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Friday, October 30, 2009


Maybe this is one of those evenings when I should skip blogging. I just got back from the Deer Head Inn down the road a mile from my house in Delaware Water Gap. (click for their web page.) The Deer Head has been a jazz club for going on 60 years. It’s a kooky shaped room but it works. I played several gigs there with the Radio Aces, back in my ukulele broadcaster daze. Tonight JJ Deluxe called me around 8:30 – just as I was settling down to write a serious blog entry – and said I had to come hear this vocalist. Her name is Stephanie Nakasian. She was very good, with excellent control and a real jazzy delivery.

Today was a gardening day. I got the final patch of ginseng planted in my woods; then in the kitchen garden the garlic went into the ground. It’s very late for me to be getting the garlic into the ground. Tradition has it being planted around Columbus Day. I noticed the beets and carrots needed a final thinning. For dinner I wrapped some goat cheddar from a farm about 65 miles southwest of here, wrapped in young chard and escarole leaves from the garden, along with some fresh bread. I picked up the cheese last week at the Allentown Farmers market.

Usually the planting of the garlic is the sign for me to start heading into the city more and more. I’ve been missing the city but hunkering down here and doing some more writing seemed essential. Now it’s time for me to start getting out more. Which I guess is why it was so easy for Deluxe to coax me out.

I was reading on Salon today about what a comer ginseng is as a crop. The Chinese are pouring all sorts of millions into ginseng farming in Wisconsin. What really interested me though was the account by the Jesuit whose observations set off the ginseng craze in North America, which eventually led to the extraction of all wild ginseng. I’ve always said that before getting into drying I want to try the fresh root. This priest made it sound like the fresh root had properties akin to coca leaves. Anyway, the upshot of it all is that woods grown ginseng is still the most sought after in the world, and in 4 more years I’m going to start having ample mature roots every year. Did ever I mention that ginseng is my 401K?

Here's the Salon link:

The Ginseng Jesuit led me to thinking about Ignatz Pfeffercorn, the Jesuit who combed the Southwest region of North America in search of varieties of hot chile peppers. I guess all that missionary work did have some value.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Celebration or Power?

Here's a link to coverage of a recent, and spectacular, street theater piece in Berlin, celebrating the reunion of the city 20 years ago:

Here's a link to an article on the most powerful people on Broadway:

Celebration or power? Which is theater really about?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Today I want to talk about failure. Reading about other people’s failures, and subsequent successes often inspires me. Dominick Dunne's career comes immediately to mind. There’s a YouTube video titled Best Motivational Video Ever that chronicles this thinking very well. (Click the title to see it.) So maybe talking about one of my own failures will help bring about some success.

Il Viaggio del Serpente (The Voyage of the Serpent) was the Plexus failure that almost made me write off the group’s activities in 1988. I would, of course, succumb to the allure of the group’s experimental opera/theater one more time in 1989 with the Italian tour of Columbus Voyages to the Planet Art. But in 1987-1988, we were all talking about “The Serpent”.

I really went to work on this piece with abandon. It had the makings of being the kind of spectacle that no one could ignore. I began to design the piece and meet with artists. My plan was to have the world’s first opera in the form of a parade. It was to be street theater on a magnificent level. My first play was produced by the street theater unit at McCarter Theater in Princeton. In the early 197os, I lived in Vermont for a year and one of my neighbors down the road was Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater. Their spectacles, albeit performed in a field as opposed to an urban street setting, further influenced my thinking about free public theatrical performances. My subsequent and tenuous – to say the least – affiliation with Theater for the New City in Manhattan also led to an appreciation of this métier. So, Il Viaggio del Serpente was to be my personal piece de resistance.

I drew up plans which included a serpent that could be assembled in the street, modular construction style, much as we undertook in Eve – which I promise to write about soon. Participating artists would each be given 12-foot lengths of canvas 40 inches wide, stenciled with a large set of musical staff lines. Each artist would then use whatever imagery, or abstraction, he or she chose to portray musical notation. Canvas carrying straps would be strategically sewn so that each length could be carried over the shoulder of three people. Grommets and ties at either end would serve as the links between each section. Thus, we would have a serpent with musical scales.

The serpent would have two sides and the singers/chanters would be 2 or 3 abreast in between. I also came up with a conical shaped hat design – hats are often important to my costuming concepts, as you’ll learn if you follow this blog or get a chance to see some my shows realized onstage. Everyone within the serpent – musicians, artists, carriers – would wear one of these hats, as well as a poncho-style piece of fabric. The wide part of the hats' conical shape was to be the top and obviously the crowns would be fitted to individuals heads at the bottom. Tops would be closed and painted different colors. The outsides of the hats would be painted with polka dots. This way, as the parade moved through the streets, the dots would undulate like the back of a serpent if seen or filmed from above, for example from a helicopter.

Eric Roberts, the movie actor, who was a friend of mine in those days, agreed to be the parade marshal. He would ride in a Cadillac with a papier mache serpent’s head over the hood. The music was to be all fanfares, and simple lyrics/chants would be created to suit the music. A raised platform on the trunk of the car would be for the conductor. The main body of musicians would follow right behind that. Depending on the final length of the piece, units of musicians would be strategically placed in various sections of the serpent to follow the conductor’s lead. These placements would facilitate the singers and the audience along the way hearing the music at the same time rather than having it waft back from the front.

Rudolf Pippei, the nightclub impresario, was running The Tunnel at the time. He loved the entire concept and agreed to help finance the purchase of materials.

Sandro, who was out of the country during much of my planning, returned. He didn’t like the idea at all. It was too much, too large an undertaking. He had something quite different in mind. Plexus was nothing if it was not Sandro’s effort first and foremost. I didn’t argue with him, though I was seriously disappointed. The artists who had previously been enthused drifted away from the project. I soon found out what Sandro had in mind.

One evening a few core members of Plexus gathered in the President’s Dining Room atop the Bobst Library at NYU. There I was given a gas mask and along with everyone else in the troupe we did a kind of line dance through the assembled audience of academics, to recorded music, as I recall. The Italian television network RAI, at Sandro’s urging, sent a camera crew. My big moment in front of the camera, I lifted the gas mask off my face and said “Save the rain forest.” This apparently got aired in Italy. The next year when I was in Rome, several people commented/complimented me on my “political performance.”

I found the final realization pathetic, no matter who covered it. When Sandro arranged for us to do a similar version in Dakar, Senegal a few months later, I declined to go. It was, for me, a failure. I had burned up some good will and energy to no avail. An interesting idea became a haphazard lurching happening staged for a handful of professors.

I was writing all sorts of magazine articles at the time and shrugged my shoulders at the outcome. Plexus was becoming something quite other than my vision for it, and no matter how much Sandro praised my efforts as impresario and dramaturge, I felt very frustrated. My grand idea – an opera in the form of a parade – should have been too big to fail.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Weather or Not

The sky was suicide gray today and a cold rain fell. Winter is coming much too quickly. Then JJ Deluxe called and he was apparently unhappy about my proposed song list for the new band. The old cowboy songs really aren’t very 21st century, or medicine show appropriate, I guess. Yesterday the weather forecast failed to mention rain today. Do you think anybody feels bad about that? I get the feeling weather people are kind of like politicians - lots of promises followed by “oops” and “oh well.”

Some emails helped lift my mood, though. Guy Lockard, who last year was a featured player in my show “Sex! Drugs! & Ukuleles!” (soon to be “Ukulele Land”) sent me a link to his new Powerball commercial. I didn’t understand the commercial. You watch it and see if you can figure it out. (Guy is on the right of the screen in the elevator.)

It made me smile to see Guy working even if I didn’t quite get the chicken feathers. He’s a very talented young man and I expect we’ll all hear lots more from him. Best of all, however, is the fact that I play Powerball for a dollar twice a week and I felt luckier somehow after watching the spot. Maybe this will be my week!?! I’ve got a connection now, right? Anyway, I’d rather bet on Powerball than weather forecasts or politicians.

Then there was this article in the NY Times today about hard luck and a theatrical comeback. What a great story!

Enzo Capone, a friend of my Plexus collaborator Sandro Dernini, sent me a link to his evolving website about food and art He lives in the 718 area code and reads this blog. He's got some interesting food items on his site. For example, something I didn't know, 2008 was the U.N. Year of the Potato.

Then at the end of the day I got an email from a producer responding to something I sent her about 10 days ago. She wants to meet. So, who knows? At least she’s not Ukrainian.

The weather didn’t change much but it did get dark.

I’m going to spend the evening reading Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson”. One of these days I’ll actually get all the way through this tome.

I’ve been getting a few Face Book communications and emails about this blog. (Nobody ever comments on the actual blog page for some reason.) It’s funny. People in the country who are reading want more about the theater. People in the city want more about farming and food. I want a cigar and will settle for a cheroot.

Tomorrow I’ll get started earlier. Today was a mental health day.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Do I really need to start another band? My new script is starting to gel, even at this early stage. Ideas and hooks for the songs are flowing. I’m focused. Plus, I’ve got this blog to keep up. There’s three things I love that don’t make any sense, as they never made me a millionaire – writing alone in a well-lit room, working in a dark theater to get a new show up and running, and playing on stage with other musicians for an appreciative crowd. Today I talked it over with JJ Deluxe and he agreed to be part of a new band and that was basically enough for me to announce the formation of “Uke Jackson’s Snake Oil Elixir and 21st Century Medicine Show.”

Mr. Deluxe came by with a half bushel of hot peppers this morning and we talked while making some killer hot pepper relish. Deluxe played in two of my past bands – “Uke Jackson and the Radio Aces”, which was the home team for my radio show, and the “Delaware River Ukulele Guild” (do the initials). I also have to say that playing with JJ Deluxe over the years taught me more about making good music than anyone else. We also, obviously, share the hot pepper obsession.

One thing is that JJ Deluxe is first and foremost a trad jazz musician. My tastes tend to be a bit more eclectic. However, in our recent sessions playing tunes, he’s shown a willingness to go beyond the usual parameters (which include some of the best music ever written or played). Another thing, though, is that when playing with Deluxe the music comes from a place of relaxation and fun. So, I guess it’s not surprising that we’re off on another musical adventure.

I came across an old German proverb recently that, translated, reads: “Trees never touch the sky.” After mulling it over for awhile, its meaning became evident and it depressed me a bit, even though I recognize the truth in the statement. A band is a way to avoid being too rooted, I guess. So are theater productions. I'm the total of myself when collaborating to see a show realized on stage. How did I come to choose playing music as a fall back position to career as a playwright? I’m munching a handful of pistachios from a bowl while writing and another old saying comes to mind: “You are what you eat.”

Maybe starting a new band is nuts. But the whole world seems more than a little crazy right now, so what the hell. Live music makes life better.

Soon we’ll be folkin’ around on a stage. I’ve got a guitar player wants to play, and a gal fiddle player who will play with us when her schedule allows, though I’d entertain the idea of another fiddle player as first seat on that instrument just because this gal is so busy. I got a bag full of tambourines, maracas, shakers, bells and whistles for the young actress/singers who will be joining us for back up vocals. There are a couple nominees for washboard. We’re looking for a harmonica player, if you know someone, and a keyboardist might work, too. And, being a 21st century medicine show band, we have an expert on playing musical iPhone apps.

If you know any documentary maker who might want to make a film about a 21st Century medicine show band from inception at least thru the first gig, please send that person my way!

I’m designing the label for the Snake Oil Elixir. It will be sold from the stage and have a secret ingredient. There will be 2 sizes – large and small – and the bottles themselves will be collectible works of art. The Snake Oil Elixir will be better than Viagra, when topically applied and orally removed. It will only be available at gigs and maybe through my website. It will also cure neuritis, neuralgia, dog flu, and poverty. It will provide pep, vim and vigor to every minute of every day, and make you sleep better at night. Best get yours as soon as its available.

Fuck Big Pharma their endless TV commercials! Those touts of 4 hour erections got nothing on my 21st Century Medicine Show. We be live!

So, here’s a probable song list in no particular order, with one more quote first:

“The night before he swung
He sang to his mandolin.”
Willa Cather

King of the Road (Roger Miller)
Dang Me
Do Something (by Morton Downey Sr.)
Kansas City Kitty
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Take Me Home, Country Roads
When You’re Smiling
eBaying at the Ukulele Moon (by Yours Truly)
John Hardy
Round A Western Water Tank
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love

Bird on a Wire (Leonard Cohen)
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (The Band)
Tin Roof Blues
Struttin’ With Some Barbeque
Frankie and Johnny
Jack o’ Diamonds
A Cowboy's Life
Midnight in Moscow
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of This Jellyroll
Love Is Just Around the Corner

Limehouse Blues
16 Tons
Thick Stack of Hundred Dollar Bills
Back in the High Life (Steve Winwood)
Norwegian Wood (Beatles)
Will You Love Me Tomorrow
All of Me

And more tunes yet to be nominated by band members and decided upon collectively. We might never make any money but we’re going to have some fun!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Ah, More Food!

Ah, the best laid plans of playwrights and other sentient beings. I promise to get back to writing about theatrical endeavors, disasters and personalities soon. Meanwhile, I’m still here in the country and music and local food keep me occupied. This is a good thing, as both these elements will play a big part in my new show. I made the first scratches on paper yesterday – so the beginnings of the script and one of the songs are in existence.

After writing in the morning, I went out to my buddy Frank’s farm to make paprika. On the way I picked up a 20 pound bag of organic potatoes from his next door neighbor, who farms some of Frank’s fields. I’d stopped by there the day before yesterday with my friends Madi and Mike, as they wanted to take some farm food back to Manhattan with them. They were flabbergasted at the price -- $9 for 20 pounds – compared to what they pay at the Union Square Green Market. I wasn’t exactly flabbergasted but did note that Roger raised the price a buck from last year. Oh well.

Anyway, I got to Frank’s and he had the smoker going full bore. Frank lost a leg due to a botched operation three or four years ago. He zips around in an electric wheelchair. His farm is a classic. It reeks of authenticity. Everything has its place and is utilitarian, no matter how colorful it all looks in the aggregate. Yesterday Frank was smoking sweet red peppers using apple, hickory and oak woods.

This is our third year making paprika in the autumn. Frank orders the plants to be started at a local greenhouse, using heirloom seeds and in the spring Roger and some part time farm hands and volunteers put the seedlings in the ground when the danger of frost is past. Frank always grows a few hot pepper plants, too. Everything gets smoked and then dried in an electric unit that he uses. I show up with my food processor and pulverize the dried smoked peppers. Then I separate the powder from the seeds and coarser flakes using a strainer and a wooden pestle. The result is an exquisite smoked paprika that you can’t buy anywhere at any price. It’s incredible in soups, on cut roasted potatoes and in all sorts of other dishes.

We get two basic grades of paprika – the fine powder and “pizza grade” – which has the consistency of crushed red pepper you find in pizzerias. We also make the tastes vary by using hot peppers with sweet red mountain peppers. We call this our zesty paprika. Everybody who works on the peppers, from spring through the final product, gets a jar of fine and pizza grade for their own use.

And speaking of pizza, that’s one way Frank gets people to volunteer to work on his farm. He makes the most incredible, thin crust homemade pizza and serves it to you for lunch. It’s a different topping every time, always delicious, and always, always, zestily spiced.

Frank is unusual character. On the one hand, he’s a bachelor farmer in the classic mold. On the other hand he’s an educated litterateur. He taught journalism at Columbia, worked at Rodale press as the editor of Organic Farmer magazine, and he was a night editor at the local daily until he lost his leg. These days his editorial efforts are limited to writing copy for the ever changing labels on his garlic vinegar. The garlic vinegar you can get by searching for Rolling Hills Farm on

Frank invited me to come out this Sunday for a special tasting. Ten years ago, we made several barrels of organic hard cider from apples in his orchard. (Frank was an organic farmer before it became stylish, way before.) Needless to say, a lot of the cider got drunk. Or should I say a few of us got real drunk. I vaguely recall one time drinking so much down in the cider cellar that I ate fresh smoked venison – even though I was a vegetarian at the time – before napping on the dirt floor for several hours.

Anyway, Frank being Frank, he put aside 15 glass carboys (5 gallon jugs) to age. So, this Sunday, he’s having an open house. Every person has to bring 2 gourmet sandwiches. We’ll be siphoning pitchers of the 10 year old cider and tasting it. Some will be vinegar, of course – which is a good thing. But some of it is sure to have mellowed into something truly worth quaffing. I suppose a blog report will be in order.

Speaking of quaffing, though – last night I had pumpkin ale that was brewed locally at The Gem and Keystone in Shawnee on the Delaware. It was an excellent brew made with pumpkins grown right in the restaurant’s kitchen garden. It was the grand opening last night. The menu is “locavore” and I’m looking forward to going there for a meal soon. Last night they were serving an array of Pennsylvania-made artisan cheese.

The Gem and Keystone is the brainchild of Ginny and Charlie Kirkwood, who own the Shawnee resort (and the Shawnee Playhouse, a charming little theater less than 5 miles from my house. Fred Waring used to broadcast his radio show from the theater, and Jackie Gleason owned a home on the resort grounds.)

Now that I’m warmed up, I’m off to work on my new show.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Doctor Said Give 'em Jug Band Music

Today I have guests from the city. Our friends Mike and Madi came out yesterday afternoon. And then JJ Deluxe, saxophonist and hot pepper farmer, showed up with his curved soprano sax, and we broke out the washboards. Madi doubled on washboard And baritone ukulele, Mike doubled on washboard and iPhone apps. (Note the iPhone in his hand. I had to ask him to stop when he was playing the iPhone cymbals.) I played my Gibson tenor uke, of course. Sara cooked and snapped the pix.

Please note the nearly empty whiskey bottle on the windown sill. Madi's elbow is pointing at it. I was drinking wine but that bottle didn't make it into the picture. The smile, however, is totally illegal.

We played some blues, some old jazz standards, and my own original "Thick Stack of Hundred Dollars Bills". The last song was a request from the teenagers who were gathered in another part of the house. I played it solo for some of them recently. They wanted to hear the "band" do it and we gave them a rousing version.

It was a real jug band/string band kind of evening. Afterward, we went across the street to the neighbor's house and drank up some of his booze while watching the Yankees clobber the Angels (!!!!!) and talked til 1 am.

Back home, I went outside on the deck once everybody was in bed and all the lights were off, wrapped in an overcoat, and watched for the Orionid meteor shower. I saw a couple smudges, then one brilliant large meteor shot across the sky and the clouds rolled in from the other direction. I'll try again tonight if it's clear.

I'm taking Mike and Madi to the top of Camelback Mountain today to see the foliage. Then we're going to Hallet's -- a country lunch counter right out of days gone by. From there we'll pop by Farmer Frank's place, where I'm going to plant a few ginseng seeds on his wooded north-facing slope -- as part of my personal Johnny-Ginseng-restoration-of-this-native-species-to-the- Delaware-River-watershed project.

From Frank's we'll take the back roads home and drive through Cherry Valley -- America's newest US Fish and Wildlife preserve -- right to my house, which is grandfathered into the preserve. Mike and Madi came out to see the autumn foliage. Well, today they will see it in blazing glory.

Tomorrow I'll get back to topics more theatrical. Peace.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

MONSTER TIME – 20 year anniversary (part 2)

A week after that disastrous first night, the show opened with a gala event. Eric Douglas brought his own publicist into the production and they pulled out the stops, fielding celebrities galore to sop up free champagne and vodka. I had already hired David Rothenberg, who had produced the prison drama “The Fortune in Men’s Eyes” back in the 1960s and had founded the Fortune Society, which helped ex-cons acclimate and re-enter society when they got out of the joint. He was also a theatrical press agent. David was the perfect choice to promote “Monster Time.”

Unfortunately, Eric believed that the only press should be about him. He pulled some of the most underhanded behavior I have ever experienced to achieve this. First, though, Rothenberg tried to coordinate with Eric’s publicist. There was a clash of egos, and when it comes to ego-clashes the Douglas clan always wins. Nothing the show’s publicist did was good enough. Eric demanded a list of the reviewers who had been invited. Then, unbeknown to me, he called them all and canceled their invitations. Apparently, he felt he wasn’t ready to be reviewed by the New York press.

Without reviews, the play would never get published. I had spent eight years writing and rewriting this script. It had started with 20 characters and ended with 3. It was a powerful piece, if audience reactions were any indicator. As recently as last year, somebody who had seen the show went all floral on me with compliments when discovering that I was the author of this show. And it was the first attempt by a playwright to address the issue of the death penalty since it had been reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976.

I don’t want to rip Eric too much, as he died 5 years ago, at the age of 46. He was an unhappy man, apparently addicted to pills and obese, by all accounts. He died of a drug overdose, and newspaper accounts at the time said he weighed 300 pounds. He was about 5’6” tall, if that tells you anything.

The funny thing is, I eventually came to appreciate his performance in the show. He really began to grasp the character and gave it everything he had onstage.

Don Hannah, his co-star, was seething with jealousy at the way Eric was manipulating the press coverage. Hannah came to me and said if I didn’t replace Eric, he – Hannah – would shut the show down. I told him he was crazy and he quit. He was another spoiled rich kid who thought he could buy some credibility as an artist, based on his family connections. It seems he dropped out of show business, which is probably a good thing for him and certainly a good thing for the world of theater. There’s a Canadian playwright with the same name, so please don’t confuse the two.

Eric immediately found another actor whose name escapes me. He stepped into the role but was a slow line learner and had to be on book the first weekend.

In an effort to get some kind of review, I had called Victor Navasky, who was editor of The Nation and cajoled him into sending his theater critic, the late Tom Disch, a dedicated and talented writer best known for being the author of “The Brave Little Toaster.” This was before Hannah bailed. So Tom showed up on the first night the new actor was in the show. I had to get up in front of the audience and make an announcement that due to a cast change, and there being no understudies – as is typical of Off off Broadway productions – the actor playing Walker would be on book for the performance. Tom got up and walked out. (I saw him a few weeks later and he explained that there was no way he could review the show in that shape, and anyway, he had another event that he really wanted to go to but Victor had been forceful when assigning the review. Tom was a nice guy and I understood completely.)

Thanks to David Rothenberg’s efforts early on, Jerry Tallmer had written a profile piece for the NY Post about me and the play and how I came to write it – which is a whole other story I’ll relate when blogging about my first ever production as an adult. Likewise, David sent a newly released convicted killer to see the show. He was fascinated by the show and came night after night. The guy had done time for being one of the two assassins of Malcolm X. Eric hooked onto this guy, took him out to fancy restaurant for lunch, and got an item on Page 6. Unfortunately, this guy had some serious enemies and he had to disappear for awhile, according to Rothenberg.

Meanwhile, thanks to the piece in the Post, I was beginning to receive correspondence from convicts around the country, asking me to read their poems as part of the show, asking me to send them money, all sorts of crazy stuff. It was truly becoming a wild ride.

Two more events happened that were classics. Eric went on the Howard Stern radio show for 3 hours one morning and pumped his role in the show. This was fine, except that he repeatedly said that the playwright did not want his name mentioned. This was obviously payback for some slight perceived by this member of one of Hollywood’s royal families. I was stunned but let it slide. There was no undoing what had become a disaster on every front and there was only one more weekend of performances left. Eric promised to make it up to me by getting his father to back a further run of the show. That was a laugh.

There was one final event to come though – Kirk Douglas and his wife came to see the show. The night they arrived, Eric was in a tizzy. He wouldn’t have dinner with his parents unless his lawyer was present. It was hilarious to see how these people "related" to each other.

Before I close, I have to give some kudos to my wife, who was truly the best thing in the show, as the hallucinatory chorus figure. She had a difficult make up job and had to put up with me and those two spoiled rich brats. A lesser performer would have walked, I'm sure.

Over the next three or four years, various attempts at putting the show up again came to naught. The Living Theater was going to do a production with the late Bertrand Castelli, one of the original producers of “Hair”, directing but nothing came of that for reasons that aren’t worth going into here. (I'm way past my daily word limit and my repeated use of the phrase "the late" is kind of unnerving. Am I that old?) Finally, David D. Wright, a radio producer and playwright, aired a radio drama version of “Monster Time” on WBAI in Manhattan. David is an incredible character in his own right and an artist who loves to help other artists. We’re still friends and I’ll have more to say about him in the future.

Anyway, “Monster Time” – as apt a title as ever was given a drama – on so many levels.

Monday, October 19, 2009

MONSTER TIME – 20 year anniversary (part 1)

Today, October 19, 2009, is the 20 year anniversary of me learning some of the biggest lessons, to date, of my career as a playwright. The occasion was the first performance that wasn’t, of my death row drama “Monster Time”. It was a set back which still affects my standing in the theater world. I believe that “opening night that wasn’t” and events that ensued is why my plays and musicals have yet to find a publisher.

“Monster Time” is a three character tragedy set on death row somewhere in the United States. A condemned serial killer named Ferretti takes his jailer hostage on the night he is to be executed, which happens to be Halloween. There’s a shiv hidden in the room outside the death chamber and after a strip search, Ferretti turns the tables. The audience sees all the action from the point of view of Ferretti, who is quite mad. The desk in the holding area is a huge rock. Walker, the guard, is stripped naked and chained to the rock for the next 2/3 of the play. The third character is Ferretti’s hallucination – an amorphous, androgynous blue being that also serves as a chorus in the tradition of ancient Greek theater. Other than the rock, the rest of the set is created by the lighting.

Our opening night was scheduled for October 19. On October 18, the last day of tech, I had yet to see a run thru, and neither of the actors had taken off their clothes in rehearsals. When I raised this issue, Don Hannah, one of the actors said “You think it’s easy? I’d like to see you do something naked on stage.” At which point I went up on the, stage stripped off my clothes, and read the entire play from start to finish in the buff.

Now for some back story. The director was a Dutch guy named Willem. We had worked together on the Plexus productions “Eve” and “Cristoforo Colombo Viaggio nel Pianete Arte”, and Sara and I had visited him in Holland, where he was involved in the theater scene in Amsterdam, and obviously well-regarded. He and Sandro both lobbied for him to direct “Monster Time” and the producer liked the idea of a European director.

The producer was a retired advertising executive named Bill. (He told me that if I ever wrote a memoir, I should only refer to him by his first name.) Bill had invested in the Off Broadway hit “Other People’s Money” and wanted to have his own hit as a producer. He was a lovable guy and wasn’t afraid to spend a buck. He was also, like most advertising execs, a bit of a star fucker.

So Bill flew in Willem and we all cast the show together. I knew the late Eric Douglas, son of Kirk and brother of Michael, and he wanted to audition. I didn’t think he was right but Willem and Bill were all excited to have a real Hollywood connection to the show. Steve Buscemi also auditioned for us and I wanted him, but he was an unknown at the time. He would have been perfect as Ferretti. There were a dozen other actors we saw who would have been perfect as Walker. But during his audition, Don Hannah somehow brought up the fact that his sister is Darryl Hannah. By this time Eric was already cast, despite my reservations, and Bill got all excited at the publicity possibilities of having two siblings of two stars from the movie “Wall Street” appearing in the production together.

When the actress, a member of the Living Theater, who was to play Ferretti’s hallucination met Don and Eric for the first time, she took me aside and told me she had to drop out of the project. My wife, Sara Jackson, stepped into the role.

So, the next evening after my naked reading for the cast and director was to be our first performance. (Bill went across the street to the bar Downtown Beirut and got hammered during my reading.) I had yet to see a run thru. When I arrived at the theater, I was informed that “someone” had called everyone on the reservation list and asked them to come another night. There were three or four people in the audience, including me. The cast got up onstage and did the first scene, took a bow, and walked off. At this point, Willem got up onstage and made a speech about “process”, and said that the next night, the actors would do two scenes, and so on each night until they finally did the entire play.

I went ballistic. I had written an entire play and that’s what I wanted to see. I didn’t want it presented piece meal. Willem quit – since he’d already been paid in full – and I threatened to divorce my wife for not telling me about this disaster beforehand. (We’re still married.) I took over the next day as director and canceled the rest of the performances that weekend.

We had a huge and successful opening the next week, but that was a bright spot among a storm of troubles that were brewing beneath the surface.

More tomorrow.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Nero Wins Nobel Putz Prize

Today I want to scream I want to shout and curse and stomp my feet. I am so damn angry. Why aren’t my shows getting produced? Because the economy is in the crapper, that’s why. So, the big time Broadway producers would rather do something “safe” – like “Bye Bye Birdie”. Something new? Something provocative? Not on their watch. Not when the economy is hurting. I give “Bye Bye Birdie” another 2 weeks before it closes, if that.

They cast a fucking mime in a musical comedy, fer chrisfuckinsakes!

Meanwhile the recent winner of the Nobel Putz Prize, Barack Obama, and his resident vampire Tim Geithner, decided to appoint a 29 year old Goldman Sachs executive as the chief enforcement officer of the S.E.C.

Everybody reading this – if you have money in the stock market, GET IT THE FUCK OUT NOW. Put your money in my shows. Put it in your mattress. Buy gold coins.

Or leave it in the stock market and buy a big jar of Vaseline because you’re about to get anally raped by the U.S. government and Wall Street.

There are no jobs. This way young people have to enlist in the military and get secretly shipped to Afghanistan. There, they get to serve under General McChrystal – who covered up the friendly fire death of Pat Tillman, who authorized torture and who is a disaster as a leader but a first rate butcher.

I voted for Obama? What the fuck was I thinking? Just another Harvard lawyer looking to lord it over everyody else. This fucking asshole throws big dance parties at the White House while pumping blood and money into the Afghanistan sinkhole. Nero had nothing on this guy.

And me? What do I do? I write a blog because the idea of writing another script right now makes me feel pathetic. “Ukulele Land” (health care, Big Pharma) and “Café Lysistrata” (war and bankers) are so relevant to what’s going on that my frustration level is at an all time high.

My doctor thinks I should take tranquilizers. Why? I should feel pissed off. Everybody should.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

If Life Was Perfect

If life was perfect – that’s my theme today. My Plexus memoir can wait another day. Last night, reading Peter Brook’s essay “The Slyness of Boredom” in his book “The Open Door” all sorts of questions arose in my mind about my approach to blogging, and to the Plexus story specifically. Then there’s snow today -- in the middle of October. That totally skewed my thought processes.

Somebody somewhere said that if you put your dreams and hopes on the internet, they will be realized.

So, if life was perfect I’d have a real producer or producers working on my current shows. Two musical comedies and a dramatic monologue -- these three shows are totally worthy.

If life was perfect, Rupert Friend would agree to star in Byron in Hell in limited engagements on the West End and Broadway. A new lighting effect, that goes beyond anything that’s ever been done with stage lighting before, would be devised for this show. I’d get to spend a lot of time across the pond before the show comes to Broadway. The stage productions would lead to an HBO presentation of the show.

Meanwhile ,the Cherry Lane Theatre would decide to develop Café Lysistrata and the show would have a long healthy Off Broadway run.

And finally, if life was perfect, somebody would decide to take Ukulele Land (formerly Sex! Drugs! & Ukuleles!) to the next step and mount it at New World Stages with an eye toward an eventual Broadway run.

If life was perfect, I’d always have a thick stack of hundred dollar bills at the ready.

If life was perfect, the Yankees and Dodgers would face off in the World Series, and the Yankees would be triumphant.

See – it’s not all just about me.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Plexus and the Firebug

There was a firebug in Plexus. I’m not talking about Richard Nugent, who published the literary quarterly FIRE during the Harlem Renaissance, and who played the Pope in the art opera Eve in 1986. Nor am I referring to the Italian performance artist (his name escapes me at the moment) who dressed up in a specially designed golden Minotaur costume and roller skated on the streets of the East Village with flames issuing from the horns, as well as his legs and arms. No. I am talking about an arsonist.

There were two core Plexus participants at the three “accidental” fires that I know about. I would be counted as a third except that I was next door when the squat on East Sixth Street was gutted by fire. Fortunately no one was hurt, though a number of people were forced into the street and had to seriously scramble to get roofs over their heads. I had been preparing to stage my death row drama “Monster Time” in the Shuttle Theater, which was in the basement of the squat and arguably the nicest space in the building. In any case, the building was old and the wood lath in the walls and stairwells burned hot and fast. The next two incidents, that I know of, occurred in Italy in the summer of 1989, the first on the island of Sardinia.

We were scheduled to perform the Columbus piece at a mountainside festival. Unfortunately, a one day train strike made us a day late arriving. Instead of Saturday night and a crowd that numbered more than 1,000, we performed on Sunday afternoon for an audience that numbered fewer than a hundred. It was only when we were leaving Sardinia that I discovered we could all have flown for roughly the same amount of money as the train and boat tickets cost, and been there in time.

Nonetheless, it was a beautiful journey. The boat traveled along the coast of Sardinia, which is a huge island, for quite awhile before we arrived at the port of Cagliari. Local artists put us all up. By this time I had married the television actress Sara Jackson, and she was totally into the energy and experimentation that was Plexus. Compared to her soap opera and TV commercials, this was Art.

However, the performer’s art is less exciting when the audience is the most minimalist element of a production. Sara and I had commissioned some great costumes for the Columbus show. (They were recycled and appeared again in my play “The Secret Warhol Rituals” several years later.) I had written a libretto composed entirely of Latin clichés but no one had yet learned their lines, so we were doing the show entirely as a pantomime, or a fashion show – depending on your perspective.

Everyone was fairly disappointed to have come all this way to perform for a handful of people. Say what you will about Plexus being an obscure moment in the annals of performance art in NYC in the late 20th century; when we put on a production the audience was huge – at least a thousand people would show up. Our performance on this remote Sardinian mountainside was listless. Then, suddenly, the mountainside was on fire around us. Tall dry grass was burning. Everyone, cast and audience alike, began to fight the blaze and, miraculously it seemed to me, we quelled it completely.

The third fire was a week later in Rome. This time the only people present were me and the only two others who had been present when the squat caught fire. The chair I was sitting in that caught fire. It started with smoke and when I jumped up flames were visible. We were in the apartment of a young woman who was part of the Roman contingent of Plexus. A pot of water from the kitchen put an end to this conflagration.

Some in Plexus have suggested that spontaneous combustion caused fire to erupt around us. I think it was someone getting their jollies and keeping things interesting in a dangerous way. I am not going to name either of the possible torches. One of them is innocent, and it has been more than twenty years. No one was hurt, and I’ve not heard of any further incidents. Impulsiveness wanes with age. And who is more impulsive than a firebug?

Tomorrow, I will write about Eve – an art opera that fulfilled my expectation

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Plexus -- Sandro

Sandro Dernini could keep people involved, no doubt. When there was no new art opera in the works, he would leave for Italy or Senegal, or disappear into the academic world of New York University. He was a doctoral candidate in art. He already had a doctorate in biochemistry but found his true calling in Plexus. Then, when apparently enough time has passed that a hunger had grown in the community, he would reappear.

Sandro’s technique was to announce an Open Call. Group photos were most often the reason. It always amazed me how many people would turn up in a vacant lot turned sculpture garden, or in the empty swimming pool in the basement of C.U.A.N.D.O., simply to have their photo taken among a huge group. But it worked, and out of these photo ops grew the art operas.

Plexus was about community as much as it was about art. Squatters, electricians, plumbers, musicians, poets, artists and scientists all were treated more or less equally. When Sandro wasn’t around, the energy that propelled Plexus was dormant. The community still existed but the catalyst that compelled us to work together was Sandro.

David Boyle, who was part of our core group through my years as an active Plexus participant, once remarked to me “You know, we’re all just fodder for Sandro’s PhD dissertation.” There was more than a little truth to that statement. Yet, I was conducting my own theatrical research and if Sandro got a doctorate in art along the way, all the better.

Don’t ever let some smug journalist convince you that everything that deserves to be covered gets covered. The New York press diligently ignored Plexus. We were the antithesis of the ethos of greed that passed for culture in those days. America, and New York in particular, was all about art stars and the art market. Certain dealers were deemed important by virtue of how much money was behind them.

By the end of Reagan’s two terms as President, even the general public bought into the idea that if an artist – meaning actor, musician, painter, sculptor, playwright, poet, et al – was not a millionaire by the age of 30, he was a loser and not serious, and her or his work would never have value. In youth-obsessed America, the European tradition of growing and maturing artistically was replaced by money-fueled hype. The most important substance to any work of art of any kind was the price tag or the profits it generated.

Sandro’s theme for Plexus was exposing and ending “art slavery”. We openly denounced the art market. The explosion of art galleries in the East Village was about gentrification and real estate, not about art or community. To indulge in understatement, the driving philosophy behind Plexus did not emerge triumphant -- yet.

While I was certainly sympathetic to the community mindset, I was primarily interested in Plexus as an avenue to create shows. The show I threw myself into with the most gusto was a year after the Purgatorio show. Titled Eve, it deserves and will receive an entire post later this week. Suffice it to say for the moment that the Plexus experience taught me two things that were very important to my growth as a theater artist. One was about myself and the other was more of a general overview.

The first lesson was that I thrive in a production situation. What goes on backstage fascinates me. It also can drive me nuts. The end result may not be to my satisfaction – as in the case of the Plexus production Il Viaggio del Serpente (The Voyage of the Serpent) -- but the end result is always a show, and I am always a better artist for helping to deliver the product.

The other thing I learned is that the non-textual approach espoused by Artaud, and others, works when the troupe is comprised of genuine artists. As soon as the door is opened to the community, you’d better have a strong story line at the very least. Civilians, for lack of a better term, get lost in theory and experimentation. This is not a bad thing. It’s simply the way things are.

That was how Sandro kept me involved as long as he did – group photos and letting me find myself as an artist, even if it appeared at times that I might overshadow his efforts. Plexus was the most interesting and enduring artistic collaboration of my career. It made me a showman.

Tomorrow -- Plexus and the firebug

Monday, October 12, 2009

PLEXUS part 1


Today is Columbus Day in the United States. It’s not surprising, then, that I find myself thinking about Plexus. Cristoforo Colombo Viaggio nel Pianete Arte (Christopher Columbus Voyages to the Planet Art) was the last show I did with Plexus.

We did the show in Rome and Sardinia in the summer of 1989. Our hope had been that, in 1992, we – a consortium of performers, artists, and scientists, all from New York and Italy -- would be able to add the collective voice of Plexus to the 500 year anniversary celebration of his voyage. Unfortunately for us, larger forces were at work and a furor of political correctness made Columbus an impossible figure symbolic of the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans and the horrors of slavery. Our Columbus had little to do with the historic Columbus but that did not matter.

If you search the internet for Plexus a plethora of groups, companies and projects are listed in the search results. The Plexus that fascinated me for half a decade can be found at That site is maintained by Sandro Dernini, who brought our Plexus into being. Current manifestations of Plexus activity are nothing like the performance spectacles of the mid to late 1980s, when I was active with the group as dramaturge, and eventually impresario.

In 1985, I saw a Plexus event titled “Goya Time” at C.U.A.N.D.O., at the corner of Second Avenue and Houston, which immediately intrigued me. At that time, the theories of Antonin Artaud strongly influenced my thinking as a playwright. While the renunciation of text seemed to portend an end to dramatists, other elements of Artaud’s approach were intellectually provocative and artistically attractive to me.

For the previous 5 or 6 years, my plays were so text-bound that the only productions were staged readings, a format I have come to detest. Staged readings are, to me, the theatrical equivalent of a whore’s beckoning coo to passersby from a dark doorway. Publicly presented readings promise revelation and art when really they are staged to get money from potential backers. In not-for-profit theaters, the reading is sometimes used as a consolation to a playwright, when a rejection letter simply won’t do.

In any case, Plexus was clearly anything but conventional theater, and that appealed to me. Soon after seeing Goya Time, which appeared to me to be a tableau vivant infused with creative chaos, I met Sandro. As it happened, I was living in the back of a friend’s art gallery/studio on East Sixth Street between Avenues A and B, and Sandro was living in the building full of squatters next door. After a disastrous attempt at suburban living in New Jersey, which led to the disintegration of my marriage, I fled back to the Lower East Side; where, despite the horrific losses and absence of wet sex that came with the AIDS onslaught, a blossoming of gallery spaces was in full fecundity, while performance art had yet to be co-opted, codified and made arid by academe.

The first show I did with Sandro, and the hundreds of other artists who gravitated to the energy we created, was The Artificial Time of Purgatorio on the Night of No Moon. This was basically a happening on a grand scale. We took over most of the C.U.A.N.D.O. building – a former school that served as a community center – and we assigned artists spaces from the subbasement to the roof. Each artist was to interpret some portion of Dante’s Purgatorio. I wanted the spectators to follow a musical ensemble of some sort through the entire installation. This musical element never came together properly for a variety of reasons. The roof of the building was Paradiso – that’s where the bar was located – and the show ended there.

The absence of musicians leading people made the event seem a failure to me. As far as I could see, it was a bunch of artists showing their work in an alternative space. While Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty called for exposing audiences to the idea of participatory experience, our effort lost cohesion, and any sense of theatricality, to my mind anyway. The after party, though, was great and I did get laid.

A couple weeks later I got hired to write my first screenplay. I moved into a great apartment just off Gramercy Park. I counted Plexus as a noble failure and put it behind me. Or, so I thought. The siren call of Plexus would prove irresistible to me again, soon enough.

(more tomorrow)

Saturday, October 10, 2009


On my desk there is a small round jar half full of rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and a few gold nuggets that were panned from a creek bottom in northern California. The gem stones are for the most part cut and polished, ready for the jeweler’s craft. There are a few unpolished sapphires -- for variety, I suppose. They look like pebbles.

This little accumulation has been in my possession for several years. I have no interest in becoming a jeweler. I don’t wear jewelry of any kind. Yet, as soon as some money comes in, I’ll add to it again. There are probably a thousand environmental reasons for discontinuing my acquisitions. Still, just having them here cheers me up somehow. I'll have to find out the mining equivalent of carbon offsets.

I love to spread them out and study the way the light plays in them. Somewhere around I have loupe to study them closely. But mostly, I like to look at them and run my hand over them, feel them against my palm.

Today I spread them out before starting to write. For days – weeks, actually -- I’ve been battling with my psyche to create a lyric for the first song for my next show. It simply is not yet time to write it. I realized that while poring over my jewels today.

This realization brought me face to face with the question of the purpose of this blog? To have something to write every day is too simple and answer. Is it serving the purpose of a diary? Well, no, for while diaries are meant to be read eventually, a blog is potentially exposed to readers immediately. Are these posts jewels of wisdom? Absolutely not. So what’s the point?

Songs are, to my mind, the jewels of writing. A gem needn’t be flawless to get your attention. Sparkle and color is enough. Likewise, a song is not a great poem. It is the coming together of words and melody, or words and a beat. Cutting and polishing are inevitably part of both the songwriter’s and the jewelers work. And then there’s the issue of monetary value. William Saroyan once said that a hit song he wrote with his cousin – Come on-a My House – earned him more money than any of his plays or books.

Yet money is seldom a determining factor in what I decide to write. I’d love to have a hit. I like money as much as the next person. I love having it in my pocket -- as my tune Thick Stack of Hundred Dollar Bills should make clear. But I also know that hits, musical or otherwise, are the result of a combination of factors – craft, timing, cultural tastes, and luck. Belief is also a huge element.

The person who writes something has to believe it deserves an audience. Then a producer or publisher has to believe in it. Then the public has to believe the book or play or movie is worth spending money to see or read. Not everything that finds an audience is a huge hit, of course. And some hits don’t endure through time.

In that way, the efforts of writers and artists, even if they are huge successes, are quite different from gems. An emerald’s luster and color don’t fade due to changes in language and taste. Plays, books and songs do.
I just took a loaf of bread out of the oven. It’s been rising and baking as I wrote today. It’s not a particular jewel of the baker’s art, though home baked bread is always appreciated. It won’t last long but it will be a minor hit at dinner this evening.

Is there a point to this blogging? Does there have to be?

I’m taking tomorrow off.

Friday, October 9, 2009

WORMS part 1

WORMS (part 1)

I awoke today to find my online computer devastated by a worm. The guy who deals with such things for me said it likely came from Face Book. “All those hackers over in Eastern Europe target Face Book.” He agreed to come tomorrow to deal with it. I wasn’t about to curse Face Book – it’s fun, and the worm could have originated elsewhere – so I damned all worms and their makers to hell and went out into the garden. Eastern Europe – that’s ironic, I thought as I headed out to weed tbhe autumn crops.

There were earthworms everywhere – one sign of a healthy organic garden. Immediately I excluded earthworms from damnation. Then I remembered a couple of my better known recorded stories for families with children. The River Tales project I did for public radio back in the 90s had two stories about a giant sea worm in the Delaware River. (These stories are available on CD from the Delaware Riverkeeper on the website Look for Tall Tales from the Watershed. Proceeds benefit the Delaware Riverkeeper, advocate and protector of the river – a source of drinking water for some 20 million Americans. But I digress.) I narrowed my curse to include only computer worms and their creators.

This morning I discovered that my computer firewall wasn’t sufficient. Last night I discovered that I need a firewall around my career as a playwright.

About a month ago, at a restaurant in Chelsea after an opening that included a video installation by my good friend Robert Bery, a woman approached me and, with a heavy Eastern European accent, said “I didn’t know you are also a writer. That’s interesting. I am a writer, too.” She introduced herself and then I remembered her. She had put on some weight and looked more matronly than the last time I saw her. I had met her twice before: once at a party at her and her husband’s apartment – a rambling place with a large roof terrace on the Upper East Side of Manhattan – and once when she and her husband showed up as guests of a guest of mine at one of Jeff Deitch’s holiday parties where I performed.

“Anything I might have read?” I asked politely.

“No. I write screenplays,” she answered. “But none have been produced.”

I was about to blow her off when she added, “I have a screenplay right now I need help with. Do you ever collaborate?” I told her I sometimes do script doctoring. She asked for my number and put it into her cell phone. “You won’t steal my story, will you?” she asked.

“Is your script registered with the guild?”

“Yes. Of course,” she answered.

“Then how could I steal it?”

The next morning she called and we agreed to meet at a Starbucks on Columbus Circle. She showed up a half hour late and empty handed. Minutes into the conversation, it became clear that she had no script – though on the phone she had said it was a third draft. She didn’t even have a story. She had an idea that revolved around her being stalked while reading a French novella from 1892. She had it all cast in her mind – except for who would play her. “The actress should have an accent just like mine, and blonde hair just like mine.” I cut her off and told her nobody was going to make a movie like that. I told her she needed a real story with a beginning, middle and end before she could start writing the screenplay, let alone cast it. “Would you help me write it?” she asked.

“For twenty five thousand dollars I can help you,” I said.

“Not a problem,” she answered. “I know Russian moguls. I am going to Ukraine at beginning of October and I'll bring back the money.” I agreed to read the novella as soon as I could lay hands on a copy, and to think about a story.

Over the next couple of days there was a flurry of phone calls. I found the novella on line, in French, and began to read it. I ordered a copy of a translation of the book from Barnes and Noble. The woman showed up at a gig of mine with an entourage and we all went out afterwards. She kept talking about the book and “the movie”. I told her, “Get me some money.”

(to be continued tomorrow)


WORMS 2 (continued from yesterday)

So, it turns out that my computer didn’t have a worm but a virus. In any case, it cost me $145 to get back on the internet.

The night before last, I finally received another phone call from the crazy Ukrainian, as I have now come to call this woman who wanted me to “collaborate” with her. Collaborate means to work together. At least it does in the English language.

After my silly meetings with this woman I returned to the country. I called my friend, a successful Manhattan architect, who had brought her into my life. I was trying to suss out whether there was any chance of really getting paid. He told me to get some money up front, which is always good advice.

I called her and told her that I had a pretty good idea for a story and that I would write it. I wanted $2500 – ten percent – as a down payment when I finished the story. She could come out to the country once I had a strong first draft and we could work on it together for a day. She became very haughty, said she couldn’t be bothered coming to the country and hung up. I shrugged it off.

Curious as to what kind of person I had been dealing with, I checked out something she told me about her “research.” She claimed to have visited the European city where the novella was set and to have stayed in a hotel named after the author. It turns out no such hotel exists, in that city or anywhere else, according to an exhaustive Google search in two languages. I now believe the woman is a compulsive liar. She had claimed to stay in a hotel that didn’t exist; and she had met with me under false pretenses – claiming to have written a non-existent screenplay. The only true thing she said was that the book was worth reading.

I began to write a story. It took quite a different turn than the crazy Ukrainian’s idea. The fact that it took any turns at all was quite an advance over her idea. It took me two weeks of writing and rewriting every day. This is not a long time to write a short story.

When it was done I sent it to my literary agent and registered it with the guild. Then I called the crazy Ukrainian and left her a message. She didn’t return my call, so over the next week or ten days, I tried half a dozen more times. She is a friend of a friend and I felt some misplaced obligation.

The night before last, I received a message from her on Face Book, saying she was off to Europe and she would write a story to try and interest investors. I wrote back saying I’d already written a story, quite different from her idea.
My cell phone rang immediately. She launched into an insane screaming tirade -- calling me a thief; saying I had no right to write a story; claiming that she owned the rights to the book. When she let me get a word in edge-wise, I tried to explain that I only did what I said I was going to do; that what I had written was quite different from what she had in mind, but that I felt it was quite good, and at least it had a beginning, middle and end.

She kept screaming. The she threatened me with a lawyer. I told her to have her lawyer contact me and disconnected. There were several more barely coherent, threatening Face Book emails that night.

I went to bed upset and awoke to a virus that kept me off line. And so, here it stands.

From now on I am implementing a strict policy. This is my career firewall: If you are not in show business or publishing already, and you want to meet with me about a project, you must come up with $25,000 good faith money in advance of the meeting. No exceptions.

So much for worms.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

WORDS (There will be F Bombs)

Words are my stock in trade. They are part of an actor’s tool kit, too, along with costumes, facial expressions, sets, lights and so forth. However, as a writer I think a lot about words, more probably than any other profession. Lawyers, teachers, politicians (apologies to teachers for sandwiching them so) are sometimes adepts with words. However, I think it’s safe to say that writers – playwrights, poets, print journalists, lyricists, bloggers, et al – are at the mercy of words more than any other group.

Words are the foundation of all that writers create. Some might say “What about story?” Story is important. But stories can also be told through dance, puppetry, photographs, paintings, mime.

The great poet and folks singer Carl Sandburg once wrote that “Exclusive is the ugliest word in the English language.” I would say that “exceptional” is right up there with “exclusive.” To my mind it’s far more harmful. Exclusive will keep you out of a country club. Exceptional is destroying our society, our economy, our moral compass.

Congress gave health insurance companies an exception to the anti-trust laws. Since the take over of the US government by Wall Street, I have repeatedly heard the word exceptional applied to investment bankers and their confreres, when Obama and company explain why they won’t regulate or prosecute the people who broke the financial back of the American people, and now appear to be ready to cut off our legs as well.

Exceptional talent is how movie stars and movie makers are described. I guess that’s why they think it’s okay for one of their own to drug and butt fuck a 13 year old girl.

Exceptionalism was the theme of Obama’s pathetic speech to the Olympic committee. Exceptionalism is what makes the Narcissist-in-Chief think he can conquer Afghanistan, a country sometimes called “the graveyard of empires.” Exceptionalism is what leads to empire building. I’m glad there's a place like Afghanistan on the planet. Empires needs a graveyard. I’m saddened, though, by the needless and increasing numbers of troops who are and will continue to die in this feckless adventure.

Last night my friend Spats White told me I should win the Nobel Prize just for being so prescient about the onslaught of narcissism in our society. Two years ago I began to refer to our current time as the Age of Narcissism. Every computer screen, every PDA, every cell phone, functions as a virtual mirror for far too many people.

I wish I’d been so prescient about Obama. It was just before the election that I realized this guy would be trouble. By then, I’d already donated money to his campaign (a first for me -- donating to a politician) and the lawn signs had been up since spring. So, being something of a narcissist myself, I went ahead and voted for him anyway. I don’t feel too badly, as everyone else running in the primaries and general election would have been just as bad if not worse. They’re all bitches for the bankers. Obama was just quicker to drop his pants and bend over when money came calling.

These words of mine today will incite various reactions among the handful of people who read them. Good. That’s what they are meant to do. Sometimes words are ugly. Sometimes they are beautiful. Sometimes they are weak. Sometimes they are strong. That is the nature of words.

I only have words in a society that increasingly denigrates and disregards writers and thinkers – something that I think began with Hollywood. Directors and movie stars like to be thought of as creators of art. Actually, they interpret words into image and action. The fact of the writer’s existence is often an inconvenience to their self-image. Unfortunately, this attitude toward writers has seeped into the general consciousness.

The late Jason Miller was a dear friend of mine. Having won a Pulitzer for his play “That Championship Season” and having been nominated for an Oscar for his acting in the first “Exorcist” movie, his opinion was always interesting to me. His take was simple. He told me, “Anybody can act. But when you can write, you’ve really got something powerful at your disposal.”

The problems are obvious; the questions are not so obvious. I don’t have any solutions or answers anyway. The only thing I know for sure is that, always, first there are words.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

TODAY I AM A FARMER (Or at least a gardener)

Somebody once quoted Peter Brook to me as having said “Scratch a playwright and you’ll find a farmer.” The young woman who attributed the statement to Brook was pretty obviously all coked up. I have since searched in vain to find this statement linked to the great director. If anyone can provide me with a source, I would be most appreciative. (A pair of opening night tix to my next show, anyone?)

The statement makes complete sense to me, as it explains my propensity toward my two obsessions – writing for the theatre and growing food. A friend of mine who is a farmer and an editor has a poster on his wall of a cartoon guy riding a tractor. In large letters it says “I don’t want to be rich. I want to be a farmer.”

I do intensive gardening, including experiments in growing food more densely. A lot of vegetables come out of that garden. Despite a withering blight this year, friends and family were able to enjoy produce all summer long.

I have five crops in the ground now – Swiss chard, escarole, radicchio, beets, carrots. The three greens are frost resistant to varying degrees. With a modicum of luck, these crops will yield into early December. By heavily mulching the beets and carrots after the first frost, sweet roots will be available through January by reaching down through the snow and straw. Then they will be the first food from the garden in the spring.

I cultivate my own ginseng patch in my woods. Every summer I harvest the ginseng berries and plant the seeds in October. It takes two years for a new ginseng plant to appear and nine years before you have a root to harvest.

What does this obsession have to do with being a playwright? Nothing. However, there is sense in Brook’s statement (if it was in fact his). Farmers keep at it despite crop failures. Playwrights keep at it despite flops and other forms of rejection. Then there are the long periods without money – writing or waiting for crops to come in – and, hopefully, the occasional bountiful cash crops for farmers or income-generating productions or grants or movie money or whatever fro dramatists.

So anyway, this afternoon I’ll be putting ginseng seeds in the ground. In a couple weeks, I’ll plant next year’s garlic crop. Autumn is here and the truth is – I’d rather be spending more time in Manhattan. Money is so tight right now, though, that serious husbanding of funds is required, and the city is a place of constant expenditure. Sometimes I daydream what it would be like to deliver ginseng to some herbalist in Chinatown and have that pay my way. The ginseng patch would have to be a couple generations along to pay for a night at Elaine’s, though.

At least it’s incredibly lovely here on my little patch on the side of the mountain. The leaves are turning. Friends are calling and emailing about coming out to visit. And the city is only a little more than an hour away.

This morning I woke up all sorts of excited about blogging. This is how I feel when a script or story is going really well. So the blog is serving its purpose. I was also enthused due to a Face Book email exchange with Heidi Rodewald last night. Heidi is one of the creators and the musical director of the Tony-winning Broadway show (and now Spike Lee movie) Passing Strange. I first met Heidi in the Cafe Un Deux Trois one night after the show when it was running at the Belasco last year.

Heidi is one of those super smart people who enhance your thought process just by being in touch with her. Since I hadn’t heard from her since we first met, I couldn’t help thinking “Maybe she heard about my blog.”

I knew it was absurd. However, the absurdist influence runs deep through me and my playwriting. So I had a laugh at my own expense and had the pleasure of hearing from a super talented person. Anyway, that exchange was the basis of my excitement about blogging today.

If I had money, I’d be rich. Instead, I’ll play at being a farmer.

Monday, October 5, 2009

First Post

I am a playwright. I also play the ukulele and some people know me more for that than for my plays and musicals. However, I walked away from the "ukulele scene" for a variety of reasons that don't warrant explication. The truth is, making music is a balm whatever the instrument. Writing for the theater is a struggle of immense proportions.

Several of my plays have been produced. In the 1980s I worked with a consortium of artists called Plexus and we created operas, happenings, Purgatorio shows, or co-operas -- depending on whom you spoke to among the hundreds of artists who participated in Manhattan, Rome, Sardinia, and Senegal. Being a man of the theater -- a self-description that might rile some for whatever reasons -- I prefer to describe the Plexus events as opera.

So, if I'm a playwright, why am I now a blogger? I have a subject for my next musical but the characters, plot and so forth are still gestating. It used to be that I wrote for magazines, newspapers and the like between bouts of writing for the theater. Those opportunities are tougher to come by and frankly I lost heart as far as writing for dead tree editors. However, pursuing the legal tender as a freelance or staff writer kept me writing every day. Blogging will serve the same purpose now -- writing every day, that is.

I've got three theatrical projects right now. One is a musical already produced to excellent reviews in 2008. It was staged as "Sex! Drugs! & Ukuleles!" but I changed the title to "Ukulele Land" for a variety of reasons. (Who knows? I may change it back by the time it hits the boards again.) This summer I wrote 2 new pieces. One is a musical for which I wrote the book, music and lyrics. (Terry Waldo wrote the music for Ukulele Land.)

The new musical is titled "Cafe Lysistrata". It has a cast of 5 women on one set. These details are included to alert producers to the feasibility. There are 14 new songs. It's bawdy, political, and provocative. Sometimes I wish I knew how to write sentimental pop culture fare. Why? Well, I wouldn't be broke, for one thing.

The other show I wrote this past summer is "Byron in Hell" -- a dramatic monologue for a young actor. It explores the (bi) sexuality of the great Romantic poet. In a very understated way, it examines the nature of censorship. Byron wrote a memoir shortly before his death. In it he is alleged to have chronicled the truth of his sexual exploits. (He lived in a time when homosexuality in Britain was a crime punished by hanging, and many of his heterosexual affairs were with married women.)

Byron's publisher convened a group of lesser literary men and they all perused the manuscript. Then they all agreed that the pages should be burned, and did so on the spot. Thus, the world was deprived of what was likely a great erotic adventure; and I was given an opportunity to write a sexually-charged one man show. (I'd love to see the actor Rupert Friend do this show on Broadway and the West End in a limited engagement deal. His brilliant performance in Cheri, Stephen Frears's adaptation of two Colette novellas, set me on fire writing this piece at a moment when my inspiration and enthusiasm were flagging. Plus, Friend bears a striking resemblance to the portraits of Byron painted during his lifetime.)

It will be great if this blog evolves into day to day coverage of productions of these three pieces for the stage. Great for me anyway. That means that audiences will see them. Writing for the stage today is like trying to start a cattle stampede with a quill pen.

Meanwhile, this will be the place where I cache my memories of productions past, rail and muse on the nature of art and the artist, and share those small successes and inspriations that keep me going. It will be the place where this playwright speaks.

PS. As I was about to hit the "publish post" button, my cell phone rang. It was the playwright Robert Heide calling. He told me about seeing "Superior Donuts" on Broadway (he liked it.) There are a couple of events at LaMama this coming weekend where we will connect. It's nice to hear from another toiler in the field of drama. It's reassuring somehow.