Monday, August 7, 2017

Looking Back.

My friend J, J who was the first, true lasting friend I made in New York, who was in my class at Parsons and at the end of the first semester asked me to share her apartment on East 10th St. and we lived there together for 2 years until I fell in an ill-fated love and she went to Berlin (but kept the apartment even as the neighborhood around it more or less left; she still has that apartment) but who I fell out of touch with when I left New York in 1998 — we’d seen less and less of each other for several years before that because, well, I could list all the practical excuses I’ve cataloged in my head to make sense of the painful process of shifting alliances that happens over and over in a life, but why?

Now we are in touch again, and she’s commissioned me to write some text, an essay?, for a chapbook that she will print and publish to accompany an exhibit of her prints in Chicago where she lives and teaches now this fall. The text is to resonate with, respond to though not necessarily explicitly with the work she is showing. (She still makes visual art. I, you know, do not.) The prints span her career. One set is a series of drawings she made in 1984 in the process of working out a large installation. One set is a series of drawings in response to a large installation she made in the mid-90s.(I call them drawings -- they are monoprints.) A third set is current work.

This thing I’m writing, which I hesitate to call an essay because it is impressionistic, episodic, takes the shape of a review of our friendship (so of course it is meandering and disjointed). I’ve pulled out her letters to me spanning the mid-80s through the early 90s, half a lifelong conversation about what’s important, what we yearn for our lives to be, what we want our work to be about, the shape we want our lives to take, and I compare those hopes with how our lives actually look now. We are both still artists. That in itself is remarkable to me and something to be proud of regardless of whatever other dreams I’ve fallen short of. It was certainly never the most likely outcome, statistically speaking, but I never had any doubt and I doubt J did either.


Between this project and my high school diary musical, which are the two big things on my desk right now, my writing life is thick with memory. Late 70s in Indiana, 80s in New York. It feels like judgement day up in here. When I dive into the past — I shouldn’t say dive because I more or less live there — my favorite game seems to be finding things I feel uneasy or guilty about or ashamed of and to pick them apart, to confess, and try to, if not absolve myself, understand. But, yes, absolve myself of.

It all, all of it, has the slightly queasy-making quality of a retrospective, which I supposed I should embrace. I am not done, but I am on the cusp of a new phase, I really believe. The work I am doing now is stronger, more vivid, more truthful, more true, than ever. I am 56 years old and have, as they say, zero fucks to give. A look back is appropriate. And then forward.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Life Has Purpose.

I'm embarrassed that I've let 4 months go by without blogging. Four months!

My most valid and hopefully persuasive excuse is that I'm deep into writing a new show. Not that I'm furiously writing every second and couldn't have taken a few minutes now and then to blog, but that the energy of a new project, the mental and emotional state it requires, or maybe not so much requires but creates, distorts things around it, one of those being my sense of what else I should be doing. Sitting, staring into space is so much more compelling than really anything else. (I note that lately C, more frequently than usual, says things to me like "What's wrong?" or "Are you upset about something?" to which I say, "No, I'm just in my head.")

This new thing, I've probably mentioned it a few times here, is the musical I'm writing based on my high school diary. It took me a while to get oriented in it, to get some traction, but now it's cooking. I have written six songs, five of which I think are very strong, and the sixth might be great as well but I'm less confident about that one. (It is sung by a character that has been, is, I think always will be, trickier. He's a deeply unsympathetic character who I'm asking the audience to empathize with. And that empathy is kind of key to the whole thing.)

The overall shape of the show (working title is "Jack" -- my middle name and the name I was called until I left home for college) is still a bit wild and woolly but that's not as worrisome as it was a few months ago. As I work and as the story takes shape, I keep a list of "Things I Can Do Now," practical tasks like "write the song that goes there," or "write a monolog about so-and-so" and I feel good if there are 6 or 8 things on that list. When the list gets short, that's when I start to worry that maybe I'm not sure what the piece is about yet.

This show might have a female character, I'm not sure yet, but it's about boys, about men, and I'm enjoying that quite a bit, since the two other projects that have occupied so much of my time and energy for the last few years, LIZZIE and the Hester Prynne musical, are all about women. I'm sure you all know how much I love writing about women, for women, women's stories ... but men are pretty interesting, too.

And, though my own life has always played at least some part in all my writing it has often been buried, especially in the adaptations like LIZZIE and Hester, it's exhilarating --and liberating in a self-mortification way -- to be doing this explicitly autobiographical work. I can just tell the story.

So I feel energized, excited. Life has purpose.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Opposite, Both True.

I have to say I was shocked to read the New York Times's huffy review of the new Sam Gold revival of The Glass Menagerie this morning because my experience of it was so deep and powerful -- and so intimate -- that I couldn't get my head around the notion that anyone in that room could have had such a different experience. It was hard for me to imagine anyone thinking that Gold altered or tinkered with or did violence to Tennessee Williams's play. To me, this production revealed the play.

But that's just how it works, I guess. Other critics described something more in line with what I saw.

Though, as an artist, I know how personally wounding a negative review can be, when it comes to other people's work, a polarized response makes me much more interested to see something than universal praise. (I didn't really have much interest in seeing Hamilton until the backlash started which made me think there was something interesting there after all. Yes, I'm still entering that damn lottery every. single. day.)

I keep reminding myself of this as the reviews of the London production of LIZZIE roll in. Depending on whom you believe, it is either "loud, messy, and incoherent" or it is "the greatest American musical since Sweeney Todd." The critics are just about evenly split between hating it and loving it, with not much in between. It is a roller-coaster. But if this weren't my work and I were just somebody reading reviews, this would be the show I would be dying to see.

All of which is to say that the (to my mind, clueless) Times review of The Glass Menagerie pissed me off, but on the other hand left me reassured that I'm in good company.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

I Fell In Love Last Night.

For Christmas I got C tickets to the new revival of Sunday in the Park with George. The not-really-a-gift-because-it's-for-me-too-ness of it was somewhat mitigated by the fact that I've never really liked this show. It is musical theater apostacy, but I was never -- except for the Gypsy and West Side Story lyrics and maybe a dozen songs that I think are absolutely sublime and most of them are from Company -- never really much of a Sondheim lover. All those jagged melodies, and the always sort of cool, highbrow take on the subject at hand, and here's another word that rhymes with that, and here's another, and another. And another. Sunday in the Park with George always felt like the embodiment of everything I didn't respond to in Sondheim's work.

I am happy to report that it was I who was full of shit. In the middle of the first act, just when I'm thinking "what is this show about? is anything going to actually happen?," the lights focus in on George sitting downstage left, the orchestra gets quiet,  it's the end of the song, and he sings
Look I made a hat
Where there never was a hat 
I couldn't breathe for a second. From that moment till the end I was either weeping or on the verge of it. This show that I always said I didn't know what it was about was suddenly about everything I've ever cared about in my life. I knew it was about art, but I never felt how it was about art till last night.

(One big revelation for me was learning that Putting it Together is a song about fundraising. I guess I'd never listened closely to the lyrics, but I always thought it was a song about the artistic process. I know, duh, I'm probably the last person on earth that didn't know that. It didn't resonate when I first encountered the song -- I wasn't so battered and bruised by decades of negotiating the relationship between art and money.)

Maybe it's just because I'd never seen a production of the show, or maybe because this cast make what I think is overcomplicated music emotionally straightforward. Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford both give really clear, simple performances that were at times heartbreaking. The simplicity of the staging also threw the emotional arc into relief.

I love having something new to be a fan of. What's next? God forbid, Into the Woods?

Monday, February 20, 2017

Cowboy Mouth/LIZZIE.

In the last week or so I’ve had 2 separate, different dreams in which I am walking around someplace public wearing no pants, and I haven’t forgotten to wear pants or lost them or had them taken away from me but, in both dreams, I have deliberately put together a pantsless outfit to wear, and the dreams mostly consists of my effort to commit to the decision, to tamp down my discomfort, to pull it off. In the first dream, several days ago, I was walking down the street; in the second dream, last night, I was at work, maybe in a restaurant but the setting is vague.

Tonight I'll be on a redeye to London with my friend Tim for the U.K. premiere of the musical we began devising almost 27 years ago. T and I have made lots of theater together in the years since, but LIZZIE was our first collaboration. It spans the length of our friendship. It nearly spans the length of my career, and, since about 10 years ago when we resurrected the old one-act we'd put aside after a short run in the early 90s, began rethinking the book and adding not only a bunch of new songs but a third writer, our friend Alan, it has come to sort of be my career, at least in the eyes of people who haven't known me long. I am one of the writers of LIZZIE. "Have you met Steven? He's one of the writers of LIZZIE." I guess it's a function of how long musicals take to develop, but people ask me now "How's LIZZIE going?" in the same way they would ask someone, "So how's work?"

We always talk about the various LIZZIE influences, the great rock women, Heart, the Runaways, etc. But I was thinking this morning that even deeper in the DNA is the Sam Shepard/Patti Smith play, Cowboy Mouth. I was obsessed with this play in the early 80s, and I directed a production of it when I was in college, briefly, in Indiana in 1983. Cowboy Mouth is literally about yearning for redemption by rock and roll savior:
"In the old days, they had Jesus and them guys. His words don't shake through us anymore. We created rock 'n' roll in our image -- it's our child -- a new savior, rockin' toward Bethlehem to be born. God was selfish. He kept himself hidden. You gotta be a performer."
Here's a beautiful recent clip of Patti Smith:

And there's this:

Monday, February 13, 2017

Dialing It Back.

I'm reading Christopher Isherwood's 60s Diaries. In 1961, he's living in Southern California, obsessively watching the Cold War ramp up, tension is high in Berlin (famously his home in the 1930s), people in the U.S. are building fallout shelters, everyone is anxious about nuclear war. He writes: "I must lay off the newspapers. The newspaper reader dies many times before his death, the nonreader not nearly so often."

I installed a Chrome plugin that blocks Facebook from 9:30 to 5. It had to be done. The election last year and the chaos unleashed since had me on Facebook all the time, compulsively scrolling, reading articles, linking to stuff, poring over everyone else's fear, over and over and over. On one hand, I was reading a lot of good stuff, keeping hyper-informed, learning about new things in detail, figuring out my own stances on important issues, answers to important questions. I don't regret any of that. But it was too much, way too much. I can get more information than it is possible to digest in a couple hours Internet time in the morning, and then I can catch up in the evening. More than adequate.

It's been one full week now, and in that time I've returned to my many years neglected meditation practice, I've written in my journal at length every day, I'm reading much more than I had been able to for some time, and I've made measurable progress on the musical piece I'm writing based on my high school diary. I had been doing all these things (except meditating) all along, but now I do them with a clearer mind, more focus, and for longer periods of time, every day.

It feels like a good balance. I toyed with the idea of a total Facebook break, but I didn't want to give up contact with the many friends and family I don't keep in touch with in other ways, the flow of news and information from various sources that keeps me engaged and informed. I don't want to lose touch. But I also don't want to lose my mind.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Life Goals.

As you might know, we started licensing LIZZIE last year to, well, anybody in the U.S. who wants to do it, provided they can pay the minimum advance, which we set reasonably low because we want people to be able to afford to produce it. So far, we’ve licensed the show to a couple dozen or so theater companies and I think two colleges, all over the U.S.

My favorite so far (I know that’s really impolitic to say that, but I’m just being honest) is not even a full production. We made an exception to the standard and pretty much non-negotiable terms of our license agreement and gave permission to a high school theater department in Iowa for 4 girls to sing a cutting from the show in competition in a speech meet. Today the instructor emailed us to ask for permission for one more performance because the group of girls placed high and has been selected to perform at the state competition in Ames, Iowa.

I can’t think of anything in my whole career that has made me more proud. I am not joking. Maybe it’s because I’m so immersed right now in my own adolescence because I’m writing a show about it and a big part of my high school years was theater and speech, or maybe it's because the election last year made crystal clear how deeply woman-hating our culture and politics are and I'm obsessed with the way that distorts women's voices and obsessed with the possibility of finally changing that, but the thought of high school girls singing LIZZIE, our little smash-the-patriarchy musical, in a state-level speech competition in Iowa is beyond moving. Beyond.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Future.

Everyone I know is so sad and angry.

It’s the same feeling that I had as a kid that when someone in the room was in a bad mood (well, I say “someone,” but what I mean is my mother), that it was my fault. The fact that American democracy is in peril is maybe not my fault, but it certainly is, if the word democracy has any meaning, my responsibility, and what actually is the difference?

I am sad and angry, too. Sometimes I feel like I can hardly breathe. I remember days after 9/11, I was on the phone with a dear friend in New York and she was saying that she had the TV on all day watching video of the planes crash into the towers over and over and she couldn't stop crying. I said, "Turn the TV off!" (I was, thankfully, living off the grid at the time.) But now I find myself compulsively checking Facebook, reading the same dismal news over and over and getting more and more scared and tense. Facebook for years for me has been the way I keep in touch with friends, the news, politics yes but in some kind of proportion until last year's election got underway. Now it's all bad shit 24/7, it just feels like wallowing in despair. I feel the urge to unplug from it, but then I'd lose touch with people I love and I'd miss the building community of resistance that I think is crucial right now. I'm afraid of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In my most angry moments I think, “Who the fuck cares? I’m going to be gone in 20 or 30 years. I gave it my best and now everything is completely fucked and I’m tired and fed up with the whole shit show.” But then I imagine the faces of my beautiful nephews and my beautiful niece and my heart splits wide open. What will their lives be like? The feeling that I have no confidence it will not be unimaginably horrific is nearly unbearable.

I think I’d been sort of bopping along for a while believing I was leaving a world for them better than the one I found. Maybe I’d relaxed into thinking that since I had spent decades protesting, complaining, resisting, and dissenting, and my efforts had had some kind of effect, some measurable success, that maybe it was safe to not be quite so angry all the time, to not always have to be quite so vigilant, to not always have to swim against the current, that maybe the status quo wasn’t perfect but I could live with it because it had so noticeably improved in my lifetime, and was obviously on a path to continue in that direction.

Not so obvious now.