Posts Tagged ‘plays’

Self-Archaeology

Monday, May 1st, 2017

rolling wheels

Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold by Katharine Grey

“Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.” Thomas Aquinas

Recent excavations on the shelves of my office have turned up some long-forgotten artifacts, including books and plays I wrote in my youth and loved enough to carry with me through several major moves over the course of forty years.

Indeed, one of my finds, a play I wrote when I was in my early twenties, has traveled with me since the 1970’s when I could carry all my earthly possessions onto a train or bus with me. In my pre-car days, the sum total of my stuff was: a guitar in a flimsy case, a large backpack full of clothes and basic survival gear, and one big cardboard box full of books and manuscripts and pens and paper and sketchpads, the box tied up with a length of sturdy rope.

Among the books I always carried with me, and still have today, were the two-volume The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, On Bear’s Head poems by Philip Whalen, Selected Poems of Robert Duncan, Collected Poems of Robert Graves, Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen, and Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

This ancient play I unearthed is entitled The Last Temptation, and I read the faded pages with the curiosity of an archaeologist stumbling upon an opus writ on papyrus two thousand years ago. On the title page, a note from the young author explains: The title of the play and the setting of Act One were inspired by the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. Pilate’s dog in Act Two was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s book The Master and Margarita.

I expected to find The Last Temptation a student work full of energy but lacking consistency and originality. But that is not the case. The play is wonderfully original, the characters complex, the dialogue not terrible, and the story full of suspense. To make things even better, the work is my favorite kind of play, an extreme rarity these days—a serious comedy with multi-dimensional characters. So I’ve decided to spend some weeks rewriting the play. Why not?

Finding and reading the play also jarred my memory about what I did with the blessed thing way back when; and as one memory begot another, there came an avalanche of memories, and for some hours I relived my interactions with several theatre companies large and small in California and Oregon and New York, and the many rejections I gained thereby. Nothing has changed in that regard. My recent plays, and The Last Temptation, should I rewrite it to my liking, have virtually no chance of being produced—the stages of American theatre off limits to all but a few privileged playwrights.

Still, a good play is worth writing whether anyone produces the play or not. That also goes for writing books, composing music, and making art. The artist’s job is to create. The rest is up to the gods.

During that same office dig, I found two novels written by my great grandmother Katharine Grey. Published by Little Brown in 1934 and 1935, Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold are excellent novels featuring youthful protagonists and their families who, in Rolling Wheels, make the trek by wagon train from Indiana to California shortly before the California Gold Rush, and in Hills of Gold are farming in California when the Gold Rush begins. Full of fascinating details about life in California in the mid-1800’s times, and rife with adventures, these books would be fabulous additions to junior high and high school curriculum all over America. Sadly, these books are long out-of-print and will remain so barring some fortuitous intervention by the aforementioned gods.

In any case, I now have two good books to read, which is no small thing in these times when I find so little in the way of new books that appeal to me. Oh if only I hadn’t learned proper syntax and grammar. If only in my formative years I hadn’t steeped in great literature and poetry, then I wouldn’t mind crappy writing filled with unnatural implausible dialogue—think of all the contemporary fiction and plays and movies I could choose from.

Another of my finds on that revelatory shelf was a small plastic box full of thumb picks for playing the guitar. I haven’t played the guitar in nine years, and I gave away my guitar a few years ago because I felt bad about keeping such a lovely instrument sequestered in darkness, untouched and unappreciated—a guitar suffused with more bad memories than good, but still a fine instrument.

Since finding those thumb picks, I have had two vivid dreams about playing the guitar and being frustrated by my diminished playing skill. In my latest guitar dream, I played a new song for three people, all deceased now, and they were keenly interested in the song and enthusiastic in their praise of it. These were people who had been fiercely disapproving of me while they were alive; but in this guitar dream, they were supportive and full of love for me.

So today I bought a guitar.

And right after I bought the guitar, we ran into a friend in the grocery store and spoke of what we were soon to be cooking. This talk of food inspired in our friend a memory of growing up in Monterey in the Italian part of town known as Spaghetti Hill.

“It was called Spaghetti Hill,” he explained, “because every Sunday morning, in every kitchen in that big Italian neighborhood, the cooks would concoct their spaghetti sauces before going to Mass.”

And while those cooks and their families were attending Mass, the myriad sauces simmered—their spices conspiring divinely with wine and diced tomatoes and mushrooms and who knows what else—so that when the fasting supplicants arrived home from church, the neighborhood air was freighted with the divine aroma of hundreds of simmering sauces. Time and God had done their work and all that remained to do was boil the pasta to perfection, open jars of olives, bring forth loaves of bread, toss the great green salads, uncork the good red wines, and sit down to feast.

Magenta Queen

Monday, September 26th, 2016

magenta-coverD1

Magenta cover

“There are two kinds of comedy.  One involves putting people down, having fun at their expense. The other recognizes that each of our lives is equally absurd.” Donald Montwill

I recently completed my new novel Magenta and brought the book out in handsome coil-bound photocopies, each copy signed and lavishly numbered, available through my web site or by bumping into me in Mendocino and arranging an exchange.

Magenta is a contemporary novel set in a coastal town in northern California, the action centered in a bookstore, a luthier shop, and an old house on the headlands. Funny and serious and poetical, Magenta is both a romance and a journey of self-healing.

My web site synopsis of Magenta begins, “On his sixtieth birthday, Leonard Porter discovers that someone has taken his guitar case and left his beautiful old guitar unprotected in a moldy shed. Leonard has not seen his guitar in thirty-two years, and finding her free of her case causes him to react in a way that radically changes his life.”

The novel begins:

Where Have You Been?

During the first few minutes of their phone conversation—Leonard in California, Sam in New Hampshire—Leonard uses the words sudden and unexpected several times, but a little while later Sam says, “So, really, this wasn’t sudden or unexpected. It was inevitable.”

“Yes,” says Leonard, gazing out his living room window at the deer gathering on the meadow as they do at the close of each day—a big battle-scarred stag presiding over a harem of four does and two yearlings, one of those yearlings a promising buck. “How we stayed married for five years is…I don’t know.”

“You must not have been paying attention,” says Sam, who has a knack for cutting to the chase.

“I don’t think I’ve really been here to pay attention.”

“Where have you been?”

“Going through the motions,” says Leonard, his fit of outrage over. “I, robot.”

“I didn’t ask what you’ve been doing,” says Sam, quietly. “I asked where have you been?”

“The only certain knowledge is the inspired guess.” Henry Kitchell Webster

Our San Francisco Giants have recently fallen into a collective slump of epic proportions. As I write this, they are playing the San Diego Padres in San Diego, having just been shellacked by the front-running Dodgers. Alas, this second half of the season, no matter how well our starting pitchers start, no matter how fantastic Brandon Crawford plays shortstop, no matter if we are ahead by a run or two going into the late innings, we tend to lose.

A few blown saves ago, Jon Miller, the rarely hyperbolic Giants announcer, declared, “It defies logic how many games the Giants have blown in the ninth inning this season.” I don’t agree it defies logic so much as it reveals the undeniable truth that great teams have great bullpens, and our pen this year lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Many of us knew at the beginning of the season we needed a new closer, and when management did nothing to address that key inadequacy by the trade deadline, we feared our chances of making the playoffs were fading. That we are still in the hunt with only a handful of games left in the regular season verges on the miraculous.

Fortunately, baseball is just a game, Sergio Romo is now closing instead of Casilla, the apple crop this year is stupendous, and the waves keep rolling into Mendocino Bay.

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Edith Wharton

Having written six novels in the last five years, I decided to change literary gears and write a play. So I went to my PLAY file on my computer to find an already-written play from which to copy the Play format into a new document. While perusing the titles, I saw one that made me do a double take. Queen Elizabeth Sings the Blues. The date of the file was 2002, a few years before I moved from Berkeley to Mendocino.

I vaguely remembered what Queen Elizabeth Sings the Blues was about, and also vaguely remembered sending the play to several impregnable theatre companies. But the one clear memory I had of this play was the response from a former actor turned psychoanalyst. “As implausible as your central idea may seem, such a sudden and dramatic healing of a wounded psyche can occur when the primal truth is revealed.”

So I read the play again to see what my psychoanalyst friend was referring to, found the play compelling, and decided to rewrite the opus. Now, after several weeks of work, I am soon to make copies of Queen Elizabeth Sings the Blues and send them forth.

“There are two kinds of people, those who finish what they start and so on.” Robert Byrne

I was recently tempted to end my two-month fast from imbibing news of the outside world. If you haven’t tried such a fast, I highly recommend it. My chronic anxiety disappeared, my sleep improved, and I’m much less cranky.

However, a friend recently dropped by, and before I could inform him of my news fast, he informed me Hillary is only leading Trump by four percentage points in recent national polls, riots have broken out in response to more police killings of unarmed black people, and the Great Barrier Reef is dying fast. And though I somehow already knew these things, I decided to check them out on my computer. However, my first glimpse of Trump’s maniacal visage and Hillary’s hysterical grin inspired me to resume my fast, and I am once more enjoying the disconnect—radio broadcasts of Giants games my one ongoing link to mass media.

Also thankfully, much fascinating news is to be gleaned from talking to Marcia, reading books about neurobiology, walking to town, tending the garden, shooting hoops, communing with friends, hauling firewood, picking apples, playing the piano, blabbing with folks at the post office, and unleashing the imagination onto the unsuspecting page.

My Big Trip, Part Three

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Le Moulin de la Gallete by Pablo Picasso

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2013)

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” William Shakespeare

My friend Scott made a good part of his living as a rehearsal pianist for musicals running on Broadway in the 1970’s and early 80’s, and he had all sorts of theater connections that gave him free admission to virtually any show on or off Broadway, a privilege he invited me to take advantage of multiple times on each of the ten trips I made to New York between 1976 and 1983.

In 1976, the reigning Broadway sensation was the play Equus with Anthony Perkins having just taken over the leading role from Richard Burton who had taken over the role from Anthony Hopkins. Scott knew the stage manager of the theater where the play was running and arranged for me to be among a few dozen audience members who sat on tiered benches onstage as a living backdrop to the play.

We were shown to our seats a few minutes before the curtain went up and told not to fidget, not to pick our noses, and not to make any noise. “You are,” said the man directing us, “a Greek chorus echoing the action with your silence, and you are also a jury listening carefully to the evidence being presented. And please remember that several hundred people can see you, people who have paid good money to watch this play and not to watch you scratching your butt. Have fun.”

I wish I could say that seeing and being in Equus on that Broadway stage was one of the great theatrical experiences of my life, but I found the play simplistic and boring and not in the least mysterious, the performances ho hum, and the vaunted nude love scene a brief and ugly tussle. However, I did not share my feelings about Equus with Scott because he was a devout Broadway loyalist, which meant he believed that if a play was a hit, the play was good, and if the play was a flop, the play was bad.

Now in the same week that I sat through Equus, Scott and I attended one of the early preview performances of Trevor Griffith’s play Comedians, recently transported from London and directed by Mike Nichols with the young Jonathan Pryce reprising his role from the London production. And seeing that production of Comedians truly was one of the greatest theatrical experiences of my life and would dramatically influence my plans for the future.

When the third and final act of Comedians came to an end, I leapt out of my seat shouting, “Bravo!” and applauding madly, though the audience reaction was otherwise tepid. Scott stayed sitting during my outburst and was obviously embarrassed by my behavior, but I didn’t care. I had just seen a superlative performance of a remarkable play and I wasn’t about to keep my feelings bottled up. Mediocre Equus had elicited a standing ovation and multiple curtain calls for its stars, so why shouldn’t I rave about this brilliant new masterwork?

Well…when we emerged from Comedians, Scott took me to a nearby bar filled with people who had also just seen Comedians and I eagerly asked several of them what they thought of the play; and they were all oddly coy and noncommittal, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why.

“What the hell is going on?” I asked Scott. “That play was sheer genius. The writing, the acting, the direction, the levels of meaning, the…”

“Todd,” said Scott, sighing, “the play hasn’t been reviewed yet so…”

“So what?” I asked, flabbergasted. “You wait until the New York Times says it’s good before you think it’s good?”

“No,” said Scott, gulping his beer. “But…sort of. I mean…it’s subtle and very British. It was a hit in London, but that doesn’t mean it will translate that well over here.”

“Are you insane?” I gaped at him. “We just saw it. What did you think of it?”

“I…I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Jonathan Pryce would win a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in his role in Comedians, but the critics otherwise damned the production with faint praise and the show closed after 145 performances. I, however, was demolished in the best sort of way by Comedians and decided two things as a result of seeing that incomparable production: I was going to write plays again, and I was going to live in a city so I could get more involved in theater. By then I realized New York was not going to be that city, not yet anyway, for I lacked the psychic stamina to survive there—but I hoped Portland or Seattle might suffice to get me started.

“It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.” Winston Churchill

Two weeks later, having recharged my batteries by taking the train to Boston and spending a few days goofing around with my pal Jerry and attending a few of his scarier classes at Harvard Law School, I returned to Manhattan and immediately went to see Comedians again. To my delight, I thought the play was even better the second time, the cast now well practiced and sure of their characters. I was in seventh heaven watching that play and felt more certain than ever that I wanted to try to write plays that might touch people as Comedians touched me.

I was in love again with mastery, with originality, with courage, with everything that had made me want to be a writer in the first place; and for the remainder of my time in New York I was in a state of enchantment. For though I knew very well I might never succeed as a playwright (or as a writer of fiction), the experience of seeing that masterful production of Comedians filled me with a desire to try. I knew if I lived frugally, I had enough money in the bank to grant me a year of freedom from working at anything besides writing, and I intended to dedicate a good chunk of that year to writing plays.

The sad truth about our culture, and perhaps most cultures, is that for every masterpiece that somehow manages to gain an audience, there are thousands of awful things filling our stages and bookstores and movie screens and galleries. Why this is so I do not know, I only know that it is so. Which is why those rare new masterpieces that somehow manage to sneak past the cultural gatekeepers are so important, for without them we only have the masterworks of the past to deeply nourish us—and we desperately need the blood of brilliant new work to keep our culture alive and vital.

“You are what your deep, driving desire is.

 As your desire is, so is your will.

As your will is, so is your deed.

As your deed is, so is your destiny.” Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

I was bored to tears by the new art on display at The Museum of Modern Art, but never mind, they had Picasso’s massive and marvelous Guernica to gaze upon and Van Gogh’s magnificent Starry Starry Night approachable to within a few inches, and Henri Rousseau’s supernatural Lion and the Gypsy lit to perfection, so I visited these and a handful of other favorite paintings in that collection several times and felt wonderfully empowered by them. And I went to the Guggenheim to marvel up close at Picasso’s Moulin de la Galette and Modigliani’s fabulous Nude, and I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art again and again to gawk at their five fabulous Vermeers.

I had lunch with my brave and eccentric agent Dorothy Pittman on two occasions and we had a stirring time imagining selling one of my novels and then another and another. She said she would hunt for a play agent for me when I had a play to show around; and dear Scott got me into seven or eight more shows to fuel my drama dreams, though none of those plays could hold a candle to Comedians; and at last I realized I was done with New York for the time being and ready to embark on the next leg of my big trip.

So I took the train to Philadelphia and spent three lazy days visiting friends in Bala Cynwyd and Narberth and sleeping for twelve hours a night, recuperating from the physical and emotional toll of Manhattan. Then I continued south by train to Virginia and stayed with my pal Rico who had recently moved out from California to work for the federal government.

One night Rico and I were reminiscing about high school and wondering about the fate of our fellow inmates, when I was reminded of Mark Russell, my great friend I hadn’t seen since the early days of high school when he and his family moved away to where I wasn’t sure. So I did a little telephone sleuthing and came up with a phone number for Mark’s parents in Connecticut. I called them and they gave me a phone number for Mark in South Carolina. Then I called Mark and a woman with a sultry South Carolina accent answered the phone.

“Hi,” I said, “my name is Todd Walton and I’m an old friend of Mark’s. Is he there?”

“Hold on a minute,” she said softly. “I’ll fetch him.”

A few moments later, Mark came on the line, his voice two octaves deeper than when we’d last spoken thirteen years before. “This is unbelievable,” he said, laughing. “I was just thinking about you. I was throwing the ball for my dog and wondering where Todd is now.”

“I’m in Virginia and I’d love to come see you, if that’s a possibility. I could get a motel room nearby or…”

“No, no, we’ve got lots of room for you,” he said, chuckling. “Come on down.”

So on a dark cold night in early November, I stepped off the train at the little station in Camden, South Carolina and looked around for an older version of the Mark I remembered from 1963—a clean shaven young man much shorter than I. But the only person waiting there was a tall man in a trench coat sporting a bushy brown beard.

“Todd,” he called to me. “I’d know you anywhere.”

“Mark,” I said, shaking his enormous hand. “I would never have guessed you were you.”

fin

What We Do

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2011)

“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” Bertrand Russell

The first few times I finished writing a novel (each book representing two or three years work), I was gripped by the same terrible fear that I might die before I could make copies of the books and send them out into the world. Before the advent of personal computers and the ability to send massive documents in email attachments, making copies of fat manuscripts meant going to copy shops and leaving the precious documents overnight while copies were made.  Then, exhausted from lack of sleep and worry, I would pick up the copies and mail them to people scattered far and wide, so that in the event of multiple unforeseen disasters a few copies of my masterworks might survive to be discovered by future generations, etc.

In retrospect, yes, the machinations of my deluded ego can be seen as humorous or pathetic or pathetically humorous or plain silly, but I understand now that my fear of dying before my creations had a chance to live was proof of my total immersion in, and identification with, the things I made.

On one such pre-computer occasion in the early 1970’s, I took a play entitled The Last Temptation to one of the first photocopy shops in the Bay Area, a joint in Menlo Park, and handed over my one and only copy to the friendly shop owner. He said he would have my copies ready in two days. The play was loosely based on a brothel scene from Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ and on the Pontius Pilate character in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I was certain the play (as I had previously been certain about various novels and stories) would lift me from poverty and obscurity, etc.

On the day those ten precious copies of the play were supposed to be ready, I arrived at the copy joint and was greeted by the perturbed proprietor with the news that my play had disappeared. Please imagine a formerly sensible human being, me, with a formerly relatively low voice, turning into a screeching banshee. To make a very long story short, the employee assigned to make photocopies of my opus turned out to be a zealous fundamentalist Christian who thought the play might be blasphemous, and he had therefore taken the play to his minister to determine whether or not the thing should be burned at the stake.

I screeched at the copy shop owner to call the police. The poor man begged me to give him a little more time to retrieve the manuscript before we involved law enforcement. Then he giggled and said, “Please don’t sue me.” Later that day, he called to say my play had been returned unscathed and that he would have copies for me the next day, which he did.

In answer to your questions: Yes, he charged me full price, which I paid without protest because that’s the kind of fool I am, and No, the play was never produced.

“My work is a game, a very serious game.” M.C. Escher

I have been asked many times in my life by well-meaning people as well as by snide creeps why I continue to write books and plays and screenplays when it appears no one wants to publish them or produce them or film them? The short answer is: I don’t know. The longer answer is: I have my theories, but none hold water. The very long answer is that I love what I do and I have never ceased to believe that whatever I’m currently creating will lift me out of poverty and obscurity, etc. In other words, it’s what I do.

There is a curious and wonderful phenomenon that overtakes many a creative person as they work on their books or songs or paintings or essays or equations or you name it. And that is, at critical junctures along the way, these creative persons are convinced they have fashioned or discovered something fabulous and original and unprecedented that will change the course of (name of art form or academic discipline) for all time and lift them, the creator, out of poverty, obscurity, disfavor, etc.

But that’s just the beginning of the phenomenon. Upon completion of that first draft or sketch or version of the thing, there dawns upon the creator the realization that the thing is not quite the masterwork he or she thought it was whilst in the throes of convincement. Indeed, the thing once thought to be marvelous now seems to be quite possibly poop. This is the moment that separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls. This is the first opportunity for the easily disappointed to decide something is a failure and to give up.

But creative people take deep breaths and sally forth into the next iterations of their works to find themselves once again, we hope, utterly convinced they have made something magnificent that will change the course etc. And this “it’s-genius-oops-it’s not-oh-wait-it-is” pattern continues until the thing is done.

I am now convinced this self-tricking pattern is genetic and responsible for most of our cultural and artistic evolution. Unless creative individuals can be repeatedly self-tricked into thinking they are making things of exquisite value, they aren’t going to spend hundreds of hours, let alone years and decades, working on these creations when they could much more easily and profitably help destroy the earth or watch television.

“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” Thomas Jefferson

One of the things I love about that Thomas Jefferson quote is that it echoes Buckminster Fuller, a primary guru of mine. (Or Bucky echoes Tom if you believe time only goes in one direction.) Bucky’s book Critical Path was a gigantic game-changer for me. I love the idea that through our work we constantly create potential landing pads for cosmic largesse, intervention, collaboration; or what Jefferson called luck, except he was being mildly facetious on one level and absolutely serious on the next level down.

Which puts me in mind of the expression: “I’m waiting for my ship to come in.” which implies you have sent your ship (or ships) out (done your work); otherwise there wouldn’t be any ship out there to return laden with largesse (luck).

Bucky also said: “I assumed that nature would ‘evaluate’ my work as I went along. If I was doing what nature wanted done, and if I was doing it in promising ways, permitted by nature’s principles, I would find my work being economically sustained.”

Realizing that I had unconsciously lived my life that way before I read Bucky’s elucidation of the phenomenon, I decided to consciously adopt his assumption of a discerning and collaborative universe as the universal joint, so to speak, of the vehicle on which I would travel through life. And I discovered that Bucky was entirely correct. Nature does evaluate my work and provide or withhold support depending on her evaluations, but nature also evaluates all my life choices, including my choices of people to travel with; and whenever I choose people who think Bucky is a crackpot, nature withdraws her support prontisimo.

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.” Joseph Campbell

One of my favorite recordings is Joseph Campbell at 80. For his eightieth birthday Joe gave a one-hour talk in which he attempted to sum up the philosophical gist of his lifelong studies. I’ve listened to this talk at least ten times over the years, usually when I’m feeling at low ebb about having followed Bucky’s game plan and fearing I may have made a serious mistake. Joe always cheers me up and assures me I made the correct choice for the kind of person I am.

What I find most cheering about Joe’s eightieth birthday talk is hearing a wise and erudite old person talking about traveling the path he made for himself, and how he found help and happiness along the way despite myriad obstacles and countless people telling him he was a crackpot.

Our journeys, inward and outward, are the water; destinations are mirages.

The Play’s The Thing

Friday, April 1st, 2011

(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2011)

“More relative than this—the play’s the thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” William Shakespeare

Yes, it will only be a staged reading in a tiny theater on the fringes of civilization, but I feel like my play Milo & Angel is about to open on Broadway. And you’re invited! When I was sixteen years old, I decided to try to make my way as a playwright and actor amidst the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, but other scenarios intervened, other roads were taken, and all the plays I wrote remained hidden from public view.

True, the actors will be sitting in chairs and holding scripts as they perform, and they will only have rehearsed a few times under the inspired guidance of Sandra Hawthorne, but they will be on a real stage in a real theater (not a living room or a café) imbuing my lines with character. What an amazing process it has been so far, the blessed night still to come—April 13, a Wednesday evening at 7 PM at the Helen Schoeni Theater at the Mendocino Art Center—mark your calendars.

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.” George Bernard Shaw

I wrote the first act of Milo & Angel in 2005, the year before my father died. The moment the play began to speak itself, I knew it would be both homage to my father and an attempt to exorcise his terrible power over me. Thus I was not surprised when my muse fell silent at the conclusion of Act I, for my father was still alive and I was not sufficiently free of his influence to reveal the darker story I knew Act Two must contain.

Then a few months before my father died, when I knew his death was imminent, I concocted a second act. But a poem or a story or a play that I consciously invent, rarely rings true for me; so the truth of this play, the tender truth, remained waiting in the wings, waiting for my father to die before she felt safe enough to emerge and speak her lines.

“Truth is truth, to the end of reckoning.” William Shakespeare

In 2007, my second year in Mendocino, I completed a draft of Milo & Angel that I felt was good enough to send out to the tiny number of theater companies in America who at least pretend to consider plays from writers without agents or influential friends; and this I did. I received a few kindly rejections and little else. I also gave copies to people connected to the Mendocino Theater Company, but got no response from any of them. So my ninth play seemed destined to suffer the same fate as my previous eight.

Then I gave a copy to Kathy Mooney, my friend and counselor, and she shared the play with Valerie McMillan who oversees play readings at the Mendocino Theater Company, and Valerie gave the play to Sandra Hawthorne, and after a time it was decided that Milo & Angel would be one of the plays in this year’s reading series. And I tell you honestly, I am as excited about having my play read in front of an audience—I hope you’ll come—than I was when they made a major motion picture out of my first novel.

Sandra took the helm, as it were, and from the pool of available and willing actors hereabouts cast the six parts. As of this writing, we have had three rehearsals, the cast has changed three times, I have rewritten the play with Sandra’s guidance four times (some scenes seven or eight times), and we only have two more rehearsals until the blessed night befalls us.

The cast members, barring further changes, are Alena Guest, Ruby Belle, Garth Hagerman, Todd Walton, David Woolis, and Julie Burns. I am told that such staged readings hereabouts usually only require of the actors two rehearsals, and this one will have five, so I intend to shower these generous volunteers with gifts (when I see who is still standing at the end.)

“The theater is so endlessly fascinating because it’s so accidental. It’s so much like life.” Arthur Miller

The most exciting aspect of this process so far has been conferring with Sandra after each rehearsal, when the flaws in rhythm and flow, and in my choices of words, are still fresh in our minds, and then figuring out how to fix the problems. With each new draft, the play improves and the emotional content deepens; and if the entire cast quits tomorrow and the reading never happens, I will have been the beneficiary of a priceless collaboration.

I have a long and mostly unsuccessful history of creative collaboration, which is why nowadays I mostly work alone. My more successful collaborations have been with women, whereas the old maxim Never Go Into Business With A Friend rings true as a summation for all but a few of my collaborations with male friends. And what is far more interesting to me than why those attempts at collaboration failed is why I continue to try to collaborate after so many dismal failures.

Having recently had a marvelous musical collaboration with my cellist wife Marcia, and now this excellent writing collaboration with Sandra Hawthorne, I am sorely tempted to say that the problem lies with men. However, I am a man, so perhaps it would be truer to say that the problem lies with me in relation to other men, which brings us, inevitably, to my father, my first and foremost male role model with whom collaboration of any kind was out of the question because he despised everything I loved and thought everything anybody else said about anything was stupid and wrong. Hmm.

I think the rehearsals we’ve had of Milo & Angel—actors sitting around Sandra’s commodious dining table—would make a wonderful basis for a play: people shifting out of their public personas into their characters in the play, their play characters changing as the playwright and director give them feedback, which changes in their play characters impact their public personas—characters quitting, switching parts, new actors coming in and interpreting their characters in ways so unlike the previous interpretations that the play (and the play within the play) shift from comedy to tragedy to farce to…it’s just an idea.

“You need three things in the theater—the play, the actors, and the audience—and each must give something.” Kenneth Haigh

I am one who laughs uproariously at things in movies and plays that other people tend not laugh out loud about. (I am thinking of movies such as Young Frankenstein and A Thousand Clowns.) Combine this tendency with the fact that I am my own biggest fan—I just love what I create—and you will understand why I have several times boldly proclaimed to Sandra, “Oh, that will get a big laugh.” To which she has wisely responded, “Audiences for staged readings tend to be small, and small audiences tend not to laugh very much.” Darn. Even so, I feel Milo & Angel, for all the tragedy it contains, is very funny, too. Just like life.

Art Rant

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Books

Rae’s eyes were red and swollen. They sat on the couch side by side, in silence, waiting for the doctor.” from Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott

The silence of the eyes rings true, and the eyes being side-by-side seems plausible, but how in heck did those eyes get onto that couch without Rae?

I was thirteen and had devoured a thousand books before I discovered the first typo of my reading career, an error that struck me as a scandalous affront to the artistry of writing. I was an insatiable reader, and wanting to be a professional writer I did not skim, but read every word. And when I found passages that wowed me, I copied their lines longhand to teach my sinews the feel of great writing.

“The pallor of hunger suited Kim very well as he stood, tall and slim, in his sad-coloured, sweeping robes, one hand on his rosary and the other in the attitude of benediction, faithfully copied from the lama. An English observer might have said that he looked rather like the young saint of a stained-glass window, whereas he was but a growing lad faint with emptiness.” from Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Nowadays I am surprised if I read a book from a corporate press and don’t find grammatical errors galore with typos sprinkled throughout. I was recently told I must read the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri, a current darling of the New York literati, a writer with myriad awards to her credit, including a Pulitzer. I dutifully ordered her most revered collection of short stories, and after wading through several introductory pages of praiseful blurbs from influential magazines and newspapers—the word miraculous appearing in several of the blurbs—I entered a grammatical minefield that rendered her half-baked stories unreadable for the likes of me.

I complained of Ms. Lahiri’s failings to Marcia, my wife who is so patient with me when I rant about the decline and fall of our culture. Marcia calmly considered my condemnation of the writer and said, “Maybe you just don’t like her style.”

Indeed. Clunky composition featuring profligate use of the word “it”, pronoun confusion, place confusion, time confusion, inadequate descriptions of people and places, and lame depictions of action do add up to a particular style, but who needs it? And why would reviewers describe such stuff as miraculous? In two words: culture collapse.

Jhumpa Lahiri and Anne Lamott and countless other contemporary authors contracted by the corporate presses should be ashamed to publish books that have not been thoroughly and thoughtfully edited. Why aren’t they ashamed? You tell me.

Radio

“It’s not true I had nothing on, I had the radio on.” Marilyn Monroe

In 1966 I was lead singer in a rock band of sixteen-year-old boys. By our third rehearsal we knew we were fantastic and would soon be opening at the Fillmore for our favorite bands Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. After much deliberation, we settled on the name Joy Ride, though I was never certain if we were The Joy Ride or simply Joy Ride.

This was long before the advent of cassette tape recorders (now obsolete) so we recorded our loud songs on an Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder and sent the one-of-a-kind tapes to Warner Brothers and Columbia Records so we would be discovered and made famous and have beautiful wonderful girlfriends who wanted to have sex with us day and night while maintaining their brilliance and creativity and innocence.

We had one gig before (The) Joy Ride broke up. The gig was a battle of four bands in a cavernous high school gymnasium. We were awesome, yet we lost the battle. The only possible explanation for our defeat was that the airheads didn’t get where we were coming from. Our one stalwart groupie said we reminded her of Jimi Hendrix and The Byrds rolled into one. No wonder we knew we were fantastic.

Embittered by our rejection by the airheads, I joined forces with a guitar player and wrote eleven amazing songs. We recorded our masterworks on that same reel-to-reel tape recorder and sent the tape to A&M Records because a friend of ours had a friend who knew someone’s friend’s cousin or uncle who worked there. Maybe the tape got lost in the mail, but more likely the record company airheads just didn’t get where we were coming from. In any case…

Fast-forward forty-five years. Having just produced two new CDs, I have been questing for likely DJs at likely radio stations to send our music to, my goal being to send forth a hundred packets, each containing our CDs and a heartfelt handwritten letter aimed at a specific DJ. So not Jazz is my collaboration with the aforementioned patient wife Marcia, her exquisite cello improvisations elevating our jazzy instrumentals and songs into the sublime, while 43 short Piano Improvisations is my solo adventure in musical haiku.

Whilst pursuing those rare DJs who might be open to music from the likes of us, I have visited over a hundred public radio station web sites and scrutinized several hundred DJ profiles and play lists. As of this writing, I have sent out sixty-seven packets and gained three DJ fans: one in Fort Collins, Colorado, one in Worcester, Massachusetts, and one in Astoria, Oregon. They have each played a tune or two of ours, and promise to play more. We are, in a word, thrilled.

As a result of my copious research, I have learned that if a radio station is an NPR (National Public Radio) affiliate and airs All Things Considered, they will probably be a kind of public radio Clear Channel with canned programming and zero interest in independent artists. But if a station airs Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, there is a fair chance they will harbor one or more zany, curious, eclectic programmers. And then there are the entirely student-run college stations. I do not intend to approach any of these stations until our hip-hop metal reggae album Dread Metal YoYo is ready for release.

Movies and Plays

“Television has raised writing to a new low.” Samuel Goldwyn

John Simon is the author of my favorite one-sentence film review. In response to the movie Tommy, he wrote in Esquire, “Anyone who has anything good to say about this movie has nothing to say to me.” I feel this way about nearly all the American movies I’ve seen in the last thirty years, and that is because I have not been programmed to digest contemporary theatrical offerings.

Contemporary movies and theatre in America are now entirely conflated with television, the essence of which is physical and psychic violence, emotional superficiality, sexism, the deification of morons, verbal abuse disguised as humor, and non-stop brainwashing. Because I ceased watching television in 1969, the programming of my brain has not kept pace with the changing cultural mores. Thus contemporary American plays and movies, even those purported to be brilliant and deep and meaningful, almost always strike me as trivial and/or toxic.

I remember the precise moment I decided to forego television for the rest of my life. I was nineteen and on the verge of dropping out of college—academia antithetical to the likes of me. I was wandering the halls of my dorm looking for someone to accompany me on a late night stroll when I came to a lounge wherein a dozen young men and women were watching television. As I stood in the lounge doorway and watched the watchers, I was struck by the realization that these promising young people, four of them my best friends, were being lobotomized by the rays emanating from the television, their faces fixed in helpless idiocy.

Over the last thirty years, I have attended some two hundred plays in theatres large and small in New York and Los Angeles and Seattle and Sacramento and Berkeley and San Francisco, and most recently Mendocino, and I cannot bring to mind a single contemporary play written by an American that I believed in for more than a moment or two. Of the few hundred American movies I’ve seen since 1980, I can think of a handful I would call good, only a few great. Thank goodness we have access to foreign films (I consider the British foreign) so I do not entirely starve for good movies, though I am frequently hungry.

I am certain (having been privileged to read such manuscripts) that fine plays, books, and screenplays are still being written in America, but they are not, as a rule, produced or published or widely disseminated. And, yes, I have on rare occasions over the last forty years watched television, usually at the request of friends urging me to sample shows they say are fabulous, only to have my sense of the ongoing devolution confirmed.

Renaissance

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Pablo Picasso

If you so desire, you can overcome the televisionization of your psyche and revitalize your aesthetic taste buds. Having worked with many teenage and adult writers who were initially incapable of writing original stories with non-stereotypical characters and natural-sounding dialogue, and knowing the causes of their dysfunction to be television, corporate fiction, and contemporary American movies, I found that if I could convince my charges to eliminate these influences from their lives, creative rebirth was a virtual certainty. For teenagers, such rebirths may occur within weeks of their ceasing to imbibe the media opiates. For adults, such rejuvenation may take months. And I suppose the modern variants of television, iPads, cell phones, YouTube, etc. should be included in the list of influences to be minimized.

Our brains, in much the same way as ecosystems, will regenerate once persistent toxics and stresses are removed, and once you end your addiction to the opiates of the masses you will be astonished by the dramatic shift in your perceptions. However, there is the strong possibility you will feel left out of the cultural discourse about celebrities and the latest movies and books you can’t remember shortly after you ingest them, and you may feel isolated and lonely and desperate in the absence of all that you have become accustomed to. Fear not. Falling off the wagon is but a click of the On button and a badly written bestseller away.

[Todd reads books written by dead or very old or unknown authors and watches foreign films (and the occasional teen flick) in Mendocino.]

This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010