Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Fear and Trembling: Reflections

Looks like the coffee shop I typically write these things in just shut down. Depressing.

"The last show I saw this year was Fear and Trembling. It struck me that here, in the very last slot, I was seeing the first "fringe" show of the festival: raw and uncomfortable (and I mean that in the best possible sense), it mixes observation stories from his own life with some very dark fiction. I've seen several of low's shows (spoiler alert: he's another friend of mine), and this was very different from the adaptations of Arthurian myths (his geeky obsession) and lightly fictionalized autobiographical pieces. He was doing something different. He was pushing himself, and the audience...

...I think I need to take advantage of that. To step outside my comfort zone. To do something because I wonder if it will work on stage rather than because I know it will."

- Bill Stiteler, Minnesota Playlist

I'm hugely grateful to anyone who takes the time to write something so thoughtful and generous, and I'm honored at the suggestion that something I made inspires someone else to make something of their own. Which is why I hope that it doesn't come off as dismissive when I say that the reaction I find myself struggling with is my sense that I didn't push myself nearly hard enough this year. I feel like I achieved most of my goals, and I'm wondering if that's not a bad thing.

This is the first Fringe show I've done since shutting down ensemble work last year, and if I had a primary goal it was to re-establish myself as a storyteller -- to say that, yes, the bulk of my work has been as a playwright and an actor and a director and a producer but damn it, I can still do this thing on my own.

So the great guiding note that I gave myself for this show was "simple": after coming off of a series of technically demanding shows, I kind of just wanted to grab a mike and talk for a while.

This isn't to say that I didn't work as hard as -- or harder than -- I always do, in terms of the raw investment of time and energy -- Lord knows I spent my share of time rewriting and working material and booking myself at every show that would take me -- but -- well -- it's an anthology show. An anthology show with a throughline, yes, and recurring ideas and phrases, and arranged in such a way that the individual stories balance and comment on each other, but an anthology show nonetheless, a collection of smaller pieces, and consequently can't help feeling like a step backwards from the sprawling, ambitious epics.

There's a folk belief I stumbled across during some research a few years back -- I can't recall the source now, but I'm pretty sure it was Hebrew -- that asserted that, at birth, God gives every child a limited number of words to use, and once they're all spoken, that person's life ends. It may be a bit ironic for that idea to haunt someone who pounds through words as recklessly as I do, but I often find myself wondering how many more shows I get before I die -- and was the latest a worthy use of one of them?

Which should also not be interpreted as being necessarily dismissive of this one, either -- I love this show, and each of its component stories, particularly my often-orphaned "Cable Guy" -- it contains some of my favorite bits of prose, and it's pretty rare for me to find a venue that's friendly to splatter. Just that, while it required plenty of hours of investment, the nature of the show didn't push me to much in the way of formal invention, and that always feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to me.

In any case, audience numbers were low to middling, but it seemed to be highly regarded by colleagues and critics alike. (Including, finally, the Pioneer Press, which has typically excoriated my stuff. Particularly ironic, since this is the show in which I kind of excoriate them.) Which is all par for the course for one of my shows, really.

Thus end two milestones: my twentieth Fringe Festival, and my one hundredth essay on this blog. Feel free to take a look back at some previous entries, arbitrarily spaced ten posts apart:

Thursday, February 13th, 2007: welcome, bienvenue, welcome
Wheee-ha-ha. First post. Don't mind my dust.

Thursday, May 24th, 2007: The Graveyards of Culture
Poor Dad -- travelling with me inevitably means getting dragged to any number of museums. (I am, predictably, less interested in geography than I am in the human response to it.) These places are like kryptonite to his hyper-accelerated attention span.

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007: Touring
Currently staying at the apartment of a friend in Ames. The Festival takes place in Des Moines, about a half-hour away, but my check-in time isn't until 3pm.

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007: Descendant of Dragons: Reviews and Reflections
Fringe blogger Matthew Everett gave the show a five-star rating, placing it in his "Life-Altering Experience" category. 

Sunday, December 3rd, 2007: Picture Post
We survived -- er, completed -- a full-cast run-through a while back. To paraphrase the King of Hearts, we were successfully able to begin at the beginning, go on till we came to the end, then stop, which is a pretty fucking amazing achievement considering the eclectic mix of what we're doing, and the constraints that we're trying to do it in. Our stage manager, Erika Loen, also happens to be one of those transient photographers-about-town, and snapped a number of photographs. 

Thursday, July 24th, 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: 

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009: July 4-6: Illinois
I’ve ended up driving through about a dozen small Illinois towns as part of my effort to avoid toll roads. Thanks, Tomtom.

Sunday, September 27th, 2009: Note From Melbourne
Tonight, I showed up at my venue to find a sign out front claiming that all shows had been canceled due to illness -- our venue manager was in the hospital, and unable to let anybody into the space. Because I have the most awesome tech ever, she immediately made a series of phone calls and secured us a performance space above a nearby coffee shop. Since all of my props, costume, and (perhaps most importantly) script were locked inside, the show would have to go forth without any of those things. My tech spent several minutes frantically scribbling all of her cues onto a sheet of paper so that I could use her tech script (in ten-point Times New Roman, squint) as my reference material. All of this happened in the space of approximately half an hour.

Thursday, March 1st, 2012: New York, or a New Low
So I'm sitting on an airplane again, which means that it's time to write, to try to extract some sense out of the events of the past week (or to impose a narrative upon them, depending on one's perspective.)

Thursday, May 17th, 2012: In Defense of Pulp and Splatter
So I was getting into makeup in the green room when a member of the crew came down, absolutely livid. She'd just been to the movies, and seen a trailer that offended her: a horror movie set near Chernobyl. And I was very good and kept my mouth shut (no mean trick, for someone as in love with the sound of his own voice as I am), but by the end of the rant my interest in the movie had leapt from exactly zero percent to well over fifty.

...thanks for reading, and looking forward to the next hundred posts.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fringe, Fantasy, and Fable

"I'm very much afraid I didn't mean anything but nonsense. Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means. So, whatever good meanings are in the book, I'm glad to accept as the meaning of the book."

-Lewis Carroll

One of the late-night showcases last weekend was hosted by Tim Mooney. After I’d performed my set, rather than interviewing me, he elected to interview the audience, asking “What the hell was *that* about?” He collected answers– both sincere and snarky – then asked me to point to the correct interpretation. Doing my best to keep a straight face, I asserted the most ridiculous one – something to do with air conditioners – to be my explicit authorial intent.

The story I was performing was “The Girl Who Was Frightened of Nothing,” and, like most of my fantasy stories, it usually receives the same response: at least a handful of audience members coming up to me afterwards and asking “What the hell was *that* about?” which I typically deflect with a joke. When I don’t answer, they’ll start presenting theories, watching my face closely to see if their thesis is right: if they figured it out.

I get that that can be frustrating for an audience: to have the sense that I somehow wrote this code that I’m smugly concealing from them. But my reticence has more to do with the fact that there’s a pretty fundamental difference between how they view the stories, and how I do.

Tolkien expressed a profound dislike – which I share – for allegory: for the Aesop’s-Fables style, one-to-one connections that break stories down into clear, obvious lessons (e.g. ideas like: “The One Ring represents nuclear power!” and “Saruman represents industrialization!” – and in fact, I find myself wondering if so many people don’t continue to regard the Lord of the Rings as being a childish and simplistic work because they’re trying to break it down into childish and simplistic terms).

The hope – at least for me – when I write fantasy isn’t to create a single obvious analogy; it’s to build an internally consistent world in which *multiple* parallels can be found – and in which those parallels can then balance and comment on each other in unique ways. Tolkien termed this phenomenon “applicability”, and in my view it’s one of the things that fantasy is extraordinarily good at.

(That’s not to say that I’m in the camp that believes that all interpretations are equally correct, or that authorial intent wholly ceases to be relevant – to cite one example among many, I remember one of my script readers suggesting that The Rise of General Arthur was intended to be an expression of love for the Obama administration, which I distanced myself from pretty quickly.)

I’m fond of puzzle plays, shows that require thought and reflection and analysis. Not because I believe that these kinds of shows are in any way superior – but because for me, they’re more *fun*. I tend to find work that lays everything out on the surface tedious.

(Of course, in order to be able to engage with shows that way, they can’t be haphazardly constructed – it’s only satisfying for me if I have the sense that the writer put more time and thought into the story than I did.)

So, yes, I have some very clear ideas and intentions in the way that my fantasy stories are constructed, in the images that I use, in the recurring words and phrases – but knowing that process isn’t some kind of Rosetta Stone that unlocks the hidden meaning. So I apologize if I seem at all glib or dismissive. My ambition is to craft worlds and characters of sufficient complexity that they have more to say than a single thesis sentence – and any answers that I give will necessarily narrow the possibilities of those stories, which I’m loathe to do.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

[Indeterminate Number of] Rights Reserved

So a lot of my thought cycles have been occupied recently, with an idea for a project I'm fairly excited about. The problem? The source material is still under copyright.

This has happened to me a couple of times, over the years, and I've written my share of letters of inquiry to copyright holders. Always to no response: I don't have anything like the resources to catch the attention of the companies/estates I've been appealing to.

The thing is, I'm a great believer in copyright law. Many libertarians aren't; there's a not-insignificant portion of the movement that ridicules the very idea of intellectual property. My response? Yes, I recognize that it's an artificial construct, but it's a *useful* one. After all, if I have zero control over the profit generated from -- or the creative expression of -- my work, then what motivation do I have to continue generating it?

(And while I'm a great lover of shared universes, and have written a *huge* amount of material in them, I'll also confess to a -- perhaps unhealthy -- protectiveness of my original work. The thought of someone else writing Penner is just surreal to me. In fact, I've collaboratively written a number of sketches and scenes featuring the character, and usually wholly rewritten his dialogue myself; I have a very clear sense of his attitudes/cadences, that other writers usually substitute with stammering.)

I recognize that I'm luckier than many, in that my imagination generally revolves around much older stuff -- I could cheerfully adapt nothing but medieval adventure stories for the rest of my career, and not run out of material that I found cool or exciting or interesting.

The broader legal/ethical question becomes, how *long* should an author's intellectual property be protected? I appreciate the argument for extending such protection beyond an author's death -- many writers have dependents, and if my work were in any way profitable, I would be pleased to know that it was continuing to support my loved ones.

Thus, the system I propose is that work should enter the public domain upon the deaths of the author's immediate family -- parents, siblings, spouses, children -- and even then, said family would have to indicate their explicit desire to maintain control of the property. Anything beyond that seems, to me, absurd.

Point is, I think there's a point where intellectual property becomes conceptually obsolete, when it becomes part of the popular consciousness. Properties like Superman and Mickey Mouse have ceased to be characters and become powerful corporate brands. Releasing such properties into the public domain would probably severely damage or sink their corporate entities, but would that ultimately be so tragic? Sherlock's status is notoriously complex, but he's thriving -- we've gotten a number of very cool takes on his story in the last decade alone.

Contemporary popular culture is an ouroboros, endlessly devouring itself. There's several branches of music devoted to sampling the existing audio that we're constantly bombarded with. Shows like Scrubs and Family Guy have made sifting through pop-culture detritus their raison d'etre. Even at my tiny end of the scale, I've had plenty of cause to be thankful that parody is a well-protected form of speech in this country.

Self-awareness, self-consciousness, and self-referentiality is this generation's watchword. Call it navel-gazing or hipster irony, it's damn near our defining characteristic. At some point, the information we're collectively bombarded with ceases to belong to any one person and becomes a part of all us. Articulating where to draw that line legally, however, can be maddening.


Fringe season is coming around the corner, and I would be remiss not to mention some of my upcoming shows this week.

Friday, June 1st at 7pm: performing a set in a fundraiser for Seldom Scene Productions at Kieran's Irish Pub.

Saturday, June 2nd at 7pm: hosting the Rockstar Storytellers Fringe Fest Sneak Peek at the Widespot Performing Arts Center in Stockholm, WI.

Sunday, June 3rd at 7pm: hosting Rockstar Storytellers: The Next Level at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.

Wednesday, June 6th at 7pm: performing a set in Sample Night Live at the History Theatre in St. Paul. Use Discount Code MEMBERS and get $5 off admission online!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Labor Theory of Comedy

(As this seems to be a series of ideas I'm continually coming back to, it might be worth noting that the following entry is pretty much the flip side to this one, and, perhaps, a logical extension of this one.)

Producing a show, depending on its scale, can be fairly labor-intensive: one of the first things my mime instructor said to me was "Every minute onstage is three hours of work." I've found the formula to be, if a bit pithy, about roughly correct for me. Every now and again I hear it suggested that it represents some great inequity (and some great iniquity, heh) that we aren't directly recompensed for that behind-the-scenes work (e.g. memorizing lines, writing press releases, etc.).

This suggestion is related to a concept Karl Marx championed (contrary to popular belief, he didn't create it), called "the labor theory of value." In its simplest expression (and with the caveat that I'm grossly simplifying an idea that's been taken to some pretty complicated extremes), it proposes that the value of a product is equivalent to the amount of labor that went into its construction. Like most of Marx's ideas, it's seductive because it just *feels* right, it *seems* just; and, like most of Marx's ideas, it falls apart after a cursory examination.

Take a chair, for example. (No, seriously, take one. This could be a while.) A skilled carpenter may produce a superior chair rapidly, while an unskilled one may take much longer. Should the unskilled carpenter then be paid more, for producing an inferior product?

(I've heard it proposed that the carpenter's training and experience should be calculated, as well, but that also sinks the theory, because training and experience do not always equal skill. I'm a much better writer now than I was a decade ago, but that's largely because I was remarkably bad. There *is* such a thing as natural talent, people who walk in off the street and pick up new skills quickly and easily. It galls me to state it, because I've really had to work at the skills I now possess, but I can't deny that I've seen it happen.)

See, but I grasp the seduction of the theory, because it's an idea I've struggled against for years. The thing is, the joke that I labored over, that I think is actually sort of clever and works on multiple levels, will always fall flatter than an eight-year-old Chinese prostitute, while the boring filler joke I wrote for a segue always hits.

(Sorry, I got nothing.)

It doesn't *feel* right, it doesn't *seem* just, but it's the reality of the stage, just as supply and demand is the reality of the marketplace.

The problem with the arts is that they're so fucking *inefficient*. Assuming 180 hours of labor for a one-hour show, and a $1,000 net profit (not including expenses!) wouldn't even clear minimum wage. (And a $1,000 profit is a pipe dream for most of us, who are struggling to stay in the black. A $10 profit is cause for a drink in celebration, and there goes your $10.) Which is why the single most sensible business decision for someone in show business may be to find a new profession.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

In Defense of Pulp and Splatter

So I was getting into makeup in the green room when a member of the crew came down, absolutely livid. She'd just been to the movies, and seen a trailer that offended her: a horror movie set near Chernobyl. And I was very good and kept my mouth shut (no mean trick, for someone as in love with the sound of his own voice as I am), but by the end of the rant my interest in the movie had leapt from exactly zero percent to well over fifty.

The thrust of her argument seemed to be that setting a horror story in the wake of a real-world tragedy reeked of exploitation. But that's founded on the assumption that horror isn't a valid or versatile enough tool to examine that stuff, and I really couldn't be further from that camp. Horror's about fear, after all, and not solely about the basic physical fears of violence and death and decay: it can can also be about the various paranoias and unease that we live with nightly, and dragging them shrieking and bleeding out of the shadows. George Romero's zombies are about more than shambling monsters. I won't say that universally the *best*, but certainly the most *memorable* horror I've seen, and the stuff that's had the greatest influence on my own writing, has nearly all had an explicitly political dimension.

Having written both, I find a lot of similarity between writing comedy and writing horror, in that they both revolve around generating a very specific physical/emotional response: laughter in one case, nausea, disgust, and unease in the other.

Actually, I think it goes *deeper* than that(TM), because the more I look over what I've just written the more I suspect that there's some element of bullshit rationalization in there. The fact is, I would be actively disappointed to go to this movie and find that they've erred on the side of good taste: I *want* an element of crass exploitation.

And here's the other parallel between comedy and horror: the school of satire I admire in both completely dismisses social niceties and audience delicacy. It wades in waist-deep into the blood and guts and swings wildly at anything in reach, and that, I believe, is the most efficient way to arrive at something meaningful.

What I'm saying is that I'm not really interested in scalpel-like precision: give me a hacksaw. Let's open up the top of someone's skull and really get our hands dirty, wrist-deep in gray matter, squeezing and poking at that big, squishy frontal lobe.

After all: there's more than one way to get cerebral.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Enacting is Exacting

STEVE: Well, we’ve only got two weeks left…
TIM: Two weeks? That’s enough time to put together a whole new show!
ALL: (laughter)

(Later, on the car ride home…)

TIM: I wasn’t actually joking.
ME: …yeah, I know.

It’s always a bit of a surreal leap, jumping between Fringe-level theatre and mid-level theatre.

(And, to clarify, by Fringe-level I’m not just including shows on the Fringe circuit, but shows produced by regular members of that community – y’know, the countless shows produced year-round at venues like the Bryant-Lake Bowl, or various pubs and clubs and cabarets around the Twin Cities. I’d say if you’re dealing with things like season announcements and boards of directors and grant applications, what you’re looking at is probably mid-level. (There’s a handful of groups that successfully straddle both worlds – groups like Joking Envelope and Walking Shadow and Four Humors – but I’d say that for the most part they’re pretty segregated.) High-level, we’re talking financial juggernauts like the Guthrie. My experience is primarily with the first two – I’ve acted in both and produced both – and since I’ll be talking about them for a bit, let’s call them "Fringelers" and "Middlers.")

For someone used to the creative chaos of pulling together a Fringeler show, there’s something that feels almost decadent about a six-week rehearsal process. I’ve acted in an hour-long show where I didn’t see a word of the script until a week before opening. I’ve done a one-man show where I wrote the final scene a few hours before opening night. I’ve done a comedy where my very first time stepping onto the stage was the performance itself. This is an environment where it’s a bit weird that I usually have a complete draft six months in advance, and that I typically have scripts under development for 2-8 years.

Thing is, I don’t think this is laziness (or not wholly laziness, anyway). I’d argue that it’s a legitimate process – the goal is not to have a neatly polished show on opening night, but to line up all the elements of the performance and turn its development into an interactive process with the audience. It’s about preserving spontaneity and wildly experimenting from evening to evening. Middlers talk about being ready for opening – Fringelers talk about having a smoothly-executed show by closing night. And this, I think, is one of the key places where the two groups stare at each other in blank incomprehension. To Middlers, the idea of changing your performance every night appears unthinkably irresponsible; to Fringelers, the idea of not making any changes after opening appears unthinkably lazy.

I want to emphasize that I’m not suggesting that one approach is inherently superior to another – they’re both valuable and valid – simply trying to express the creative whiplash I get moving between the two. The great advantage of a process like that for Steampunk Delusions is that, by the time we opened, I had a fairly tightly choreographed performance, beat for beat and moment for moment, that I usually don’t achieve unless I’ve been touring a show for a few months.

The flip side is that it represented the first time in a long time when I opened a show in which exactly zero percent of the performance was audience-tested, and I made most of the attendant mistakes – barreling through laughter I wasn’t expecting, pausing for laughter that never emerged. I’ve done this kind of thing enough that I’ve been able to make adjustments on the fly, but it’s the opposite of the problems I typically have (and am used to dealing with).


It’s always a bit strange for me to be around more traditionally-trained actors, who talk about things like feelings and methods in the context of these deeply internalized processes. One of the great reasons I was drawn to mime, in retrospect, is that it offered a tangible course of physical mastery – as opposed to most acting training I encountered, which seemed to revolve around what I was thinking or feeling at any given moment.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I once went through one of those obnoxious phases where I felt I had to spend the time leading up to the performance meditating myself into some state of brooding intensity. It puts me in mind of Chaplin’s assertion that the fact that an actor feels the need to be mentally operated upon in order to do his fucking job is a sign that he needs to seek a new profession.

A great revelation for me was that what was going on inside my head had very little to do with how well I was doing onstage. I could be truly emotional and truly feeling it and truly, totally cut off from my audience – likewise, my mind could be wandering and I could be doing a wholly serviceable job.

In fact, I’ve almost swung around to the opposite approach now, where I feel the need to be doing something silly before walking onstage – talking about comic books or dancing or telling dirty jokes – so that I’m not thinking too much about what I’m about to do until I’m actually doing it. To torture an analogy, when you’re playing a musical instrument, you ideally don’t want to be concentrating really hard on every individual note – sometimes, it’s better to just relax and play. (To torture the analogy further, I often have the sense that Middlers want their shows to be symphonies – Fringelers want to be jazz.)

That said, I find that my internal monologue onstage these days is almost wholly technical – “Hold for laughter, wait ‘til it starts to fade, okay, next punchline – she tried something new, respond to it – try a quizzical expression here, see if it gets a laugh, nope, try something different tomorrow night...” etc.


All of the above are probably reasons why I’m more comfortable identifying myself as a performer or an entertainer, rather than an actor. I’m competent when it comes to working crowds or individual moments onstage, but that’s not the same skill set as being able to embody a range of characters, which remains beyond me. The former goes a long way towards making up for the latter, but it’s pretty rare to find someone who can effectively do both.

This was perhaps illustrated most clearly for me when I started holding open auditions for my company, and when I handed my comedy monologues over, well – when I performed them, that’s what they were; at their best, effective collections of setups and punchlines. But when actual actors read them, they could make them seem organic, with, y’know, internal character logic and stuff.

That’s the kind of thing that the Middlers excel at, and that I wish I did, too. It’s also Reason #69,105 that I wish I was still able to produce ensemble work.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Delusions of Steampunk

So I finally got the chance to see English Scrimshaw's To Mars, With Tesla on our opening night -- we may be performing together, but the two shows have been developed largely in isolation from each other. Supremely entertaining, and also got me thinking about the nature of steampunk -- a bit more than working on our own show did, I suspect largely because our process has been detail-oriented -- a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees (or the protozoa for its component atoms, to coin a glasses-stompingly geeky phrase).

(Actually, it's pretty freaking questionable to what degree either show can be called "steampunk" -- they're both period sci-fi, but neither features steam power in any meaningful way.)

I've never been hostile to the steampunk movement, but it's always left me a bit baffled -- out of all time periods and imaginative landscapes, why, in particular, pick that one to fetishize? And it only now occurs to me that its romance closely parallels that of the American West -- they both showed us frontiers, one physical, one cerebral. The aftermath of the Industrial Revolution represented a bottleneck moment for our species, when the sciences accelerated rapidly enough to make anything seem possible -- Manifest Intellectual Destiny, as it were.

It's been observed that Isaac Newton was a dude who knew the bulk of the knowable science of his day -- and that that's simply no longer possible; our collective knowledge has grown so diverse and specialized that the individual human brain lacks the storage capacity to track it all. (Hence many specialist physicians leaning on collections of reference texts: they need a diverse enough background to recognize patterns and know where to look, but can't reasonably be expected to retain every treatment for every symptom of every disease they'll ever come across.)

The nineteenth century, then, perhaps represents a kind of Goldilocks moment in the Western world: a time when some guy with a microscope could make all kinds of discoveries, simply because *so few people before him had ever tried*. With a few notable exceptions, the days of folks like Tesla and Edison throwing together world-changing inventions in their private studies are a thing of the past, and it's hard not to feel a certain longing for that.

After all, with the days of do-it-yourself science largely behind us (and surely the concept of Iron Man represents a similar longing), the newest frontiers are *expensive* -- and my observation, watching my father, among others, is that the bulk of a scientist's time is spent dealing with money -- trying to obtain it and trying to keep it. (And while grant systems have always been baffling to me, they're particularly baffling here -- where an applicant has to claim what the likely results of an experiment will be before they can obtain the funds necessary to run it, which is about as unscientific a process as I can conceive of.)

This is a recurring fantasy in Crichton's sci-fi, where a brilliant entrepreneur will finance labs to experiment freely, without the pressure of generating marketable product. The longing for a wealthy patron is both natural and unhealthy, and it's one that both artists and scientists share -- nor it is their only commonality.

After all, the career arc of most individual artists and scientists runs roughly parallel -- that is, toiling in obscurity. Shakespeare's become a household name. Academics and theatre practitioners know a few of his contemporaries -- Kit Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd. How many other playwrights were doing good and worthy work that has simply fallen into obscurity? Dozens? Hundreds?

I suspect that both of our careers revolve around much the same principle: toiling away at that good and worthy work, but ultimately -- keeping the pathways open, both professional and neural, for that one-in-a-million idea that just might change everything.

Oh, and the show's pretty funny, too. Two more weekends.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

See, this is exactly why I stopped political blogging.

“All art is quite useless.”
-Oscar Wilde

So there’s been another kerfuffle in the arts scene of late, this time surrounding the fact that the Guthrie’s upcoming season is almost entirely written/directed by white males. There’s been a lot of opinions being aggressively bandied back and forth, but it did light up the idle thought for me: how diverse has my own casting been? And, hey, I generally prefer numbers to emotions in these kinds of discussions, so I thought I’d sit down and, y’know, generate some.

These numbers are drawn by tallying up all of the performers in the ensemble shows I produced from 2003-2011. I have *not* included any of my one-man shows, as they would pretty dramatically skew the results. While I would frequently consult with other members of my creative team, all final casting decisions were mine and mine alone. So here’s the big number:

22% white male
78% minority

…which looks pretty freakin’ diverse, but as is the case with many statistics, is also profoundly misleading. Let’s break that down a bit. First, by gender:

56% female
44% male

…and I’ll append a few quick thoughts here:

-          My plays generally feature more female characters than male characters. However, while I’ve written many short stories with female protagonists, every single play I’ve produced features a male lead. I have a preoccupation with masculine perspective and identity.
-          My intention and my hope is that the female roles I’ve written have been complex, thoughtful, and/or fun for women to play, although that question would, perhaps, be better put to the actresses that have played them. I hope this not because of a special desire to write women a certain way, but because I have this hope about all of my characters, regardless of gender.
-          My plays also tend to feature women in positions of power and authority. I have heard this described as being empowerment by some, exploitation by others. I don’t pretend to know which, and I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.
-          I have the sense that there are a limited number of female “types” that are socially acceptable for men to write, generally variations on either helpless victims or invincible badasses, and wandering outside those norms can lead to criticism.
-          I find the notion that men are either genetically or socially incapable of writing interesting female characters to be both dubious and offensive.
-          I have written many gags around both hypersexualized women and hypersexualized men, because I (and audiences) seem to find them funny.
-          I identify as a feminist: I believe in the social, legal, and economic equality of women. However, the self-aggrandizing language used by many modern feminists often causes me to cringe in embarrassment.
-          I absolutely believe that the steps made towards equality by women in the last century have been a majorly positive thing, both for us as individuals and us as a culture, nor do I believe that that work is complete. I also think that the redefinition of gender roles has thrown masculine identity into a legitimate crisis that has been both ill-examined and treated unfairly dismissively by many within the feminist movement.
-          I have led a life dominated by powerful and intelligent women: I had a father who traveled frequently, a mother, and three older sisters. I am currently in a serious long-term relationship with a career woman whose intelligence and earning power both exceed mine by an order of magnitude. I find that to this day I still communicate better with women than I do with men, though my closest friendships have generally been male.
-          I identify as heterosexual; I’m a believer in the Kinsey scale, but I seem to be pretty firmly at one end. I fantasize about women in many different contexts, and I don’t feel a great deal of guilt about this.
-          I’m not convinced that this is particularly relevant, but as it seems to inevitably be brought up in these conversations, I’ve been both sexually dominant and sexually submissive, and derived pleasure from both roles.

Onto ethnicity:

63% white
37% minority

…with more thoughts:

-          I don’t believe in “colorblind” casting: ethnicity is an aspect of identity, and identity is an aspect of character, and race, in my opinion, should absolutely be a consideration in the faces chosen to put to words.
-          Along these lines, I think that the white power groups who complained about casting “The fairest of gods” as a black man in the Thor movie were justified. That said, I’m also the dude who cast a black female as the Norse god of thunder.
-          On those occasions when I put out an open call for auditions, the actors who turned up were overwhelmingly white, despite requests for diversity in the call.
-          I have on multiple occasions cast black actors, only to have them drop when they discovered that the pay would be less than their expectations.
-          The above two facts lead me to the suspicion that the smaller proportion of black actors gives them greater opportunity, but my sample size is much, much too small for that to be anything more than anecdotal. I would be genuinely interested in any numbers out there along these lines; nearly all statistics I’ve seen relate to the raw number of actors by ethnicity, rather than to the work/pay that they’re receiving. One data set in particular I’d like to see: what percentage of working black actors locally belong to Equity, as opposed to working white actors?
-          It’s been some years since I was aggressively auditioning, but I have never had the sense that I was either given or turned down a role because of my race.
-          I am biracial, and have written extensively on the subject of race. My shows on this subject have consistently been among my bestselling work, and my audiences have been almost entirely white.
-          I am the only member of my immediate family to be born in this country: my parents and all three of my sisters are immigrants.
-          Being biracial, the ethnicity of my appearance has oscillated wildly over the course of my life. For the bulk of my childhood, I appeared very Asian; after puberty, my features changed enough to make my ethnicity difficult to identify.
-          I attended a number of different schools due to my anger issues, but the bulk of my time was spent in private Catholic schools, where the student body tended to be white.
-          I suspect that the above two facts are why I generally identify myself as Asian-American, as opposed to Caucasian.
-          I resent being told how I, as an Asian-American male, am supposed to feel about my ethnicity. Additionally, I find it rather absurd to be given this lecture by white people.
-          I also find absurdity in a culture that tells me I’m supposed to find pride in my Asian roots, but shame in my white ones. If “yellow pride” is acceptable, then “white pride” must be as well.
-          The politics of most Asian-American groups make me cringe.
-          I also cringe when white people ask me for my opinion “as an Asian-American”, as though I were some sort of spokesperson for everyone sharing my genetic markers.
-          I also cringe when those opinions are dismissed because I’m “not Asian enough.”
-          I appreciate the intention behind politically correct speech, but I also can’t ignore the fact that I usually see it used as a tool to shut down discussion, rather than to open it.

Finally, some thoughts on the Guthrie situation:

-          I don’t fully understand what people mean when they call the Guthrie “a leader in the community.” They deal with larger sums of money, yes, and they give some nice fat paychecks to some excellent local artists, but I don’t know that either of those has a real impact on the decisions that smaller companies make. They also have a larger attendance and are more visible to the non-theatregoing public, but in my experience that audience was not attending my shows anyway.
-          The Guthrie’s focus has historically been on productions of classic European and American theatre, which is dominated by white dudes.
-          Not that this has anything to do with the Guthrie’s intention, but if a white power group were to open a theatre company locally, I’d eagerly see one of their shows. DW Griffith was an asshole, but Birth of a Nation was a way better movie than Intolerance.
-          Many expressed indignation at Joe Dowling’s desire to avoid “tokenism.” This seems to suggest that their worldview doesn’t allow for the possibility that his best applicants were white. I have little difficulty believing this, as I have sat in the director’s chair and cast all-white shows, because my best auditionees were white. This may point to a larger systemic problem, but my first priority is the artistic integrity of my show, not to society as a whole.
-          I am very resistant to the notion of art having any kind of social obligation. My motivations for creating art are almost entirely selfish.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Context, New Text, Black Text, Blue Text

So there's an argument that Ben and I have had once or twice (as opposed to the regular arguments that we have ad nauseam) in which he casually observed that he thought that writing a novel must be the most challenging creative endeavor -- because, as he put it, he'd want to audience-test it in minute chunks. I was immediately resistant to this argument, though it's taken me a while to put my finger on why.

It's a stand-up comic's argument, and I want to qualify that it's one I have a lot of respect for. I'm a huge believer in the necessity of workshopping material in front of an audience. In fact, that was the explicit function of the first Fringe show I ever produced -- Lokasenna was a collection of songs and comedy routines excerpted from a longer script, for the purpose of writing, rewriting, and finding the comic rhythms of the various jokes.

Not that the Fringe was the only place that those scenes ever saw the light of day -- we spent the year leading up to the production working those gags on every stage we could find. In the years that followed, we'd frequently revive them for gig after gig -- in time, man, our shit got *polished*.

I don't regret the time that we spent developing our material -- it produced some lovely bits of writing that I cheerfully stand behind to this day -- but -- well, I'd say it's the benefit of hindsight, but the truth is that any fairly practiced writer could probably have told me what the end result would be: some very funny dialogue embedded in a lumbering, awkwardly paced chimera of a script.

This is why I think the comedian's methods are often ill-applied to long-form work (although the caveat must immediately be made that there are skilled comics, and I'm including Ben on this list, who are proficient at both, putting together long shows by building elaborate structures around their one-liners) -- there's different tools for different goals, and while building a play or a novel may rely on *many* of the same tools, their goals are fundamentally different. Most of my favorite novels would be tedious or incoherent if read in five-minute chunks, while there are plenty of books with clever prose on every page that fall apart as narrative.

(I'd put some of Terry Pratchett's earliest novels in the latter category, though that may put the lie to my argument, as they're very popular. Feh, I say. Give me his later stuff, where the action and characters actually hang together *and make the jokes much funnier*.)

(I sheepishly might also consider placing Penner vs. the Hydra in a similar category, as well, as it seemed to function effectively as a joke machine -- audiences were laughing consistently throughout -- but, I suspect, left them somewhat cold after the fact, possibly symptomatic of placing such a morally troubling character at the play's center.)

This has been, I think, one of the central struggles of my career, learning to write for the short attention span of Festival crowds while maintaining my deeper love for long-form narrative. Tennyson is my favorite poet, not only because of his dazzling versatility, but because of how incredibly *deep* his use of recurring words and phrases and ideas is in his epics. That simply can't be expressed in short bursts. Wagner's genius lies not in his ability to compose themes but in his ability to *layer* them in increasing levels of complexity. That's totally lost when we sample his music like pop songs off a concept album. The Ride of the Valkyries may be loud and exciting, but that's not the point.

(Hi, I'm phil, the world's youngest cranky old man.)

One of the masters of the balancing act, in my opinion, may be Chaplin. Take Modern Times (my favorite movie) -- any one of the individual scenes could be plucked out as a successful comedy short, but assembled they expand on a central idea.

Anyway, that's all a long windup to saying that's why I feel the necessity to hold a full-script reading for Lokasenna (now more marketably titled Norseplay) -- measuring how well the individual pieces work requires, y'know, context and stuff. (Along those lines, this is well-worth reading as well, methinks.)

Taking place this Saturday, and here's the link, if anyone's interested.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

This Blog Should Be Retitled "phil Likes Boring Things"

ME: Hey, I've enjoyed talking, but I've got to get going.
HIM: Oh -- are you hosting a panel?
ME: No -- just watching one.
HIM (laughing): You should host a panel. You'd be *hilarious*! observation which was both flattering and dismaying, as I *am* planning on hosting panels for the first time CONvergence this year, none of which are particularly *funny*. (I have sat on panels in the past, including, yes, some comedy ones.)

I mean, I'm a comedy writer -- I typically see (or perform in) several comedy shows a week. Many of the shows at these cons are performed by colleagues, who I can (and do) see year-round. I know people who go to cons and see nothing *but* comedy shows, but, truthfully, I'm far more interested in watching a room full of scientists argue about bioethics.

In that respect, Minicon is very much up my alley. CONvergence is (among many other things) a party con, and much of it is defined by an (at times exhausting) need to entertain. And it strikes me that it's defined, in many respects, by its inclusivity ("Come one, come all"), while Minicon seems in equal measure to be defined by its exclusivity (for serious, if not necessarily somber, fans of science and science fiction).

(I'm being, no doubt, unjustly reductive here -- CONvergence has plenty of thoughtful discussion, and Minicon has plenty of celebratory silliness -- but dealing in subtleties would ruin, simply ruin, the unfair generalization I'm trying to make here.)

(It's also worth noting that I'm dealing with some very uneven data samples -- I was ferrying back and forth to rehearsals for my other show, and consequently missed a good chunk of the con.)

My main goal in spreading out to some other cons this year has been to see if there's an audience I can capitalize on. And while Minicon wins the trophy for my personal enjoyment -- I count the "Year in Science" panel as one of the more stimulating hours in recent memory -- I'm at a bit of a loss as to how I can use it. (I can imagine a day in the future when I *could*, so that data is useful (if expensive), but my career simply isn't in that place now.)

When the day comes that I can afford vacations, I'm looking forward to revisiting this place. But for an entertainer? For someone trying to reach a critical mass of audience, and build a niche within that? CONvergence? CONvergence is prime time.