few hours a day, usually while the Knicks were on, and then later in the year the Yankees. I would comment on the game we were watching and he’d comment back, but he rarely spoke first. He would get a couple of turkey sandwiches from a place he probably went to for years, because they piled the turkey on them like Richard Dreyfuss’ mashed potatoes in “Close Encounters”. We’d eat about four, I’d read or do work until 7, we’d watch the game together and then go to bed, me in his room near the kitchen and him in my Grandparents’ room with the Sacred Heart of Jesus nightlight shining like a spotlight above the bed.

The last time I spoke to him was on the phone the summer between my junior and senior year. I was working six days a week off the books at a deli so I could afford to go back to school. He told me the place was lonely without me around and I told him I’d make time to visit him before I came back for school. I never did, and I feel an enormous amount of guilt about it to this day.

The character I created is not my Uncle Jerry in the purest sense—he’s more willing to take chances, to fight for his life. I think in “Annie Hall” Woody Allen says we create art so we can write the endings we wished could have happened. The play’s ending leaves Junior’s happiness very much in jeopardy, but it at least holds out a chance for it that he never had in real life, resigned as he was to surviving his demons by clinging to my Grandma’s lifeline. I can only hope that “Banshee” serves as some sort of redemption for the past. Even if it succeeds as a play I doubt it will actually redeem anyone—but I think it might provide a catharsis. Either way, my Uncle Jerry will be alive for a couple of hours, some parts of him onstage and other parts in my memory. Stirred up with the other ghosts of the theater who exist for a few fleeting moments before settling back down to earth. If he could settle with a bit more peace, I might have fulfilled my promise to visit one more time.

Reports of My Demise Are Vastly Overrated

I think this about says it all.

Anyone who is a frequent reader of my blog knows that I am on disability for complications stemming from the removal of my colon about eleven years ago now.  I have chronic anemia, which in addition to the fact that I have pale Irish skin to begin with gives me the approximate complexion of a lighthouse beacon.  Add onto that my premature balding and a PICC line on my right arm for intravenous feeding, and I can easily see why someone would mistake me for an end-term cancer patient.  And many people, even friends, have made that mistake.

But…I am still breathing, walking around without assistance, and, on occasion, writing and acting when and if my health permits.  While I wouldn’t go so far as to refer to myself as a “viable” member of society, I think I can safely call myself “serviceable”.  If someone’s about to get hit by a bus, I could summon the strength to move them out of the way, and if one of my children does something stupid I can manage to bandage their wounds and otherwise perform my fatherly duties of feeding, clothing and ineffectually disciplining.  I may need a nap from time to time, but who doesn’t?

So imagine my surprise when I heard through the grapevine that I was knocking on death’s door! And not in that metaphysical way we’re all headed inevitably to meet our maker.  It’s coming soon, around the corner in fact.  According to the rumors it’s time to divide up my estate (split my baseball cards between my sons) and start looking for a nice plot overlooking a scenic view of the Hudson where my unaware corpse can rest peacefully.  It’s time to max out on as many life insurance policies as I can sign, take up drinking and smoking, and plan that trip to Europe I always wanted to take.  

I have to make a bucket list!  Let’s see.  A cabaret in drag?  Nah, my legs are too hairy.  A hair weave?  Nah, they always look like someone misplaced a chia pet, and nobody would recognize my corpse anyway.  Sink every penny I have into backing one of my original plays?  Nope, done that a few times already.  Maybe I’ll build a treehouse.  Or have one built, since I’m about as competent with a hammer and saw as a particularly uncoordinated three-year-old.  I’m more a danger to myself than any nail.   Maybe Mets fantasy camp if I find 500 grand in the walls of the house we rent.

What brought on this sudden concern with my impending demise?  Well, I have a lot of friends in community theater, and I don’t know if you’ve heard this before but they tend to be rather dramatic.  Their highs are way, way above the clouds and their lows are way, way, way beneath the lowliest rock.   A lot of them happen to be teachers, and a good many suffer from some sort of manic depression, borderline personality or bipolar disorder, but that is a subject for another blog at another time.   Suffice to say that if the rumor is more exciting, spectacular, riveting, and emotionally captivating than the ho-hum truth, there is fertile ground on which to plant a tall tale.   A man in the relative prime of his life, cut down too early and leaving two young boys and a long-suffering wife behind him in his wake?  What could he have been, what could he have done, what will the family do without him?  It’s irresistible.  But of course, in order to get anything to grow big and strong one must use a lot of…ahem…fertilizer.  Otherwise known as bullspit. 

Here’s the brass tacks:  I have a chronic illness that causes me not an inconsiderable amount of pain, especially after I eat.  My guts don’t work so well, so I don’t absorb a lot of the nutrients one must get to stay healthy.  So even with supplements, I’m still working on a third of a tank most of the time.  I need to sleep a lot and I have enough bad days or weeks to make holding a job pretty much impossible, and making long-term plans a crap-shoot.  I can’t eat anything I want anymore, and I have to be careful with the way I choose to spend the little energy I’ve got.  All that is true.

That said…my mind is still active.  I can still write and create.  I help out my kids’ Little League teams and oversee their homework.  Every once in a while I can give Mary El a break and get them to school, or make dinner, or fold some laundry.  I’m not a cripple, thank God.  And this August, with a good understudy in case I fall apart physically, I plan to appear in my play “Banshee” at the International Fringe Festival in New York.  It may not be as much as I used to do or wish I could do, but I still feel vital and necessary to my family.  Or at least not dead.

So no, I don’t plan on dying anytime soon, and if I’m lucky I can hang around for a good long while.  Europe will have to wait until I hit the lottery, as will the cabaret and the treehouse and Mets fantasy camp.  I’m pretty good at this playwrighting thing, so I hope something positive happens there.  Otherwise I’ll spend my time trying not to get hit by lightning, now that I’ve all but cursed myself to an immediate death.  To life, to life, l’chiam!    

 

I’m a Whore and I Know It

"Banshee", my latest play and the reason I sold my soul.

Those of you who know me personally found out something about me this week.  I’m a sell-out, a hypocrite, and an amoral piece of dung.  No, don’t stop me, let me finish.  I have become everything I despise.  I now have…a Facebook account.

I know, I know.  How could someone who has decried Facebook as “evil” in print (https://pettiplays.wordpress.com/2011/01/17/facebook-is-evil-we-cant-all-sing-like-judy-garland/) end up succumbing to the dark side without choking on his own bile.  How can I live with my own fickleness, lack of honor and, apparently, missing backbone.  It’s easy, surprisingly.  Selling one’s soul usually is.  A few quick taps and I was signed and sealed into the world of “Friends”, “Profiles” and (shudder) “Pokes”.

Have I lost my everloving mind?  Kind of.  You see, I have a show to promote.  My play, “Banshee”, is going to be part of the International Fringe Festival in NYC this August.  I’m extremely happy about this on many fronts, but with great happiness comes great responsibility.  I have a producer who is laying out good money to make this whole thing happen, so I have a moral imperative to get the word out from sea to shining sea.  When that moral imperative met my already existing moral outrage at Facebook’s level of cultural inanity, something had to give.  That something was my integrity.  Big applause for my lost integrity!

Promotion is a beast.  It’s the part of theater I spend the most time on, yet feel the most ambivalent about.  I send out my emails to everyone I know to let them know I have a show coming up and they either come or they don’t.  In the last few years my shows have moved further and further towards Canada.  As the shows moved North, my expectations that anyone I know will be attending them went South.  But this time I’m going to have a play running in New York City for the first time since 2005.  Lots of good things have happened since 2005–I’ve had two plays published and I’ve averaged writing a full-length play per year.  But let’s face it, there’s no place like NY, even in August.  There’s certainly a difference between telling someone “I have a show opening in North Buttcrack” and “I have a show opening in NYC.” (I would never actually say “NYC” out loud, but you get the gist.)  There’s no difference in the quality of the shows, and believe me I’ve been thrilled to have ANY theater space to do my thing.  But there’s that whole, “If you can make it there” Sinatra thing about New York.  You’ve got to be on the proverbial ball. 

Plus I want the whole friggin’ world to see “Banshee”. I really do.  Plays don’t exist in silence, they are created to be performed.  It may sound overy-dramatic, but a play is literally nothing sitting in a drawer.  It must be embodied.  I have three plays I’ve written that haven’t been publically performed yet because of my various illnesses, which is akin to being pregnant three times but never seeing the baby walk.  Not that I’ve ever been pregnant.  Or had a baby, or not seen my baby walk.  OK, it’s just a simile in a stupid blog, let’s not make a federal case out of it.

The play is also personal, with characters based on two of my uncles and my Irish grandmother, although my real Grandma was much nicer.   It’s an Irish ghost story with a touch of that culture’s myth and mystery, which I’ve always had an affinity towards.  So yeah, it’s like my latest child and I want all my friends to come to it’s first little league game and see how well it plays.  It’s only natural.

I have a friend in real estate (hi Karen!) who always maintained through my anti-Facebook rhetoric that for all its faults it’s still a great way to get a message out to a number of people.  I figure I can pound the dates into everyone’s heads so that even if they don’t come they could tell their friends the wheres and whens by rote.  If I haven’t annoyed, harassed and antagonized everyone who friended me on Facebook by the time the show goes up, I will not have done my job.  Hey at least it’s not pictures of my cat.  Or worse, my kids (they are sooooooo much cuter than everyone else’s!!!!!!!!! OMG!!!!!!!!).  If I can avoid outbursts like that, maybe I’ll be able to get through this Facebook fiasco while still being able to live with myself.

Nah, I’m a whore and I know it.

Memorial Day Special–“White Christmases”

This is a monologue from the play “On the Expectation of White Christmases”.  I’d like to dedicate it to my late father-in-law Eugene Nelligar on this Memorial Day.  The character below is in his former mother-in-law’s kitchen speaking to his ex-wife after not showing up for Christmas like he promised his daughter.

Jack

Three years. On the road to redemption at age 49. After all those years of…you know, not looking at myself in the mirror and all. You get no respect for such a thing in a bar, no. It’s a desperate…corner. And all they want… (he sips tea) …is more like themselves, you know? But I’m going to be stronger, or whatever. “I don’t do that stuff no more, I got…a family I got to…work up to, you see.” And guys trying to buy you a drink just to…watch to see if…”No, I just serve them,” “But you wouldn’t insult me by refusing, now!” “No insult intended.” Like they knew somehow, like they could sense the thirst in me. Not an inch, I’d give. Wrote the girl a birthday card—you know this part. Thought I might. Earn something, you know? I don’t know. Got to where I could almost look in that mirror. Lived like a monk: came home, slept, got the paper, did the crossword, ate, went to work again. For days, months.

 

Then this guy comes in a few nights ago. I’d never seen him before. You see a lot of new faces when Christmas starts in the air. He’s quiet like some are, but different. Haunted-like. I start talking to him, trying to be a good soul and I find out he was…from the same place, see, from the same…he was in the Pacific, our ships…could’ve shook each other’s…and there he was, in town for some funeral or some such. And we get to talking about things, the equipment and all. Because the people, you know, aren’t what you have in common, it’s the…layout you recognize. And the terms nobody else knows. When you do talk people, it’s by function: “Oh yeah, so and so, he did this and that.” And you’re speaking the same language.

 

So we talk. And it’s not…(sips)…that it was a wonderful time in our lives, it’s just…you laugh because you were both there and you were both young. Like high school or something. So we did. And we took turns, see, telling stories about things we haven’t seen in…whatever, using words we haven’t spoken since then. The terms. And then the stories start to go another way. And we’re not laughing anymore. And even before I realize it, I’m telling him about something I never said out loud. About that third straight day when…(sips)…the planes wouldn’t stop coming. Hours. My hands numb from the vibration of the rounds. And them not. Stopping. Just…swooping in. And me praying for a bullet to sneak through before… They were trained for that, to come in low and… How could I, how could any… It was a commitment I couldn’t match, see, because I wanted to live. I wanted to live. All there was was this little hole, this little window. You didn’t even see the result, you just… Listened. Like reading every third word of a book. No context. No way to explain for yourself. For three days. So. The third day.

 

There was this youngfella whose job it was to reload and he…was falling behind. Green. So I just stopped. I watched from the little window. Everything became quiet. Almost peaceful. A cinema with no sound. Soundless fury. I don’t know how long I was like that. Then the youngfella finishes his loading and yells “Go!” Except I didn’t really hear him, I just knew that’s what he was supposed to say. And he’s staring at me and I’m just studying his face. Barely a whisker on him after three days. A real kid. And the face starts screaming, but I’m not hearing. Just sitting on a fresh round, watching. Then the youngfella looks scared, more scared then he’d been through the whole thing. And he runs off. And I’m glad because I get to watch through the little window again, look at all the…colors. And such. I don’t know how long I was like that either.

 

I feel my shirt being pulled and there’s my Petty Officer barking something or other and he turns me, like. So I’m facing him. And he looks at me hard. Feel it at the back of my head. Then I’m being led away, down to a lower deck. And I’m thinking they’re taking me to the brig. I guess I’d started thinking a little by then. But it was the sick bay, and I remember thinking, “What am I doing here? There’s nothing wrong with me.” But I couldn’t…you know…(sips)…tell anyone. Because all I could do is watch.

 

Next thing I remember was at the VA hospital back in the states. And there’re guys there…missing parts of their… And every time I see them, I’m… I don’t belong here, I’m not… I’m able bodied. Except now it’s been weeks since I’ve spoken a word. And I feel like I’m being irresponsible. Me. Who raised my brothers and sisters while my mother was off… You know that story. And I kept telling the doctor I wanted to go back. At least I thought I told him. My lips wouldn’t work with my mind, see.

 

And the fella at the bar, he…(sips)…was a good guy, he… Shook my hand and all and went off to his funeral, but… There was a difference now, you see. Because he stayed and fought, and I… It was probably all in my mind. Either way. I felt it. And the vultures at the bar had overheard and they were all… They had their ammo, you see. All, “You never told us that before” and “Tell us again about such and such and this and that” and “Let’s drink to the war hero”. And me, you know…feeling it all, and I… “Sure, why not? That one I’ll take you up on.”

 

And already you’re slipping.

Aborigines and Community Theater

Mary El opened in “Grey Gardens” this weekend. I couldn’t be there for the shows because both boys had Little League games this weekend, but I was able to catch a rehearsal earlier in the week. Mary El is extremely good as Little Edie, amazing really. I know, I know…what else am I going to say about my own wife. In fact if I had a nickel for every time I heard someone’s mate was “amazing” I’d have, I don’t know, twenty, twenty-five nickels. But she really is. Can’t wait to see her next weekend.

Community theater is a peculiar thing. It is filled with authentic passion, along with a variety of different talent levels. The outcome is usually a bit dubious. I’ve seen very, very few shows that strike a balance between the good and not so good. There are people who do it because they love it, people who do it because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves, people who do it because they don’t like bowling and people who do it so other people will look at them. There are people who know their limits, those who are good enough to give a role a go, and those who are so far off in their self-regard that they think everything they do is magical. If there’s one criticism I would make of community theater in general it’s that the majority of its actors, directors and choreographers think they are WAAAAYYYY better than they actually are. The tech people are solid, and often deserve higher billing.

Actually, I have another criticism. The worst offenders, usually in the category of those who crave attention and think their poop don’t stink, have a tendency to withhold complimenting anybody who is outside their little circle of self-congratulation. I’m a playwright, so I’ve had to develop ten extra layers of skin to deal with the overwhelming amount of rejection that comes my way. Between theaters saying no to my work and critics sometimes being savage, I’ve had to build up a resistance to negativity. Sometimes there is a grain of truth in negative comments that can help the progress of the play. Other times it’s just people trying to prove how much smarter they are than everyone else, or how nasty they can be from their bully pulpit, or how outraged they are at the thought of someone trying something new. Separating the grain from the chaff is a big part of the job, and recognizing the source of criticism is paramount. Does the critic have the good of my work at heart, or do they fall into one of the above categories? In the end, I’ve had to develop a rock-solid assuredness about my writing that can withstand anyone’s attempt to tear it down, because there are those people out there who endeavor to do just that for whatever reason. I take criticism quietly and attentively, then decide whether or not it’s warranted, whether the source can be trusted, etc. afterward.

Actors are a bit different. For one thing the performance is done with by the time you receive criticism, because it’s not like a script that can be amended and improved. What you did onstage is the show. I once was approached by someone after performing McMurphy in “One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest”, and was told my rendition was “over the top”. I got lots of positive feedback for that show, and I liked what I was doing, so I don’t want to come off like I was tremendously affected by her statement. I just kinda agreed with her and said yes, it’s a very over-the-top character. What could I say? The show was over. I suppose I could have toned it down the rest of the run, but I didn’t think I needed to. The point is, there is necessarily a truckload of ego that comes out on that stage with you every night and it’s very easy to have your self-worth trampled by idiots who think they know better than you because they’ve been involved in the “the-A-tre” for X number of years and have directed or appeared in X number of shows. Doesn’t impress me. Maybe they all sucked! And the ones who withhold their compliments, out of envy or mean-spiritedness or their own precious ego, really need to be ignored themselves. Given their hunger for attention, that’s the worst thing you could do to them.

People with real talent don’t need to tell you how talented they are, or prove it with a resume, or try to make other people less by promoting themselves as more. Really talented people can afford to have an open heart about other performers and directors and writers because they have nothing to prove. A talented person WANTS to see others succeed, because their success does not diminish him or her. Much is made of divas and egocentric actors and directors, and aloof, quirky writers. The truth of the matter is that those behaviors are only tolerated of the top .001% of the most talented, and even then it is a shame. The overwhelming majority of very talented people have learned to seek out other talented folks with which to surround themselves. Theater above all is a collaborative art, and while ego is always a part of the equation, playing nice with others is FAR more important. In the REAL acting world, do you know what tooting your own horn and tearing down your fellow actors will get you? Not hired. And a bad reputation to boot. I never pursued acting as a career, but I know enough people in the business and I have been around enough people who are professionals to know this to be true. If you are negative, bitchy, a “me” performer, think too highly of yourself, or make a cancer of yourself backstage, you had better be a superstar talent. If not, you won’t even get roles you’re good for, because nobody will want to work with you.

I took a Sociology class a million years ago and read about this Aboriginal tribe that hunted caribou, I think it was. As in any competitive activity, there were tribesmen who were more adept at tracking and killing the animals, which served to feed and clothe the entire tribe. When a hunter had a particularly good kill, the other hunters would inspect the carcass and begin to denigrate it– “very skinny”, “I think this one must’ve been sick, for you to catch it so easily”, “this will not feed many”. The hunter, rather than defend his kill, would agree. “You are right, it is a paltry animal. I should have left it for the birds.” It is a cultural game they play with each other—all of them know the kill is a good one and the hunter is commendable. But they withhold glorifying the hunter and his deed, and the hunter refuses to take credit. It is built in, cultural modesty, a way to immediately undercut pride and egocentricity.

I think I’d like to see these Aborigines do a version of “Hello, Dolly!”

Incapacitated in America—A Disabled Fantasia On Household Themes

It’s 3:37am, Monday morning. I have to get up to help with the kids at 6:30. If I stop typing and go instantly to sleep I’ll get a solid almost three hours. I’m usually rock solid with ten hours of sleep these days, and get increasingly useless with each hour less than that I get. At this rate I should have the constitution of overcooked spaghetti by about 10am.

See, I did something you’re apparently not allowed to do after age five. I took a nap. It wasn’t a bored, don’t feel like reading anymore siesta, it was a desperate, if I don’t lay down I’m afraid I might fall asleep while walking collapse. It was well-earned by any measure. My son Mychal celebrated his ninth birthday Saturday by having a sleep-over party. It was only three kids and they were actually rather well-behaved so I don’t want to dump all over them for my insane lack of energy…but…the exhaust system did fall off the Toyota as we pulled up with last minute supplies and I did a dry-ice presentation for the kids and Mary El and I cleaned the house and served pizza and snacks and drinks and cupcakes and ice-cream cones and we made up the sectional for the three little guys and fought with Conor to keep his room unlocked, and set them up with games and movies and other entertainments, and by the time I finally succumbed to exhaustion at 2am, four of the five kids were still awake.

When they woke up in the morning I made pancakes and we made sure they got dressed and packed and had all the movies and games they came with and Mary El went to rehearsal so I got to see the parents as they came to pick up their kids and I had to make Mychal stop playing video games so he could say goodbye and thank you and finally by 11:30 or so the house was clear. I used to have the energy to do this kind of stuff. Now I have the staying power of a fat smoker riding a bike uphill.

When I was eighteen I used to work the morning shift at a deli, which meant 5am six days a week during the summer and whenever I could get back from school. It was sometimes 7am before I actually had control of all my faculties, but I was up at 4:30 nearly every day, and on my day off I played softball for four hours. When I worked in Manhattan I had to make a train at 6:20am daily, and didn’t get back home until nearly 8 at night. During the winter I would leave in darkness and come home in darkness. I hated the commute, but I made that train every weekday. And sometimes I rehearsed a play as well.

Now, just the idea of such exertion is enough to make me sore. Folding laundry makes my arms ache. Playing ball with the kids is akin to running a marathon barefoot. Backwards. Over gravel. If I’ve been sitting on the floor for any amount of time while playing a board game with the boys, I resemble an elderly crab when I try to get up and I make more groaning noises than Beth Israel ICU ward. Is that a mixed metaphor? I’m too tired to change it.

Roy Cohn’s character in “Angels In America”, who was dying of AIDS, famously said “America is no place for the infirm.” Allow me to second that, and third it. It is now 10:26am. We were late getting the kids showered and dressed for school and Mary El had a dentist appointment so she had to make sure to leave with the kids before the tow truck came to bring the car to Meineke, and there I was standing in the pouring rain while the guy hooked it up because I felt guilty sitting inside while he’s out there with MY car and I never know what to do after I put the car in neutral anyway and I was such a dweeb that I couldn’t manage to give the guy directions to Meineke besides “it’s on the same road as the mall.” I got about four hours sleep and my methadone hasn’t kicked in yet, so I’m basically sitting here trying not to move. It’s been a long week already.

To paraphrase Tony Kushner, “Parenthood is no place for the infirm.”

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