Tuesday, December 23, 2008

'Tis the Season. And Speaking of Seasons....

This last season -- that is, the period of time between August of 2007 and August 2008 -- has been one of the most creatively exhausting in recent memory. This is due, no doubt, to the success of two projects that I was involved in: the creation of Descendant of Dragons, my first solo show and to date Maximum Verbosity's only legitimate hit; and the creation of the Rockstar Storytellers, which has helped keep several prominent Fringe artists visible throughout the year.

See, my plan for creating a season has always been simple: I come up with ten thousand ideas, and attempt to mount all of them. Nine hundred and ninety-eight of these ideas fall through the cracks along the way. Thing is, this last season, I had the momentum going to get nearly all of these shows up.

Of these, the two ensemble shows were the most successful: Logorrhea and All Rights Reserved were, I suspect, largely coasting on phenomenal casts and the reputation of my last Fringe outing, and though the latter received an extremely volatile reception from the critics, that didn't seem to prevent audiences from coming and laughing at the jokes.

The two new solo shows -- The Hunting of the Snark and The Secret Book of Jesus -- both flopped rather dramatically. I suspect that this is due to a combination of poorly marketed concepts on my part, and the fact that they were both mounted as part of struggling events (Alice in Biffyland for one and the Spirit in the House Festival for the other.)

Add to the above a remount of Descendant, and the fact that I was doing 2-5 storytelling gigs each month -- and committed to generating new material for all of them -- and it's not hard to see where that exhaustion may have come from. At several points during the year, I had one colleague or another pull me aside and advise me to slow down. While I don't think that I allowed any of the individual shows to suffer from my divided focus -- well, okay, maybe one or two performances were pretty grisly to watch -- marketing certainly took a hit, as did my own mental well-being.

Thing is, I set out to do the same thing this season, only to discover that shows are slipping through the cracks again -- I can't seem to get any of my proposals off the ground, can't seem to get any venues booked. (Well, I suppose "can't" is relative. I was commiserating about this with a colleague over a beer, when he pointedly asked what I've done since the last Fringe. "Hardly anything!" I whined. "Well, yeah, I've performed in every Rockstar show except one, and I've either hosted or featured at every Word Ninjas event, and I did another set for Vilification Tennis, and that new storytelling festival down in Rochester, and, oh yeah, I wrote and performed a new forty-five minute solo show back in October, but I didn't even produce that one..." Yeah, okay, but comparatively I've slowed down, and backsliding is the thing that troubles me.)

But, yeah, the sense that I have -- and particularly after our last Fringe show -- is that the Descendant magic has worn off. It's not hard to see why -- many of the above shows had people in our audience who discovered Maximum Verbosity through the '07 Fringe, and were startled to find that my real passions tend toward much more stylized text -- expressionism and slapstick, horror and fantasy -- rather than the hand-wringing, soul-baring autobiography that made me a flavor of the month. Which may explain why, to my surprise, my reaction to that magic wearing off isn't dismay so much as relief. There's a sense in which I feel like I've rediscovered my freedom to work on the projects that interest me, rather than investing so much in high-stakes productions.

Only to discover, of course, that the problem with freedom -- heh. And how many of my blog entries could begin with that phrase -- the problem with freedom is the fact that it's paralyzing. With a stack of unproduced scripts in front of me -- and a dream project that I'm finally summing up the courage to tackle -- I've been struggling with one of the most frustrating periods of writer's block that I can recall. Or, to phrase it more succinctly, the problem is that now that I've given myself the time to create everything, I find that I can't create anything.

That's been turning around in the past few weeks, as I'm getting closer to pinning down a show in March. Of course, anything can happen up until the contract gets signed, which is why I won't go into more detail about it. And, of course, it's an ape-stupid project -- there's almost no time for pre-production, an abbreviated rehearsal process, no budget and a sprawling ensemble to manage, if I ever manage to get auditions pinned down.

And I'm loving it. For the first time since the Fringe closed, I'm springing out of bed in the morning. My productivity has tripled. Space to create is all well and good in theory, but apparently I thrive on chaos, on taking disparate pieces of information and slotting them into the illusion of order. Whether or not all the elements for getting this show to the stage pull together, I've gotten my kick in the head to get moving again.

See, the problem -- and this, of course, has always been a key problem for me -- is balance. Extremes are easy. Moderation requires discipline.

Still, I've got plenty to keep me occupied in the meantime. I finally got around to writing up a set of bylaws and executive positions for the Rockstars, after which I was promptly elected Chair. And if you're looking for something to do the day following Christmas -- and who isn't? -- we've got a new holiday show, "Jingle Bell Rockstars," 10:30pm at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage, immediately following Joe Scrimshaw's "Fat Man Crying." Hell, see both.

And stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

All Rights Reserved: Reviews and Reflections

So I've been avoiding the DNC coverage as much as possible. But I do a weekly trivia night at my local bar, and I plunked myself down in front of a television broadcasting the Olympics. After about five minutes, the bartender stepped in front of me and switched the channel to CNN. So, uh, there I was.

I've talked about Obama's campaign before. In terms of policy, he's not fundamentally different from most other Democrats; I wasn't really interested in the product in the many other forms in which it was offered to me, and I'm not really interested in it now. But the aspect that I've always struggled with, regarding his campaign, isn't policy, but rhetoric. It's easy to grasp why he's been so fervently embraced: he's managed to seize hold of the language of liberalism, and make it soar. If the philosophy is one that you love, then his speeches must be electrifying. But if you struggle with the underlying assumptions, the linguistic hoops he leaps are rough going.

Former Virginia governor Mark Warner was the first to speak. He expressed the usual shame and outrage, that so much is being invested in our military that could be spent on domestic programs. Erm. What about those of us who regard investment in a vast state-controlled infrastructure to be more monstrous and irresponsible than investment in national defense? For those of us who disapprove of centralizing authority within a Federal government, there isn't a place in either party. It's a game of false opposites: you can choose *where* you want that power to be centralized, but *decentralizing* power simply isn't on the menu. Laying out arguments in this format *creates* the positions that are socially acceptable to adopt.

He closed out by quoting Thomas Jefferson: "I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past." And I'm grinding my teeth, wondering what Jefferson would have made of this whole campaign. This is the same Jefferson who claimed that "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants," right? A claim that it's very hard to imagine this campaign making. Simply quoting a statement by one of the founding fathers (the author of the Declaration of Independence, no less!), outside of the context of his entire ideology, may not be actively deceptive -- but it's certainly misleading.

The next speaker goes on to state words to the effect of "I'm not going to mention how John McCain is simply carrying on the policies of the Bush administration" -- you just fucking did! The hell? It's one of the most absurd permutations of politically correct speech -- hearing people say things like "I'm not a racist, but there's something I just don't trust about black people." Yes! Yes you are a racist! Throwing a polite caveat in front of the statement doesn't alter that fact! And claiming that you're not going to stoop to the level of saying something, while in the process of saying it -- gah.

Hillary Clinton assumes the stage, and the camera spends half of its reaction shots on her husband. She wields the same gut-wrenching, manipulative human-interest stories about those suffering under our current health care system -- channeling it into applause for a system of universal health care, without any examination of either the underlying problems of our system or any of the countless alternative solutions -- then draws further applause for championing the nineteenth amendment(!).

I don't mean to single out Democrats here (although they're an easier target for me lately) -- the Republicans are, if anything, far *worse* in the language they use. Even alternative parties have been struggling to ape them, consciously or otherwise, under the unspoken assumption that by imitating their most repulsive qualities they can achieve their success.

I can't even blame the politicians making these utterances, either. They say what they need to in order to generate the response they require. They're fundamentally no different from so many of my colleagues, self-styled political comics who use the same words and phrases to trigger the appropriate response, regardless of whether or not they have a script with anything churning beneath that. We're all in the same business, after all -- show business -- and we use *exactly* the same collection of tools to survive.


I've been putting off posting my thoughts about the Minnesota Fringe run of the show -- I have, well, too many, and too many that it's going to take me a while to sort through. I will say that we achieved a very mixed response, and that I received more hostility in response to this script than any show that I've produced since 2005 ("Camelot is Crumbling").

I've had several people corner me, arguing about the use of language in the script -- whether or not it's responsible or irresponsible, and laying out careful arguments about why or why not. That's fantastic, and exactly the kind of dialogue I was hoping the script would produce. On the other hand, the vast bulk of responses I've received has been along the lines of the following:

"Some sketches hit the mark and others just seemed offensive -- and I am not easily offended. Since I think that is part of the intent of the show, they succeed."

"The gratuitous use of racial and anti-gay epithets added nothing to the show."

"My father and I went into this show with high hopes. This would be a show that would inform us, that would give us a new point of view of the world. All though we did leave with a new point of view then the one we had when we entered. The way we were brought there left little to be desired.

Rudeness. Not understanding that we live in a day where words are more then words."

Putting aside for the moment the question of whether or not it's appropriate to use a comedy show as an introduction to the entire philosophy of libertarianism -- I don't know that I accept "rudeness" as a legitimate complaint, in a show whose primary thesis is that all kinds of monstrosities can be couched within polite language.

These reviews aren't upsetting so much as frustrating -- because I simply have no idea what I could have done differently; I don't know how I could have written this script in a way that would have made them happier. I don't know what the phrase "Words are more than words" means. The "use of racial and anti-gay epithets" was -- discussed. At extreme length. Within the text itself! Irresponsible? Perhaps. Hurtful? Possibly. But gratuitous? I don't accept -- the use of language is absolutely essential to the point being made by the text.

What could I have done? To not use the language -- in a show that is devoted, specifically, to examining the use of language in a political arena -- seems profoundly hypocritical to me. I worried that the script was too preachy, too obvious, wearing its agenda on its sleeve. And what troubles me about these reviews isn't that they disliked the show, or that they disagreed with the underlying points -- it's that they don't seem to be aware of what the underlying points are. And as a writer, I have to regard that as my failure: but I'm at a loss as to what I could have done differently.


And as a writer, watching the DNC -- it's exactly the same arguments being played out, exactly the same rhetoric that I can't stand, exactly the same rhetoric that the script is trying to pull to pieces.

I dunno. A lot of this script emerged from the frustration of sitting through so many Bush-bashing political comedies, and feeling so intensely isolated; of looking around me at all of the people laughing, and wishing that I could join in. So I wrote a script that I was hoping could be an olive branch between us -- "See? We're not so different after all! We all want the same things! We all have the same enemies! All we're fighting over is language!"

But I suspect now that I was wrong. Maybe we don't have so much in common. And we are different. Maybe I just plain don't have anything to say to the left, and maybe they just don't have anything to say to me.

But I'll confess -- working on political comedy always leaves me in a pretty bleak place. And watching yet another election process leaves me in a bleaker one.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Final Note From Kansas City

Normally I don't reprint e-mails that I receive without first specifically receiving permission from the person who sent it -- but in this case I kinda thought, well, fuck it.

hey... you pieces of shit. that was the most fagasious shit i have even witnessed in my entire life. you call yourselves actors, ha, I call you fucking, faggot, china babies, whose use of arrogant words such as, nigger, are for shock value alone. You call your selves playwrights? who the fuck do you think you are coming to my city? seriously? You come here thinking your cool and then you call my city a ghost town as you drive into the distance... fuck you! seriously? why don't you fuckers go back to china where you belong and wright shit plays for them instead.


FUCK YOU! minnisota nigger cunts!

chink, gook, honkey, chinese piece of shit cong!

come back soon we miss you already!


Now, putting aside for the moment that the most wounding part of this missive is its utter butchery of the English language -- this is far from the first message of this nature that I've received, and I'm sure it won't be the last. I'd hope that it's self-evident that there's more going on in the play than shock value, but the accusation of carelessness in my writing is always dismaying. The true arrogance on my part, I suppose, is that I can write political satire -- containing much material that I know will be hurtful to members of the audience -- and not expect to receive any backlash from it.

That said, it's almost impossible to discern exactly what his purpose is -- whether he's someone offended by use of racist terminology (in which case his e-mail is either a case of failed irony or stunning hypocrisy), or whether he's a racist himself annoyed at having been shown up (in which case, well, I will cheerfully and unapologetically say "Fuck him").

Still -- good to be back in Minnesota, y'know?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Last Night

I have to confess, exhaustion is finally starting to get the better of me – we mostly spent the day in working (with a brief excursion out for one last rack of Kansas City ribs).

Our show tonight was finally a gratifying one: a packed house, with an incredibly responsive audience. Lots of laughter, and one of my soapbox speeches was actually greeted with cheers and applause.

Part way through the show, it started to hail outside, and since we were beneath a skylight, that meant we found ourselves shouting over the thunderous storm of hailstones on the roof. Then our set, um, kind of blew apart. The screen collapsed, though the cast ad-libbed around it nicely. At one point, I grabbed a piece of it, flung it backstage, turned back to face the audience, tap-danced, grinned, and spread my hands in a little “ta-da” gesture.

This got a laugh. And the thing that’s so interesting about that to me is that it represents a clear disconnect between myself and the character that I’m playing: the audience appreciated it because I allowed the mask to slip and peered out at them from behind it. That’s notable to me, because that distinction is one that I think audiences have struggled with in the past: I’m often accused of playing myself. I certainly write to my strengths, but I think that that confusion is something that often results from writers who perform their own material: the audience assumes that the character is you.

Penner isn’t me. He may have been at one point, when I first started writing him (whoa, nearly a decade ago now) – but he’s certainly by now evolved into his own entity. In this play, he functions primarily as a buffoonish figure, a kind of summary of everything that drives me crazy about left-wing pseudo-intellectualism. He occasionally stumbles backwards into intelligent ideas, but that’s more a case of a stopped clock being right twice a day than it is of any kind of real insight that he possesses.

That distinction is critically important to me as a writer. And it’s certainly possible that it’s one that I’ve simply manufactured to allow me to work – but the fact is that I’m not all that interested in self-portraiture.

The show we saw afterwards was appallingly bad, and I stepped out about halfway through. Went for a walk, and ran into another set of Kansas City locals.

THEM: So how are you enjoying our city?

ME: I dunno – we’re strangers here, so I think that we haven’t found out where everyone is hanging.

THEM: What, are you looking for more posh places?

ME: Actually, I think we’re looking for dives.

They nodded serenely, and recommended a place called the Lava Room. The next show we saw was absolutely phenomenal, and we invited the cast to join us there afterwards.

Our last night in Kansas City, and we finally had a positive experience – a laid-back bar, populated by locals, hanging out with other artists. It’s remarkable that it was so difficult for us to find this. I’ve kind of felt pretty isolated since we arrived – there’s no out-of-town coordinator, we haven’t really had much contact with any of the artists. It’s taken us this long to finally start making these kinds of interactions happen, and it’s a shame that the Festival doesn’t really seem to have the mechanisms in place to make it work.

I’m so tired I can barely keep my eyes open.


So we kicked off today with a visit to the Negro Leagues Museum. I was expecting this to be fairly tedious, since I don’t really give a fuck about baseball, but I found myself getting fairly into the subject.

Even in the single experience I had a few days ago, I was struck by the fact that the real appeal of baseball isn’t the game itself – it’s the *texture* of the game. I’ve been trying to lose weight, and found myself peering at the menu in search of a salad; and of course there wasn’t one, only a steady stream of hot dogs, beer, and, well, variations on those two items. It’s an environment that’s not interested in compromising, and that’s part of its appeal: the heat, the food, the music, the *culture* surrounding baseball, the aesthetic, is in some respects the most critical part of the experience.

Its refusal to compromise, its very refusal to appeal to a wider audience, is exactly the thing that gives it its appeal: it’s an unapologetically testosterone-fuelled entertainment, and it’s glorious.

So if you were a baseball fan in the time period that the museum was covering, you’d find yourself torn: as a lover of the game, you’d want to pursue the absolute masters of the field. And as you did so, you’d be forced to confront the fact that skill and discipline is not confined by ethnicity.

One of the things I find so moving about the story is the fact that it’s one driven by individualism. My favorite African-American intellectual isn’t Martin Luther King, but Zora Neale Hurston; one who asserted that the social liberation of the black intellect lay within, not without. I find something vaguely offensive about the very idea that black liberation is something that must be bestowed upon them by superior whites – and the philosophies of redistribution and affirmative action are couched within that idea, despite whatever its left-wing proponents might claim.

The social equity of blacks is something that must be achieved within the black community, if it’s to have any meaning whatsoever: it’s going to be achieved by the actions of extraordinary individuals, not by some kind of state-sponsored validation.

Courtney found herself choking up during the exhibit; but I found myself breaking down in the neighboring building, the American Jazz Museum. I’ve always been a fan of Duke Ellington, but I’d never actually heard his religious music before: every time I thought it was winding to a conclusion, he’d hit me with something else: a clarinet solo, or a shrill, soulful cry from his lead vocalist, or suddenly, impossibly, a chorus of voices wailing both grief and praise. I broke down sobbing like a child in the middle of the museum. We may live in a world of misery, slavery, and degradation; we may be only temporarily shielded form those horrific realities; but having lived in a world in which music like that existed? And in which I had the opportunity to hear it? Jesus.

Saw an excellent show in the evening, and went on to perform in yet another open-mike night, this time doing a piece from “Descendant of Dragons.” Managed to twist the collective arms of 3 Sticks into going bar-hopping with us, and found myself in yet another gay bar, in which the prospects of a heterosexual man getting laid are roughly equivalent to the spontaneous combustion of Tipper Gore. My tech cheerfully and loudly announced that his pseudo-girlfriend had granted him permission to have a gay experience, which resulted in at least one patron descending upon him like a starving puma upon a wounded gazelle.

A shout-out definitely goes to Charla, who’s stepped up to be our designated driver for the week: her repeated efforts to bundle a bevy of besotted buffoons into the van and get us all back to the motel are nothing short of heroic. The ride home rapidly degenerated into a belligerent, alcohol-soaked argument about abortion that left pretty much everyone ready to rip out everyone else’s throats.

I dunno: I guess it’s ironic for a political writer to have such an intense dislike of conflict, but I do – I’ve worked pretty hard to steer our rehearsals away from discussions of the underlying politics and to keep them focused on comedy, to let the text do its work while we entertain. In an odd way, in spite of how militant many characters in the play are, the script itself represents a kind of an olive branch – it’s a right-wing comedy for left-wingers. I’m afraid I don’t have much of a spark of revolutionary spirit: I don’t want to see another Civil War, and I don’t want my children to witness a revolution, and I don’t want to take arms against my friends, family, and colleagues. The day may come when it’s necessary: but it’s not something I yearn for.

I remember one drunken exchange with a colleague a few months back:

HIM: (for, like, the eight hundredth time) I really think we need a revolution in this country.

ME: Okay, dude – why are you always pushing for a revolution?

HIM: I don’t know. I think I just really want to shoot a lot of people.

ME: Well, yeah, but – you don’t need a war for that. You can just go out and starting shooting people.

HIM: Yeah, but in war it’s allowed.

ME: Oh, I see. So you want state-sponsored shooting of people.

HIM: I’m a liberal, phillip. It’s only allowed if it’s state-sponsored.

And that about sums it up, dunnit?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Various Kinds of Communion

I’ve switched over to Jack Daniels, since Jameson’s is apparently impossible to find here – we went to more than one place seeking it out. I finally found myself in a seedy dive where the liquor bottles were tossed haphazardly onto the shelves with a single clerk glowering at me from behind bulletproof glass. I sheepishly purchased my southern brand, not having the courage to ask “Say, do you carry any good imported Irish whiskey?”

(The reason why writers have such a high rate of alcoholism is simple: all writers are cowards, and alcohol is the most cowardly drug. Que sera, sera.)

I usually try to avoid talking about religion in this space, since, well – it’s one of those things that, if you’ve already signed up with it, it makes sense; if you haven’t, it doesn’t have much to say. But today, when I was praying before the show, the following words popped into my head:

“God, grant me the anger to strike against the enemies of strength and wisdom; but more importantly than that, remind me of the love that makes anger like that necessary.”

Had another show, with a much smaller turnout tonight – fairly unresponsive, but I no longer know how to interpret that, since we also had an unresponsive opening night crowd that left us several very kind reviews. Walkouts, however, are hard to misinterpret, and tonight we had three – including a member of the press. Yowch.

We crashed an open-mike night tonight to promote the show. Since I have a cast that consists almost entirely of strong solo performers, rather than doing a preview of the show proper, I encouraged everyone to perform individual pieces – thus allowing us to plug our show five consecutive times. I did a piece from “Warrior Needs Food, Badly,” which went over well (I haven’t slammed in nearly six months), Courtney did stand-up, Michael and Charla both slammed, and even Phil did a song cover. What a remarkable cast I have, in which any given member can stand up and entertain.

We were delighted to find that 3 Sticks had arrived in town, and were the other performers on the bill. Remarkably, the only Fringe performers on the bill tonight were us, the Minnesotans, so at least we had the opportunity to entertain each other.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Who Am I Rooting For?

So today I attended my first baseball game – well, ever. It was immediately preceded by a frantic ten-minute phone call in which I asked Liz to “tell me everything I needed to know about baseball.”

ME: So, who am I rooting for?

LIZ: The Royals.

ME: The Royals. Are they…good?

LIZ: Yeah, they’re a good team.

ME: No, I mean, are they, like…good, y’know, morally?

(long pause)

LIZ: Sure.

I quickly memorized the basics – three strikes, four balls, three outs, nine innings – got my beer and my hot dog, and settled into an American rite of passage. The game itself was…pretty uninspiring. The Royals got creamed, seven to one, and we all got healthy sunburns, which will undoubtedly cause us to look like a set of patchwork quilts when we do the underwear scenes in the show.

Turns out that we got a number of positive reviews on the local website – we’re number three in terms of ratings, and the most-reviewed show of the entire Festival thus far. So, that’s exciting – hopefully the taciturn response of our opening audience was a fluke.

Aside from my usual angst at being compared to Woody Allen yet again, one review said something to the effect (and I’m paraphrasing, since I don’t have internet access – this tour diary is being updated by one of my staff) that I needed to decide whether or not I wanted to be funny. I guess it was a pretty glib line, but it stuck in my head and struck close to one of the many things that I struggle with in this show.

Thing is – when I first started doing all this, I was very concerned about my ability to be funny, and all of my energy went in that direction. I’m not nearly so insecure about that anymore – I’m reasonably confident that I know how to hit the stage, work the crowd, and generate laughter – and yet, oddly enough, there’s now some weird level on which I kind of resent it. I hit a point where I get sick of the audience laughing, and that frustration has manifested itself in the script. So I lapse into preachiness or anger or ten thousand other things that seem to exist to get the audience to stop laughing, shut the fuck up for ten minutes, and respond differently. And I’m not entirely convinced that that impulse of mine is unhealthy.

It’s worrisome, because it’s dangerously close to the attitude that “I know better than the audience,” which rarely leads to anything worthwhile. But at the same time, my workmanlike approach to generating laughter in the audience has left me with a lot of resentment towards them, and a lot of questions about what the hell point there is to what I’m doing. Was Karl Marx right when he described the kind of entertainment I produce as “opiate for the masses?” Possibly, and possibly there’s nothing wrong with that – but I find it profoundly unsatisfying.

“Who am I rooting for?” seems to be a recurring question in all of the reviews. And of a lot of my career, too – I’ll never be a great comic, because I get bored with cracking jokes all the time. But I’ll never be a great tragedian, because I can’t seem to get through a serious point with a straight face. So when they ask which side I’m on, I guess I’m not really sure – and I don’t know that the play would be better if I was.

Saw a bunch of Fringe shows in the evening, too. At one venue, Charla leaned over to me and pointed at the ceiling. The room was lit by a brand-new electrical line and set of light bulbs, embedded into decaying wood. It was a largely abandoned building that had had the barest skeleton of a set thrown into it to create a theatre space.

And that’s so much of what I love about Fringe. I know that our tech was pretty intensely frustrated at our initial rehearsal – but complaints that we don’t have a light board seem to me to be largely missing the point. The sloppiness, the synergy, the spontaneity, are largely what this kind of work is all about. As far as I’m concerned, as long as I get to go to a place I’ve never been before, down some cheap whiskey, and tell a few bad jokes – that’s what this is all about. Everything else is just footnotes.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ribs, Royals, and Rednecks

I don’t consider myself someone who needs a lot of flash when it comes to lodging – but it would really be a pleasant luxury to wake up in the morning and not have to scrape insect carcasses out of every moist surface in the Motel 6. I’m just saying. I’ve ended up sharing a room with our tech guy (also named Phil), which prompted the following exchange:

ME: You’re about to see something awesome, when you go in to take a shower.

PHIL: If you’re talking about the bug carcasses, I saw them last night.

ME: We should probably pick up some roach motels or something, when we go out to run errands today.

PHIL: Yeah, but this is something we should really take up with the management.

ME: Dude. This is a Motel 6. Why? So they can spit on our towels in contempt?

We also ran into the problem of our door locks jamming shut, so that we couldn’t close our doors upon leaving them.

PHIL: I’m just going to turn on my iPod and pretend this isn’t happening.

ME: Yeah, but you’re our tech guy. I think this is exactly the thing that I’m paying you to deal with.

At this point, he studies the deadbolt, grabs a wrench, strikes it eight times – hard – until it retracts. Maximum Verbosity: the mark of quality.

We opened tonight, and actually had a decent audience, largely because of our preview last night, I suspect. They didn’t laugh much, which means that we either flopped or had a crowd of introverts. The former seems the only safe assumption, if only because I have no control over the latter.

There’s two things that I found really bothering me. The show is punctuated by musical interludes, written by cast members Neil Fennell and Mike Shaeffer. The first one in particular is pretty crowd-pleasing stuff, exactly the kind of topical material that the script proper works so hard to avoid: I’ve encouraged its involvement, both because I think that the left-wingers in the audience need something to engage with, and as something appealing to throw them in the midst of a very language-heavy script.

In one rehearsal, Courtney criticized the opening number, claiming that “The audience is going to be so into what they’re doing that they’re not going to be into the script.” And she’s absolutely right.

There’s also a sketch part way through – difficult to describe, but it basically plays out as an argument between Penner – who favors a more thoughtful, cerebral approach – and Max Verbosity, who favors a more crowd-pleasing, community-theatre approach to entertainment. Part of the gag is that the actual structure of the comedy shifts – in the beginning, it plays out as a Penner-esque comedy dialogue, and concludes as an action-comedy as envisioned by Max Verbosity. The latter half is, unfailingly, more popular than the former, thus proving the point of both its protagonists – and that fact drives me up the fucking wall.

I’ve claimed before, and I’ll continue to defend the point – I’m not Penner. But I do favor his more cerebral style, and it’s intensely frustrating to me that the more shallow material is more popular. For most of our audience, political comedy breaks down to little more than a kind of tribalism – they hear the phrases that they recognize, in the context of an ideology that they’ve signed up with. The actual *structure* of the joke means far less than whether or not they hear the phrases that are familiar to them.

I suppose the fact that I favor Penner’s position in this makes me something of an elitist – and that’s an unforgivable sin, in a context in which I’m supposed to be a populist. But, yeah, I favor those who are able to deconstruct ideas over those who simply respond to the ones that they already recognize. I don’t know how I’m supposed to build an audience with that philosophy, but it’s one that kinda makes me want to pierce my ears with a railroad spike.

The other thing that really bothers me is an exchange that I had with our techs:

TECH GUY: Yeah, I was laughing at the sketch, but you realize that you’re working in, like, the most segregated city in the United States, right?

ME: I guess. But the worst-case scenario is that I just get shot, right?

TECH GUY: You won’t get shot. Three blocks over that way (he points in one direction) is where all the beaners live, and that’s where you’ll get stabbed. Three blocks over that way (he points in the other direction) you’ll get shot.

Now, I recognize that it’s entirely possible – even likely – that they were simply fucking with me. But it’s still intensely disheartening. I know that – as a political comic – I operate in an occasionally dangerous profession – I’ve certainly received more than enough death threats in the past five years to cement that idea for me. But at the same time, I’ve come to realize that most of those threats are empty.

And still, it’s frustrating. Racism has always been a difficult concept for me, not least because I’m the child of an interracial marriage. It’s difficult because it’s so fundamentally irrational – there’s no real way to reason with it. ‘Tis in grain, sir; ‘twill endure wind and weather. I recognize that the fear of getting shot or stabbed because I use a racial slur onstage is nothing short of a kind of a terrorism, and I refuse to allow it to dictate my writing – not out of any kind of simple-minded nobility, but simply because I don’t know how to write anything at all with that many mental blocks on my brain.

The real challenge for me, I suppose, is that I have little hesitation about defending my text as a solo performer – I am, however, *very* hesitant about asking an ensemble to do the same thing. It’s a community of people who signed up to do a fun, silly comedy by a comic who is, for whatever reason, a flavor of the month – it’s absurd for me to ask them to then defend that text against the threat of physical violence.

I suppose that, at the end of the day, this whole line of thought is academic – nothing more than ink on paper. But then, words are important. Names mean something. And if Maximum Verbosity is about anything, it’s about that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Quarter-Life Crisis Plus One Year

I continue to express the same astonishment that I did one year ago today – that the vast, interlocking system of web networks have made the process of my continued aging one of public knowledge. Not that I’d like to devote *too* much space to this kind of angst – beyond noting the fact that, yes, I’m now officially in my late twenties, past the last major milestone of youth, and still nowhere near where I suspect that I need to be.

A couple of people who knew that it was my birthday expressed dismay that I would be on the road, instead of comfortably at home – and, y’know? In spite of how vocally I may complain, I wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, I’d like that to be a goal for the rest of my life – to be performing, somewhere on the road, on my birthday, from now until the day that I either die or reach a state of such drooling incompetence that I’m an utter embarrassment to everyone around me.

A year ago today, I hopped into a car, with nothing but myself, a music stand slung over my shoulder, and a bag full of props. As much as I admire and enjoy the rest of my cast, I can’t help feeling nostalgic for the days when I was only responsible for myself: there’s an incredible amount of time, money, and stress that comes with mobilizing a team of people. Again, not a complaint about the cast that I’m currently working with, who I consider to be pretty much top-of-the-line – but it’s a psychological leap, to suddenly have to be considering the actions of six individuals, rather than simply my own.

But I’m now in the land of ribs, Royals, and rednecks, and there’s nothing like the surge of adrenalin that hits on being part of another Fringe Festival. I won’t romanticize it – at its core, it’s just another drug, and I’m just another junkie. But I’m in a state that I’ve never been before, and there’s a whole community of artists who’s never even heard of me, and I’m right back where I started years ago, and that’s – incredibly exhilarating.

Our piece was fun, I think. Doing the ad-libbed introduction to it for the audience, I was viscerally reminded – in a way that I haven’t been for nearly a year – how dependent I’ve become on my audience already knowing my schtick in advance – the hand-wringing, the anxiety, et cetera. Minnesota audiences respond to it immediately with a knowing laugh when I play to it. But entering a new environment, I have to quickly sketch out the character in a few broad strokes, giving them enough information rapidly and efficiently to enjoy the acrobatics that he’s put through.

We did the same piece that we performed for the Fringe-For-All in Minnesota – but this time, it was to a crowd that I don’t know, and one that doesn’t know us. And one thing I’ve come to love about it – and out of context, I wonder if it isn’t even more effective – one character pronounces the word “nigger,” and you can feel the whole audience pull back. Then, a few moments later in the same sketch, he drops the words “honkey” and “chink” – and, unfailingly, everyone laughs. A-ha – it’s appalling if a white guy says “nigger,” but if he calls me and my family “chinks,” it’s funny. There’s a double-standard at work, and one that could only be so clearly evident in an interactive medium. I have no idea if the audience registers it, but it’s fascinating to play.

(Assuming, of course, that I don’t get the shit beat out of me. I’m not nearly so familiar with exactly how this environment works, and Missouri is a stone’s-throw away from the racial tensions of the deep South.)

Truthfully, I was worried about how our work would be received – I bit my tongue asking our coordinator if profanity was off-limits, because I was afraid he would say “yes” – but where some of the stuff we do is shocking in Minnesota, it’s downright tame down here. There were points where I felt that I was twisting arms to get actors to remove clothing, but at least two of the shows tonight were top-of-the-line burlesque. In fact, since it was my birthday, I think that Courtney probably has several pictures floating around the internet of me, drunk, with naked women hanging all over me. I’ll post them if it becomes possible.

One of the other previews also included a dancing bear in a fez. I don’t remember whose idea it was (Michael’s? I think?) – but I did extend him an invitation: if he shows up before any one of our shows in the bear outfit, we’ll throw him onstage for one of the scenes. I’m amazed that I still remember this in the morning.

After the previews, a couple of the musicians in my cast got together with musicians from other groups and jammed out front in the street while we handed out postcards. Minnesota represent, I suppose. It’s always strange, being in an environment where coming from Minneapolis makes you at least somewhat exotic.

I’m also lucky to have a cast that includes several marketing *machines*. Courtney alone is ridiculously aggressive when it comes to pushing the show onto new people, and that’s a gift of immeasurable value.

Late tonight, we met at the front desk a member of the Libertarian Party of Missouri (who had moved from Texas a few years back). She was very cute, and meeting a “friend” for tonight, and I’ll simply assume that she wasn’t a prostitute. But I had a reasonably interesting (if brief) conversation with her about politics in the area. Fringe audiences are notoriously left-wing, and I’m grateful for any sympathetic face I can find. In any case, I gave her one of our free comps, since I don’t really have any family or friends in town to distribute them to.

We open tomorrow, God help us. He should be keeping an eye on the place – we’re in the Bible belt, after all.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Fringe-For-All 2008

Fringe-For-All was a pretty wild time, as usual: a packed house of enthusiastic theatregoers, and a rapid-fire smorgasboard of various categories of lunacy.

I was actually pretty anxious going in -- a lot of the success of my show last year is due to the fact that I killed at this showcase. As I recall, I came up with my performance the day of -- a punk-jazz CD that a friend had recommended to me arrived that day, I popped it in, and -- click. I knew what I was doing. I threw out the old idea, rehearsed it a couple of times, and hit the stage.

Used a pretty similar process with this one, in that I didn't figure out what we were doing until pretty much the last minute. I spent weeks on several false starts -- including one that memorably involved an American flag and a leaf-blower -- before one of my actors joked, "Why don't we just do all of the scenes at once?"

That idea wouldn't work -- but something like it might. I whipped together a script overnight and away we went. The result was successful, I think -- not a big hit that people will be talking about for a while, but entertaining and interesting enough that we probably sold a few tickets.

But why listen to me theorizing about it? Judge for yourself. The Fringe has taken the initiative to put all of the previews on YouTube, and ours can be found at this link.

(photo by Scott Pakudaitis)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Profane Political Parables

So I've been having a lot of conversations with one of the members of my cast lately (because we hang out entirely too much), and one issue that's come up is that "this isn't really sketch comedy." And she's right -- it's not. It's something a lot like sketch comedy, in that it consists of a compilation of short pieces, which are (hopefully) funny, intended to get people relaxed and laughing. But structurally? Not quite.

And I made the comment (drunk and high at the time, as I recall, the state from which all truly profound realizations emerge) that the pieces aren't sketch comedy. They're fables. Structurally, they have a lot more to do with Aesop than Lorne Michaels. They all consist of broad, cartoonish characters tumbling out, having absurd arguments with each other that play out in ludicrous ways, that generally culminate in some kind of political moral or thesis.

Another comment she made, that emerged from another similar session, is that "we don't want to be preachy."

This also got me thinking. Is that true? I know that conventional wisdom right now is that preachy is the worst thing that you can possibly be -- how dare you try to inundate your audience with a message, et cetera -- but the fact that something is unpopular doesn't necessarily make it wrong. I mean, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is my favorite Twain novel, one of my favorite novels of all time -- and it's probably the single preachiest book ever written. It's also fucking hilarious.

And I go down the list of artists who I truly love, who have really deeply affected me -- Aristophanes, Moliere, Charlie Chaplin -- and every single one of them is obnoxiously, unapologetically preachy. It's one thing my character even complains about the show (probably preaching, as it were) -- that the currently acceptable approach to theatre is to turn inwards, to pick apart psychological states; plays that try to deal with broader issues are dismissed as pretentious. And personally, I kind of think that that's a sign of a sickness.

I'll keep calling the play "sketch comedy," because that's the only way I know how to market it. I doubt I could sell "profane political parables" to anybody. But, y'know -- I hope they still find an audience. And one that's willing to laugh, even if there is a moral floating through the story.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

It's Like the Inside of My Head Just Barfed Onto Your Screen

So one of the musicians for the show, in working on a song, compiled a list of topics covered by the text. It's too good not to share.

- underwear
- soldiers
- war
- killing
- cheesecake
- stripping your child
- "Why can't I stick that there?"
- verbal uncle abuse
- bloody spear
- desire for knowledge
- rotting corpse
- American television
- Green Party
- exposure
- hippies
- peace leagues
- pretentious peaceniks
- wannabe hippies
- the war machine
- government corruption
- "Give Peace a Chance"
- white guys
- shitty poems
- pacifists
- the KKK
- late night cable porn
- jerking off your brother
- zombies
- political debates
- politicians
- moderators
- soapbox speeches
- the electoral system
- "Christ on a minibike"
- homophobia
- boobs
- lesbians
- Max Verbosity
- chronic misanthropes
- Neil fucking Simon
- guns
- beer
- cheetos
- granola
- wine
- "the discipline box"
- rape scene
- bombs
- granola-crunching bleeding-heart liberal hippie bullshit
- Chinese ninja aliens
- confessions
- Catholic priests
- stabbing the baby Jesus
- Harry Potter
- Keira Knightley's nipples
- Michael Jackson
- suicidal tendencies
- rednecks
- Osama bin Laden
- Cinemax
- comic book discussions

He also compiled the following list of vulgarities, which, if read aloud, becomes almost poetic:

- fuck
- goddamn idiot
- shut the fuck up
- god
- you stupid fucking asshole
- bullshit
- fag
- faggot
- China baby
- bee-yatch
- half-retarded
- shit
- chinks
- ass
- fuckin' up
- fuckin' enough
- fuckin' the right people
- crips
- queers
- baby dispensers
- cock puppets
- niggers
- beaners
- honkeys
- colored people
- blacks
- whites
- bitch
- tits
- slut-whompers
- jew
- dick

All Rights Reserved: A Libertarian Rage! Opening July 21st in Kansas City!

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.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Theatre and Theology: Addendum and Apocrypha

A few years back, I wrote a series of essays about theatre and theology, in preparation for my coverage of the (now-defunct) Spiritual Fringe. Since I’m gearing up to start writing reviews of yet another spirituality-themed theatre festival, I thought it might be worthwhile to revisit some of my thinking about the subject. After all, I’ve had two years – two more years of wrestling with my faith and my career, and I think I’m better equipped to articulate some of my thoughts again.

First of all, I consider my faith to be the center of my life and work. My thinking and writing about other subjects – politics, art – is a direct result of my thinking about more metaphysical issues. I suspect that this makes me something of an aberration within my profession – I would characterize the attitude of most local artists towards religion to vary from a kind of vague disinterest to outright hostility, with a few pockets of warm enthusiasm. Though I would argue that all of my plays have a religious subtext, there’s rarely anything explicit in the work. Yet another reason that I’m drawn to fantasy – metaphor is a powerful tool for examining ideology.

Yet I, like most, find the Bible-thumping fundamentalism of the neoconservatives to be actively repugnant, a fusion of religion and politics that capitalizes on the worst of both. So I spent some time exploring the more left-wing, social-justice-driven religious movements, and found myself kinda wanting to thump a Bible. Why? Aside from my own contrary nature?

I suspect that, in an age of globalization, the defining artistic movement is fusion – fusion between different disciplines and specializations, fusion between cultures. Religion has not been left untouched by this movement, and many of the more progressive churches have proudly absorbed many of the tenets of Eastern thought.

I’m no stranger to Eastern philosophy – and I suspect that, having seen China up close, I’m more willing than most to acknowledge the dark side of Confucianism. That said, I have a profound admiration for the writings of Lao Tzu and the Pali Canon. Attempting to summarize the whole of Eastern thought is a dangerous and foolish endeavor – roughly equivalent to, say, trying to sum up the single message of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – but if I had to try to single out what’s drawn *me* to those particular texts, it’s the idea of the self as a self-created illusion. The bulk of our suffering is self-created, and the things that cause us pain are the things that we cling to unnecessarily. That’s a huge, towering, terrifying idea, if all of the implications of it are examined closely.

So I’ve been to the churches that consist of people lounging around on couches, and I’ve read the (could they be more ironically titled?) self-help literature – I’ve heard priests preaching the power of positive thinking, and watched their congregations practicing their healing affirmations. Now, some might say that a Catholic upbringing damaged me too deeply to properly appreciate these behaviors; others might say that it effectively armored me against what a seductive school of thought this is. But I can’t avoid the observation that Americans – the most self-centered people in the history of our species, and oh do I love us for it – have taken these texts, built a new religious movement, and placed the self directly at the center of it. These movements revolve almost entirely around self-affirmation – around making *you* feel better. And that’s not the fulfillment of Eastern thought – that’s its ultimate perversion.

And then the Bible-thumping minister in me rears his head, and says – religion isn’t supposed to make you feel good. It’s supposed to make you feel *bad*. It’s not supposed to tell you to be content with yourself just the way you are – it’s supposed to urge you to strive to be something much *better*. God forbid, maybe a little fire-and-brimstone would be good for us. Especially living in an age of apathy and affirmation.

And the end result is that it takes the philosophy of liberalism, and *tries to articulate it as a religion*. It boils down to little more than the welfare state with Jesus’ smiling face stapled on top of it. And, yeah, that’s every bit as repugnant as neoconservatism. More so, if only because it strikes me as being more dishonest. Affirming for me why I choose to avoid getting sucked into the two-party struggle. Right-wing, left-wing, no-wing; jackboots are one-size-fits-all.

So this is a big part of my struggle with religious theatre – it so often boils down to little more than political diatribe in the trappings of religion. I *have* to believe that meaningful fusion is at least possible, even if it’s almost impossible to find. In any case, I'll be exploring the ideas for the next month over at Womb with a View.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Paulino Verde Cabaret

Show's closed now...I'll be doing my best to put together some coherent thoughts about the experience in the next week or so.

For now, I just wanted to drop a quick mention that I'll be performing as part of the Paulino Verde Cabaret -- it's a showcase being put together by dancer Paulino Brener to raise money for his green card. It's a good cause and a great lineup -- featuring dance from Patrick Scully, Jennifer Ilse, and Vessela Kouneva, puppetry from Masanari Kawahara, harp playing from Nicolas Carter, poetry from Tanja Katieb, and singing from Gabe Heller.

Given the nature of the cause, I've decided to do a piece from my travelogue Descendant of Dragons. I frequently showcase pieces from my plays -- in fact, many of them are written with that intent specifically in mind -- but I'm strangely reluctant to tour anything from this one, despite the fact that it's my most successful show. Or perhaps because of that fact -- my mixed feelings about it are still very much in force. There's some level on which I'm baffled by, and resent, its success. There's also a level on which I don't want to keep trotting out the same tired crowd-pleasers every time I get a gig. I performed it (or pieces from it) in Des Moines in July, Minneapolis in August, Rochester in December, and I'll be remounting it in Minneapolis in May-June. Is that overkill?

Maybe I'm psyching myself out about this too much. It's not as though I'm not writing -- I'm creating new material for the Rockstar and Vilification Tennis shows in February (more about those as they get closer), hosting the Rockstar show in March, and planning on writing and performing two full-length solo shows from scratch in April and May. But finding that balance between trotting out older, sturdier material, and forcing myself to create new stuff -- figuring out what percentage of what audience has already seen what, which material is tired and which has some new life in it -- I'm performing frequently enough now that it's a whole new balancing act I never anticipated. And I don't want to get stuck in a comfortable rut.

In any case, the show's tomorrow (Sunday) at 3pm at Patrick's Cabaret, $10.00 suggested donation. This falls on that list of "shows I'd be seeing even if I wasn't performing in it" -- it'll be a good time.