Sunday, April 13, 2014

Neighbors.

The people who lived below us moved out a couple months ago, our landlord renovated the apartment, and last week new tenants moved in. There are only four apartments in our building, one of which the owner lives in, and one of C’s dearest long-time friends lives across the hall, so the situation is more neighborly than your typical New York building, but still it was surprising when a little over a week ago a small orange envelope slid under our front door with a yellow card inside that read, “Hello neighbor! Just a quick note of introduction and to let you know that we will be moving in this Monday. Apologies in advance for any move-in noise you might endure this week whilst we get settled. Thank you and we look forward to being your neighbor.”

Do you suddenly miss your childhood and a simpler time that may or may not have been simpler but that at least contained birthday cards from your grandmother with brand new five dollar bills in them? My mother, when someone moved in next door to us on Lesley Street on the northeast side of Indianapolis, would take them something, a cake? a casserole? I don’t remember, but something. Why would you not do that when you know full well their pots and pans are not unpacked yet, and they are likely full of apprehension in an unfamiliar place, and the smallest gesture might be all they need to feel welcome?

Last Saturday night, I said to C, “I’m going to make peanut butter cookies tomorrow night and take a plate down to them on Monday. We’ll keep half for ourselves.”

C had come home from work on Friday sick as a dog, with a fever and achey joints. I was sure he had the flu despite the flu shot he got and I didn’t. Our plan for Sunday afternoon was to go out to Jackson Heights in Queens, to scope it out, look at a few apartments, see if it might be a neighborhood we could live in. Apartments listed there looked to be very similar to the ones here in Inwood but quite a bit less expensive. C was still feeling poorly but it was a sunny day so he rallied.

I loved the neighborhood, C did not. I was seduced by lunch at an Indian buffet restaurant which I’m pretty sure is the best Indian food I’ve had in New York, but I’m always saying this or that is the best this or that, so would you trust me? At any rate, it was very good. We have a few good restaurants in our neighborhood but not much variety and no Indian food at all. Jackson Heights is the New York neighborhood for Asian food and that’s a strong draw for me. But I do agree with C that it felt cramped, landlocked, remote. We’re spoiled up here, so close to the great Hudson River and our little patch of primeval forest.

I do love Inwood and I do hate the idea of moving so far from from our dear friends here, to a neighborhood where we don’t know anyone. Anyway, we won’t be ready to seriously think about buying a place for several months, so we have time to mull over staying or going.

When we got home that afternoon, I told C that since we were tired and he was still sick I wasn’t going to make cookies after all, I’d wait and make them later in the week. He looked stricken. “No!” Once you have your heart set on peanut butter cookies …

So I made them. I put about a dozen on a plate and covered it with plastic wrap, the rest in a container for us. Monday night, we’d forgotten that we had tickets to see the preview of Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, so we couldn’t take the cookies down to our new neighbors that night. Tuesday we went down and they weren’t there. Or nobody answered the door. Wednesday I had a writing session downtown and was gone all evening. I wasn’t going to give our new neighbors four-day-old cookies, so C and I finished them ourselves. We’d already gone through ours.

Yesterday, Saturday, we had T and his 15-year-old godson up for dinner and games. T’s godson’s birthday was last week, and he’d gotten a new game called Pandemic. It's one of those very complicated strategic games that many people seem to enjoy very much and I can't for the life of me figure out why. I like this game, though, because it's played cooperatively, not competitively, so nobody gets irritated when it's my turn and I say, "Just tell me what I should do."

Since we had evening plans, I wanted to spend the day writing and not cooking. (I’m so close to a first draft of my play -- which is actually the fourth or fifth draft, being a complete overhaul of a play I began writing a couple years ago based on a screenplay I wrote about ten years ago based on a story I wrote about a dozen years ago, but who’s counting. It’s been a complicated story to get down, and the last couple weeks it's all falling together, so I wanted to spend the afternoon with it.) I made a Szechuan beef dish that requires only a bit of prep and then several hours in the slow-cooker.

C decided to make chocolate cookies from the one-bowl baking book I got him for Xmas. They’re super-chocolatey, delicious, and very rich. We'd have them for dessert and then take the rest down to our neighbors, finally. You didn’t ask, but here’s some advice for you. Don’t put a plate of cookies in front of a teenage boy and expect to have leftovers.

I don’t know where the expression, “It’s the thought that counts,” came from. Obviously it’s not. I’ve been thinking about cookies practically non-stop for over two weeks, and our new neighbors are still probably cowering in their cold, stark apartment, far away from everything familiar and reassuring, surrounded by unpacked boxes, wondering why their new neighbors are so unfriendly.

Monday, March 31, 2014

A Puzzlement.

Articles like this seem to appear every month or so. This one is focused on the “guy problem” -- Broadway audiences are mostly women and gay men -- but others lament the lack of young people, all of them coming from a general anxiety about the shrinking "Broadway audience." How do we get young people, “guys,” and just more people to come to Broadway?

I’m puzzled by these articles, mystified by this conversation.

On one hand, the Broadway industry (theater professionals, media, etc.) are always fretting about shrinking audiences and the particular demographics we seem unable to attract.

On the other hand, we constantly talk about what is or is not a “Broadway show,” which is to say, “What does or does not appeal to the Broadway audience?” This speculation is usually in the context of trying to get a handle on which shows or types of show are risky or not, in business terms, to produce in Broadway houses.

So, how can we be so concerned with what will appeal to the Broadway audience and at the same time be obsessed with the fact that that audience needs to be something other than what it is now in order for Broadway shows to be successful and for the industry to thrive, that is, in order for producers and the rest of us to make money (and make more shows)?

In case it’s not obvious, my interest in these questions, my puzzlement regarding them, is not academic. It comes from the fact that I happen to know of a show that does appeal to young people, that does appeal to straight men (and older people and gay men and women!), a show that is not expensive to produce and would look amazing in a Broadway house, but we keep hearing from person after person in the industry that it’s “not really a Broadway show.”

How is it we’re so certain, and simultaneously so uncertain, what a Broadway show is? Why are we scrambling to find shows that will appeal to the Broadway audience while at the same time we’re obsessed with changing that audience?

I recognize that these questions are ultimately about large sums of money and the livelihoods of many well-meaning people. I’m not (at least not just) trying to glibly make a point here. I really do wonder.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

This Weekend.

Today, Saturday, I had a conference call at 11 and then C and I were going to walk to Target -- a 10 minute walk over the bridge to the Bronx -- for things one gets at Target: laundry supplies, potting soil, dishwashing liquid, toothbrushes, etc. Tomorrow we had planned a trip to Jackson Heights to check out the neighborhood.

C practically had to beg me to make weekend plans. On Saturdays I want nothing more than to do absolutely nothing, I think mostly because that’s how to make time pass most slowly until Monday. The only way to make time to pass more slowly would be to go to work. During the week, the days are excruciatingly slow (except evenings which are like lightning) and I can’t even describe the elaborate hugeness of my resentment of the injustice of that.

C, on the other hand, likes to have plans on the weekend, to do something, to get out of the house, to use the precious few hours he has dominion over. I get it. It’s soul-crushing to contemplate how little of our lives we have any say over how we spend.

C and I are saving for a downpayment on an apartment, and we’ve been sort of casually looking at listings to see what’s available. We hadn’t seriously considered any neighborhood other than the one we live in. Because we like it here, and because we want a 2-bedroom apartment and this is one of the few areas in the city where there are ever any 2-bedroom apartments listed in our price range. In Manhattan, that is.

To be honest, ever since I read House of Blue Leaves in college I’ve thought of Queens as a sad, remote place where people dream of Manhattan but never get here. I lived in Brooklyn for 4 or 5 years in the mid-80s. It was what it was, which is to say it’s not that any more. To be frank, it was a little bleak and most of my social life was still in the East Village where my friends lived. My partner and I moved to Fort Greene in 1984 from the East Village because it was affordable (let’s just have a moment of silence for that: we moved out of the East Village in 19 fucking 84 because it had become gentrified to the extent that two artists making their living as a bartender and waiter could no longer afford to live there).

Needless to say, Brooklyn is something entirely different these days and I have about as much desire to live there as I do to live in the East Village. Which is to say, none. But Queens? Jackson Heights is actually closer to midtown than where we are now. It looks like the buildings are similar to the big pre-war brick buildings in Inwood, and the neighborhood is filled with South Asian restaurants. There’s a gay presence there. (Just last week, C and I were lamenting the fact that there’s not a gay bar up here where you might stop for a couple beers at happy hour on a Friday. There are of course lots of homosexuals up here, like everywhere, but the bars we know about are very young and dancey and no one goes out before 1 a.m.)

But it’s going to be rainy and cold and windy tomorrow, like today, not the best weather for strolling around a neighborhood to get the vibe, so we decided to put off our trip to Queens till next weekend and take our chances with the rain tomorrow, see if we can get to Target and back without getting soaked.

So today after my conference call, the rest of the day is free. C is playing a video game. He’s not the type who plays them all the time, but he’ll get on a jag now and then with a particular game. This one is something about pirates. It makes him happy and somehow that makes me feel calm, his happiness, because -- I know it probably sounds silly -- I see his happiness as my responsibility.

I’ve been in the office all afternoon watching the rain and reading about Wesleyan Perfectionism, which is what makes me happy. I’m neck deep in the background research for our Scarlet Letter musical. It’s like crack to me, exploring the connections between the Puritans (when the story is set) and the 19th century Transcendentalists (when the story was written) and then how those ideas have come to affect how we see ourselves and live our lives today. This never-ending process of deciding what it means to be American. I’m like a pig in shit, with my stack of books on women itinerant Evangelists during the 2nd Great Awakening.

I took a break from my reading to start a big pot of carne guisada in the slow cooker. Tacos tonight.

So C and I both got what we wanted this weekend, which is better than neither of us getting what we wanted. That’s what I know so far about marriage: it’s usually one or the other.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Something New.

We are working on something new. That’s always how people put it: “something new,” in contrast to whatever it is that’s currently in front of an audience, which in our case is LIZZIE. “What’s next?” “Oh, we’re working on something new.”

Though I’m learning that nothing is ever new, or old. To most people who encounter it these days, LIZZIE is new, and I understand that, to them, it is, and even to us there is a sense in which it is new because we’ve radically re-written it several times over since that first presentation in 1990. But it’s hard for me to see this latest iteration of an idea that we had 25 years ago as “new work.” And it should go without saying (though I will say it anyway so I don’t give the impression that I’m complaining) that it’s a very good thing that LIZZIE is new to so many people. I can’t think of thing one that’s bad about that. We’re going to Denmark next month. Fucking Denmark.

The “something new” we’re working on is again something very old, nearly as old as LIZZIE, but this time we’re not just dusting off an old piece and making it longer, clearer, better. We’re taking a completely different approach to a book we adapted in 1992, The Scarlet Letter. Shortly after the premiere of LIZZIE, Tim, as director, pulled together about 25-30 writers and performers and we tore apart this book that everyone knows because they had to read it in high school and we put it back together again, turning the Ohio theater into a total environment that the audience moved through on their own, encountering songs and recitations, conversations, spectacle, plays within plays within plays, all riffing on the ideas in the book. To use the current vernacular, I think you’d call it a hybrid between devised theater and immersive theater. Back then we called it “environmental theater.”

Speaking of new and old, I’m amused, bemused, something, by how trendy this “new” form of theatre (Sleep No More, Natasha and Pierre, etc.) has become, how it has a reputation of being radical and rebellious, when Tim and I left it behind years ago and now find ourselves neck-deep in a more conservative, straightforward type of storytelling, the Broadway-style book musical, finding it more useful for communicating the ideas we want to communicate to an audience.

Those who now call LIZZIE “edgy” and “out there,” well, I sure wish they could have been at the Ohio Theater in May 1992 to experience A: a Carnival Adulteration of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.” I don’t mean to say that we in particular were doing anything all that new. There’s a tradition, a lineage. Wooster Group. (I fully accept that I’ve become one of those old people who scold the kids for not knowing their history. Fully accept. The most surprising and disconcerting thing about getting older is realizing how much is lost, forgotten, and paved over.)

In the way that it’s interesting to think about how a work of art is new or old, it is interesting to think about how the artist is young or old. I offer no conclusions on that subject. It’s just something to muse upon on this warm and partly sunny Sunday morning. All that to say that we’re working on The Scarlet Letter again, this time making a more traditional musical.

Speaking of new and old and the kids not knowing their history, did you see this article in the New Yorker? It’s good. Worth a read. But this made me go hm:
Sondheim ushered in a new way of writing show tunes, one that favored liminal states—ambivalence, regret—over toe-tapping joy. ... This was groundbreaking.
No question Sondheim changed the medium irrevocably, but ambivalence and regret? Rogers and Hammerstein, anyone?





And not just R&H:



I am by no means an expert in musical theater history, I’m just someone who loves the art form and has a few favorites, but those 5 songs popped into my head without even thinking about it too hard. There are tons of songs by Rogers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Gershwin, that use the medium to explore “liminal states.” I think even Sondheim bristles at the characterization of his work as revolutionary. He relentlessly acknowledges his debt to forebears and mentors and describes his work as the continuation of a project.

It occurs to me that, if Sondheim didn’t introduce the emotionally complex relationship in musical theater, his groundbreaking contribution might be to have separated it from a social or political context. To me, what’s revolutionary about the era of the greatest American musicals, the 40s and 50s, is that those writers (mostly R&H but others, too) set conventional love stories in situations where the lovers were forced to confront a difficult, complex, changing world: Oklahoma and the American frontier, race and imperialism in South Pacific and The King and I, class mobility in My Fair Lady. Now, I’m less familiar with Sondheim’s oeuvre, so maybe someone can school me on this, but it seems to me that Sondheim is much more interested in how people feel about themselves and their friends and lovers than in how they respond to social and political pressures.

This has been a very full week. Tuesday, Tim and I were going to meet for our regular writing session, where we’re working on another something new (we canceled at the last minute in favor of working on our own separately), then Wednesday was a new weekly writing session (2 weekly sessions now, which is intense but necessary and just seeing them on my calendar lessens my anxiety about time passing too quickly and too little to show for it) with Tim and our friend and collaborator Liz who was one of the original writers on that long-ago version. I’ve fallen head first into The Scarlet Letter, reading and re-reading the book, underlining furiously on the subway, poring over 17th century sermons and passages of scripture. The two periods of American history that most inform the story are two of my favorites: the early years of the Massachusetts colony (when the story is set) and the second half of the 19th century with the various reform movements and the New England transcendentalists (when the story was written).

Thursday was Mom’s last chemo treatment in this latest round. Now she (and we) have to wait for 2 weeks when they’ll do some kind of scan to see if the cancer is gone. Two weeks.

Thursday night our co-writer on LIZZIE, Alan, whose day job is playing bass on Broadway, hooked us up with discount tickets for a preview of Rocky. Friday, C and I had tickets for Stage Kiss, a new play at Playwrights Horizons, which I loved. Before the show, when we couldn’t get a table at that cheap Greek restaurant across the street from Port Authority, we stumbled into some of the best Chinese food I’ve had in New York. Right there in a nondescript Szechuan restaurant on 42nd St. Delicious pork soup dumplings, fiery hot and intensely flavored cumin lamb. I was in heaven.

Yesterday, Saturday, I went alone to 12 Days a Slave. C is adamant about seeing all the films with Oscar nominations in the top categories before the awards ceremony. For me, that's usually a recipe for a lot of time and money I'll never get back. This year I was more susceptible to the hype and went to a few that I was on the fence about. That’s the other striking thing about getting older, all the lessons you never learn.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

David Hill.

This is David Hill in my bedroom in our house in Indianapolis. I would guess this is about 1973. We left Indianapolis in 1974 when I was 13. I don't remember how I met David. Boy Scouts, maybe? His family lived in Lawrence, a rich white suburb. In the early 70s, as black families began to move into our neighborhood on the northeast side of Indianapolis and white families fled more or less en masse, the city reacted by bussing white kids in from Lawrence to keep the schools integrated.

David is the first boy I remember having a serious crush on. I probably spent very little time with him -- he lived what seemed at the time far away, too far to ride my bike to, and there were tons of kids right there in our neighborhood -- but I thought about him all the time for about a year. His older sister had a Volkswagen van with flower power stickers and an ooga horn.

I hadn't looked at this photo in a long time. There's a lot of 70s going on in there.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Mr. Kincaid.

Though when I heard last night that Dave Madden, who played Reuben Kincaid on the Partridge Family, died, I felt a little rush of sweet affection for him (or for my memory of him), I have to say I was always a little put off by Mr. Kincaid. I was generally, as a kid, very leery of bachelors, and his relationship with Danny (who I also never much liked -- too mouthy) made me uncomfortable, the two of them fighting like an old married couple. For that matter, I can’t say I was even a fan of Keith. I was mesmerized by David Cassidy but terrified, the same feeling I had toward the cutest boys at school: obsessed but afraid to look at them directly for fear of betraying that I was not a boy, not like them. I loved Laurie. I had intense crushes on girls back then, and Laurie Partridge was the gold standard for the kind of girl I loved and wanted to be near. Tall with long straight hair, monotone and aloof but easily hurt. Almost all my best friends until I was in college were girls, but especially when I was under 12. That’s why I get angry/hurt/amused (I need a word for that) when I see parents of very young children sexualize their kids’ opposite sex friendships. “Oh my son is definitely straight. He loves girls! He and his little girlfriend are inseparable. ” Whatever you say.



Friday, January 3, 2014

January 3.

I was going to write a year-end blog post, because on and off in December I felt like I had something interesting to say. It would come to me, sort of linger around the tip of my pen now and then.

New Year’s Eve passed, and I changed the verb tenses in my scattered notes, and then changed them again yesterday as the notes cohered. Well, they did cohere but not into anything very interesting. I seemed to want to blather for a while about how everybody was hating on 2013 in spite of Boy Scouts in Utah and Sonia Sotomayor and the ban on horses in Central Park, but then I admitted that yeah there were a lot of ugly things like the duck guy (not so much the guy himself because who cares about one pseudo-Christian hatemonger, but all his fans -- a large and influential percentage of the U.S. population -- who believe that advocating the killing of homosexuals and the enslavement of blacks is just one worldview among many and should not be condemned. So maybe the world is not slowly slowly becoming what we imagined, dreamed of, fought for.

And I mentioned drones, because obviously that’s not what I ever hoped for, and the Pope, who everyone is totally in love with just because, spurning tradition, he does not support the killing of homosexuals. He does, however, take a dim view of their being allowed to raise children. The Pope, to our disappointment, still shits in the woods. We take the good with the bad.

And I went on for a while about my mom. Not even really about my mom but about how she’s on my mind nearly all the time and when she’s not, and I suddenly realize I haven’t thought of her for a couple hours, I feel sad and guilty as if I haven’t held up my end of a bargain. But today she’s home from the hospital and feeling better than she has in a long time.

And then I mentioned that we’re in hot and heavy talks with some big-deal producers for LIZZIE and that’s very exciting but also very stressful because of all the contract negotiating and feeling like at any moment you could agree to something and inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings or ruin your life. Not really, but it feels like that sometimes.

And I thought I had a deep point to make about the vicissitudes of life and my New Year’s resolution to resume my daily meditation practice. I wanted to take a stand against the anti-resolution sentiment this time of year, I think spurred by the fact that most people don’t keep their resolutions. But since when is failure a good excuse for not trying? The practice of making resolutions, or setting intentions, for the New Year is ancient and crosses cultures and religions. It used to be that people would make promises to a god or gods or God. I think now we mostly make promises to ourselves. To exercise, eat better, smile more. Why not?

But when I read back over my draft, it was boring and didn’t even make much sense, so I didn’t post it.

Come to think of it, that’s sort of the crux of the problem I’m trying to solve, that my thoughts never settle, never clear, as my mind is pulled from this excitement to that dread.

New York is no help. There’s so little quiet or open space, everyone pushing. I remember this feeling from the last time I lived here, tense and angry much of the time, but back then I had nothing to compare it to. Now that I’ve been away from the city and back and know how unnatural and unhealthy this environment is, I’m less willing to defend it. I don’t remember the exact quote, but I heard Fran Leibowitz say that to be a New Yorker is to walk around in a constant rage, which is true, and sad, and frightening when you imagine 8 million people rushing around to an internal monologue of murder.

So I have resolved to start meditating daily again. Ten minutes a day, to start. It’s a small commitment. It has to be because when is there time? How is adding yet another activity to an already hectic schedule going to help anything? Isn’t that the source of so much of the anxiety in the first place. The times when I was religious about meditating I wasn’t living in New York or I wasn’t working a day job. But I can make 10 minutes in the morning. Wednesday didn’t count because it was a holiday, but yesterday and this morning I sat for ten minutes and was surprised when the bell rang -- I thought it had only been 4 or 5. I’m out of practice, so it wasn’t easy, but it gets easier and that’s the point, to train your mind to stop wandering and spinning and torturing you (and everyone around you for that matter -- I’ve come to completely rely on C to cushion me from my neuroses because I know that he will put up with just about anything and still love me. But that’s no reason to push it to the limit. I aggravate myself, how could I not be aggravating him?).

Good things will happen and bad things will happen and both are powerful and compelling. I can’t change that. I want a way to receive all this stuff without freaking out at every little bit of news, every question, every decision required. In meditation you practice putting aside your thoughts and returning to your basic sanity.