Friday, June 13, 2008

The Best Defense Is Being Offended

So we've started rehearsals for our next show, All Rights Reserved: A Libertarian Rage, which is a rewrite and a remount of a show we did a couple of years back -- the show that initially got me into political writing. Like most of Maximum Verbosity's shows, one of its primary themes is language, in this case how it operates within the realm of politics. One of the ways this is represented is through the use of profanity and racial slurs throughout the script.

When I initially wrote those scenes, I recall sitting down and thinking through the implications very carefully. I recognize the fact that there are some people -- indeed, a significant portion of the population -- who can find the mere existence of a word to be offensive, even painful. Surely, I thought, I must be able to connect to that mentality on some level -- there must be at least one word, somewhere in the English lexicon, that fills me with rage.

But there isn't. As a student of language, I've always had the sense that words, by themselves, mean nothing -- they're complete abstractions of the concept they represent: an arbitrary collection of syllables; ink on paper. Their meaning is defined entirely by intent and context. I'm reminded of a quote by Larry Elder:

Hate crime legislation forces us to place greater value on some victims because of race. By all means, we should prosecute bad conduct. But if I'm standing at an ATM machine and a Ku Klux Klansman hits me in the back of the head with a brick, the operative word is not "Klansman." It is "brick."

I'm also conscious of individual words as bearing the weight of history. Am I being excessively semantic to point out that the word "nigger" ultimately emerged from the Latin "niger" -- a form of speech that hasn't been widely used in nearly 1600 years? That it has derivants in every Romance language? That it was a neutral descriptive in our own country until about 150 years ago? That 150 years from now, it will no doubt carry a completely different connotation?

Oprah's serene assertion that the word should be stricken from the dictionary (to full-house applause by an interracial audience) seems to me to be to be nothing less than an attempt to -- if you'll forgive the phrase -- whitewash history. Language isn't an absolute, but an evolving organism; and for someone fascinated with that process, witnessing the attempts of the black community to consciously reclaim the word has been compelling stuff.

These are all arguments I've been making for years. But picking up this project again, I find that my thinking has developed, and I think that my beef runs a little deeper than that.

I'm not prepared to say that I'm totally immune to being offended by something, but I think I certainly have a higher threshold than most. If someone says something I disagree with, I'm far more likely to laugh, shrug my shoulders, think "Wow, that dude is crazy," and go on my way. If I were to be physically attacked for my minority status, my emotional response would be fear for my life -- being "offended" on behalf of the race I was born into would, I imagine, be very far from my mind in that moment! A lot of my writing has been offensive to a lot of people, although that's never been my intention. And here, I think, is why it bothers me so much:

Ultimately, it's hard for me to read taking offense as anything other than attempt to seize control of the conversation. To be "offended" by something is to immediately put your opponent on the defensive. This is one of the reasons that polical correctness is subjected to much ridicule: that, for example, the appropriate term for an American of African descent has been, at various points, negro, nigger, colored person, person of color, black, African-American, Afro-American -- and none of them are an appropriate descriptive of the range of ethnicities it applies to! To use the wrong one in the wrong environment is to demonstrate how out of touch you are, to force you to apologize, to put you on the defensive.

This is perhaps more visible in the left -- but the right is, if anything, worse -- it's just that their sacred cows are differently placed. Try to say anything critical of America's recent military ventures, and, oh! The offense! The umbrage! And we have to twist ourselves into knots apologizing, affirming our patriotism, beating the nationalist drum. It's a dirty trick, and one that's killed dead just about any meaningful dialogue we could have about the war. Or race. Or language. Or any number of other issues.

None of this is new -- after all, it was just a few centuries ago in Britain where it was a stated crime, punishable by death, to think treason against the king. In a representative republic, we've organized our "forbidden language" around a different set of concepts. Could we at least stop being offended long enough to figure out where we all stand beneath this steadily-growing morass of forbidden words and phrases?

6-Month Recap

Whew. It's been a while, huh?


"Logorrhea: The Most of Maximum Verbosity" was modestly successful -- certainly the most successful show that we've done outside of "Descendant of Dragons," most likely because

A) we were coming off of the success of that;
B) we had some extraordinary talent on board;
C) some nice press coverage (we were A-listed in the City Pages, thanks to the new storyteller-friendly journalist Ward Rubrecht); and
D) our association with the supergroup Rockstar Storytellers.

It was also our most *expensive* show to date (largely due to paying a large cast), and we still managed to break even. So respectable, even if nothing to write home about.

Artistically I'm pleased with it: I think it emerged looking like what I wanted it to look like, a lunatic carnival of folktales, dirty jokes, multidisciplinary art, slapstick, and poetry. Laying out all of those pieces next to each other really reinforced me the sense that, even in light of what a wide variety of styles we've worked in, MV has still managed to produce a coherent sensibility, an aesthetic, a world.

Psychologically, it also did what I needed it to, in that it marked the transition from an old style of working to a new one. The cast consisted of a combination of old friends that I trained alongside and have been working with for years, as well as new artists who I've come to admire in that time. Doing that show really helped me purge a lot of the baggage I've been too nervous to let go of, and, I think, set out in some new directions -- while still keeping clearly in my head exactly what MV is all about.

That's the upside. The downside is that it was also one of the most stressful productions I've worked on in a long time. Having grown accustomed to solo work, or work in small groups -- this was significantly larger than any project that we've ever done, and the *organizational* aspects of it were a daily nightmare. Simply navigating that many schedules was a full-time job. Finding that balance between playful collaboration and the need to create a coherent production was also a challenging tightrope to walk. If I didn't *already* know the material so well, I can't imagine how I could have handled so many different aspects of the performance.

That month, I also had the pleasure of featuring at a slam poetry evening. I divided my performance into two halves. The first was short slam pieces, between which I bantered with the audience. This was glowingly received. The second was a long-form spoken-word piece, which tanked. I suspect that I was speaking too rapidly, and that that was the wrong crowd for that piece; though I will confess to a slight annoyance. The double-edged sword of slam audiences is that, yes, they're incredibly demanding and keep you alert. The flip side of that is that I often suspect that they lack the patience for more layered, long-form work, the work that's truly closest to my heart. But overall, a positive experience.

I also had the pleasure of performing in a fundraiser for Paulino Brener, to help raise money for his green card. I elected to trot out some of my lighter material from "Descendant of Dragons," with its themes of travel and immigration. I almost resent how solid this stuff is -- it never fails to capture an audience's attention.

At the performance, I ran into Paul Herwig of Off-Leash Area, a dance company that I adore beyond all measure. I was invited to perform as part of their next show. Unfortunately, that didn't end up working out, although I did get to sit in on a few rehearsals and write about the experience.

This the only month in which I did not perform with the Rockstar Storytellers.


I performed in "Stories of Heartbreak" with the Rockstars, doing a "lost chapter" from "Descendant of Dragons," paralleling a personal love story with some of Pu Song-Ling's faery-tales, as well as old jazz standards. Solid, well-received.

I also was invited to perform in a similarly-themed evening with Vilification Tennis, the old Renaissance Festival group that's trying to re-invent themselves on the Minneapolis stage. I got to be a lot more stupid, juvenile, and dirty than I usually can be, regaling them with stories of old girlfriends and sexual escapades gone wrong.

This was also the month of the Chekhov Festival, for which I bought a pass and wrote reviews of seven shows.

Maximum Verbosity's brand-spankin'-new website finally went live, after that "HTML-for-Dummies" embarrassment that we've had for the past five years.


Slow month. Hosted a Rockstar show, "Stories of Religion." This is one of the worst performance I've given in my life. I multitask dozens of projects, but I think I'm fairly good at keeping them isolated from each other: this is one of the few cases in which the sheer amount of work that I was doing compromised a performance. When I hit the stage, I hadn't slept in two days, and I was practically asleep on my feet. I was nervous, and had prepared a vast amount of jokes to draw on -- and I wielded them indiscriminately, causing the evening to run much longer than it should have. I offer a heartfelt apology to anyone who witnessed this.

We also held the very first MV auditions, ever. Was taken aback at both the high turnout, and the high *caliber* of the turnout. Thing is, for the past five years, I've been writing extremely complicated text and handing it to specialty acts: mimes, dancers, comedians. This is one of the first times that I've handed that text to *actors*, and, whoa. Holy shit. Not to dismiss the older work -- which always came off as sounding like broad, over-the-top comedy sketches, which was perfect about fifty percent of the time -- but for the first time, this text actually sounds like a *play*. And this is a whole new world to me.

Also sat in on, and wrote about, an Off-Leash Area rehearsal.


Performed my single favorite Rockstar piece yet, a sick little horror story about a recluse who crawls through his computer cables and finds another world, in which he can enact all of his vile fantasies upon his next-door neighbor without consequence. Pretty atypical for a Rockstar show, but definitely in that style that's closest to my heart: fantastic, expressionistic, bizarre. Audiences seemed to eat it up, too. I'll probably perform it for our "best-of" evening in July.

Also performed a new twenty-minute solo show, "The Hunting of the Snark," the first Maximum Verbosity piece that I have neither written nor directed; the text is by Lewis Carroll, the choreography by the extraordinary Anthony Paul, who really swept in and saved me from a number of horrifically bad decisions. "The Hunting of the Snark" is the first show that I ever directed, nearly a decade ago, so it feels appropriate that it would be the first MV show after our five-year anniversary.

Numbers were terrible, I suspect since it was performed as part of such an odd mix; good material, but with no real unifying theme or marketing scheme. If "Logorrhea" was frustrating because I was organizing so much, "Alice in Biffyland" was frustrating because the was no real organizing head; four people creating under a skeletal umbrella. It was extremely difficult to talk up or to sell to people in that respect, and the press wafted right by.

We did get to do one show as a fundraiser for Mikael Rudolph, which was loads of fun.


This was one of the most insane months of my life.

My Rockstar story was weak, I thought: a political rant about Barack Obama that was more of a meandering, jokey essay than a real story. I wasn't at all happy this one.

The Rockstar Storytellers were also invited to perform as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival's "Five-Fifths" event, in which they chop a classic script up into five pieces, give them to five different companies, and mash them back together. Courtney McLean and I adapted Act III of Romeo and Juliet, with her playing Romeo and me playing Juliet.

This was one of the most ridiculously responsive audiences I've ever played, devouring every joke and eagerly anticipating the next one. We basically just dipped the scenes into our snarky, sarcastic style, rewrote roles around our various stage personas, and a good time was had by all. There's a clip of some of that nonsense online, if anybody's interested.

I also remounted "Descendant of Dragons" on a double-bill with Allegra Lingo's "I Hate Kenny G." Numbers were poor, I suspect because we did it on a holiday (Mother's Day) and the weekend of the fishing opener. Both scripts were sturdy as ever, however.

I worked on three shows as part of the Spirit in the House Festival. I produced and ran tech for Holly Davis' "The All-You-Can-Eat Spiritual Buffet," and did a storytelling set as part of Kay Kirscht's "Quest" showcase. The latter was a particular pleasure, since Grail literature is the central obsession of my life. I told two short unicorn stories, which number among my favorite stories that I've ever written, also in a more fantastic, expressionistic style.

MV's entry in the festival, however, was called "Jesus: The Lost Years" (which I've recently re-titled "The Secret Book of Jesus"). Numbers for all three shows -- and for most of the Festival -- were, unfortunately, terrible; partly due to the challenges of a spiritually-themed theatre festival, partly due to the fact that it opened on Memorial Day weekend, partly due to the fact that I bombed just about every preview I did, and partly due to the fact that, well, I just plain wasn't aggressive about advertising this one. I have plenty of good excuses, but I suppose the real one is that I just didn't have a lot of confidence about this piece going in. It's so odd, so unusual, so atypical.

Well, Festival's over, and I'm prepared to say that this is one of my favorite shows that I've ever written -- certainly my favorite solo show (yes, I like it better than "Descendant"). I love its oddness: it's archaic. It's obscure. It's dirty and poetic and confusing. It is, unquestionably and purely, a Maximum Verbosity Production.


Did a story about a night I spent in jail in May. Was fun, because I know that some gossip's been floating around our little circle about it, and I appreciated the opportunity to step up and reclaim the story a bit. Audience enjoyed it, too, but it was very much a one-time thing; not a story I'm likely to repeat. Was largely successful because it was the right place and the right time.

Started rehearsals for "All Rights Reserved: A Libertarian Rage," which I'll no doubt be talking about in detail in this space.

Saturday I'll be attending a Flag Day picnic and speaking to a Libertarian group about the First Amendment and our current grant system.

Sunday (Father's Day) Allegra and I will be doing our double-bill again. For those of you who haven't seen "Descendant", this could well be your last chance, since I don't really have any intention of remounting it again.

I will try to update more frequently in future, so as to never have to write an exhausting post like this again.