Thursday, August 11, 2011

Camelot interview

I recently answered a number of questions via e-mail for Sarah Wash (who went on to write an extremely flattering reflection on the show for Minnesota Playlist). With responses for the show ranging from enthusiasm to bafflement, I thought a more detailed exegesis might be of interest. Copied below, and spoilers ahoy.
1. I saw in a couple of places that Camelot is Crumbling is part of a trilogy--one for which you did a lot of background research. What did you research? And what can you tell me about the third show in the trilogy? Has it been written yet? How does it complete the picture?
Ha -- not exactly a trilogy (though I'd be curious to know where you read that). I see it as an ongoing play cycle, something akin (in style if not necessarily in quality) to Shakespeare's history plays, insofar as each one of the stories is self-contained, but placed in sequence they detail longer character arcs. (I'm actually quite wary of advertising the fact that I visualize a sequence of plays, since I fear that that might alienate audiences from wanting to see them individually.)

"Research" also feels a bit grandiose, for an activity that I do largely for pleasure -- the plays are a by-product of a lifelong love of medieval romances, rather than choosing to read the romances solely to inform the plays. This show in particular draws heavily (word-for-word in places) on the last book of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, a fifteenth-century epic novel written by a soldier in captivity. The book's notable in particular, I think, for painting an incredibly psychologically complex portrait of Lancelot.

I visualize Camelot is Crumbling as the final play in the cycle. I think that it speaks for itself, but it may be of some interest to note that it's heavily cut down for Fringe -- in the full draft, there's a third storyline revolving around Percival, tying the action back to The Rise of General Arthur (which largely features the exploits of his father, Pellinore). Light and darkness is a major recurring theme throughout the cycle, as well, and Percival is noted for being the knight that "pierces through the middle." Again, no idea how interested anyone might be in that bit of trivia, but there it is.
2. I'm not sure whether or not I was reading into things or not, but I sensed that there was some intense personal significance for you in writing about these issues--something that came through particularly in some of the things Mordred said and did. Can you tell me anything about the life experiences or personal reflections that led you to create this show?
I'm extremely wary of attempts to draw connections between a play and the playwright's personal life -- and in many respects I think that the playwright is potentially the worst person to draw those connections -- but I've commented that I think that Camelot is my most autobiographical show (and that's including my autobiographical shows). It's the one that's most intimately concerned with the theological issues that preoccupy me. It's interesting that you saw the connection with Mordred, because I find myself identifying more closely with Lancelot -- particularly with his kind of destructive, all-or-nothing stubbornness. I have a tendency to latch onto extremes, and to struggle with the idea of compromise -- certainly not on the nation-shattering level that he does, but it's a recurring problem for me. Moderation requires discipline, and in that respect the two of us are profoundly immature, undisciplined men.

Much of Mordred's dialogue was written over a decade ago -- heavily, heavily rewritten in that time, but I see him as expressing the frustrations of a younger man, whereas Lancelot is dealing with some seriously grown-up problems. The place I still connect with Mordred is in his irrationally anti-authoritarian streak, his desire to lash out against anyone in a position of power, justly or unjustly. It's that impulse to self-destruct, and to take out everything in range. There's a line of his that I cut from the play (but included in the trailer): "Destroying Camelot is only action that could have any meaning." I've been asked why he does what he does, and I think a lot of it is simply that the destruction of Camelot is a big red button in front of him that he's not supposed to push. And, yeah, there's definitely periods of my life where I identify with that.
3. What is the significance of the symmetrical, side-by-side staging (other than the content and the symmetry between the two characters)?
I think you've largely answered your own question here, but to expand on the idea a bit: the play largely revolves around comparing and contrasting the two men, the white knight and the dark knight. Philosophically, they both form their position from the same premise -- the absence of God, or an objective moral reality (and this is probably the respect in which I've drifted the farthest from the romances -- Lancelot is traditionally quite pious, for all his failings). Mordred uses this as a rationalization to indulge his impulses, whereas Lancelot views this as necessitating an even higher moral standard (although he, ultimately, struggles with that conclusion as well). The irony is that both paths (Mordred's destructive nature, Lancelot's unbending principles) lead them to the same place -- the crumbling of Camelot.

Moderation's a major theme of the Camelot cycle. Once Lancelot swears himself to an absolute, he's to some degree abandoned his own freedom, rendering his own behavior both predictable and easy to manipulate.
4. What do you hope your audience gets out of being a part of this experience?
Oh, man -- on the most basic level, I hope they have a good time. I think the two characters are relating exciting, compelling stories, and if that's not coming across that's my failure. Beyond that, I hope that people identify with the characters and the problems they're struggling with. One thing that fascinates me is that people tend to walk away from the show picking a side -- they're either Lancelot people or Mordred people.

The most gratifying thing I hear, and I've heard it a couple of times, is that it leads people back to Malory. He's a better writer than I am, which is why so much of his writing shows up in the show.

Saturday, June 18, 2011



On Saturday, July 16th, we're holding the fourth annual Wordstock fundraiser for Maximum Verbosity. Among other goals, this evening is intended to be the place where we announce our upcoming season.

Which renders it necessary for me to make the announcement that, for better or worse, there will be no season nine of Maximum Verbosity. We have a number of remaining projects through September; but this is, for all practical purposes, the end of MV as a year-round production company.

This is, really, the only critically important piece of information in this post. The rest, regarding my long, whiny, personal thoughts and feelings, can be encountered below.


Really, there's dozens of reasons why this course of action is necessary. I've spent the past couple of weeks talking with friends and colleagues about what the best course of action for us is; but ultimately, this has been just to cultivate the illusion of control. The money situation is bad, and we can't continue because of that.

Much of this last season has revolved around attempting to find a way to expand our operations. I began, over a year ago, by sitting down and speaking with a number of producers who have managed to make the transition from Fringe-level theatre to profitable year-round production. (Most of whom, I note with some frustration, have been around for a substantially shorter period of time than we have.) I walked away with the sense that what is necessary for us to hit the next level is, well, press. MV is well-known within the arts community, if only by reputation -- but a production company can't be sustained by other artists. The key to hitting mainstream audiences is press, and the key to getting press is presenting yourself in such a way that press knows how to acknowledge you.

Season eight of MV revolved around presenting ourselves in such a way that press would be able to acknowledge us as a legitimate theatre company. This, frankly, failed.

(The other factor, of course, is time. We've existed for more than long enough to establish ourselves -- fuck, eight years is ripe old age for a theatre company -- but we would have to continue producing at the level we have for the past year, and we've been hemorrhaging money at a rate that makes continued production at that level impossible.)


When I step back and examine it, it seems to me to be a classical lateral-thinking problem.

POINT: We can't go forwards. The amount of financial investment to sustain producing shows at the level we have been -- well, the money simply isn't there anymore.

POINT: We can't go backwards. At least, I can't; at least, not psychologically. I can't go back to producing one-man shows on Monday nights in obscure venues to single-digit audiences. Yes, they're profitable, insofar as they don't really cost anything -- but they don't produce anything meaningful, either.

As nearly as I can tell, there's three worthwhile reasons to produce a show:

1) It will make you money.

2) You will be able to pay it forwards to other projects.

3) It will bring you pleasure.

For the past several years, I've been producing projects that

1) Have lost money.

2) Have done nothing in terms of growing audience.

3) Have brought me far more frustration that pleasure.

...which raises the question, why make the extraordinary effort of time, money, and energy that production requires? I'm certainly not afraid of work; but I've been having to step back and ask myself, what is this working towards?

As any viewer of Dr. Who will tell you, when you have an unclimbable cliff before you, and an unbeatable monster behind you, the correct answer is to...go sideways.


So what are my feelings, regarding this course of events? I can narrow them down to four:


...I certainly feel a great deal of shame; as much as, I would say, should be reasonably felt by the creator of a failed business.

I don't regard the failure as total. Certainly, I've managed to keep a theatrical production company afloat, almost entirely on its own profits, for eight years, during an economic recession. I've written and performed dozens of plays, hundreds of stories, and thousands of jokes. I am pleased by this feat.

By the same token, it *is* failure -- insofar as I established a goal for myself, and was unable to meet that goal. Moreover, failed to meet that goal through poor decision-making, and stubbornness. (I consider one of my great failures my struggle to accurately distinguish stubbornness from integrity. They're not the same thing.)


Oddly, the great frustration I feel is the number of plot threads and character arcs that I've left hanging.

I love Pissing on the Great Wall as much as any show I've ever done -- but it was a fairly dark note to leave the Descendant saga on. I'm frustrated that we never got to explore Loki's final acts of co(s)mic despair. I may never forgive myself for leaving Penner in such a vile, awful place -- and, worst of all, I never managed to fully bring Percival into the presence of the Grail.

I had, in my mind, a plan to resolve many of these over the course of the next two years -- to take those characters, literally, through heaven and hell; to explore the landscapes of other worlds; to romp through time-traveling farces and, well, all kinds of wild adventures.

It may feel vaguely schizophrenic, to experience a sense of obligation to fictional constructs -- certainly, I feel intensely embarrassed even raising the idea around my colleagues -- but I'm the only creator they have, so. And I endeavor to care as much for them as, I hope, my own Creator does for me.


When I first began to entertain the idea of not producing a season nine, I was startled to discover a sense of relief.

I had an encounter with a member of the crew of PvtH -- who finally cornered me, and said that it was simply unreasonable for me to try to fill as many roles as I was. I don't know that I would have acknowledged the idea, if it wasn't coming from someone that I trusted -- but the fact is, I *had* been beating myself up for not keeping up with the number of responsibilities I'd assumed -- and *not* beating myself up for taking that number of responsibilities in the first place.

I sat down a few days ago, and actually figured out that I haven't been producing less than three shows at a time since June of 2009. That's not counting any of my acting or storytelling gigs, of which I've usually had a few going on at a time as well.

And, well...I've always been intensely resistant to the claim that I've been dropping balls, but how could I not have been? On the one hand, it feels like weakness to acknowledge it -- on the other hand, there simply aren't enough hours in the day to accommodate the number of responsibilities that I assume for weeks at a time as a matter of course.

I have *dozens* of sensible projects that I've been attempting to pick up, and simply ended up dropping, because production has absorbed my attention. And the great absurdity is that I never had any ambition to produce -- I'm a writer. I entered self-production because, after years of bulk mailouts, I came to the conclusion that that was the only way to get my work in front of people.

The sad irony is that now, my life has become production. I need to learn to be a writer again.


The single greatest indication that I had that leaving production behind might be the right decision is that I was fucking terrified of it.

I've worked long and hard to establish myself as a member of the TC arts scene -- and I think I've done that. I've spent eight years doing that. The idea of pursuing other venues now -- e.g. publication -- is terrifying, insofar as it means starting over from the beginning.

So...I should probably do that. I mean, comfort is the death of creativity, right?


I'm hesitant to say. As I mentioned, I have dozens of projects that I've been putting on the back-burner, largely since theatre production has absorbed the bulk of my time. I'm not inclined to loudly announce them since most, if not all, will take months or years to come to fruition. I'm not afraid of the work; but I'm conscious of the short attention span in show business.


- I'm not done acting. I never intended to really enter the acting scene, but I'm astounded -- and flattered -- that there's a number of people that have indicated a desire to work with me in that capacity.

- I'm not done writing. If local producers are inclined to work with any of my scripts, I'd be delighted to collaborate. In fact, I've got a new show (potentially) in the works with another storyteller for (maybe) this December. I'm also debating whether or not to submit an application to the 2012 MN Fringe, since that's still both profitable and enjoyable to me.


- I'm done producing outside of a Festival context. There's just no economic model I can construct that makes that make sense to me.

- I'm done touring after this summer. It's brought me an intense amount of pleasure, but there's simply no way that I can justify the expense -- profitability on the road has always been a hit-or-miss prospect for me.

- I still maintain the DBA for MV -- and will probably try to use it as an umbrella for various other projects in the future, if not plays (as such).


We still have three remaining projects coming up.

THE RISE OF GENERAL ARTHUR the MN Theatre Garage, July 10 and 17 at 7pm. Before looking at the end of the Camelot Cycle, it seems only fitting to revisit the beginning.

WORDSTOCK: THE FINAL CHAPTER Kieran's Irish Pub, July 16th at 6pm. One last big blowout. Also, one last attempt to cover our outstanding payments, because good God it would be wonderful to close out with something resembling solvency. Featuring Joseph Scrimshaw, Ben San Del, John Heimbuch, Mahmoud Hakima, and Anthony Paul.

CAMELOT IS CRUMBLING: AN ARTHURIAN NIGHTMARE the Kansas City, Minnesota, Indianapolis, and Chicago Fringe Festivals. A bit fortuitous -- this is, honestly, the show I would have pretty much chosen to go out on. (The only other real competitor was Lokasenna, our first show -- a musical comedy which would have been far too expensive to produce on any level that the script demanded -- although, truly -- the spirits of Thor and Loki (the soldier and the nihilist) seem, to me, in many ways to animate those of Lancelot and Mordred -- locked in their struggle to wrest meaning from the work of death.)


I deeply regret the way things have gone. And I maintain my hope to provide you with many more hours of entertainment -- in one medium or another -- in the future.