Posts Tagged ‘Sandra Hawthorne’

Off The Map

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Green Chair oil Nolan Winkler

Green Chair oil on canvas by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2014)

“We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.” Chris Hedges 

Marcia and I are on the two-movies-a-month plan from Netflix, and many of the movies we watch are foreign films and documentaries. For my taste, most of the American films made available to the public in the last thirty years are so badly written and badly acted and poorly directed, I want no part of them, though once in a while a miracle occurs and I am reminded of how vibrant and creative American cinema used to be before the televisionization of everything.

A couple months ago, Marcia suggested, “What about the one where the IRS guy goes to audit the family living in the middle of nowhere?”

Never having heard of such a film, I entered movie about IRS guy auditing family in middle of nowhere into my favorite search engine and up came Off The Map (2003), directed by Campbell Scott, the co-director with Stanley Tucci of one of my favorite American movies of the last few decades Big Night (1996). To our delight, Off the Map was available from Netflix (which is not true of many films we wish to see), and a few nights ago we watched Off the Map, which I found genuinely funny and touching and thought provoking and full of beautiful imagery.

One of the main thoughts this tenderly made movie provoked in me was how terribly impatient people have become as the result of the massive and ongoing reprogramming of our expectations of how life should be, as opposed to how Nature actually is. This reprogramming, carried out by the mass media and by the mass incarceration of children in mind-numbing schools and by fear-driven previously reprogrammed parents, is at the heart of our collective dissatisfaction and depression and abnegation of our true natures in service to an economic and social system entirely disconnected from Nature.

Off The Map is an insightful portrayal of the healing power of kindness and generosity and cooperation and patience, not with the usual Hollywood flourishes and swelling music, but through the graceful capture of hundreds of reflexive acts of kindness and sharing by a few good people living far enough off the map, literally and figuratively, that they have reconnected with the founding truth of human society, which is that we cannot survive in any meaningful or satisfying way without being of service to each other, and even if we could survive without helping each other, what fun would that be?

“All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” Ronald Reagan

In distinct contrast to the movie Off The Map is the play Other Desert Cities, which Marcia and I just saw performed by the Mendocino Theatre Company (performances continuing through April 6.) The big reason to see this play, as far as I’m concerned, is to watch Sandra Hawthorne, who is so extraordinary and impressively real in the central role that the difficulties I had with the play’s story and writing pale next to her remarkable performance. If you go, try to sit close to the stage because the acoustics in the venerable Helen Schoeni Theater severely suck. If I ever strike it rich, I will endow MTC with sufficient funds to have local sound wizard Peter Temple install a few excellent microphones and speakers in the appropriate nooks so actors’ voices may carry with ease to the far reaches of that sound absorbent little box.

Other Desert Cities was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, which is vivid proof of the current silliness of that prize, and though the dialogue in Other Desert Cities is far superior to the awful speechifying in the last play we saw at MTC, Time Stands Still, the dialogue in Other Desert Cities suffers from far too much on-the-nose expository telling and not nearly enough nuanced character-revealing showing, which is true of all new American plays that find their way into production these days. Subtlety and complexity and shades of gray, not to mention dialogue reminiscent of how people actually speak to each other, are apparently suspect now in contemporary American theatre, and companies large and small seem to operate on the assumption that their seats will be filled, if they’re lucky, with not very bright children trapped in the bodies of adults—and maybe those theatre companies are right.

Which brings me to another thing I loved about the movie Off The Map: the author, Joan Ackermann, and director Campbell Scott, completely ignored the dominant trend in American books and plays and movies today, which is to speak down to the audience—down down down into idiocy. On the contrary, the makers of Off The Map (a film I’ll bet lost money) trusted that people watching their movie would possess sufficient intelligence and imagination to come to their own conclusions about much of what happens in the film, just as we come to our own conclusions about the myriad mysteries in life. What a concept.

“A man of great common sense and good taste—meaning thereby a man without originality or moral courage.” George Bernard Shaw

In the play Other Desert Cities, one of the characters, a television producer, is incredulous when his sister claims she has never heard of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, a highly unlikely claim given that she is a New York sophisticate, a literary writer, and is about to publish an excerpt from her lurid memoir in The New Yorker. Her brother opines that her saying she has never heard of Tolkien is either a lie or snobbery or both. This was a most telling moment in the play for me, and I was eager to see how their conflict would progress, but the subject was summarily dropped and never broached again.

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx

Yesterday I was having a cookie at the Goodlife Café & Bakery when I was approached by a man I’ve known for several years who prefaces all our conversations with, “I see you’re still writing for the AVA,” though he has never divulged if he reads me. Curious. Anyway, this fellow seems to think that because I am a writer, I must also read piles of popular contemporary books, which I do not. Every time I bump into this guy, he enumerates the many bestselling books he has consumed since our last meeting, each title followed by the name of the author and a one-word review such as “important” or “heavy” or “painful” or “sobering.”

This man is repeatedly dismayed to learn that I have not read any of the books he enumerates, and my explanation—that I read very few books these days because I spend so much time slaving over my own hot lines—does not console him. He is adamant that it is my duty to read the current darlings of corporate publishing in order to…what? Learn from them? Imitate them? I dunno.

“Bad taste creates many more millionaires than good taste.” Charles Bukowski

A reader recently wrote to suggest I add book recommendations to my weekly articles. I explained to her that I no longer recommend books or movies or much of anything to anyone because so many of my past recommendations proved grave disappointments to those I sought to please. For instance, I used to zealously recommend Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim to anyone who would listen to me, prefacing my recommendations by saying I’ve read Kim several times and continue to imbibe the blessed tome every couple years because for me Kim is more than a novel but a holy text, a gorgeous epic poem, and a timeless masterwork.

Alas, nearly all the women who, on my recommendation, attempted to read Kim loathed the book and said the story was sexist, racist, outdated, confusing, adolescent, boring, a guy thing, and unreadable. Guy thing or not, most of the men who tried to read Kim on my recommendation said they found the book confusing, imperialist, irrelevant, childish, implausible, clunky, outdated, and unreadable.

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.” Alan Jones

Those words by Alan Jones, former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, perfectly elucidate the guiding theme of the movie Off The Map, as well as the guiding theme of all my favorite novels and stories and plays and movies.

Todd’s new novel Ida’s Place is available exclusively from UnderTheTableBooks.com

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.