Monday, November 26, 2007

A momentary digression

There are developments in my next project that I hope to announce very very shortly, but while we wait for ink to dry and deposits to be handed over I digress...

There is a popular phrase in the New American Lexicon that was created by the bastion of sensibility that my Ultra Conservative Boss himself calls Hate Radio.

"The Hate America Crowd".

This is of course bastardized in any number of ways. The America Lasters, AntiAmericanism, or the second level cousin Cut and Runners.

These phrases are applied to everyone from Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid on down to Jon Stewart, and by extension all the way down to me.

The  Hate America Crowd is of course anyone who thinks that some of the things we do as a collective are crap. We therefore don't stand for anything that America does. This drives me crazy. The whole line of thinking is so ridiculously arrogant it's difficult to muster the energy to respond to something so banal. The very idea that what you think or believe is definitively what America is and believes is as close as this agnostic believes you can get to thumbing your nose at the gods.

But I'm going to respond anyway, because well, the pixels are already paid for.

America is not a country in the way that France and The United Kingdom are countries. Those are political entities that encompass a very few number of cultures that form the greater culture of that place. America is an idea. An experiment.

The people who founded this nation all came for different reasons, freedom from religious persecution, escape from criminal prosecution at home, escape from poverty at home, adventure, or just a fresh start. They came here for an opportunity at something.

Pardon my crassness, but they had the balls to show up.

So we are a nation that has descended from the rebellious, and the adventurous. The bull-headed and argumentative of the world colonized this nation. It wasn't some tidal wave of Puritans that populated America. To quote a great warrior-poet, I have never seen a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. Nor has the world ever seen a greater fighting spirit (for good or for ill).

For any group to state unequivocally that America stands for what they believe in is wrong categorically unless the only thing that group stands for is freedom. Freedom unstained by any other ideology. I have yet to meet that group.

The Hate America Crowd in this iteration of the usage is primarily against the War, and against cultural christian hegemony. They hate that this Presidential Administration is hell bent on ignoring any opposition to its policies, and hate the idea that a small group of men in power can destroy the capacity of this nation to perform good works internationally. They hate that opposition to this Administration and its policies have been labeled defeatism and treason. They hate that for speaking out publicly against the policies of this Administration they end up on Lists.

I am as moderate a moonbat liberal as you can be. I understand that many of my personally held beliefs would make for poor federal policy. I understand that cultural change takes a generation. And I understand that elections work pretty well no matter how hard Diebold tries to swing them.

But if Hate Radio got a hold of any of my writings they would toss me in with the Hate America crowd.

America boosters of the ribbons on my car, flags on my keychain variety are merely purveyors of the New American Isolationism. They don't want to learn a second language. They don't want to think about how their country's actions will impact others around the world, or even how a lower tax bill for themselves would impact their community.

They understand that we WON the Cold War and to the victor goes the spoils.

They don't want to hear about American imperialism in Iraq, because America is the perpetual White Hat and nothing they do can possibly be wrong. And here we are the denizen's of Momma's basement sitting on our purty little internet sites writing about how this thing that America does is wrong, and how our Holy Murkin Emperor has no clothes and they don't want to hear it. Heaven forbid we point out that we didn't WIN the Cold War so much as the USSR lost it (hard by the way).

I have never hated America. Not once. I have been disappointed. I have even been pissed at her, and her leaders. But I love the idea of America, and every negative emotion I have felt politically is borne out of that naive idealism. I want America to be the America we were promised that it was in third grade social studies. And I will hole up in my little corner of the internet and shout that until they unplug it.

If that's hating America I guess I don't understand the definition of hate.

Now Fred Phelps? Fred Phelps I hate.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Live for the Moment

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to see the Vestige Group present Jason Grote's New Jersey Book of the Dead at the Hyde Park Theatre.

It raised a question for me that I I'd like to discuss... after this brief digression.

[Please note that as a critic I tend to blame actors first, technicians second, playwrights third, and directors where applicable]

It was a Thursday night performance after three nights off. It's an odd start to a rundown of my opinion of the show... but I think it bears mention. In small theatre, when you have an intense rehearsal period followed by a short run, that time off can be a killer. The cast and technicians take a breath, but the show isn't in their bones yet, often leaving that first show back with a lost in the desert sort of feel.

I think that was in effect here.

New Jersey Book of the Dead is an intelligent ensemble piece focused on privacy and boundaries. Touching on the walls we put up between our public and private lives and the consequences of that separation being eroded, in this case by technology.

Structurally the play intersperses a linear narrative of the effects of technological surveillance (via a software solution called Omnivore) on the lives of a small group of call center temps with a mystical step out into a more mystical poetic universe where slightly evolving scenes repeat and a deranged man speaks the truth.

And honestly it's hard to say whether the text worked or not.

This is the second performance by the Vestige Group that I have seen, the first being the quiet, detailed Brilliant Traces. The difference in specificity of execution is striking. Where Brilliant Traces allowed for silence and had a deliberately varied pace, New Jersey Book of the Dead  never found it's rhythm.

The actor's energy and focus at several times seemed ready to click into place, but didn't. In a play structured to flow directly from one scene into another there were numerous lighting cue hiccups that either let a scene linger too long or didn't come up quickly enough on the next area. The actors, trying to find the play, were never really sure whether to abandon the (already completed) scene they were stuck in, or to begin without the light in the next.

As an audience member I shared their disjointed lurching. This has read as entirely negative I'm sure and I don't really mean it to be. Which I guess is why I led with the Thursday night disclaimer. It never really seemed that the show was suffering from lack of talent. (Though I think a deeper minority talent base in Austin would have helped some of the relationship dynamics) Nor was it suffering from a lack of understanding of the show and what it required. I think it was just one of those nights.

And let me say this: despite the execution issues on this night the play didn't lose me, which is a point for Mr. Grote.

Which (finally) brings me to my point.

The show hinges on 9/11.

The audience was treated to projected images of the towers burning and of audio of screaming over images of people  running from the dust. (It was remarkable how jarring that was after 6 years and an endless loop of similar images) This moment stopped the action and drove us to the resolution of the play. One half of the resolution finished up the protagonist's story,  while the other half showed us the sales representative for Omnivore pitching her wares to Congress.

Now, as best I can tell this show was written during the lead up to the Iraq conflict and premiered in 2004.

In 2004 we knew that our President was ethically challenged, and was actively engaged in creating a revisionist present, but the terror watchlist for all, Guantanamo Bay,  and warrantless wiretapping were yet to come (man, it's been long three years). Viewed in 2004 this show would have had a very different sense of menace than it does here in the waning days of 2007.

In a world in which we know and expect that the executive branch of our government is monitoring us in any way that it can New Jersey Book of the Dead isn't a warning, it's simply a signpost.

My initial reaction was that this was a missed opportunity.

But as I sat with it a while longer, I no longer think that way. Or rather, I think that the opportunity missed was by producing companies of a political bent in 2004. Mr. Grote wrote a textured play considerably more nuanced than most political theatre, the fact that it  wasn't widely produced when it was prescient isn't his fault.

We often talk out here in the ether about the ephemeral nature of this art form. But it's seems in my experience that everyone is trying to create for the ages instead of this moment.

Would it be gratifying to know that 20 years from now someone felt a pull to pick up something that I had created and recreate it? Of course it would. But my audience is here now, and there's no shame in creating something that is specific to this time and place.

So let me ask you this:

Does your experience match mine? Are theatre artists striving to write/create for eternity?

If it does... why do you think it is so?

Do we serve our audiences better with product more specifically created for here and now, or with more generalized pieces?

Is this only a problem in politically themed pieces or is it more universal?

And as an aside to Mr. Grote: congratulations on the warm reception for 1001 and please excuse my chalk outlines of your themes in New Jersey Book of the Dead.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Remember all, they're being selfish...

Doris Egan (writer - House MD) on the WGA strike:

(She's not making money on a LiveJournal so I have reprinted it here)


There was a time in this world when it seemed that anyone with literary talent could make a living, if they were willing to take the risk. Louisa May Alcott supported herself and her family writing thrillers. A woman could be widowed with children, and rather than throw herself on the mercy of unpleasant relatives, she could say, "I will make my living by my pen!" -- and proceed to do so, maybe with a little sewing on the side. These writers were fulfilling a deep and endless need; the appetite for story is written into our genetic code.

As late as the 1960s and 1970s, this was all still true. Here's one of my favorite photographs, by Berenice Abbott: a newsstand in 1935.

You can't see it on your screen, but the actual photograph is so sharp that you can read the titles of the magazines. (A digital reproduction hangs in my dining room, and allow me to recommend the New York Public Library's archive.) This is the glorious landscape of pulp fiction, all the guilty and not-so-guilty pleasures of story laid out for the hedonist to wander through. Not just one or two magazines of detective stories, oh no -- here are Master Detective, Official Detective, True Detective, Famous Detective, Detective Tales. Here are Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post. Here are Argosy, Doc Savage, Weird Tales. Here is Battle and Flying Aces; Railroad Stories; Western Stories, West, Cowboy Stories, Cowboy Life, Triple-X Western. An endless array of love stories, horror stories, sports stories, all to be devoured and enjoyed by a story-hungry public who would only be back next month for more.

Ah, Thrilling Wonder and Planet Stories, that gave us Leigh Brackett -- a woman who, incidentally, also wrote the screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back, The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and The Long Goodbye. And here we come to the issue at hand, for by the time The Empire Strikes Back came out, the pulps were mostly a memory.

What happened to them? In my opinion, television happened. That voracious appetite for story could be satisfied by clicking on a button. Movies helped, but television could give you a fix every single day. The box couldn't come near to the full world-immersion of a novel -- a reason I think the novel has held on -- but over the years, the novel audience has eroded, too. There've been plenty of theories about this: a decline in literacy, audience fragmentation, too many book choices for a particular market. People unfamiliar with publishing realities will point to Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, as though somehow every writer with a book must be sharing the pie. Well, they aren't. The vast majority can't make a living at all, and have to stuff their writing into the spare hours they divert from their families and their day jobs -- and we all know how much time that comes down to.

They do it for love. But you know what? There's nothing wrong with getting paid. Back when FDR started the WPA and wanted to pay writers to work for the agency, people objected. They were writers, for godsake. That's not real work, like farming or laboring. "They're writers, but they still have to eat," was the reply.

There is one place left in the world where some writers can make a decent living, some of the time. That place is Hollywood, California, and the Hollywoodesque enclaves of film and TV around the world.

It hasn't always been easy. Bob Carroll and Madelyn Pugh wrote the first four seasons of I Love Lucy. As you read this, that show is playing somewhere in the world, but Carroll and Pugh never saw a dime of residuals from the huge amount of money their scripts made. That money still rains down today on a huge conglomerate, where no one in the executive offices has any connection whatsoever with the series, let alone contributed to its success. It's simply free money for them, forever and ever. This is one reason I would go back in a time machine and stop Hollywood writers from giving up copyright, for with copyright went respect and fair treatment; but you can never wrestle from the hands of a corporation that which they now believe is theirs. Carroll kidded an interviewer, before he died at the age of 87: "If I had residuals, would I be here?" But this was a business where Jack Benny didn't give his writers credits on his show, because it was believed the audience thought actors and comedians made everything up on the spot. It was a business where, one ancient director told me, when a movie stopped for the night, the crew could be locked up in a barn till daylight.

A lot of people went through hard times getting the WGA and IATSE and the other unions together, and putting an end to horror stories like that. The horror stories now are coming from a different angle: from the age of giant conglomerates. The AMPTP is often referred to as "the producers," but they are not. They are huge corporations which own many different things. And the executives the Guild is striking against are not the executives we work with on films and TV shows. This all basically comes down to six CEOs and a corporate culture that seeks to maximize profit as though those profits did not emanate from people actually making things. There is a big disconnect between the people doing the making and the ones keeping the books, and there's little incentive to run things reasonably in a world where the salary of a single CEO surpasses the entire amount of DVD residuals paid to the entire Guild. And where none of these companies will open their books so their accounting can be examined.

The companies are both answerable to no one and wildly bloated; it's not unusual, in launching a TV show, to get notes from twelve or more executives, some of which are mutually contradictory, but all of which must be obeyed. (There was a day when notes were few, and left to the discretion of the executive producer. That day is no more.) The result, as I have personally witnessed, is often incoherence. Then too, when twelve or more people read something, anything non-generic will "bump" one of them. This is a simple statistical fact, not a reflection on the executives involved -- give a script to any twelve people, including other writers, and the results will be the same. It won't be the same person bumped each time; but by the time your script is ready to shoot, it will have been smoothed down, like a rock under a waterfall, till all that's left is what's expected. (And yet, it's still incoherent. This is not an easy result to achieve: it takes the work of many people.) I'm lucky in that I work on a show that's up and running, whose executives go out of their way to give us space to create, and trust that our mistakes will mostly be small ones. But after ten years in this business, I can tell you that it's by no means something you can count on. The structure of this contraption is just too unwieldy.

But let's get back to the money. If you've been reading this journal, you know that people in television are among the hardest working I've ever met, with the longest hours. And the rewards, both monetary and creative, will tease you along and then slap you in the face when you least expect it. Writers have fat years and lean years; a great number are unemployed; and of those that are not, the odds on holding a job plummet with every middle-aged birthday and wrinkle (more in comedy than drama, but still). Again, people unfamiliar with the industry can point to Aaron Sorkin and the more successful showrunners, and say they seem to be well-compensated. They are. They are exceptions.

Even I am an exception. I'm not a showrunner, but I'm a writer-producer on a successful show. I'm incredibly fortunate. If you clear away the smoke of the ten percent I pay to an agent, the ten percent to a manager, the occasional five percent to a lawyer, and an amazing number of other fees, I still make a comfortable, upper-middle-class living, vaguely comparable to what an officer of a bank might make. (I can make that comparison because I once worked in a bank.) And to get this for writing. My god. Granted, none of this says I'll have any income at all next year, but this year? I'm blessed. Many, many other writers are not.

Here's something else you should know: writers are not famous for their self-esteem. I'm sure there must be some out there with a sense of entitlement, but I haven't met them. I have never heard a discussion of salary, on any show, that didn't have writers pointing to average compensation across the country and saying we were lucky people, at least this year. (Just as I've never heard writers discuss actors and casting without sympathy for what the actors go through.) Writers are very, very aware of what the world is like -- what's more, we tend to be vaguely grateful to be paid at all, because it's for writing, and we've been beaten down by the world to think that isn't a serious and valuable thing. (By the way, I'm not at all sure this understanding goes up to the CEO's office; how can it, when that CEO can be handed sixty million dollars just for quitting? Someday I must tell you the story of the famous exec who said, "Why not make this character middle-class? Let's say he makes $300,000 a year -- " and the writers all stared at him.)

I wish, frankly, that writers had more self-esteem. We are just not people who stalk into the corporate offices and make demands. That famous deal the Guild took, whereby we agreed to let eighty percent of video sales go with no compensation at all, and only get paid for the remaining twenty? Typical. In a contract negotiation only a few years ago, the Guild got a provision whereby the writer of a movie would be invited to the screening. Yes. I am not making this up. This was a victory. I remember a showrunner I worked with a few years ago joking about our inability to stand up for ourselves: "Uh, we'd like to, maybe, wear clothes and -- " "No." "…Okay."

(Briefly, if you haven't heard by now: back when movies were first sold on video, the AMPTP said, "It's new! It's wicked new! It could cost all kinds of money to make these crazy things! So you guys wouldn't mind taking an 80 percent pay cut while we grow the business and see if there's money to be made, right?" So we did. As one older writer explained it to me, we wanted to give the fledgling market a chance -- "and of course we found it didn't cost anything at all to make the videos." But the 80 percent cut remained; and when DVDs came in, the AMPTP said, "Same as videos, right?" They then stomped all over us with big boots during the strike of '88, and here we are now: DVDs are the same as videos. You may be wondering how this famous "four cents per DVD" shakes down, so let me tell you: for a long, long time I never actually met a writer who'd gotten any money from video or DVD -- that's how ghostly-thin a slice we were served at table.)

This year, when I first heard that we were only asking for eight cents per DVD, I was actually disgusted. "It's twice as much," someone pointed out. I thought, yes, but twice zero is still zero. And yet we came in, hat in hand, asking for this, and were not only refused but told the conglomerates would like to remove all residuals of any kind. "Why are we always so damned reasonable?" I asked. "Why aren't we ever the ones to posture and make outrageous demands?" "We're writers," I was told. And then we actually removed that request for four-more-cents, in return (we thought) for opening up a discussion of new media. Because the AMPTP had said, "New media -- it's too new! We might not make any money! Let's study it for three years." "And pay us that lousy four cents, meanwhile?" "No, we were thinking we'd pay you nothing."

And by now, we all know how that turned out. One writer said, more or less, that he'd assumed the AMPTP would offer us another unfair, terrible deal, and we'd fold like the pathetic house of cards we were and take that offer. It hadn't crossed his mind they'd offer nothing.

Goddammit. I'd like a world in which good novelists, short story writers, and scriptwriters could all make a living, and where none of them were apologetic about it. Where writing was a fine, beautiful, and necessary thing, and we didn't assume we're the only ones who can see that. Where we would hold our heads up and say yes, we are not unworthy. We deserve compensation for our work, even if we're not farmers or firefighters.

…I seem to have gotten some of that world. It's a scary place, but I can't be entirely sorry about it.

This strike will not help me that much. By now everyone knows that new media is the point, and I came to Hollywood in middle age; I'm unlikely to see much compensation from new media before my career ends. Why am I doing this? Because other people did it for me. I'm 4F for this war, so they've had me working in Strike HQ, answering phones. (Larry Gelbart was on the phone next to me. Larry Gelbart. Such are the advantages of bad feet -- they put you where you meet legends.)

Anyway. As it happens, Carroll and Pugh weren't the only team to write for I Love Lucy. Schiller and Weiskopf did as well. Weiskopf is dead, but on the first day of the strike, Bob Schiller walked into headquarters -- a little slowly, leaning on his cane -- to ask if there were anything he could do.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

There is No God but Dionysus...

...and Shakespeare is his prophet.

Joshua James 1
Joshua James 2

laura axelrod 1
laura axelrod 2
laura axelrod 3

Ah the religion of the secularists and the glorious, cult-like fanaticism of it's adherents. 

Theatre has always tried to maintain it's mystical roots, even here in this least mystical of ages. Invocations and incarnations to raise the holy theatre above the common consumerist fray. 

I hyperbolize, but there is definitely a remaining hard religious edge to the way many in this community go about this business. This is most evident in the way we react to someone trying to leave 'the church'.

By way of background...

Mine was a Christian upbringing. A good one. My family is a Christian family, and they do it the right way. It was not a house of judgement. It was very much about living life the way god intended and showing by example that God's way was simply better.

And I wasn't just a a Cultural Christian. I (and my friends) meant it. I intended to go into Ministry of some kind through whatever career I eventually chose.

Through a slow degradation that faith dwindled to nothing, which was more sad than some sort of release. (If you're curious, this is all more particularly described by metes and bounds at my personal journal here

"Travis, this is supposed to be a theatre blog, what gives?"

I know, right?

The above is all to say: I am well-versed in the ins and outs of church life, and I am sensitive to the failings of the American Protestant Church as I see them. So when those failings crop up in my theater world they pop in technicolor for me.

That theatre dogma exists isn't surprising. The dislike of Other because they believe differently. The false piety of the true believers. The rampant unassailable persecution complex. The belief that attendance and (of course) tithing will save the country and the world, while improving your soul?

They're all there.

George Hunka even wrote 95 Theses for us!

Whether these reactions exist because it's a human condition or because the culture of American Protestantism is so pervasive in this country as to be unavoidable is really a whole different debate, and I have no experience outside this country to help settle the Americanism portion of the equation. I am here to discuss what happens when people try to leave the First American Church of Dionysus. Or even simply question how business is done.

Which of course why the above five blog posts are linked.

Laura left the Church out of frustration and the need to move on to something more fulfilling. Mr. James simply questions the treatment of playwrights in modern American theatrical culture.

Why aren't both valid responses?

They are both questioned and dismissed and Ms. Axelrod gets the condescending "aw, you'll be back." As though hers was a decision made in haste.

Not to say that arguing isn't valid (or fun), but the stridency of these responses is a little surprising. Or not. I am as guilty of these reactions as anyone.

My friend Ron is something of a technical savant. Of the "walks into a room and machines fix themselves" variety. He was an incredibly valuable theatre technician and by all rights should be the technical director of a theatre somewhere. He isn't because after college he walked away. I (and others) gave him no end of grief over it. His simple response? "I didn't love theatre, I loved doing theatre with you guys." So he created a life he loved, it just wasn't the life WE chose for him.

I have even given my fiance the old chestnut "I don't think you love it enough" as regards her theatre career. Why would I be that stupid? Because of course it is expected that you will make every possible sacrifice on the altar of Dionysus to make theatre happen. And she isn't going to do that. Theatre is a career for her. She won't do it for free.

And really both responses are perfect. Theatre is just another path. There isn't a right way to do it. And we need to stop trying to force people down one.

"Travis, you sound like kind of an ass, why would you treat your friends and loved ones like that?"

I do sound like an ass, and I wouldn't share the fact that I had behaved like that if I wasn't sure that almost everyone in this field has done something equally stupid in their lives, and probably in their theatre lives. 

Examine your interactions with people - online and in everyday life. Look at where you are applying your personal dogma and your expectations of yourself to others, and try to mitigate that behavior.  I don't expect that you will show up an hour and a half early to rehearsal simply because I do. I don't think that Mr. James is exhibiting a martyr complex or sour grapes simply because he's run into some jackasses in his career and isn't afraid to say so, and I wish Ms. Axelrod every success in whatever field she chooses. The theatre world will miss her talent, but it's not as though she took her ball, went home, and became a CPA.

It's time we stop treating people as backslidden, heretics, and apostates for doing it their way.